Contains spoilers for aired episodes
The clue to this episode of Doctor Who is in the title: “Extremis” is expressly designed to push the series’ format to its limits. It’s outgoing showrunner Steven Moffat allowing himself once last burst of unrestrained fun, one final valedictory outing for the writer who has scrambled our brains time and again since he took over the show in 2010. As he says himself in the most recent edition of Doctor Who Magazine, “It was my last chance to bend this show to see how far you can go before it breaks. Forgive the indulgence.”
Whether you will forgive said indulgence or not depends on how much of a fan you are of the classic ‘timey-wimey’ Moffat style of writing. This is an episode that takes great delight in confounding and confusing the audience, just as Moffat regularly used to do in the likes of “The Impossible Astronaut”. You’ll be intrigued and irritated in turn, excited and exasperated almost at the same instant. Love it or hate it, the one thing you can’t be is indifferent.
I’ll certainly confess to being baffled by most of the episode, in which very little seems to be following any kind of logical narrative structure. Nor does Moffat exactly play fair with us, because even if you’re paying full attention it’s still absolutely impossible to work out what’s going on – at least not until the moment when Nardole (Matt Lucas) and Bill (Pearl Mackie) stumble across the portal hub, and Nardole discovers a certain lack of substance to his existence. After that things fall pretty quickly into place – fortunately, as there’s only about five minutes left to run at this point – and after all the teasing baffling build-up it has to be said that my reaction to the big reveal was: “Oh. Is that it?”
It’s not exactly an ‘it was all just a Bobby Ewing in the shower dream’ resolution because clearly “Extremis” is an important part of a major multiple episode storyline still in progress. In many ways, it’s unfair to opine on “Extremis” without also having seen the rest of the story. However the idea that we’re all living in a computer simulation and that we’re just bits of artificial intelligence programming rather than real people is a surprisingly hoary old philosophy and science fiction chestnut coming from someone like Moffat, who is usually so vibrantly original. The immediate precedent for the concept that comes to mind is The Matrix of course; however an in-show reference to Star Trek: The Next Generation’s holodeck directly links it to an Emmy-award winning story from that show, in which a holographic Professor Moriarty develops sentience and demands a life of his own in the real world. He’s unable to accept that if he steps outside the field of the holographic projectors he will simply cease to exist.
If I’m honest, the main story came across like a bit of a ‘cut-and-shunt’ Frankenstein affair of three distinct parts: the virtual reality simulation of the real world is clearly the destination, but the starting-off point is the Ring-like notion of the document that causes the death of anyone who reads it. I’m not sure there is ever really a clear or satisfying pay-off for this eerie set-up. As is so often the case with a Moffat script, by the time we get to the big reveal he has already moved on to something completely different, and instead the moment is stolen by Nardole and Bill’s problems with random numbers and by Nardole literally falling apart before our very eyes. After that, the contents of the Veritas document become irrelevant, which is rather a shame and a waste of what had been a gripping premise. Then there is the matter of the portals-come-holographic-projectors which seem to try to forcefully cross-breed two different science fiction concepts, but with only partial success. Moffat has confirmed that he’s a fan of the hugely successful Portal computer game, and perhaps this has led him to try blending in something that doesn’t sit entirely comfortably among everything else that’s going on.
Despite the fact that “Extremis” continues season ten’s efforts to reinvent the show with a different energy and ethos, it’s also curiously full of call-backs and references to the show’s past. The idea of an extraterrestrial force setting up an elaborate simulation of the Earth to better plan its impending takeover is irresistibly close to 1970s tale “The Android Invasion” albeit with updated 21st century technology. The prime representatives of this alien invasion force, the Monks, equally feel like a tribute revival act of Moffat’s own Silents – not so much because of the writing as how they are photographed and choreographed. Whereas the Silents wore suits and had heads resembling melted plastic depictions of the subject of Edvard Münch’s The Scream, the Monks have swishing red robes and horrific desiccated faces closer to those of unwrapped Egyptian mummys. The way that the voices are out of sync with their mouths is particularly effective.
