We find ourselves in familiar territory on this week’s Doctor Who. Only our date with the Doctor and his two companions is interrupted by the U.N. Secretary General… and the end of the world. But let’s do as River Song would advise and not skip ahead just yet.
The United Nations has extracted the TARDIS, where the Doctor’s been holed up, and is flying him, Bill, and Nardole to Turmezistan — which some Whovians might recognize from last season’s two-parter “The Zygon Invasion/Inversion” — on account of a giant pyramid appearing out of nowhere in the intersection of a war zone that sees the Americans, the Chinese, and the Russians on three different sides. Upon arrival, Bill quickly figures out it’s an alien spacecraft disguised as a pyramid, and she’s proved right when the monk creatures appear and address the Doctor (or rather the “President” of the Earth) when he investigates.
But after he tells them they’ll have to go through him to take over the Earth, the monk creatures say they won’t just be invited to take over, it will also happen at the end of the Earth. However, the timeline for that particular event has been moved up now that the Doomsday Clock — a symbolic clock face created by some atomic scientists in the ‘80s that counts down to global disaster — is now only three minutes away from Midnight (a.k.a. said disaster).
In a literal race against the clock, the Doctor surprisingly agrees with China’s decision to attack the pyramid. He instructs Russia and America to do so as well. Because a coordinated attack will show that the Earth is united against this threat. But that doesn’t work. The pyramid literally pulls a plane out of the sky, and a submarine out of the water. So then they go to Plan B: Negotiation.
However, that’s unsuccessful as well. After the monks tell the Doctor, Bill, Nardole, the U.N. Secretary General and the military leaders of all three countries that a sequence of Earth-ending events has been set in motion, they invite them to touch the strands of time at the center of the ship. The monks use this to model the Earth’s future as they attempt to stop a catastrophe. Having witnessed what will happen to the Earth, the U.N. Secretary General takes up the monk’s offer and gives them his consent — despite the Doctor’s warnings. And because his agreement came from a place of fear instead of love, he’s disintegrated. (Looks like someone read How to Win Friends and Influence People.)
Plan C is agreeing to a three-country truce. But when that doesn’t work the Doctor realizes this whole pyramid deal has been one big misdirect. It isn’t World War 3 that’s going to end the world. It’s a bacteria-related mistake. Therefore it must be on a watch list. His solution? Putting all the top-secret files of the world online so that the whole team can Google their way to a solution. (Last week’s solution was emailing. So I guess the moral is “Never underestimate simple technological functions, kids.”)
But even as the Doctor and Nardole narrow their search terms — GM biochemical trials that have reached stage 2 — the generals aren’t happy with how long this is taking. So they decide to go give their consent. Sigh. The Doctor sends Bill with them, while he and Nardole follow his latest idea.
In the TARDIS, they hack into UNIT’s database and shut down all the security cameras of the labs that are being monitored by the government. Their plan works as the monk creatures turn the feed of the lab they are monitoring back on. Within no time at all, they’re at the Agrofuel Research Operations lab, where scientist Erica is dealing with her dead colleague Douglas’ mistake. He accidentally entered in the wrong decimal place, leading to the creation of a toxic strain of bacteria that turns humans into gunk. Unfortunately, Douglas’ many mistakes mean that the lab wasn’t properly sealed, meaning the bacteria could be released into the air, despite the lab being on lockdown. Given the toxic atmosphere, the Doctor sends Nardole back to the TARDIS, but what he doesn’t know is that he’s already showing symptoms.
The Doctor, with some help from Erica, puts together a bomb designed to blow up that lab, thus sterilizing that particular strain. But his attempt to escape from the lab is foiled by lockdown procedure as he’s required to enter in a particular combination into the lock. However considering he can’t see, and Nardole’s not responding and Erica can’t really get a good look, he’s stuck. (The sonic screwdriver can only tell him what the combination might be. It can’t enter it.) Good news though: the Doomsday Clock is reversing itself.
As he stands there and beholds the fire that kills off that bacteria — and lament’s Bill’s decision — the monks welcome him to view their world.
We’re just past the midpoint of the season, which makes this a very interesting time for the Doctor, Bill, and Nardole (sniffle) to go through this sort of arc — something we usually tend to see come season finale time. In fact, the whole episode seems like the start of a Doctor Who two-parter rather than the middle of a three-episode story. While last week’s episode might have introduced us to these villains and some of their capabilities, considering most of it was just a simulation kind of renders it filler in retrospect. But that’s not the main thrust of this week’s hour.
