Sunday, 4 June 2017

Monk-y World

Doctor Who
The Pyramid At The End Of The World and The Lie Of The Land
Series Ten, Episodes Seven and Eight

Here we go then: after a 45 minute teaser trailer for The Invasion Of The Monks, it’s finally here, stretched over two episodes for maximum oomf.  Here, says Series 10, is a villain to really send you scurrying behind the sofa.  Budge up Daleks, Cybermen and Weeping Angels?  We’ll see.

Extremis made a good case for how powerful they are.  They can create an entire simulated reality full of thinking people and run it as often as they like, studying humanity’s response to any number of crises, all so they can figure out the optimum way to invade.  Then along comes The Pyramid At The End Of The World, in which they’re more hands on.  They can change every clock in the world just to mess with you.  They can kill you with a touch, melting you Raiders Of The Lost Ark style in seconds.  They can teleport you at will.  They can stop a plane in mid air, pluck a submarine out of the sea, and gently plop them both down on the sand.  This episode, like Extremis, is mostly here to get our attention, and it succeeds: the limits of their power are unnervingly unknown.

"We chose this form to look like you."
Uh... thanks?
Is this whole thing just them being crap at making friends?
The same goes for what they want.  Yes, they want to rule the world, but why?  They have all these amazing powers – although they are oddly reliant on CCTV, maybe work on that one lads – but in order to get a true foothold, they need our consent.  More than that, it has to be pure: if the person giving it is not “powerful” enough to give said consent, and is not “pure” about it, they’ll die.  You’ve got to be full of love and want nothing more than a lovely future full of Monks.  Which is what practically nobody in this situation would feel like, right?  The Monks keep telling them the world is about to end and permanent subjugation is their only hope.  That’s terrifying, so of course everyone who tries to give consent will be bricking it, or just trying to think of something that will help.  How does this sort of thing ever work?  Jesus, they’re picky.  If they’re so bloomin’ omnipotent – and there’s more of that to come in the next episode – why bother with consent at all?  Why’s it so important that they’re “loved”?  (Just a thought: maybe work on your skincare, and don’t tell us we look like corpses to you.  A nice first impression might have helped.)

Some of this is legitimately mysterious, and I like it.  Bad guys with seemingly limitless power and weird motivations = a good starting point.  The rest is still irritatingly unanswered at the end of the second episode, and some of it is completely undone.  But let’s keep our Pyramid At The End Of The World hats on for now.  What this episode does is build a scenario where Bill needs to agree to their help, and it does that very well.  (Apart from the bit where Bill is filled with love for the Doctor, not the Monks, and has the obvious ulterior motive of wanting him – heck, directly asking for him to get his sight back.  What are the rules again?)

We get off to an odd start as, chopping back and forth to a Previously teaser, Bill recounts the plot of Extremis (which she only knows second hand) to her date.  Why she thinks this will jump start a terrific evening beats me.  She also runs through the “hilarious” incident with the Pope showing up in the middle of things (and inherently gay-shaming both of them, boom-boom), which they both laugh at, so shut up, it is hilarious and it’s not misjudged!  And then we get the same joke all over again when the UN Secretary General turns up, only it isn’t particularly a joke this time, so… just a weird coincidence then?

Through Bill, the army acquires the Doctor and Nardole, spiriting the whole bunch to a military hot-spot between American, Chinese and Russian armies.  The Monks have deliberately landed here to get everybody’s attention, and they want their consent before the world ends – by our own hand.  It’s quite novel to hang the ticking clock on something other than aliens doing a Thing Of Doom: in this case it’s a biological mishap in a lab, unbeknownst to the nice people working there or anybody else.  Tension clicks up as the episode goes along, with only the Monks and us seeing what’s happening there.  The Doctor suggests attacking the Monks as a show of strength (bit odd?), then the military agree to work together to prevent a presumed World War Three (bit sweet), and then they try giving consent instead (doomed).  Alas, it’s not pure enough so they die; damn those picky, mouldy bastards!

The Doctor uses his smarts to find the Lab Of Doom and tries to fix the problem himself, circumventing the need for Monks in the first place.  His plan is to sterilise the contagion by blowing up the lab.  I kind of want to put a pin in that, as it’s the third time “blow the place up” has been his plan this year.  (Also, stick a pin in “attack the pyramid with everything you’ve got” as well.  Provoke them, you mean?  He’s bloody lucky the Monks aren’t the vindictive sort.  Idiot.)  There’s only one problem with this, besides his blossoming pyromania: he gets stuck in a locked room and he can’t see the keypad.  He hasn’t told anyone other than Nardole that he’s blind, so no one can help.  He’s about to die, although the world will survive; Bill decides to give the Monks her consent just so he can get his sight back and live.

