Tuesday, 12 June 2018

The Pyramid at the End of the World

Chapter The 90th, features some meddling monks, and the U.N. and some I.T.

Along with Bill and Nardole, the Doctor - who's hiding that he was blinded a few stories back - is summoned by the UN secretary General to help investigate a pyramid that's appeared from nowhere in a global hotspot border area where US, Russian and Chinese troops are massed. The pyramid is really a disguised spaceship that contains alien invaders who appear as corpse monks. The Monks have been running a computer simulation of everything that can possibly happen on Earth and have arrived when a disaster is just about to befall the planet. The Doctor was part of this simulation, and managed to get a message out to his real self, but his real self hasn't done much to prepare seemingly (he's been too busy practising his mournful guitar work, perhaps).

Anyway, the Monks will help avert the disaster, at the cost of enslaving everyone, but only if Earth opts in with full consent (the monks were GDPR compliant a year early!) The Doctor works out that a mistake in an experimental lab is where the end of the world will start, and all the massed armies stuff is just a diversion. He goes to the lab with Nardole, leaving Bill with the Monks. The end of the world is averted; but, because of an unfortunate sequence of events, the Doctor ends up stuck in a room unable to open its combination lock as he can't see, with an explosion imminent. To save him, Bill gives consent to the Monks who restore his sight. He escapes from the room just in time, but now the world's going to be enslaved. To be continued....

Late on a weekday from the series 10 blu-ray, with beer, on my own (I'd add "natch", but I didn't even ask any of the family whether they wanted to see this one; maybe there'll be an upswing in their interest after a bit of a gap, who knows?!). Watching it, the story already felt like one from a bygone era (albeit a good one), and it's only a year old. It reminded me a little of watching The Smugglers a few weeks back - the ongoing tapestry of Doctor Who has barely gained more than a couple of stitches representing this team (be it One, Ben and Polly or Twelve, Bill and Nardole) and any moment now it's going to be "all change". Still, it was good while it lasted, and it was nice to be reminded of it again (even though you'd think it would be fresh in my memory).

First-time round:
You'd think it would be fresh in my memory, but no - a year later, and it's a blank. Only with a little digging into my online history of last year am I able to ascertain that around the time of broadcast I was blogging The Time Monster (oh, the pain!) and was also bored of the ongoing - and seemingly endless - campaigning leading up to the general election to take place a few weeks later. Likely, I watched the episode time-shifted on the evening of its BBC1 broadcast and showed the kids the following day, and likely I saw a news programme sometime in that period too, and no doubt Theresa May was on it, and she likely said "strong and stable" at least once. Strange days indeed.

There's a thread that runs throughout the first two-thirds of this story where the audience are being shown the ominous build up of chance occurrences which will lead to an as yet unknown disaster. This structure seemed oddly familiar, but I couldn't put my finger on from where at first. Towards the mid-point, though, it hit me. All the little coincidences of broken glasses and broken bottles and where they're leading is no deep art film symbolism about a cosmic joke, they're instead a run-through of another Saturday night series' staple plot: it's not causality, it's Casualty. The long-running BBC series focuses, like this Who story, on ordinary characters away from the main action of the regulars, who step-by-step are leading themselves to the point where they'll need a Doctor. This structure was once satirically skewered (a No-Prize for anyone who can tell me where) as "Look at these mint imperials scattered on the floor. Oh that's dangerous. I wonder if someone will slip on them in the next 49 minutes!" Once I was aware of this, it did detract and distract a little, which is a shame, as the performances by Tony Gardner and Rachel Denning were particularly good.

What also took the edge off the enjoyment, was the knowledge of how royally this story is going to screw up the following one. The Monks are presented as just too powerful for their defeat after 45 minutes of The Lie of the Land to ever feel satisfactory, and that latter story would be massively improved by being a one-off rather than part of a trilogy, and having its (different) alien menace already in situ at its start, exerting control. But Pyramid was screwed up in its turn by Extremis, its preceding story: for example, if the Monks can simulate every aspect of our planet in such detail, including the Doctor's impact on events and the fact that he's blind (they knew that enough to simulate it last week), then why isn't the last twist part of their plan all along (and it's definitely not - the doomsday clocks start running backward and the Monks act surprised when the Doctor saves the day, then act suddenly suitably smug again when Bill clues them in that they have some leverage after all).

