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27 May 2017The Pyramid at the End of the World, by Matt Tiley
03 Jun 2017The Lie of the Land, by Matt Hills

"Oh my God!"

"No. I'm the Doctor, its an easy mistake to make - its the eyebrows."The Pyramid At The end Of The World: Bill (Pearl Mackie), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Nardole (Matt Lucas) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway/Des Willie/Ray Burmiston))

 

Here we are. Part two of three, part one being last weeks Extremis - which I have to be honest with you dear reader - was an episode that I wasn't entirely blown away by. I rather thought it was too 'full on' Steven Moffat. The proof of this is that I always watch Who with my partner, we watch it time shifted, normally to around 9pm, on the evening of broadcast. He is a casual Who fan, in that he has seen (and enjoyed, for the most part) all of new Who at least once, but gleefully scoffs at the classics (there you are, now you know what I have to put up with). Halfway through last weeks episode I turned around and he was asleep. I nudged him, and he jumped up, muttered how rubbish he thought the episode was, and went to bed. I didn't mind too much, as I opened a bottle of wine, and popped Mawdryn Undead on as soon as Extremis ended....

 

Beware......there are plenty of spoilers below.

 

The Pyramid At The end Of The World: Monk (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))I'll refer to this weeks episode Pyramid, it saves on the amount of characters that you have to read, and I have to type. Pyramid immediately shows Extremis for what it essentially was, and that is a fifty minute trailer for the start of the main event.

We begin with a recap on the previous episode, interlaced with scenes of Bill's REAL date with Penny. Bill is filling her in on the details of last week's simulation. They settle down in the kitchen and Bill jokes about the Pope making a sudden appearance, then boom - the door is broken down by soldiers, who march into Bill's kitchen, and are followed by the head of the UN, who is requesting an audience with the Doctor. Here we go again....

Pyramid is essentially a story about first contact, and it's handled quite realistically. A 5000 year old pyramid suddenly appears overnight in a territory that is flanked by the Chinese, Russian and the US army - now if that isn't a way to get an international audience, I don't know what is.

The Doctor (or the President, as he is known in times go global crisis), is called upon to investigate - but of course he is still blind - but he has augmented his glasses so that he can see basic images, outlines - just enough to get him by.

The Doctor edges towards the pyramid, while Nardole narrates the seen for him through the top toggle in his jacket....to an earpiece the Doctor is wearing. The The Pyramid At The end Of The World: Secretary General (Togo Igawa), The Commander (Nigel Hastings), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Bill (Pearl Mackie) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))Monks are in the pyramid, and they want to make a pact with the people of Earth that will save the planet. There is a truly global disaster looming, and the Monks can stop it, but we, the human race have to ask the Monks for help. The Doctor is of course suspicious of the Monks motives, and does something rather out of character. He instructs the UN that they should show a force of strength. Attack the pyramid with all that they can throw at it. Sadly the attack is a complete failure.

As these events unfold, there is another story being quietly told in the background. We find ourselves with two people who are working at an agricultural research centre. One has broken her glasses, and the other is incredibly hung over. The sub-story is cleverly introduced, it feels out of place at first, but all the while it is drip feeding the viewer information vital to the story until the two plots converge. It really is a joy to witness the cleverness of this writing. 

The end of the episode is very tense, with the Doctor trapped in the agriculture research lab with a hastily put together bomb. He is trapped on the inside of the lab. There is a simple combination coded lock that would release the door, but his glasses can't pick up the detail of the numbers. The episode ends with Bill making a pact, and the Doctor gaining his sight back. But theres not a Missy to be found anywhere....

Peter Harness (Kill the Moon, Zygon Invaision/ Zygon Inversion)wrote this episode with Steven Moffat, and that is probably a very good thing, as it seemed instantly more accessible for the not so avid fan. There is a lighter touch to a lot of scenes. I particularly liked the Doctor being surprised, when exiting  the TARDIS to see that he was onboard the UN's version of Airforce One. He asks a soldier "How did you move her, the windows at the university aren't big enough?" The soldier responds with a sheepish "Ummmmm - well.....they are now....".


