After playing a blinder last week, what did “Doctor Who” have in store for us this time? Well, after the refreshingly straightforward run of episodes, it opened a can of vintage convoluted timey-wimey whoop-ass which has become the trademark of Moffat’s triumphs/ hallmark of his follies (delete as applicable).
Opening with a flashback of The Doctor visiting what appears to be the ‘Hogwarts of Death’, we learn that Missy is due to be executed for her [unspecified] crimes. Given the Master was executed by the Daleks on Skaro for the same thing some aeons back, either these are fresh charges or there’s no such thing as double jeopardy in trans-temporal intergalactic jurisprudence. Meanwhile, the Doctor – still paying the price for his lack of vision – receives a very unexpected visitor: the Pope. There is a forbidden book, sealed away deep in the Vatican library; a book which compels anyone who reads it to commit suicide. The Pope has one request: will the Doctor read the book and solve the mystery of the Veritas?
“Extremis” brings us the most ambitious and most complex “Doctor Who” arc since the whole of Season Six’s “Impossible Astronaut” saga and, as is often the case with Moffat writing in his pomp, there are so many ideas jostling for position here, it could come across as a bit of a muddle. Often one for riffing on other genre fare, we’re treated to a very Dan Brown-esque first half hour before veering unexpectedly deep into Wachowski territory. With Capaldi’s era being notable for call-backs to the past, the recipe this week is: two parts “The Da Vinci Code”, one part “The Matrix” and garnish with 1975’s “The Android Invasion”.
The villains of the piece once revealed are a group of creepily decaying, slapdash but committed Mumm-Ra The Ever-Living cosplayers who don’t – as yet – have a name and are simply referred to as monks. The way they talk, by simply opening their mouths while the words are articulated, lend them a chillingly eldritch, almost Lovecraftian air. The Doctor doesn’t seem to recognise them, although they could easily be a[nother] splinter group of The Silence, but he quickly wises up to their scheme and finds a typically Doctor-y way to, well, not to win per se, but to kick the can down the road a bit and maybe pull a victory from the jaws of defeat by delegating the task to the one person he trusts above all: himself. In what may be the most divisive part of a complex and wildly inventive episode, it transpires that as well as a flashback, the episode was also ‘only a dream’. The first of an apparent three-parter (six-parter in old money), it feels much more like a deliciously rich prequel to an epic story yet to come. This is a definite change from the old “Doctor Who” six-parters which used to often jam a barely connected two-parter on to the end of a conventional four-part story; this time, the two-parter comes first.
The use of the Catholic church and the Pope himself is a fun nod but doesn’t necessarily bear too close scrutiny. The Cardinal’s unsubtle entreaty for the Doctor’s confession brings the episode skirting perilously close to considering the uneasy question of how much credence the Doctor would lend to Earth religions given he could easily validate/ debunk any of their many tenets and how well-disposed the Doctor would be to the Catholic church itself given its ancient and modern history is a topic for another day. Luckily, the episode sticks to a fluffier, more comedic take on the Church by having the Pope interrupt Bill’s date with a rapidly delivered admonishment in Italian – although given the Pope had by this point travelled in the TARDIS, shouldn’t he have been able to ‘speak’ English and shouldn’t Bill have understood him anyway courtesy of the TARDIS? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
Aside from the playful Papal bull, while the episode underuses Missy (Michelle Gomez), Nardole (Matt Lucas) is in self-declared ass-kicking mode and it’s glorious. There’s just something about Matt Lucas’ performance in this episode that absolutely nails the cuddly, mundanity of Nardole while still imbuing him with a credible hint of a dark side.
Doctor Who has always tried to give us – even in the darkest of stories – some hope and so it is when Bill finds herself in the Oval Office where a decidedly non-orange President (there are limits to the evil which can be shown in a family show) has taken his own life after reading the Veritas. Bill’s suspicions are confirmed as it’s revealed that the whole world is a simulation but as the Monks close in, the simulated Doctor reveals he’s figured out a way to contact his real-world self.
If you hadn’t already guessed, I loved this episode and can’t wait to see how it plays out. I did wonder – à la “The Rebel Flesh”/ “The Almost People” – how long we’ve been watching the ersatz Doctor, Bill and Nardole. Could the blindness be handwaved away by having happened to the simulant and not the real Doctor, but the Doctor’s line about being in the dark at the end makes that thankfully unlikely. At least the sonic sunglasses are far less objectionable and inexplicable this time out but I’m intrigued to see how it will be before the Doctor regains his sight (and super intrigued to find out if the Doctor’s ‘borrowing’ from his own future for temporary sight restoration will pay off in this season’s coming ‘totally different’ regeneration). In any event, I’d like some explanation of why The Doctor is apparently a better pilot of the TARDIS blind than any of his sighted incarnations have been.
“Extremis” is top-drawer stuff and marks the high point – but hopefully not the peak – of the season so far.