Instead, it’s all about mistakes, as the Doctor notes in his little meditation “monologue” at the beginning (“The end of the world is in a billion, billion tiny moments. And somewhere unnoticed, in silence or in darkness, it has already begun.”). We see this at the beginning when Erica’s glasses get smashed, then later with Douglas, who is too tired to focus and thus enters in the wrong digits. We even see this with the Doctor, who could have actually told Bill about his blindness a couple of times in the hour, thus allowing him to avoid her having to be in the position where she felt she had to make a deal with the monks. (Though this could have resulted in an alternate scenario where Bill, for the third week in a row, would be confronted with a situation that results in her “death.”) As for Nardole, I doubt he’ll be down and out for long, seeing as the Doctor put him together after his last demise. (And because he’s a gift from River.) But his potential loss is a good reminder of how integral he’s become to this trio. I especially enjoyed seeing Bill and Nardole consult each other on the Doctor’s behavior.
It was also cool to see the aliens acknowledge that Bill’s position as the Doctor’s companion makes her a representative of him. Just a few episodes ago (“Thin Ice”) the Doctor said it wasn’t his place as a Gallifreyan to make decisions for humans, leaving that decision up to Bill. Here, we see him bring it up again, only at the end, it’s Bill and not those three generals making a decision about the planet. (Not unlike what Clara was forced to do in “Kill the Moon,” co-writer Peter Harness’ first-ever episode on the show.) It makes me wonder what these aliens, who’ve presumably seen all of human history from the beginning of time until now, think of humans as a species. Though I guess we’ll find out next week now that they’re in charge. (I do take some comfort in knowing the Doctor likes us well enough to have stuck around as long as he has. Not to mention the countless number of times he’s saved us.)
As for the monk’s takeover, I’m actually excited about it. After spending a whole episode of teasing this as a possibility, I want to see how their being in charge might affect the world — based on the trailer for next week’s episode, it looks like they’ve already changed “history” — and just why exactly they not only needed human kind’s (or the Doctor’s) consent but also why it has to come from a place of “love.” It’ll also be fun to see the Doctor go up against such a powerful foe. Though I really did think we’d get a chance to see whoever is in the vault before getting to this stage of the monks’ takeover. (Side note: I would really like for their species to receive a name because it’s a bit awkward to keep calling them the “monks.”)
It is interesting that this is what eventually brings the Doctor’s blindness to an end; an aspect of recent episodes that not only upped the stakes in various instances but let Peter Capaldi play to both his dramatic and comedic strengths. I wonder if defeating these aliens will see his blindness return, after all, it seems like something this season might do. (Unless it was meant to be a misdirect about what would cause the Doctor’s regeneration.) But for now, I’m glad the Doctor can see.
And speaking of “seeing” people, as funny as it was to meet Penny again, I remain convinced that she’s not good enough for Bill. When faced with two improbable scenarios (albeit one was in a simulation) she’s chosen to bolt, whereas every time Bill has come face to face with something like suddenly traveling to Sydney, or visiting London in 1814, she’s responded with a smile and open curiosity. It’s a good reminder why companions are usually special kinds of people — and why the Doctor may have been drawn to her in the first place. Not everyone is suited for adventures in time and space. Having said that, is it just me or was anyone else a little thrown by how much Bill chose to share on what was their first date. I’m sure she likes Penny, but didn’t Bill tell the friend she chose to share a house with that Doctor was her “grandfather”?
Lastly, as I’ve noted in previous recaps, this season’s themes seem to be more political than ever. And this episode was no different, especially with Bill commenting that the President is “too orange” for her. But instead of focusing on war (it’s no surprise the three superpowers being the countries they were, and the solution to that brewing trouble being a truce), the real underlying theme seemed to focus on the act of “consent” itself. For all the sketchiness of the monks (and the implied downsides of their taking over), it was interesting that they couldn’t go forward with their plans unless humans as a species truly gave their okay. It couldn’t be out of “fear” or “strategy.” We, or at least Bill, had to totally want it. It’s an interesting use of global domination as a metaphor, and I think it actually worked.
In any case, next week’s episode looks exceedingly interesting. It’s only a shame we can’t speed up our clocks to get there.