Other than that, though, it's a rather good little tale. As familiar as it is from its Saturday night schedule stablemate, Doctor Who's not really done the Casualty plot structure before, so it feels fresh, and those scenes have a brooding, intensifying atmosphere of doom. The intercut UN scenes effortlessly give the illusion of scale beyond the budget they actually will have had. The Doctor looks amazing - a craggy stick of determination in sharp threads and dusty boots. He comes over even more here as the aged gunslinger, persuaded to take up arms once more to face off the bandits, than he did in Hell Bent, where his playing that role felt somewhat forced. He gets to show off a little too - the scenes of the team working out what the threat might be, honing in by process of elimination, and finally the Doctor's master stroke: to turn off all the camera feeds to all the suspect labs, to see which one the monks turn back on. Well, I thought it was clever!

Right at the start there's a nice little sequence squeezing some great moments out of the "Previously:" section by interspersing parallel material set in the now. In these scenes, Pearl Mackie is at her best: you believe wholeheartedly that this is a student out on a date, even though the scene was co-written by two middle-aged men: she is effortlessly charming, but somewhat gawky and ordinary too. I miss her.

Not that Steven Moffat recycles tropes or anything, but this is the second story in a row from his showrunner period to include a pyramid that's the scene of a battle with some scary grey-faced aliens. And that group of aliens in both stories is styled as a religious order.

Deeper Thoughts:
London 1965, and a Twitch of Mortality.  I was a fairly early-adopter with social media, but I'm still rubbish at it. I've been on twitter for nearly 10 years and haven't reached a thousand tweets as yet. I think there was one year when I didn't get round to tweeting at all. I figure nobody wants to see a picture of what I had for lunch, or hear what I did during a dull day, or what I overheard on a train, or whatever. I consume a lot of my news, comment, humour and articles through the filter of social media, though, and sometimes this means I don't understand a meme or some millennial chatter, and - yes - it makes me feel old. But that's okay. For example, "London 1965" has become a thing over the last couple of weeks, a Doctor Who running gag (but somewhat respectful and celebratory) based on an amusing line reading of that location and year by William Russell (playing Ian, one of Doctor Who's first ever companions) at the end of The Chase.

This meme has come about because something called Twitch - which I don't fully understand as I'm not young nor savvy enough - is live-streaming loads of classic Doctor Who's online over a number of weeks  - and I mean loads of them, almost the lot. As this platform, as I understand it, is normally for watching gaming videos and other youthful content, it's bringing these episodes to a whole new audience; and, by and large, this new audience is loving it. Part of the fun is a constant text stream running alongside the pictures where viewers comment pithily on the action, try to catch everyone's imagination with a new meme, or repeat the memes that have already caught on. "London 1965" came from a trailer for the First Doctor's adventures, so had taken root long before The Chase was shown. I have found all this out from some digging (which essentially involved me finding middle-aged fans on twitter explaining it for their fellow codgers), but - inevitably - by the time I've got round to writing about it, nobody's saying "London 1965" anymore. (At the time of writing, Twitch is well into the Jon Pertwee episodes.)

So, poor old Grandpa Web 2.0. with his fusty blog is having trouble keeping up with new-fangled shenanigans. This, coming so soon after the new Time Team made everyone feel old has given me just a little cult-TV inflected pause to reflect on my own mortality.  My Dad died in the same year - 2005 - as the Better Half and I found out we were going to have our first child; of the two events, it was the latter that brought home my own mortality much more than the former. As sad as a parent's death is, your child is someone who you expect, and want, to have adventures you won't get to know about. I remember thinking it was the same as knowing, and somewhat sadly accepting, that there would be episodes of Doctor Who I would never get to see, not because they were made and lost before I was born, but because they'd be made after I die. In 2005, that had suddenly become a possibility again, and now I'm certain it will come to pass.

This idea, when it hit me, struck me as one that was fairly original and that I'd never seen expressed before. I filed it away, and four years later Gary Gillatt beat me to print: it formed a central theme of an article he wrote in Doctor Who Magazine's 400th issue. At least he's not younger than me. Though, as a university contemporary who went on to edit Doctor Who Magazine when hideously and obscenely young (and did it so well, too - it was the best ever period for the mag) he is yet another measure of my ageing. Still, ageing is at least preferable to the alternative. 

In Summary:
Better than an episode of Casualty.

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