13 December 2021: not really a review of Flux added.
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EXTREMIS/THE PYRAMID AT THE END OF THE WORLD/THE LIE OF THE LAND
Careful, there, lads. Don't frighten the horses. All season it's been feathery little stories, light as air, to entice new Whoers. Don't know who the Doctor is? He'll tell ya straight out. What's this blue box? Let us explain. Gently, now, gently.
Well, apparently the onboarding period is over, because Extremis tosses that all out the window with a story even seasoned viewers were baffled by. What newbies made of it, with the weird prisoner and the blue diary and the references to the Doctor's bliss, we dread to imagine. It can't have been pretty.
So anyway. We begin with the Doctor on a scenic boat trip to his execution…or is it??? Spoiler: no. Instead, he's here to off another Time Lord, and if you thought it was going to be anyone but Missy, you've spent the Moffat years unconscious. The wacky's dialled back here, and as a result Michelle Gomez steals the scene even more effortlessly than usual. Then Nardole turns up to scold the Doctor for what he's about to do. What? Wasn't River Song frequently described as a psychopath? Why should she care? And as if the Doctor needed that anyway.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, the Doctor is determined nobody should find out he's blind. Why that is is irritatingly silly. We know he doesn't want Bill to feel bad, but these are some way ridiculous lengths to go to to avoid that. Fortunately for him, he has some nifty assistive technology in the form of the sonic glasses, and we hope that they only work on Gallifreyans, because if he's been holding this back from the people whose lives it would transform on Earth, we'd be really annoyed.
And here comes a deputation from the Vatican including the Pope himself. It was at this point that we started to realise that something was up, because the Doctor appears to need the Pope's Italian translated. That makes no sense: the TARDIS's translation circuits take care of all that stuff. Anyway, in a Dan Brown Does The Ring kind of way, it turns out that the Vatican has a text that causes people to kill themselves. Huh.
Meanwhile, Bill is entertaining a guest. And wow, do we hate this scene. Bill's easiness with her sexual orientation sits oddly with the fact that she's not out to her mother, but we'll give them a pass for that given her mother's pursed-lippedness about her bringing a man home. What reads horribly, however, is Penny's hesitation and Bill's reassurance, because it casts Bill in the light of that imaginary figure so beloved by right-wing hate groups, the predatory lesbian. It's clear, too, that the entire scene is there just to service the gag about the Pope in the bedroom. Oh please, do go ahead and make people feel guilty and sinful for being gay, because that's so very hilarious.
And off we go to the Vatican's secret library. Here's where things start to get mushy. If people kill themselves as soon as they translate the Veritas, why's the priest still hanging round it four hours after emailing it? Also, if you get strapped into a chair to read it, how do you turn the pages? With your nose? Also, how old is this simulation? If it's in real time, how did Ye Olde Timers figure out they were in a computer simulation? If it's not in real time, did the monks put the Veritas there? Why? And why would finding out you're a simulation make you commit suicide anyway? Why are all the separate portals there? Who are they for?
The next bit made our IT-savvy team members laugh out loud. The Doctor goes through some laborious and arcane ritual to get a few minutes' sight to read the Veritas; he escapes the Shadows with the laptop with the Veritas translation on it, but his sight starts to fail before he can read it. Later, he explains that he had it read to him by the computer. A screen reader and other assistive software for the blind is built into most operating systems, but (assuming you don't normally use it, as the Doctor clearly doesn't because he thinks he can't read the text) if you can't see it you can't turn it on.
More computer stupidity follows. The Doctor says that if all computer-generated people are part of the same programme they'll all generate the same string of random numbers. Huh? Sure, you could get them to do that, but only if you specifically programmed them to, not because "computers aren't good at random numbers". It's true that computers aren't perfect random number generators, but they can do a hell of a lot better than that. What's more, the thing about video game characters thinking they're real is utter bollocks, given that they're not sentient and aren't actually thinking at all. As for emailing being the one thing any computer can do, let alone that any subroutine can do, this is so stupid we don't know where to start.
The CERN guy says that they're saving the world - but how does blowing themselves up do that? What's the point of having the simulants realise they're simulants and studying that? They're not trying to conquer a simulation, are they? Anyway, surprise! Bill discovers everybody's a simulation and pixelates herself away to nothingness out of shock. This is a classic trope, but given a nice enough spin. We can't say we invested in the idea emotionally enough to be concerned by Bill's "death", but presumably people less black-hearted than we are found it a powerful dramatic punch.