Hooray, he escaped!
Let's hope that one shut door prevents him from dying in this explosion.
Get in the bloody TARDIS, you plum!
And I love it.  The whole setup hums with tragedy and drama; it feels like we’re about to get a regeneration, since it closely resembles the Tenth Doctor and the four knocks.  It also puts the Doctor’s blindness to some actual use, and even better, it addresses the ongoing problem of his sonic sunglasses being such a useful crutch that he might as well not be blind from a script point of view.  (“Who needs sight” indeed.)  How often do they actually take note of something that doesn’t work, and take it to task?  Is it Christmas?

This is also the perfect moment to let Bill know the truth, admit his limitations, and inadvertently lead her to the only solution that will get him out of here, which of course is the worst outcome for everybody.  That kind of sudden humbling is very welcome in an episode that has the Doctor yet again beating his chest about what a grand poobah he is.  It’s pretty hideous: the cringey President Of The World gig is resurrected; the Monks call him “the greatest power on Earth”; he says things like “There is a line in the sand, and I’m the man on the other side of it”; when the Monks say the Earth is doomed, he says it’s “been doomed before.  Guess what happened.  Me!”  If you make the Doctor literally the boss of the entire world as well as the only thing between alien invasions and us (because UNIT are mysteriously absent, because um), it becomes a bit irrelevant that there are actually other people here, and it makes him into an awful, over-inflated bore.  The ending does something to chip away at that, but it gets worse before it gets better.  I hope they can give it a rest now.

Anyway, that’s Pyramid At The End Of The World.  Kudos to Peter Harness and (oh all right) Moffat: the Doctor tries to be clever and it isn’t enough.  Bill acts out of friendship and hands the world over to the bad guys.  That’s basically it – apart from Erica the scientist, who is great and then disappears before the next episode – but bloody hell, where do we go from there?  The answer, sadly, is The Lie Of The Land.

I’m often defensive about Toby Whithouse’s scripts.  Yes, the plots are almost always bollocks, but he has a great knack for writing the Doctor and all his facets, usually giving whoever’s driving the TARDIS a decent show-reel.  He can also write brilliant comedy, and his episodes are often blessed with wonderful casts; sod it, Vampires Of Venice looked lovely too.  This time there’s no falling back on comedy, or at least not successfully, however; there’s simply not enough delightful secondary stuff to distract you from what’s wrong here.  The entire script is the problem.

We’re immediately jolted six months ahead from the last episode, into a world rules by the Monks.  They’re not just in charge of the present: they’ve tampered with our memories so that they’re seemingly threaded throughout history, monitoring and encouraging all of our achievements.  Sort of like the Silence.  The result is a world that either lives in unthinking, blissful obedience or fear, with government stormtroopers tossing anyone even vaguely rebellious into a black van never to be seen again.  Sort of like The Last Of The Time Lords, down to the “some time later” starting point.  (At the start, when a mum is torn away from her family and sent off to van-land, it even looks like the same street where that happened to Martha’s mum and dad.)  All the while the Doctor is transmitting propaganda, bolstering those wonderful Monks who only have our best interests at heart.  Unlike the rest, this bit is actually quite original, but don’t worry, they’ll cock it up in a minute.

Martha – sorry, Bill is just getting by, hoping the Doctor has a plan but unable to locate him.  Nardole turns up (having not died from the contagion in the previous episode – glad they put that to good use) to announce that he’s found the Doctor, and off they go to the prison ship that holds him.  Since he’s a willing participant in the Monks’ plans, I’m not sure why he’s locked up.

Get it?  The Doctor is imprisoned, in a sort of... vault?
Yeah they don't make that connection at all.
Oh yeah, spoiler alert: the Doctor is totally in with the Monks.  Yes, he wasn’t especially happy about it to begin with, but the Monks offer a peaceful (albeit totalitarian) way of life, which is more stable than where we’ve been headed lately.  He deflects Bill’s enthusiasm and loudly points out when she’s trying to use a code to see if he’s lying.  She’s incensed, as the last six months have involved untold numbers of people getting killed or put into labour camps (where else?), and the Doctor won’t help.  He rightly says it’s Bill’s fault we’re in this mess, and all things considered he’s just glad it wasn’t the Daleks.

Now the episode is hurtling towards a crossroads, and there’s a lot to unpack.  Up to now this bit, with the Doctor turning traitor, isn’t exactly believable (because duh, it’s the Doctor), although the reason he gives isn’t bad.  But it’s still compelling.  Pearl Mackie superbly handles Bill’s dismay that the last six months have been a false hope, and that her friend has let her down.  Peter Capaldi is as ferocious as the Twelfth Doctor ever got in response.  Then she shoots him.  Four times!  And yeah, the fifteen minutes (!) we’ve spent in this world have been pretty gloomy and North Korea-ey, but that’s nowhere near enough to sell the depths of misery she’d need to actually murder her friend and confidante.  Or anyone, really.  Four times?  But, stepping back, the scene was pretty good up to then.