The Pyramid At The end Of The World: The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))Let's talk about the Monks. I'm not sure about you, but I think they could be the best new original villain since the Silence. I realise that the way they speak is actually nothing new, with their mouths hanging open and words tumbling out - but they are quite unsettling. But what is their motive? At the end of the episode they save the Doctor, the Monks restore his sight and save the world, well actually the Doctor saves the world with his bomb, but he would have surely have needed an early regeneration at the very least if he had stayed in the lab. Are the Monks truly malevolent though? When they stop the UN attack, it's done quickly and efficiently, and almost gently. I'm guessing that we will find out what their game plan is next week.

Another very good plot point in this  episode is that it makes a great tool out of the Doomsday clock. About a third of the way through, every phone and clock on the planet is set to 11:57, this of course, on the Doomsday clock is three minutes to midnight, which is actually what the Doomsday clock is set at now to indicate the global threat level, 12:00 being Doomsday. Having all the clocks inch forward to 11:58, and then 11:59 is a brilliant plot device, and a great way of describing how big the threat is, and to ramp the tension up. Never before has Doctor Who communicated a threat so well, and so basically.

I read today that this episode would be edited as a result of the horrendous events in Manchester, and yes I can see why. I suspect the preview copy that I saw was unedited, as the events on screen were sometimes quite close to the bone, and traumatic enough with out the terrible events of Monday night looming in our memories.

The Pyramid at the End of the World is a cracking watch. The cast are all great, the story writing dialed back to just the right level, and the direction by Daniel Nettheim (last seen in charge of events in 2015's aforementioned Zygon two parter) is fast paced and to the point. Pyramid isn't the best of the season, but it definitely isn't the worst. If we have an upturn in quality from the previous episode like this again next week, Toby Whithouse's The Lie of the Land could well be a cracker.

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The Lie Of The Land: Nardole (Matt Lucas), Bill (Pearl Mackie) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))

Starring Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie and Matt Lucas
Guest-starring Michelle Gomez
Written by Toby Whithouse
Directed by Wayne Yip
Produced by Nikki Wilson
Executive-produced by Steven Moffat and Brian Minchin

First broadcast on BBC1, Saturday June 3rd at 7:35pm 

This review contains spoilers and is based on a 'Work in Progress' BBC preview 

 

So let's get the obvious thing out of the way first, the thing that has generated plenty of speculation and some promotional energy: how does the Doctor's surprise (or not) regeneration (or not) fit into proceedings? Given the lengthy time scale within which Doctor Who's lead actors now have to announce any departure, it's perhaps inevitable that a kind of 'regeneration game' will be played with fans and audiences, full of fakeouts, bluffs, and teasers. Russell T Davies couldn't resist The Next Doctor, after all, and The Lie of the Land falls squarely into this newly implanted tradition. Oddly, the 'WIP' preview copy of this episode didn't actually include any regeneration special effects, suggesting that these must have been added to the brief extracts used in trailers and publicity far ahead of finished SFX being done for the broadcast version (I assume the Doctor's golden, glowing regen energy will be present and correct in the televised episode). But given the genre that Toby Whithouse is working in here -- political-thriller-slash-science-fiction-dystopia -- it always seemed likely that the Doctor's collaboration, and regeneration, would prove to be part of a twisty-turny 'is he, isn't he?' series of mind games and loyalty tests. As such, the resolution to all of this is eminently guessable. Yes, Doctor Who's format is put under stress as a result of the Doctor's apparent turn to the dark side, and the Monks' successful occupation of the world, but at the same time Lie of the Land still needs to safely revert to form, which it duly does.

There are more than enough hints and reminders of Last of the Time Lords (the title even turns up in dialogue), whilst a collaborationist Doctor is also strongly reminiscent of The Invasion of Time. What this story represents is not startlingly original for the series -- or at least, it's not quite as innovative as it wants to be -- but the episode's many strengths nonetheless lie in its execution, and in precisely how things play out.

