Friday, June 16, 2017

10.7 The Pyramid at the End of the World

I think we now know what is wrong with Moffat-Who. I think we always did know what was wrong with Moffat-Who, but we can now sum it up in two words.

Magic Clocks. 

I am familiar with the idea of the Doomsday Clock, if only because of Watchmen. Some scientist dudes got together in the Cold War and conceived a conceptual clock which shows how close we are to blowing ourselves up. (It’s currently set at 2 minutes to midnight.)

And I suppose that a group of Space Monks — who know absolutely everything that there is to know about the earth — would also be familiar with the clock, and might use it to threaten the human race. 

But (obviously) the scientists who run the imaginary clock only move the little hand backwards and forwards based on stuff they know. The clock can’t take into account a hungover scientist accidentally releasing a killer virus. But I suppose, just possibly, the Space Monks might use the concept of the conceptual clock to threaten the earth with. So the humans would see the clock move forward and say “The Space Monks have told us we are one second closer to Armageddon than we were at the beginning of the episode; they must know something we don’t.” But everyone in the episode acts if the doomsday clock is some neutral arbiter which literally knows how close we are to the literal end of the world…

And here comes the good bit. The Space Monks make everyone's phone and computer show the Doomsday Clock time as opposed to the actual time. (The implications of that aren’t explored. Considering how worried we were about the year 2000 date problem, I can’t help thinking that if every clock in the world stopped telling the time, there be some major logistical problems. With airline timetables, if nothing else.) But get this. We are very clearly shown the time changing on people’s analogue wrist watches. How does that work? Watches like that aren’t connected to any interwebs. Some Magic Force must be physically turning the mechanism backwards on every wristwatch in the world simultaneously.  

The Not-We won’t understand why this is an issue. You have a magic telephone box that can take you back to 17th Century London, they will say; why can’t you have a magic space monk who can turn millions of individual wrist watches backwards? 

Part of the answer is that you are allowed to use something completely mad as a premise for your story, but not as a little device within it. “Once upon a time a fairy waved her little screwdriver and all the clocks in the world stopped…” might be a good starting point for a story. (We don’t ask the mechanism by which Midas transformed everything he touched to gold: we are too interested in following through the tragic consequences of his reckless wish.) But it’s not something you can drop in and not discuss any further. There were a hundred more believable ways the Space Monks could have told everyone that the world was about to end. 

The other part of the answer is that the difference between magic and science is a very subtle, but very important, part of the internal ambiance of Doctor Who. Completely mad things happen but they are completely mad things which feel as if they might possibly have a logical explanation, even if we aren't quite sure what it is. I don’t know if I could perfectly define the line, but I can pretty accurately tell you when a thing is on the wrong side of it. A scientist inadvertently releasing a bacteria that can destroy all life on earth: OK. A Space Monk curing the Doctor’s blindness, instantly and perfectly, by remote control, with a wave of the hand: not OK. Using the fabulous technology of the TARDIS to make the computer link to 428 CCTVs go down simultaneously: OK. Using the undefined power of the Space Monks to change the time on every wrist watch in the whole wide world: not OK.

One definition of the line might be that a silly, cartoon-strip, Saturday night, good guys vs monsters space opera TV serial story allows and include technology which is sufficiently advanced that it is indistinguishable from magic, but forbids and excludes actual miracles. 

Some of these problems may possibly be resolved in next week's episode, or in the Season Climax. It may turn out that we are playing a game of nested realities, and the Monks' miraculous ability to levitate nuclear submarines should be taken evidence that the Doctor and Bill are still inside a computer game. But I have an overwhelming sense that Moffat knew which pictures he wanted to draw and which synthetic moral dilemmas he wanted characters to fudge their way out of, and glued everything together with whatever gobbledegook was lying around at the time.

And, in fairness, the pictures are absolutely lovely. The Doctor walking across the desert to the pyramid; the Space Gods confronting him at the door. The Doctor playing guitar in the TARDIS. The bottle and the glasses breaking. Bill and Penny walking through late night streets. The Monk's nerve center, with the glowing strings of cause and effect (although Doctor Who rather stole that from Harry Potter and Harry Potter rather stole it from the Ring Cycle).

And I like the structure very much indeed. The Alien Gods have come to declare the End of the World and the earth’s military is gathered around the Mother Ship — but we keep flashing back to a very ordinary day in the office for two very ordinary scientist and instantly see that the End of the World isn’t happening where everyone thinks it is happening. I just wish that this beautiful structure had an equally beautiful story hanging off it.