And then we get something we’ve all seen in the trailers, the Doctor regenerating.  Now, just like the Doctor turning traitor, nobody really thinks a new Doctor is going to stand up afterwards.  This isn’t the last episode of the year, it’s not even the end of the bloody episode; we know it ain’t gonna happen.  But hints have been dropped that this regeneration will be “different”, so who knows?  Maybe it will take a couple of episodes?  In any case, it was intriguing, and it got people to tune in.

Surprise!  He’s not regenerating at all!  He hasn’t turned away from humanity and he’s not helping the Monks, he’s just pretending so he can test Bill’s loyalty.  Everything, including the regeneration, is for show; he and everyone in the room besides Bill have a good laugh about it afterwards.  The audience?  Probably not so much.

Was there a version of this script that went somewhere else?  Dragged out the Doctor’s treachery, for instance?  Had Bill’s uncertainty about it take longer to manifest in something as horrifying as a gunshot?  (Sorry, four gunshots.)  I don’t know, and I guess it doesn’t matter.  What we get is another fake-out regeneration which serves no purpose at all.  Who’s it for, since Bill doesn’t know anything about regeneration?  The answer is: the people who make trailers.  What an unbelievably cheap, underhand bit of marketing.  It cries wolf (with an actual regeneration just around the corner – nice one), and cheapens the whole drama of regeneration, all at once.  Brilliant.  Of course it’s completely misjudged and immediately chucks cold water over the scene, as well as the whole episode; how could it not?  After two and a bit episodes of sheer build-up, the dramatic stakes have reduced before our eyes.  Well fucking done.

As for how he's faking this, obviously no explanation at all.
Did... he just waste a regeneration?
On top of all that, Bill is comically flustered by this and has completely got over it by the next scene.  You what?  She was ready to murder him a minute ago.  For all intents and purposes, she did.  Why isn’t she finding an actually loaded gun to point at the bastard for putting her through all that, and then laughing about it?  Back in the Classic Years, the Doctor did something similar to Ace, destroying her faith in him to weaken a monster.  They then addressed how utterly brutal that was, and it was part of an ongoing arc about Ace’s faith in the Doctor, and how much of a good guy he was.  (Remind you of anyone?)  Here it’s just a gag, complete with typically blundering (and in places, self-plagiarising) Murray Gold Plinky-Plonk Music.  The whole scene starts out promising only to triumphantly crap the bed for the entire episode, and pretty much the last two since this is where it’s all been heading.  There’s no coming back from that.  Screw this episode.

But I’ve started, so I might as well finish.  The Doctor needs a plan (incredibly after six months of twiddling his thumbs while people are being killed, he hasn’t done this yet, preferring to help the Monks maintain control – isn’t that swell!), so he visits the person in the Vault.  Sorry everyone, it really is Missy.  (Yes, Extremis made that clear, but they didn’t show her inside it.  When will I learn to stop expecting these things to go anywhere?  Of course it’s just something they should have included but stupidly didn’t.)  Missy has met the Monks before and knows they link to a world via the person who gives their consent: kill them and it’s all good, or put them in a brain dead coma for even better results.  Suitably enriched with this blob of obviousness – seriously, why couldn’t he figure that out? – the Doctor promptly decides not to do that, because obviously he won’t harm Bill.  Meanwhile Bill puts a pin in it for later.

The Doctor and co. visit the Monks’ HQ, which is largely unguarded as there are really only about a dozen Monks to go round.  Once they’re inside – using taped instructions to easily counteract the Monks’ brainwashing – they swiftly get past a couple of Monks, apparently shooting them dead.

Before we even get to the climax, how massively shit is that?  One episode ago, the Monks had untold power.  They could move planes and teleport people, magically restore eyesight and kill with a slight touch.  This week they’re not only taken by surprise – which makes a laughing stock of the whole “simulation” thing and Extremis in general, since the entire point of that was to foresee everything – but they’re apparently as mortal as you or me.  It’s one thing to expose the weaknesses of a frightening enemy, another to shrug and say “No, they were actually complete shit all along, I just forgot.”  The threat of the Monks, along with any need for three episodes about them is by this point stampeding towards the horizon.  And there’s more to come.

The Monks are transmitting fake news (hi-yo!) and fake history to people everywhere, using Bill as their psychic link.  (Bill is allowed to roam freely though, even when she’s visiting the Doctor and a Monk gets all up in her face only to wander off again.  You might want to lock that down, guys…)  The Doctor plans to use his fantabulous brain to erase the damage.  It doesn’t work, so Bill steps in, knowing it will kill her, one-way-or-another resolving the problem.  Buried somewhere in this is a reversal of the last episode’s ending: if Bill dies the world is saved, and the Doctor doesn’t want that to happen.  It could be dramatic, although it reverses nothing, since Bill’s still making the decision.  But then, with the menace of the Monks in tatters and the overall story’s bed crapped, the episode somehow gets worse.