Uh. There are the bones of a good episode here. The scenario is intriguing enough, and the Da Vinci Code trappings are an artful distraction. There are some great performances. The villains seem delightfully all-powerful. The suicide thread, especially at CERN, is very effective. All of this would work a lot better without the plot holes which make the underpinnings too lacy to hold, but points for trying. What we really don't like about this episode, in the context of the arc, is how curiously redundant it all seems. What difference does the massive system built by the villains to learn about humans actually make? Despite all their research the monks don't learn enough to hold onto Earth for more than a few months. It just makes them look a bit silly.
THE PYRAMID AT THE END OF THE WORLD
Gripping tension, knife-edge drama, dizzyingly high stakes. That's us trying to decide which Peter Harness-scripted episode we hate the most. Despite it being hard to get past the moon being an egg, we didn't have a clear winner, but Pyramid At The End Of The World is a hot contender.
Because it's utterly, utterly jammed with bollocks. Bollocks in towers. Bollocks in heaps. Bollocks to the horizon.
Of course, only a yoghurt would have seen this episode, coming as it does after Extremis, and not suspected that the whole bloody thing is another bunch of simulation flim-flam. It's deliberate, all the bollocks, see? To show that none of it is real? Er, no. Turns out from the following episode that we're meant to take this at face value. Doing another layer-within-layer switcheroo would have been a bit annoying, but also, depending on how they did it, a bit clever. This, however, is plain and simple stupidity.
We start with Bill having another go at her doomed date from last time. We know this is now, rather than something we've seen before, as it's helpfully labelled "Now" onscreen. Clearly thrilled with their Pope joke from the last date, they then rerun it with a bunch of soldiers in blue berets (the UN? Why not UNIT?).
Turns out they're looking for the Doctor in his (cringeful) President Of The World capacity. The UN Secretary-General explains that a pyramid has appeared in a hotspot, a hotspot apparently being somewhere with soldiers from three armies milling around. Because modern warfare is all about walking to where you're fighting. Alert! Alert! Bill's jacket changes colour: at the beginning it has red trim, but after she gets in the car the trim's black. Either she changed her jacket before leaving for a very similar one, or it's a clue! Oh. It's not a clue. Chalk it up to the same mystifying wardrobe malfunction that clads the supposedly pants-wettingly terrifying monks in pretty printed scarves.
Meanwhile, we're at Agrofuel Research, otherwise known as The Worst Lab In The World. Worst design. Worst employees. Let us count the ways.
1. Erica takes coffee from outside into a clean room. 2. Douglas takes off his biohazard helmet. 3. Douglas scoops up a biohazard with his hands. Let's just repeat that. WITH. HIS. HANDS. 4. Douglas takes his biohazard handful through two sets of airlock doors into the open lab. 5. Leaving the airlock open. 6. Every thirty minutes, the lab vents everything in this carefully controlled lab full of dangerous substances outside.
Gosh, that's going to go well, isn't it? Back to the pyramid. The Doctor rocks on up and, like a cuckoo in a clock, out pops a monk. The monk lays out the sitch, then we get some dollops of laborious exposition about the Doomsday Clock. Sure, the Whoniverse isn't this universe, but it's kind of a shame nevertheless that since this was filmed, the real Doomsday Clock has been moved forward to two and half minutes to midnight. Not that this is anything the writers could have controlled, but this is part of what's wrong with this episode for us. We found it very much less than entertaining contemplating the end of the world, given that back here in reality we're much more scared about a certain orange hand clutching the nuclear codes.
Then a whacking great beam comes out the pyramid, making it look smirksomely like the Luxor in Las Vegas, and everyone has a go at it, to no avail. We're really not sure why they bothered, as the Doctor pretty clearly knows it's pointless and it's hardly his style anyway. On the other hand, it does give us the unexpectedly hilarious scene of the monks in the cockpit, so there's that. During all this the Doctor's vision ping-pongs from fabulous (sees the barrier arm in front of him and raises it using the sonic, runs down corridors effortlessly) to useless (needs Nardole to tell him about a massive great plane) at the convenience of the writers.
The combined might of the world's major military technology proving not up to the job, our gallant heroes decide to invade the pyramid on foot. A monk appears and, unsurprisingly unterrified by this invasionette, gives them the guided tour. The simulation machine, which looks like an optic fibre fly curtain, is proper rubbish, but nonetheless it's enough to completely convince all involved that what they're seeing is the end of the world. Why is that, exactly? First of all, there's zero proof that it's real (them telling us they know it is doesn't count, sorry). And second, they have no idea even if it is real of what events happened to cause it. For all they know, what they're seeing is the result of them inviting the monks on board.