The Silents were subsequently revealed as priests of the Church of the Papal Mainframe, and it’s a strange coincidence (if coincidence it is) that the Monks show up in an episode which actually features the earthly Pope as a guest character, played by “Turn Left”‘s Joseph Long. Clearly Moffat has given some thought into not provoking the ire of the Catholic Church by overtly lampooning the pontiff, but he’s only partially successful. The Pope is really only present for two specific functions: the first to provide a great riposte to the Doctor asking “If this is so important, why doesn’t the Pope come here himself?” and the second as a purely comic beat when he steps out of the Tardis (shades of the way Richard Nixon was ferried around in Day of the Moon) and finds himself in Bill’s bedroom, in the process ruining her amorous attempts with the briefly-seen Penny (Ronke Adekoluejo).
As it turns out, the church will probably be more annoyed by the representation of Pope Benedict IX as a woman – which is not the case. That particular pope certainly had a very colourful life, but being female is not one of the tales that are told about him. Conspiracy rumours do persist that at least one pontiff in history might have been female, and the notion was even mentioned in one of Dan Brown’s pot-boilers. That’s rather fitting, as there is a very definite (and doubtless intentional) Da Vinci Code feel to much of “Extremis”. It’s a shame that the feature film adaptation of the bestseller couldn’t boast even one tenth of the deliciously dark and malevolent atmosphere of this week’s Doctor Who: I churlishly complained that last week’s story “Oxygen” showed some cost-cutting around the corners, but there was no such feel to “Extremis” which was dripping with luscious production values and seriously wonderful direction from Daniel Nettheim (who previously helmed the Zygon two-parter in season nine.) We might not have had a clue what was going on for most of the episode, but it was never less than absolutely sublime to watch as it unfolded and went from a darkened lecture hall, to Bill’s suburban home, to the Sistine Chapel and the secret, shadowy Haereticum and then through the portal via a pristine white hub to a rather humdrum CERN complex and then capping things off with a return to the Oval Office in the White House, where the plot is finally carefully explained just in time for the end credits. Phew, that’s quite a ride – certainly no one can say they didn’t get their money’s worth in this episode!
And that’s not even the whole story. In a deliberate attempt to sow more obfuscation and ensure no one pre-empts where the main narrative of the Veritas document is going, we have a second storyline wrapped around it to distract us for good measure. Viewers probably spent a long time trying to work out how the two storylines were going to connect to one another, but it turns out that they really are almost entirely separate. In fairness, Moffat points this out right at the start by making it plain that the second story is set “a long time ago,” but he’s been known to deceive us in the past so we can be forgiven for not being convinced by any wide-eyed insistence that he’s actually playing it straight for once.
The second story proves to be a surprisingly early reveal about the secret of the content of the mysterious vault in the basement of St Luke’s University, which the Doctor has been sworn to watch over for a thousand years. Many fans, armed with the knowledge that Michelle Gomez would be returning to the show again this season, had correctly guessed that the vault would contain Missy. Surprisingly, there was no surprise. That really is exactly who it’s proved to be – Moffat has confirmed that there’s no extra kink in store, and that it really is the Doctor’s longest/deadliest friend/enemy. To be honest, even though I’d assumed that it would be Missy in the vault, I still find some of the earlier portentous dialogue exchanged between the Doctor and Nardole about the incarcerated threat to be a poor description of Missy, but what do I know?
The scenes set off-world give us the backstory to how Missy came to be in the vault in the first place – or in a quantum fold chamber, as it turns out to be called. The choice of Missy’s punishment was decided by the Doctor, and was between either a thousand years of imprisonment or a death sentence – and a timely intervention by Nardole at the behest of the late River Song helped swing it to the former at the last minute. The proceedings were officiated by Humans star Ivanno Jeremiah as Rafando, and he once again demonstrates a striking unearthly quality to his presence that makes him a perfect performer for Doctor Who. Even so, these scenes are inevitably stolen by Gomez in a clear case of grand larceny, giving another fine performance as Missy exactly as you’d expect. In fact it’s arguably her best appearance yet, as a subdued and beaten figure genuinely pleading for mercy but not expecting to find any.