The ending is a garbage fire, so here's Missy being annoyingly compelling.
I'm onto you.
Bill’s made-up memory of her mother is “pure”, you see, so the Monks can’t counteract her efforts as they did with the Doctor.  Aside from one poor mouldy bastard sat frozen in a chair, there are no Monks to stop them.  There are pictures on screens (thrilling) and plenty of talking, much of it terrible.  The Doctor gazes up at screens as Bill’s made-up memories save the day – love, you might say, conquering all – and Capaldi is forced to utter: “You clever, brilliant, ridiculous girl!  All those pictures I gave you, I thought I was just being kind but I was saving the world!”  Well, what can I add?  It’s ghastly, Moffat-esque overstatement of the obvious, just wince-inducing overstatement in general, and somehow it manages to have the Doctor pat himself on the back for someone else saving the day.  As a solution it’s so bollocksy and easy that it could be a spoof of similar episodes.  As drama it’s Pearl Mackie giving an Indian head massage to a corpse and the Doctor talking us through it.  Then everybody hates the Monks and they just go away.

To recap: the non-bulletproof, easily surprised, hopelessly outnumbered Monks are defeated by pureness and love – things they previously required to take over the world – so they toss away all their effort, pack their things and quietly bugger off.  They don’t even have any dialogue in this episode.  What about the simulations?  To quote the Doctor, “Think what they’d know.  Think what they could do with that.”  Like, for example, guess what tricks Bill could pull at the end?  Sod all that, apparently.  Why do they so need to be loved if they’re just going to brainwash everybody?  No idea.  Why don’t they do something at the end, since they were nearly omnipotent last week?  They just don’t.  Yes, they might be back for the finale to wrap this up, although the spoilerrific BBC have already told us it’s getting crowded.  But Missy said earlier on that when they previously got booted off worlds (oh so they’ve failed before, how terrifying), they “chalk it up to experience”.  The whole thing is like Toby Whithouse was handed an interesting premise and told to absolutely murder it.

I’m sure Steven Moffat thinks it’s a novel idea to farm out multi-parters to different writers, and it’s his last year so who even cares, but this approach clearly doesn’t always work.  Think how much better this could have been with a proper guiding hand, a plan, and time to execute it well.  Instead all this important stuff is barfed into a single rushed episode by somebody else altogether.  Of course it’s a belly flop.

So what are we left with?  Bill seems pretty chuffed that humanity done a good, but really all she’s done is offer a counter-acting form of brainwashing – it was all her.  The Doctor is quick to tiresomely point out that we’re a bunch of forgetful assholes and no one will have learned anything.  As for the many people who were murdered or imprisoned, neither he nor Bill seem to even remember any of that happened – even though, unlike Last Of The Time Lords, the horrendous time they’ve all endured is not reversed.  It all happened.  And it meant sod all.  Bill’s character hasn’t grown, despite the harrowing things that happened to her.  (Betrayed by the Doctor, now she’s over it; she loves her mum, yep, still does at the end.)  The Doctor hasn’t changed, despite driving her to murder; you can forget the usual Toby Whithouse character beats, as he oscillates between sadistic prick and caricature.  The only character learning at all in this episode is Missy, gamely scene-stealing thanks to Michelle Gomez.  She gets a tacked-on therapy session at the end, the Doctor watching as she cries over her dead victims.  Aw, maybe she’s turning good after all?  If you believe that, see me after: I’ve got a bridge going cheap.

Are the Monks coming back?  Possibly, although with a change of showrunner due they’d better lickety-split.  Either way, even a bunch of omnipotent beings would have their work cut out to unbollocks this lot.


  1. That pretty much nailed it for me... the last episode of the three was utter twaddle - it made no sense at all. Embarrassing stuff - thank the Monks, SM's going!

  2. Wow, yes, you definitely liked Pyramid vastly more than we did. We're glad someone had a fun time. We thought that and Lie were pretty much on a par, and in fact due to the Missy factor we think we might even like Lie more (shocking, we know). We went to many of the same places as you re Lie, but North Korea! Yes! That's what the same-colour outfits reminded us of although we couldn't place it! You clever, brilliant, ridiculous boy! (Are you screaming? We know you're screaming.)

    1. Ugh. Affirmative. Reading more of that scene quoted by your review began the process yesterday.

      The pictures on the wall were the biggest North Korea giveaway. Just... why? We don't see anyone who actually likes the Monks. Not one person seems keen on the idea. Kind of makes the brainwashing seem pointless.