‘Doctor Who’ recap: ‘The Pyramid at the End of the World’ explores the danger of affirmative consent

Last week’s episode of “Doctor Who,” titled “Extremis,” ended on a dire cliffhanger. While investigating a mystery at the Vatican, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Bill (Pearl Mackie) discovered that they weren’t really the Doctor and Bill. They were just part of an elaborate simulation deigned by an alien race to plan the overthrow of Earth. The simulated Doctor was able to get a message to the real-world Doctor, but was it too late?

Written by Peter Harness and showrunner Steven Moffat and directed by Daniel Nettheim, “The Pyramid at the End of the World” premiered on May 27. Read our recap below for the top five takeaways from the new episode.

The Aliens Have Landed … In a Pyramid
The aliens from last week’s episode have arrived. They land in a ship disguised as a pyramid that appeared overnight near a United Nations base in the fictional country of Turmezistan. And that’s cause for grave concern. The Doctor officially serves as president of Earth at times of profound existential threats against the planet, and he explains, “They have studied your species, your civilization, your entire history. They’ve run a computer simulation of this world since you lot first slopped out of the ocean looking for a fight, and they have chosen this exact moment and this exact place to arrive.” So it’s safe to say that they know something we don’t know.

What could it be? An impending world war? The Doctor gathers military leaders from Russia, China and the United States along with the UN secretary general, who all at once refuse to fight each other if it means protecting humanity from this alien threat. In a moment of desperation and fear, the world’s superpowers put their differences aside for the sake of humanity, a monumental event.

But no, that’s not it. They’re thinking too big. They have to think smaller, much smaller — microscopic even.

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The Butterfly Effect
“The end of your life has already begun,” says the Doctor in an ominous monologue early in the episode. “There is a last place you will ever go, a last door you will ever walk through, a last sight you will ever see. And every step you ever take is moving you closer. The end of the world is a billion billion tiny moments, and somewhere, unnoticed, in silence or in darkness, it has already begun.” He’s describing a dynamic not unlike the butterfly effect, in which a small, inconsequential action could have a larger ripple effect than could ever have been imagined.

That speech is intercut with the introduction of Erica (Rachel Denning), a scientist leaving her home on her way to the lab. In a minor accident on her way out the door her reading glasses break. And when she gets to the lab her research partner Douglas (Tony Gardner) is hungover after a wild night: “There was drinking, there were breakages,” he says, and the scene cuts to a smashing bottle. No big deal — a very, very small deal really, or at least it would be if these scientists weren’t working on a biochemical experiment where an improper mix could destroy all organic life on Earth. Her broken glasses and his hangover — two of a billion tiny moments precipitating the end of the world.

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Affirmative Consent
The aliens are clever. They have arrived at Earth at a point when the human race is at its most vulnerable, but they haven’t picked a period of military weakness where the planet could be taken over in a violent invasion. Instead, they chose a time when humans are at their greatest need — sudden, apocalyptic, and hopeless need. They will take over the world without firing a shot. In fact, they will take over the world because we’ll ask them to.

But they won’t intervene unless we give them our consent. And our consent must be pure. That’s one of the most disturbing and fascinating details of this episode: for consent to be true and lasting, consent must be given out of love. Under most circumstances that would be quite a touching sentiment, but in this case love is a lever with which to exercise power. The secretary general consents after being given a vision of humanity’s demise, but he consents out of fear, and that won’t do at all, so he’s disintegrated on the spot. Later the military leaders consent, but their consent is strategic, so they too are killed. How is it possible to consent to these malevolent conquerors with genuine love? How can one consent under duress?

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For the Love of Others
The Doctor urges the military leaders to resist their attempted alien overlords. He works as fast as he can to locate the source of the worldwide threat, and once he tracks it down he’s ready to blow up the research facility to sterilize the pathogen before it’s vented into the atmosphere. However, it turns out that the scientists aren’t the only butterflies in this butterfly-effect scenario. The Doctor and Bill are also part of the aliens’ plan — the last pieces of the puzzle.

The Doctor is trapped with the bomb that will destroy the pathogen. To get out all he has to do is enter a security code … but he can’t read the numbers. The Doctor is still blind from the events of the episode “Oxygen.” If he can’t get out of the room, the world will be saved, but he’ll die. Perhaps the Doctor could have regenerated following the explosion; when the Doctor dies he doesn’t die, per se, but rather change form, as from a David Tennant to a Matt Smith to a Peter Capaldi. But Bill doesn’t know that.

The UN secretary general is dead, and so are the military leaders. Bill is the only one left who can consent to the aliens, and her relationship with the Doctor gives her the necessary authority to speak for the world. So she consents. And here lies the tragic irony inherent in the aliens’ plan. The Doctor’s quick thinking has surely saved humanity from destruction, but even when the human race is out of the woods, Bill consents out of love — for the Doctor.

So it seems the aliens didn’t want humanity to love them, like some kind of preemptive Stockholm syndrome. It was the act of love of a human willing to give up the entire world for another that has sentenced the Earth to an unknown tyranny. Consider the cruelty of the aliens’ gambit: a human race capable of giving up their freedom to protect another is a human race that can be controlled and enslaved. Love is a strength, but it’s also a vulnerability that can be exploited.

The aliens may have learned that from their simulation because it wasn’t just the scientists’ error that threatened the world. The words of the Doctor’s wife River Song led him to save his fellow Time Lord Missy from execution. That led him to the university where he met Bill. That led them to the future where the Doctor gave up his eyesight to save Bill’s life. And that led Bill to give up the world to save the Doctor’s life. Acts of love going back decades, or centuries even, have led to this one precise moment when the aliens were able to leverage love to take over the world.

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Love Will Keep Us Together?
“I’ll tell you what, old man, you’d better get my planet back,” says a horrified Bill at the very end of the episode. Then aliens taunt the Doctor, “Enjoy your sight, Doctor. Now see our world.”

For the second straight week “Doctor Who” leaves us hanging on a moment of dread, and things just keep getting worse. It’s hard to say for sure if the aliens will be defeated next week, or if the occupation will be a continuing story thread for more episodes to come. But if love just cost humanity its freedom, then it might just help win it back. Because while love makes us vulnerable, it also fuels the Doctor. The Earth would have been a burnt cinder a hundred times over if the Doctor didn’t have such a stubborn affection for humanity.

“There is a line in the sand, and I’m the man on the other side of it,” the Doctor warns the aliens earlier in the episode. “You’ll want to keep me that way.” To say the least, this alien race has just crossed that line.

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