The Lie Of The Land: Missy (Michelle Gomez), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))Lacking any additional major guest stars beyond Missy's appearance, this is very much a story belonging to our regulars and semi-regulars. And it provides moments for all to shine, with Whithouse's dialogue constantly firing on all cylinders. The Doctor's justification of his support for the Monks is chilling and superbly played (as ever) by Capaldi, whilst Pearl Mackie's seemingly effortless naturalism continues to shine through, both in her opposition to the Doctor, and in her own sacrificial plan. The Lie of the Land is crammed with set pieces and grand-standing explorations of character, with even the Doctor-Missy coda putting a fresh spin on things. There's a lean muscularity to the script throughout, aided by the unusual and noirish dominance of voiceover that races the viewer from plot point to plot point. Rather brilliantly, these voiceovers are also integrated firmly into the key premises of the story: the Doctor's opening defence of the Monks is surely one of the show's most stunning pre-credits sequences, whilst Bill's reports to her Mum help to set up the eventual denouement, as well as stopping this from feeling overly sentimental and/or unearnt in story terms.

If Whithouse's writing deserves high praise then so too, for my money, does Wayne Yip's direction. We're treated to glorious moments such as Missy's watchful eyes superimposed over a grey sky, and the mission to penetrate the Monks' pyramid transmitter is also skillfully handled via incursions of stylish slow-motion. Even the 'glitching' image/edit effect that's added to suggest disorientation and dystopian surveillance adds neatly to the story's overall mood, although I did wonder whether there had been a plan to include some relevant (or even wildly incongruous) pop music via the team's headphones during the storming of the Monks' base. As this sequence stands in the BBC preview, the headphones aren't greatly focused on via sound design or music, which strikes me as a missed opportunity. However, the production team have clearly revelled in creating a "true history" of the Monks' presence, with Einstein and Churchill appearing along with Gary Lineker and Trevor Brooking as photoshopped hosts for the Monks (who, in story terms, evidently appreciate the importance of sport as much as science and politics). And fittingly for a story focused on the blurring of reality and fiction, or reportage and 'fake news', both the real-world and Whoniverse/Ian McNeice versions of Winston Churchill crop up at different moments.  

I suspect that the defeat of the Monks' occupation may meet with some fan criticism: at first glance it falls immediately into the 'love conquers all' template of contemporary Who's defining emotionality (although in this case it's the more obscure storge ex machina rather than deus ex machina). But I found Bill's resistance to be smartly grounded in the episode's themes. Right from the very beginning, Bill's Mum is established as a positive product of her imagination. We see them chatting, but this mother figure is ultimately no more real than the Monks' history or the hallucinatory figures created to multiply their occupying forces. The difference, of course, is that Bill has freely imagined her mother, whereas the Monks have imposed altered perceptions on the populace. More than merely being a case of sentimentalism, then, Bill's simple use of two gloriously ordinary words -- "hello Mum" -- represents a familial inversion of the Monks' methods. Rather than just free will versus suppression, Whithouse shows us how the creative and consoling imagination can triumph over a signal-boosted imaginary world.  

The Lie Of The Land: Monk (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))I expected Missy to receive more screen time than she actually gets, but given her ongoing imprisonment in the Vault, this is perfectly understandable. Michelle Gomez excels yet again, making the most of every morsel of dialogue whilst her character mirrors the question that was first posed by the twelfth Doctor in series eight: can she be a "good" figure? Presumably this quest for redemption is eventually going to relate to the Doctor's regeneration-proper, and as a low-key story arc, or a kind of "arc lite", it's an intriguing development.

The Lie of the Land sits perfectly well among what has been a very strong series thus far. As the capstone to a trilogy of sorts it evidently has a lot of work to do, and although the Monks' departure feels a touch too rapid, as well as the Monks themselves sometimes seeming more like a visual gimmick rather than a well-realised culture, overall the episode delivers. Yes, "the band are back together", and all the series' leads are on top form. Matt Lucas continues to impress as Nardole, or 'Nardy' as he styles himself in this case, bringing an unobtrusive but much-needed thread of light comedy to what would otherwise be a very dark tone.

There is a blended success of script, direction, production design and acting all seamlessly on show here. And with Cardiff streets doubling for London, folk being marched from their houses, and cutaways of various world locations, at times this feels highly reminscent of the Russell T. Davies era. John Simm's return can't be far away now either, and it'll be fascinating to see how his version of the Master is integrated into Steven Moffat's take on the show.

It seems as if series ten only began a few weeks ago, yet we're already two-thirds of the way through. My excitement, as a fan, is somehow shifting my perceptions of time... At least, I think that's what must be true...

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