While this explains much about the vault, it also leaves much still unanswered. For example, what crimes had Missy finally been brought to account for, and by whom? Before we can get into the details, Rafando and his colleagues are sent scurrying after a hurried review of the Doctor’s CV, a moment very reminiscent of the climax to 2010’s “The Eleventh Hour”.
The appearance of Nardole in this storyline seeks to explain why the character was brought back to life after going to pieces in “The Husbands of River Song”, and what his partnership with the Doctor is all about. To be honest, I wasn’t entirely convinced: it had the clunky feel of a writer trying his best to retrospectively explain something subsequently required but which was never intended or envisaged at the time, but not quite finding a way to successfully pull it off. Moreover, it is very noticeable how persistently this season keeps referencing Alex Kingston’s character, almost as though it’s going somewhere significant…
In complete contrast to the awkwardness of Nardole’s retrofitting, the return of sonic sunglasses as a device to help the Doctor compensate for the blindness he suffered in “Oxygen” is inspired. It makes it seem like their annoying overuse during season 9 had been expressly intended for this moment all along. The Doctor coming to terms with his disability is certainly one of the most interesting and emotionally accessible aspects of “Extremis” – although at the same time there’s a nagging feeling that somewhere in time and space there must surely be technology that could help the Doctor more effectively compensate for his condition. We’re not that far off that sort of breakthrough on 21st century Earth, after all. Instead the Doctor makes a ridiculous bargain with another piece of alien tech that gives him a few minutes of sight in return for an unspecified price – anything from a hangnail to the loss of all future regenerations. You can’t help but feel that this is significant and not just a throwaway aside, and that there will be genuine repercussions: maybe the 13th Doctor will turn out to be very short-lived indeed, in order to avoid saddling the next incarnation with an unlucky numerical designation? Except of course on this occasion, the events only take place in the shadow virtual reality. Right? (It’s very hard to keep all of this straight at times.)
The Doctor is certainly the star of the show in “Extremis”, and the blindness allows Peter Capaldi to find new aspects and dimensions to the character which just shows us once again how astonishing he is as a performer. The Doctor proves surprisingly poor at covering up his condition, and Nardole is comically bad at filling in the blanks for him, so much so that it’s a wonder Bill doesn’t pick up that something is amiss. In fact this week Bill falls back into a fairly generic companion role after being pretty much the stand-out star of the first five episodes of the season: she gets that nice scene early on when the Pope interrupts her date, and then a lovely two-hander scene with Nardole towards the end, but is otherwise fairly backgrounded. She does get an absolutely terrific coat to wear in the shadow universe simulation, though.
Ultimately there was much to enjoy about “Extremis” and it certainly continues an impressive run of episodes in season 10. I suspect I’ll enjoy this one more on successive viewings when I’m not so distracted as I watch it, trying in vain to figure out what’s going on or disappointed by the somewhat ordinary nature of the final reveals. In fact I find it’s often the case with Moffat’s stories that they’re better viewed in hindsight when you can best appreciate the craft that’s gone into them without feeling like someone is constantly beating you over the head to make you see how clever it all is.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a great admirer of Moffat’s writing and I’m certainly going to miss it once it’s gone from Doctor Who. But I think that the absence will also allow me to go back and revisit his greatest hits on DVD and Blu-ray with vastly more affection and fondness than I do when they are being aired for the first time. “Extremis” is a prime example of the sort of episode that I believe will stand the test of time and outgrow the quibbles, slings and arrows of the present moment, but which needs to first be laid down in a cool, dark place to mature in the mind for a few months in order to get the best out of it.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
Doctor Who continues on BBC One on Saturday evenings. The first six episodes will be available on DVD and Blu-ray on May 29 2017, with the second half of the season following on July 17.