The monks further elucidate that they need consent from their subjugees to take over and, what's more, they need to be loved. Well, okay, if they say so, but for beings who've invested vast resources into running simulations of Earth they seem remarkably stupid about how love works. Announcing you want it then standing around waiting hopefully for it to be bestowed is not a particularly efficient strategy. Why not try handing out a few favours first? A fix for global warming here, a cure for cancer there: surely that's more likely to switch the odds in your favour?
The UN Secretary-General, however, needs no further convincing. Blithely ignoring the bit about love, he steps forward, only to be ashed when he's not sufficiently adoring. And the soldiers quickly follow suit. That's not the only thing they're blithely ignoring, though. Didn't they say the Doctor was the President? Of the World? So why are they completely disregarding him? The soldiers in particular would be far too used to a chain of command to just take matters into their own hands in front of a superior officer.
Meanwhile, back at Incompetence plc, things are going very, very wrong. The Doctor and Nardole, aided by some massively unlikely leaps of logic, manage to figure out what's happening and turn up with popcorn. And here the stupidity squares itself. The evil bacteria are already in the wider lab, because Douglas belted out there with his pile o'goo. Even more is added to the tally when he's chomped. The Doctor turns up and makes Nardole move the TARDIS, because…because the TARDIS is….no, we got nothing. Erica explains to the Doctor that the air filtration system vents to the outside every thirty minutes, and in case you wonder why we're putting that in again, it's because we're still not over the WTF.
The Doctor then invites Erica to guess what the best way of destroying the bacteria might be. Boiling water, she says. Or a flame. Boring. How about something sciencier like gamma radiation? The Doctor, however, decides that the best way to deal with the problem is to blow up the lab. Wait, what? He's worried about the vent system ejecting the bacteria, and decides to use a method that will project them even further? Sure, an explosion is likely to destroy some of them. But all of them? Especially given that they're now all through the lab, that's a very, very big gamble. Also, what's with the Doctor and blowing things up this season? It's become his go-to, and very unimaginative it is too.
The Doctor effortlessly and accurately presses the keypad on the bomb, then lights out for freedom. But alas, he's locked in the lab. Which mysteriously has an old-timey combination lock, which mysteriously the Doctor can't see the numbers on although he had no trouble with the keypad. The solution for this is staring them right in the face, as it were, since they need only a shiny object to reflect the numbers so Erica can see them. In fact, no need to look far: the sonic sunglasses would be excellent for this, as you can see clear reflections in them all the time the Doctor's going on about not being able to see.
The Doctor is forced to confess to Bill that he's blind, and as a result she gives her consent to the monks, which they accept because it's done out of love for the Doctor. But that's not how it works! The monks are crystal clear: it's them that need to be loved, as they think ruling without it is inefficient. Bill's love for the Doctor or Mars Bars or fluffy little kittens is entirely irrelevant.
The actions of the scientists, the design of the lab, the actions of the soldiers, the acceptance of Bill's consent: none of it makes any sense, and much of it contravenes the parameters the writers themselves laid down. As a result, it veers between eyerollingly dumb and deadly dull. Even without that, much of it is tedious all by itself. All the dithering between the soldiers and the Doctor as to what to do in the podgy, overpadded middle is a total waste of time.
Bright side? That would be Erica. Rachel Denning makes her utterly likeable (we'll even forgive her for stupidly leaving her bag in the door) and we're totally on board with the Doctor when he asks her what she's doing after this. We shouldn't have to even mention this, but we also love that her stature doesn't turn into some massive plot point but instead has nothing to do with anything. Fantabulous casting.
Nothing too dusty about any of the other performances, either. In fact, this is the indisputable highlight for all three episodes.
Roll on Part Three. That'll bring it all into focus. Won't it?
THE LIE OF THE LAND
Et tu, Tobe?
A Toby Whithouse episode is usually a highlight of the season. So we were hopeful when his credit hove into view that he would be able to redeem the mess they'd got into in Pyramid At The End Of The World. Sadly, however, our hopes were dashed. On razor-sharp rocks after a fall from a mile-high cliff.
We kick off with an ad for the monks voiced over by the Doctor. Yep, they're now our lovely benevolent overlords. You know, there would have been an interesting story in here if that really were the case: would you trade benevolent totalitarian rule for world peace? But that's not the direction they decide to head off in: instead, it's the well-worn fascism/labour camp combo. Oh, goody.
Just in case you were out doing something interesting with your life instead of watching the last two episodes, Bill launches into a conversation with her imaginary mother, amply be-gooed by some of Murray's syrupiest music, to simultaneously catch us up and tug at our heartstrings. This cringy voiceover sadly continues throughout the episode, but while you're wincing, remember it's All For A Purpose. More on that story later. Fortunately she's interrupted by the welcome return of Nardole, back from being conveniently sidelined so he couldn't help the Doctor.
