Doctor Who kicks off an ambitious three-part story with an episode that introduces a frightening new monster, but relies a little too heavily on old twists.
Part of the reason that Doctor Who season10 has been so great is that it’s gone back to basics. Simple stories, well told, and anchored by compelling character relationships. None of the episodes this season have been particularly fancy. They featured pretty basic plots: A haunted house, a base under siege, trips to both the future and the past. This season, quite purposefully it would appear, embraced its simplicity. It counted on the evolving dynamic between Twelve and Bill to keep us interested, rather than complicated story twists. And it really worked. This season is remarkably strong, barring a few problems here and there (like the ending of “Knock Knock” for example). One of the strongest Doctor Who has had in quite a long time.
“Extremis”, however, is anything but simple. It is, in fact, what you might call a perfect example of the Steven Moffat era. (Fitting, probably, since he wrote this episode.) An overly complicated mystery that is itself ultimately a fake-out, it manages to kick off a three-part story, while still doing almost nothing at all to move the plot of it along. For those who enjoy Moffat’s signature overly twisty, clever-just-for-the-sake of it schtick, there’s a lot to like about this episode. But the over-reliance here on resets and the erasure of consequences, is painfully reminiscent of some of the previous season’s worst excesses. (Perhaps even more so because the episodes that preceded this one were so comparatively stripped down.)
"The Doctor: Memories are so much worse in the dark."
A Three Parter That Opens in Darkness
“Extremis” begins pretty much where we left off last week. The Doctor is blind and struggling. Assisted by sunglasses that psychically transmit information about the world around him and Nardole running interference, Twelve does his best to behave normally. This goes about as well as you’d expect. The Doctor seems to struggle quite a bit more with his lack of eyesight this week than he did in “Oxygen”. Perhaps this is because he fears it is permanent, now?
The initial premise of “Extremis” is a fascinating one. The Vatican reaches out to the Doctor for help with something called the Veritas. This text, whose title means truth, apparently causes those who read it to go mad. Or despair so greatly that they kill themselves immediately afterward. It’s not really clear which, but either way, people are dying. There’s something intriguing about the idea of the Veritas, a forbidden book that destroys those who read it. (Particularly if you’ve ever read anything like Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.) It’s even more fascinating when you put the problem of such a text to the Doctor in his current state: How is a blind man to read a forbidden text, anyway? (The answer is basically “audio book”, but we don’t get to that till a lot later in the episode.)
As the Doctor attempts to track down and read the Veritas for himself, several people die, and he discovers that monsters stalk the Vatican’s hall of blasphemous texts. These spindly, near faceless creatures in red robes are “The Monks” and they are rather horrifying. Something of a cross between Doctor Who villain The Silence and The Gentlemen from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, their appearance becomes even more terrifying when filtered through Twelve’s partial and stutteringly restored vision. (Thanks to some Time Lord magic.) What do they want? They’re not super clear on that out of the gate.
"River Song: Good is good in the final hour, in the deepest pit, without hope, without witness, without reward. Virtue is only virtue in extremis. This is what he believes. And this is the reason above all, I love him."
Flashbacks and Things We Already Knew
Thanks to a flashback, which apparently occurs “a long time ago”, we learn the identity of the prisoner in the Doctor’s mysterious vault. And it’s exactly who we thought it was, because obviously. Missy is really the only answer that ever made sense. (Though it’s nice that Doctor Who didn’t try to drag the secret out any further.)
Doctor Who generally isn’t big on flashbacks like this. There are moments where glimpses of the past are used for dramatic effect, or brief snippets inserted into a narrative explain some plot twist we missed. This, though, is different. It’s a completely parallel storyline, occurring separate and apart from the “present day” activities in this episode.
The flashbacks are probably the most interesting part of “Extremis,” come to that. They depict Missy’s scheduled execution for unnamed crimes, on a distant, stunning planet. The Doctor is meant to serve as executioner, because someone of the same species must carry the sentence out. But Twelve only pretends to do so, instead swearing an oath to guard Missy for a thousand years. We don’t exactly know when this took place, other than “a long time ago”, so it’s unclear how long the Doctor has been standing watch. Nor is it obvious why these flashbacks are included in this episode, other than probably someone thought it was time to tell the audience the truth about the vault’s inhabitant.
But, whatever the reason, Peter Capaldi and Michelle Gomez continue to have crackling chemistry together. The moments in which Missy begs for her life, when she promises to be good if the Doctor will teach her how, probably represent Gomez’s best work on the show to date. And when compared with her last appearance in “The Magician’s Apprentice”/”The Witch’s Familiar” two-parter, this is certainly a much more vulnerable Missy, who still cracks wise when given the opportunity but clearly desperately wants to live.
Thanks to this look into the past, we also learn how Nardole joined up with the Doctor again. He appears out of nowhere, disguised as a priest and armed with River Song’s diary, to remind Twelve that his “late wife” wouldn’t approve of Missy’s death. (By the way: How does he even have that?) River, as it turns out, sent Nardole after her husband following their time on Darillium, armed with instructions to keep the Doctor in line. (Or really, I’d guess, to keep him company.) Perhaps River did know what was waiting for her in the library, after all.
"Doctor: I’m doing what everybody does when the world is in danger. I’m calling the Doctor."
In the End, We’re All Still A Bit Lost in the Dark
Thanks to some sleuthing by Bill and Nardole — and the discovery of reading aids for the visually impaired by the Doctor — we learn the truth about the Veritas. Specifically, the truth about the world that the Doctor and company are now inhabiting. And that’s that it’s not real. None of it. At all. The horrifying Monks exist, but they’ve built the simulation that everyone is trapped in. Apparently, they’re aliens keen to take over Earth. So they made a practice version, in an effort to suss out how humanity might react. And the Veritas doesn’t drive people mad, so much as clue them into the truth: They’re part of a simulation. The “suicides” aren’t deaths, they’re people realizing they don’t exist, and deleting themselves.
For all that “Extremis” is the first in a three-part story, it feels more like a prequel than part of a trilogy. Where are we, at the end of this episode, versus where we began it? Sure, we now know Missy is inside the vault. But her appearance here existed only in flashbacks, and she remains as trapped as ever. The Doctor regained some use of his sight by stealing power from future regenerations. (Somehow.) Except he didn’t, actually, and is still blind.
This episode is a massive set-up that doesn’t actually say much. The stakes are erased. Nothing in it is real, or matters that much. In the end, we learn that the Monks exist. They are beings of immense power and sophistication. And they want to conquer Earth. What we don’t know is why, or who they are really, or what they can actually do. (Surely they don’t mean to enslave humanity with a secret Vatican textbook archive.) In short, it feels as though this episode contains a lot of flashy talk, but not much actual story.
Thanks to a psychic sunglasses link, the simulated Doctor manages to send a memory message to his real-life self about the Monks and the danger they pose. Twelve warns Bill that something is coming. And he tells Missy through the vault door that he’ll need her help. That’s not a whole lot of payoff for an hour, is all I’m saying.
Next week: It looks like the Monks invade. And maybe this episode will look better in hindsight. once we get more context of the larger story its part of. Here’s hoping.