It has been often said that “the truth shall set you free,” and indeed the question of truths lies at the heart of this week’s episode of Doctor Who. Hidden truth, revealed truth, and plenty of questions remain as the credits rolled Saturday evening. But before we start deconstructing themes, let’s do a small plot recap, shall we? And I must warn you, dear reader, spoilers do abound here below. If you haven’t caught Extremis yet, watch it and then come back!
Oxygen left us with, what this writer would deem, NuWho’s biggest cliffhanger since the War Doctor reveal at the end of The Name of the Doctor. Blinding the practically immortal and indestructible Time Lord is probably one of the single biggest risks the show has taken in either era of Doctor Who. A big enough risk that I wondered if the plot point wouldn’t find resolution early on in Extremis; instead, this story took its predecessor’s cliffhanger and firmly planted it into the episode’s narrative. The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is blind, relying on both Nardole (Matt Lucas) and his Sonic Sunglasses to get by. While standing alone in his lecture hall, the Doctor is visited by an envoy from the Vatican (the Pope himself, played by Joseph Long, in tow) requesting his help in translating a document known as Veritas. The language is ancient and those who have been able to translate it have either killed themselves or vanished after reading its dark truth. The Doctor, Nardole, and the Pope – it occurs to me as I’m writing this that this makes for a good joke setup – interrupt a date with Bill (Pearl Mackie) and a young lady named Penny (Ronke Adekoluejo) by bringing the TARDIS to her bedroom. Penny runs off as soon as she recognises the Pope and his cardinals. Here, Bill joins the adventure but isn’t told that the Doctor is blind. She questions him about the sunglasses, but the inquiry stops there.
The party then moves to the Vatican and the underground secret library where, among other things, the Veritas is kept in a caged room with a seat that has arm restraints. The remaining researcher is in the room and says that he’s emailed the Veritas translation to CERN. He runs off and Bill and Nardole chase after. The Doctor, using a gadget from the TARDIS, is able to temporarily restore his vision while Bill and Nardole discover that the researcher has taken his life. While his vision is still blurry and coming back, the Doctor hears what he assumes is Cardinal Angelo (Corrada Invernizzi) and asks him to help with the restraints. It’s only as the hands get closer that the Doctor’s vision is restored enough to see a brand new Who monster, the impressively-grotesque Monks, surround him in the cage. The Doctor is able to get away with the laptop that contains a translation into a portal.
Meanwhile, Bill and Nardole find a room full of portals to places like the Pentagon and CERN. The scientists at CERN have all read the Veritas and have wired explosives to the tables they sit at and watch a countdown until it explodes. Bill, trying to understand why they would do this, questions the lead CERN scientist. He, in turn, performs a trick asking them all to give a random number when he slaps the table. They all give the same number regardless of how many times they’re asked. It’s a genuinely intriguing idea, especially creepy if you played along to start with and found yourself saying “36”. You probably finished playing that Test of Shadows then, just in case.
Escaping through the portals, Nardole wonders if they’re all part of program like Grand Theft Auto and likens the setup to Star Trek’s HoloDeck. He steps behind the projectors and turns to Matrix green code before disintegrating. Bill follows a trail of blood into another portal and finds the Doctor in the Oval Office. He;s learned what is now plainly obvious: they’re all a computer simulation. The Monks employed multiple systems like this to study and learn how to infiltrate earth. The Monks appear and cause Bill’s code to disintegrate. Before they do the same to the Doctor, he uses the telepathic link in the Sonic Sunglasses to email everything to the real Doctor.
As if this weren’t story enough, interweaved are Arrow-style flashbacks that finally reveal who is in the vault the Doctor has sworn an oath to watch. I think it’s safe to say most of the Whoniverse assumed it was the Master, but the question remained if it was Missy (Michelle Gomez) or John Simm’s Master who was trapped inside. The mystery comes to an end as we learn that Missy has been sentenced to death for a yet-to-be-revealed crime. As they’re joined by Nardole, Missy begs for mercy. The Doctor pulls the lever but then reveals that he has messed with the circuitry and she isn’t dead. He tells them that he only agreed to watch her body, sealed in the vault, for a thousand years, not to execute her.
Truth is the central theme in all of the plot points in this episode:
- A terrible truth hidden in the Vatican that causes people to commit a mortal sin is now revealed. A part of me did worry they might go in a Da Vinci Code-style revelation here. After all, what sort of secret could be held in the capital of Christendom that would lead people to suicide?
- The hidden truth about the Doctor’s sight. Given the relationship between Bill and the Doctor so far this season, this writer is having a hard time understanding why he would keep this from her, even with Nardole’s suggestion. Perhaps a precautionary measure, as Bill does have a tendency to blurt things out or not quite understand the gravitas of a situation. Then again, it would be foolish to think that the Monks are unaware of the Doctor’s current weakness. As this is a trilogy of sorts, I would imagine next week’s instalment might give us more insight.
- The revelation of the Vault. A truth hidden from the viewers since the The Pilot aired has been revealed and now we know Missy is hanging out in that quantum chamber. I’m not entirely shocked by this reveal, but I am perhaps a bit disappointed. At this point, I have little idea how Missy and the Master will factor into the remaining episodes of Series 10. But imagine for a moment, dear reader, if John Simm had been the one stepping out of the door to be executed. I think that moment would have been a more worthy reveal, even if some of the dialogue about being friends might need to be revised.
From a performance standpoint, this is easily Matt Lucas’ best episode of the series, and he is at least given plenty to do. In fact, he works out what’s going on before the Doctor does! Capaldi and Mackie were certainly on their game as well.
Michelle Gomez has always been amazing in the role as Missy and while she didn’t have a lot of screen time this around, she stole the scenes she did have. She easily makes you believe she could be a friend in one second, but also make you worry that she might slit your throat the moment you take your eyes off of her. I hope she has much more to do before her run on Doctor Who comes to an end this season.
Narratively speaking, there is some good and bad here. Some of Capaldi’s lines felt rushed, especially in the cage scene with the Monks. Your opinion of writer, Steven Moffat will certainly influence how you felt about the twist that it’s all a simulation. Honestly, I think the part that I had most issue with is how they used the Doctor as a “cause of death” to scare off the people who wanted to put Missy to death. I appreciate the fact that Doctor Who has an occasional darkness to it, and of course, the Doctor has certainly killed before. But the way the scene plays out isn’t your typical “Doctor’s reputation scares off the alien” scene; it makes it seem like he is a notorious killer. The same tactic was used to scare off the Vashta Nerada in Forest of the Dead, but it was solely his reputation there – not the amount of people he’s killed.
It could be argued that this writer is making too much of the writing here, but the Doctor is supposed to be a hero. Someone who helps people, not murders them. That being said, I enjoyed the structure of bouncing back between present and flashback. I felt like it worked much better here than it ever has in other television programmes. Moffat also delivers some fine comedic writing in the scenes with Bill and her foster mother. And perhaps the thing I loved the most? The episode answered lingering questions in a satisfying way. Often, Moffat’s writing has plot points that are made with little regard to continuity or with less than satisfactory explanations to tie things together. Nardole, for example, now feels like an earned addition to the show. I hope this trend continues as his time with the show is also coming to an end as well.
Overall, this was another great (if not perfect) entry in what has been a fantastic Series 10 thus far. I am excited to see how this trilogy plays out. The Doctor’s blindness has been a welcome narrative and I hope that, regardless of when it’s resolved, it is carried through with a well thought-out resolution.
Now, it is your turn, dear reader! What did you think of Extremis? Did I miss anything? Disagree with the review? Let us know below!