These two play off each other beautifully, as usual. In fact, let's get to the good part of this episode right now: yes, again it's the performances. It's saying something when Peter Capaldi, even though he's utterly brilliant, isn't the most riveting actor here. Pearl Mackie is absolutely stellar, especially in her impassioned speech to the Doctor when she thinks he's a collaborator. And even better than Pearl is Michelle Gomez. She's always a complete scene stealer, but here she doubles down on that until you don’t even notice the Doctor's in the same room. The opportunity these scenes give her for a more reined-in performance makes her absolutely riveting: in fact so captured were we that we had to hit pause and try to work out plausible scenarios in which she could regenerate into the Doctor. (They couldn't do that, though. We suppose. Oh, please say they could do that.)
Then it's derring-do on the high seas as our gallant crew set out to rescue the Doctor from a prison ship. You may think that trying to tiptoe aboard a ship is fairly self-explanatory, but on the narration goes, explaining it all in careful detail. Sigh. A monk gives them the once-over and, despite them featuring prominently in the previous monk-adjacent episodes, shrugs and glides off. Now wait a minute. Didn't they just get through telling us how powerful these things were? Not only can they juggle planes and submarines, they've spent dozens of aeons studying humans and simulating every possible Earth scenario. And yet they're oblivious to these two of all people?
Some light corridor sneaking, and then the big set piece as the Doctor pledges his allegiance to the monks. Convincingness it may lack ("This is bullshit", as one of us concisely remarked) but it's a never-mind-the-width-feel-the-quality situation as both Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie pull out the big acting guns. And in the case of Bill, the real gun as well, as she proceeds to drill the Doctor full of holes. Now steady on. She's going to murder the man she sold the world for, just like that? We seriously do not think so.
But worse is to come. Given the hole drilling, the Doctor does what the Doctor does best: starts to regenerate. We were astonished. Regeneration is pretty much the most iconic moment of any Doctor's tenure. And yet we knew, and so did everybody else, that he wasn’t going to go just yet. And so it proves: it was all just a merry jape! It makes no sense at all to include it, given that Bill doesn't even know about regeneration, and it cheapens the regeneration process and turns it into a tawdry magic trick. Ugh. So not impressed.
Murray switches on the comedy soundtrack, and they all have a hearty giggle. Bill is perfectly fine about being horrendously trolled, and the Doctor's perfectly fine about being filled full of lead. Friends? Friends. Wow. Look up "bathos" in the dictionary and there's a video of this scene.
Turns out that while the monks have been clapping people into labour camps these last six months, the Doctor has been using his time setting up this oh-so-hilarious sight gag. Not figuring out how to get rid of the monks, oh no. He's too busy trading quips with the guards for that. Nope, that's Missy's job.
Much Missy excellence blah blah blah, and she spills the beans: the monks control the populace using "a properly consenting adult, one without agenda and ulterior motive". As we know from the last episode, Bill consented out of love for the Doctor, not for the monks which they said was essential, and had both the agenda and the ulterior motive of getting the Doctor's sight back. However, if you think that's stupid, get this: they rule planets via that mind and its offspring. How dumb, you're scoffing, and you're right, given that massive amounts of resources are devoted to the simulations and the payoff for that rests on a single genetic line continuing. But that's not even the stupid part! The stupid part is that the monks don't know what's going on! According to Missy, they think they're continuing to rule "through ruthlessness and efficiency". Even stupider, if a genetic line fails and they lose control of the planet, rather than trying to figure out what went wrong they "chalk it up to experience", fire up their pyramid and chug off into the sunset!
Honestly, we can't even. We've seen previously menacing foes like the Daleks and Cybermen massively weakened in threat level under this tenure. Even Moffat's own Weeping Angels are pale shadows of their former terrifying selves by now. But reducing a villain from omnipotent to impotent in three episodes takes an awesome degree of ineptitude.
The thing goes shuddering on, enlivened only by the shiny shiny performances (we laughed immoderately as Missy described pushing a tiny child into a volcano). Turns out that in order to really hit the monks where it hurts, Bill has to brain them to death. But nope, the Doctor shoulders his way to the front of the queue (of course) and has a go himself. Doesn't work, though. Now what? Well, turns out what will save us all is a bucket of treacle. We watched in disbelief as Bill effortlessly conquers the formerly all-powerful monks' mental grip with some random mush about Dead Mum. Just in case all of this presents too brain-teasing a conundrum for us to parse, the Doctor clunkingly explains: "All the pictures I gave you! I thought I was just being kind, but I was saving the world!" How, we wondered, did Peter Capaldi deliver this without heaving? Also, surely that's enough explanation of the perfectly obvious?