I buy the idea of the Doctor as scientific adviser of UNIT. I don’t actually know how all the nations of the world world could arrange an extra-national force for dealing with aliens, given that all the nations of Europe can’t even arrange a free trade zone without arguing about it; but I feel that it is the kind of thing which all the nations of the world might have a god at doing. I don’t buy the idea that the Doctor can become the President of Earth at the drop of a jelly baby. Being President, as opposed to advising Presidents, is obviously not the Doctor’s modus operandi.(He actively ran away from being President of Gallifrey.) Why would anyone who knew the Doctor well enough to want his help suppose for one moment that that was the kind of help he would be willing to give? No-one treat him like President, and he doesn’t seem to exercise Presidential powers, although he does get to fly around in a big plane. The soldiers and the UN guy treat him as a super knowledgeable person whose advise they ought to pay a heckuva lot of attention to. Like everyone always treats the Doctor, in fact. 

We keep being told that when weird stuff happens on earth, everyone immediately forgets about it. Bill has never heard of the Daleks, even though the Daleks have invaded the earth at least several times in her lifetime. But for there to be some procedure by which Theresa May can snap her fingers and say “All of the UKs financial, military and intelligence resources are controlled by the Doctor, without parliamentary scrutiny or the Queen signing off on them” an awful lot of MPs and civil servants would have to remember the Daleks and the Cybermen and the giant haddock in the Thames. 

Never mention Torchwood. (Seriously. Never mention it.)

I don’t think that the Winston Churchill of Victory of the Daleks or the Van Gogh of Vincent and the Doctor are accurately historical representations of those particular persons. But they are presented to us as if they were real and as if we are meant to treat them as real. That's the whole fun of those kinds of episodes: well, of course Doctor Who and our greatest ever Prime Minister would be old mates. But the minute the "President of Earth" thing is invoked, everything in the episode becomes consciously less realistic, consciously more one dimensional, consciously more like a child's game of soldiers. I assume that Moffat means it to have exactly the opposite effect. 


How was the Space Monks' simulation supposed to have worked? Are we supposed to imagine that, by running simulations of human history, the Space Monks can find out that a particular human scientist will break her glasses on a particular day of the week? I can see how they can determine that the human race will definitely wipe itself out with a virus at some point between 2015 and 2020; but that a silly accident will cause it to happen on a particular day… not so much. Are we subject to that level of predestination? (Was it not Stephen Hawking who remarked that even if you had a perfect theory of everything, you still wouldn't be able to extrapolate from physical laws what was going to be on the cover of Vogue magazine next March.)

Come to think of it, their simulation includes the Doctor, and includes the fact that he’s been on the mining station and lost his sight, and includes the fact that he is hanging out with Bill Potts and not some other human lady companion....which means that they must also know that he’s temporarily exiled to earth as Missy’s Guardian… they must, in short, have been running a simulation of the whole universe.

Which seems like a lot of trouble to have gone to.


The Space Monks want to invade the Earth. But they can only invade planets which they have been invited to invade. The leader of the United Nations and the leaders of the various armies surrender: but their motives are not pure — they are surrendering out of fear, or tactically. So the Space Monks turn them into pillars of salt. But when Bill realizes that if she doesn’t surrender, the Doctor will die, she hands Earth over to them. Willingly. I was rather reminded of Curse of Fenric, where Ace’s faith in the Doctor nearly allows the Haemovores to conquer the Earth. Dr Sylvester saves the day by being really horrible to Ace so she loses her faith in him. I rather wish that Dr Peter had given Bill the same treatment.

I get that some Doctor Who aliens are fairy tale buggaboos with magic shticks, I really do. The Weeping Angels can only move when no-one is looking at them. Everyone forgets the Silence a few seconds after they have seen them, unless they make marks on their bodies, and possibly even then. If there were a well established or well foreshadowed Monster called The Gift Bringer who could only invade planets that he’d been invited to invade (and tricked planets into inviting him in a different ingenious way each time we met him, like Mr Mxyzptlk) I would be quite able to accept it. 

But the Space Monk's “You have to consent” power is too nebulous. I don’t understand what it means. There is talk about establishing “a link”; there is talk that the aliens understand that they have to rule through love, not through fear. It seems like everything is being made up on the spot to force Billie to the moment where she has to choose between the Earth and the Doctor. 

