There’s a Zen koan that talks about the sound of one hand clapping, but if you listened carefully at the end of Extremis, you could hear the collective thud of a million jaws dropping to the floor.
It’s the Doctor! Only it’s not! It’s Bill! Only she’s a set of pixels! Nothing you’ve seen in the past forty minutes is real! Well, we know it’s not real anyway because it’s a TV programme, but it’s really not real!
Extremis was Doctor Who meets The Tunnel Under The World in the style of The Da Vinci Code. If you don’t understand all of those references it doesn’t matter too much, but you should probably read more. It wasn’t the first time the show had surprised us, and it wouldn’t be the last this series, but perhaps this was the most audacious thing that Moffat had attempted. A blind Doctor discovering the most terrible secret anyone could imagine: he’s part of a computer programme.
Extremis makes my top ten Capaldi episodes, simply because it’s absolutely bonkers from start to finish. But this isn’t all about me: how did the Doctor Who Companion readers react?
I should say at this point that the poll options are mine, drummed up at quarter past one on a Friday afternoon in a cafe in South Oxfordshire. It’s that or I have to actually start talking to people, so I make no apologies. You can see that of the 130-odd people who responded, over 90 thought it was good or very good, with only 8% opting to say they hated it, and only 18% expressing indifference.
Review duties for episode 6 were bequeathed to Nick Kitchen, and he wasted no time in unpacking the episode’s various themes. “A truth hidden from the viewers since the The Pilot aired has been revealed,” he said, “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…imagine for a moment, dear reader, if John Simm had been the one stepping out of the door to be executed.“
Extremis was the first part of a trilogy – a trilogy that perhaps turned out to be less than the sum of its parts, although that’s another argument for another day – and there was a sense of genuine excitement that echoed down, with some trepidation, through the rest of the DWC team. “It has a bit of that ‘not fully baked’ feel,” wrote Joe Siegler, while Tony Jones noted that “It may be unfair to judge Extremis without seeing how the rest of the story pans out”. Nonetheless there was praise for the performances of Mackie and Lucas – “Bill,” wrote Simon Danes, “is right up there with the all time great companions: with Sarah, Donna, Ian and Barbara. (And Adric, of course.)“
It wasn’t all positive, with various people noting some of the narrative shortcomings, or more specifically the roads not taken. “The Doctor is asked to read a book that makes everyone who’s read it kill themselves,” Phil Bates reasoned. “Surely the thrust of the story should be that he still can’t read it, so has to choose whether to ask Bill or Nardole to?“ Certainly the fandom at large were by turns dazed and confused, owing to the firefighting I’ve had to do in the months since that first broadcast. Whether she intended to or not, Katie Gribble seemed to echo their thoughts. “I went into Extremis not knowing a single thing about it,“ she wrote. “In some ways, I wish that I had known something.“
And what about you, dear readers? Well, we asked, and you responded in earnest. “Moff’s Greatest Hits Part 6“, wrote Bar. “Starts with the word Death, and everybody lives. All the suicides were escapes, and the Sims we love are re-presented by the ‘real’ ones at the end. Even Missy wasn’t executed (Who knew?).”
It’s a theme that continued – “Didn’t set the world on fire for me,” said Namnoot, while Daft dismissed it as “Another one of Moffat’s hokum episodes”. Was it Moffat by numbers? Possibly. “Voted Good rather than excellent,” said Planet of the Deaf, “due to the virtual world feeling a bit overfamiliar. Even a couple of Bill’s lines seemed slightly recycled from Clara in Last Christmas.”
Still, some of you loved it, with some of the highest praise coming from Ranger:
“YES!!!!! Now we are cooking with calor gas! That is what new DW is so good at. Absolutely brilliant. Completely loved everything about it, even Nardole, proving Matt Lucas can be more than a stupid voice and inane gibbering. I didn’t clock who wrote that episode, but if it was Moffatt, he’s finally back on form and I can sit back with relief after last week scared me that I was going to hate the rest of this series.”
Wherever the story went next – it’s my personal opinion that from the top, there is nowhere to go but down – this was a Doctor Who story that was at once like no other and like a great many others. It introduced a strange, ostensibly motiveless villain but its biggest achievement, arguably, was the way it toyed with our expectations. That’s something Doctor Who does a lot, perhaps too much, which is what makes it a joy when it works. And hey – they blew up CERN, and against all odds it had nothing to do with the Hadron Collider.
By the way, can we establish something once and for all? The TARDIS didn’t translate the Pope because Steven Moffat thought it would be funny. We can fansplain it all we want and talk about false universes and Babelfish and how, as one Guardian reader paraphrased, the TARDIS is like Alistair Campbell – i.e. it doesn’t do God. But the bottom line is that it doesn’t translate because it suits the script. Sometimes, that’s the only answer you need.