But no. "You have to keep thinking about your Mum, the memory you created! Her voice, her smile - the monks can't get near it!" Yer don't say. But wait! Perhaps there are some audience members who still haven't quite grasped it? The Doctor narrates on relentlessly: "She's filling his mind with one pure, uncorrupted, irresistible image and it's broadcast it to the world because it can't help it!" By this time we were curled up in the foetal position with our hands over our hears, moaning piteously, but on and on it droned: "All those years you kept her inside you, an isolated subroutine in a living mind!" (Er, what?) "Perfect, untouchable - she's a window on the world without the monks." OMG STOP STOP NOW WE CAN'T TAKE IT ANY MORE "Absolutely loved. Absolutely trusted - that window is opening everywhere. A glimpse of freedom, but a glimpse is all we need. The lie is breaking. Bill's Mum: you just went viral." Aieeee! We've seen some bad writing in Doctor Who, but this has to be a contender for the worst speech ever. Poor, poor Peter Capaldi. If there's ever been a moment when he's doubted his decision to leave, this definitely was not it.
Shrugging, the monks bugger off sharpish. Yep, that easy. But there's just time for the Doctor, a man whose love for humans has endured throughout the centuries and which has been one of his most marked traits, to confess that he actually only puts up with them for the sake of those very, very special companions Steven Moffat fondly imagines Doctor Who is really about. In a pig's eye.
So as an episode, The Lie Of The Land fails to impress. And viewed as a three-episode arc, it's even worse. Why do the monks practice besting people so assiduously in the simulations when the actual takeover only takes one person saying yes? How could they observe humans in such meticulous detail and still not figure out how to get them to love them? Why would they invest so very much effort in the simulations and so little in figuring out why they lose control over worlds?
And at a more basic level, what do they want, anyway? They seem to have unlimited resources of their own and vast power, and they're not making the people they rule do anything for them. What's all this effort for?
And that's the story of the arc in general. It starts out promising much, but delivers less and less as the story progresses. The blindness is treated with great portentousness at first, but it declines into an inconsistently used plot point that's just an excuse to make Bill give in to the monks. There's some genuine terror in the scenario of the simulations, yet the simulations don't have much bearing on the eventual invasion (and the monks' demands for love show they've learned very little from them in any case). And the monks themselves go from omnipresent and all-powerful (just how did they wave their hands and cure the Doctor's blindness, again?) to a small group of easily overcome aliens too stupid to figure out what went wrong with their invasion. The stakes get smaller and the victories get easier until at the end the whole thing seems almost trivial. What a disappointment.
A PIECE OF THE ACTION
Is it really that difficult to stop a Time Lord from regenerating? We’d imagine chopping one up and spreading the bits out a bit would do the job, wouldn't you? No need for this thousand-year stuff.
BACK IN FIVE MINUTES
Nardole's been scolding the Doctor about going time gallivanting in case he gets stuck somewhere and can't guard the vault. But even when he's on Earth, it's not as if the Doctor is hovering outside the vault door 24/7. What if Missy decides to make a break for it when he's at lunch?
Just after Bill disappears, the Doctor gets up from his chair and you can see a bunch of pale bits of something on his jumper.
I LOVE THE SOUND OF BREAKING GLASSES
They're very heavy on the slo-mo smashing glasses and bottles in The Pyramid At The End Of The World. Yes, yes, we get it - were it not for Erica's broken glasses and Douglas's hangover none of this would have happened. But so what? Things cause other things is hardly news.
SUIT WHO, SIR
What is it about venerating monks that makes everybody wear boiler suits? And where did enough stuff from, all in the same colour, to outfit the entire population in six months?
TWO FOR JOY
The crowd gathers to look at the TVs outside Magpie Electricals. This first appeared in Idiot's Lantern and the logo has been popping up on various equipment ever since. Nice.
A BLOODY MESS PART I
Doesn't the Doctor look suspiciously….tidy for a man who's just had four bullets go into him? How come Bill doesn't notice?
A BLOODY MESS PART II
We're sorry to say that the industry whisper is that Pearl Mackie is a nightmare on set, even delivering acting lectures to Peter Capaldi, Matthew Waterhouse-stylee. We can't confirm if this is true or not as we weren't there, but we really hope not. She's so great with her character that it would be a real disappointment.