Bill chooses [SPOILERS FOLLOW] the Doctor over the earth. "You're an idiot" she explains "You are the stupidest idiot ever. But I'm not going to let you die. This planet needs you. So I'm making an executive decision. I'm keeping you alive", which is as much as to say, being interpreted "You can't die. You're too nice, too brave, too kind and far, far too silly." Bill has turned, within six weeks, from a not particularly well educated young woman who knew her sci-fi tropes to a generic new who girl, Rose V, entirely defined by her love for the Doctor. 

The Doctor’s side of the equation is even more contrived. We have to accept that two scientists could inadvertently create a virus that would destroy all life on earth; and we have to accept that the Doctor can’t stop an earthling lab from venting the death virus into the air because “it’s on automatic” and we have to accept that the Doctor’s sonic glasses can do anything except read text. But the drama has some pace and some bite. And the Doctor’s relationship with the sober scientist is actually fun to work. Character chemistry covers a multitude of plot holes.

Plot holes I can live with. It's plot ladders I object to. Plot glue. The sense that we are clambering from scene to scene over improvised scaffolding; the sense that bit of the story are being arbitrarily glues together simply in order to give Bill her Big Companion Moment.  

So. We have spent one whole episode finding out that the Space Mummies have simulated the whole history of earth to plan for an invasion. And we have spent another whole episode finding out that what they learned from the simulation was that Bill’s love for the Doctor was the only thing pure enough to allow them to conquer the earth. Next week we will have one of those Earth Under the Martian stories, where the earth has already been conquered and the humans have got to figure out how to rebel, like Dalek Invasion of Earth and the Tripods. Everything depends on that being big enough and convincing enough to make the last two episodes seem worth the effort.


RogerBW said...

The mechanisms and contrivances are showing.

Or, to put it an older way, it smells of the lamp.

Louise H said...

Yes, and indeed Quite.

I think I may have mentioned that this set of three eps has been like that game you play where you write a paragraph and then fold it down so only the last sentence shows and the the next person writes a paragraph and does the same and you end up with a very bad story.

This episode took from the last one only the words "Monks" and "computer simulation". The computer simulations in Extremis were lots of different versions of the Earth to find out what humans were like so they could be strategically defeated. The computer simulation in Pyramid is a single atom-perfect simulation of the universe to establish what is going to happen before it does. No-one notices the difference. The Monks in Extremis run computer simulations. The Monks in Pyramid go round teleporting pyramids, curing blindness and disintegrating people. Nobody notices the difference.

In fact, apart from a couple of very minor lines of dialogue, nothing in Pyramid would have happened any differently if Extremis had never happened The dramatic ending of Extremis is that the simulated Doctor gets a message to the real Doctor to say that Monks are trying to invade the Earth. The first significant thing that happens in Pyramid is that Monks arrive and promptly inform everyone that they are trying to invade the Earth. The Doctor's advance warning, won at such a dramatic cost, allows him to suggest to Bill that she go on a date with someone that the simulation suggests she'll probably go on a date with anyway, and enables him to go "oh yes, Monks" when the Monks turn up.

Mike Taylor said...

The criticisms -- Andrew's and Louise's -- are all on point. I do wonder whether Moffat. having written the first part of this n-parter, should have gone on to write the second, too, giving us a more coherently tied pair of stories.

On the other hand, I sometimes wonder whether a lot of our criticism of New New Who is just because we've seen it before, in Old New Who. If I try to imagine the present series debuting in 2005, with Christopher Eccleston not turning up until 2017, I suspect we'd all have been just as bowled over by the Capaldi episodes back then as we were by the Eccleston episodes; and perhaps just as jaded and as ready to nit-pick the Eccleston episodes now as we are the Capaldi ones.

I. Dall said...

Humanity might conceivably be united BY aliens. The anthropological theory of the "stranger king" ( not to be confused with the band, Stranger Kings ) makes us being first contacted seem slightly less dire.

SK said...

Everything depends on that being big enough and convincing enough to make the last two episodes seem worth the effort

Also, I wonder how big a majority Theresa May is going to get?

Andrew Rilstone said...

Yes, I am building up a backlog of reviews. Very well spotted. Do you want me to run through my exact personal circumstances, or shall I just carry on doing the best I can?:

SK said...

Sorry, I thought you were deliberately using dramatic irony to increase the impact of the review by asking a question to which the audience already knows the answer, and was playing along.

I'll refrain in future.