Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Daniel Nettheim
Starring Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie, Matt Lucas, and
First transmitted BBCOne 20th May 2017"In darkness we are revealed."
"In darkness, we are revealed."
I’ve not heard that one before, but it sounds sort of familiar? Ah, Steven. Welcome back. Lovely season of Doctor Who we’re having. Love the new girl. Loving Nardole’s work too. And the Doctor, playing a blinder too. Sorry about the unintentional terrible pun, there. Now, I know time flies when you’re having fun, but is it really that time already? There seem to be some fiendishly clever and complex mysteries unfolding, and some apocalyptic revelations, and that thing with the Vault too, and it’s only episode six. And those monsters too, they’re terrifying. Can we not persuade you to stay on a bit longer, and Peter too? Oh go on, go on.
Joking (and terrible puns) aside, Extremis indeed plays like the set-up of a season finale, all long shadows, high concepts, ominous portent and flashbacks. For his lap of honour, Steven Moffat is at his wrong-footing, twisty best, subverting everything he can lay his hands on. The only unsurprising thing is the revelation of who’s in that vault. The Doctor being summoned by the Pope to solve a mystery involving a sacred text, the White House, the Pentagon, and CERN would normally have the feel of a Bond movie. That it actually turns out to be the exact opposite is just one of the many surprises seeded throughout Extremis’s 48 minutes.
In fact, reading between the lines, it may possibly contain a dark joke about people reading The Da Vinci Code and then committing suicide, but let’s not go too far down that path. We can however be sure that this is the only episode of Doctor Who ever to feature both mass suicides and references to Super Mario.
The leisurely pace that Extremis unfurls at is unusual for Moffat’s Doctor Who. It’s unhurried, but far from sluggish. Rather than ramping up the tension as such, the events of Extremis come out like a slow-motion car crash from the minute the Pope summons the Doctor to read the Veritas, and Director Daniel Nettheim’s use of light, shadows, and focus frame it beautifully. Watch it again, the scenes of the Doctor’s eyesight fading in and out, and his half-glimpses of the Monks before the camera settles on their frankly horrible faces are masterful. The scrolling motion of Nettheim’s shots make a lot more sense the second time round, once you know it’s a simulation.
And what a simulation. Extremis’s heavy video game influence is worn on its sleeve. The wireframe graphics of the Doctor’s sonic shades (which mercifully fulfil a plot function here), the on the nose references to holodecks, VR, and Grand Theft Auto are artfully seeded by Moffat. Even Bill’s fantastically awkward date is framed like a cut-scene from a game. With its cadaverous Monks, shadows, and dark portents, Extremis would be the most nightmarish episode of Doctor Who in a long, long time in its own right - but the revelation that it’s all a game is arguably more horrifying. The genuine terror of Nardole and Bill’s avatars as they become self-aware and disintegrate is chilling. This is Doctor Who vs. Existence. What happens when the people inside the simulation become self aware. For the Veritas isn’t a Truman Show trapdoor to reality. It’s a one-way trip to oblivion. The game of numbers at CERN also chills the blood, as the wine-supping Swiss scientists set up the most civilised mass suicide ever shown in a family TV timeslot. The try-out simulation of invasion set up by the mysterious Monks is due to pay off in presumably quite a big way over the coming weeks. Their exact motivations are unknown thus far, but they’re revolting, dessicated creatures, destined to scare the absolute Veritas out of children everywhere. Why exactly they leave the trapdoor of the Veritas is slightly unclear, but as the avatar-Doctor shows, maybe they’re not as good at computer games as they’re cracked up to be. That’s one suspiciously benevolent Catholic Church they’ve knocked up there.
It’s a diminished Doctor we see in Extremis, still blind after the events of Oxygen, and doing a rubbish job of covering it up, although Bill weirdly doesn’t seem to notice. He’s on the run and the back foot, and the guard is back up. His inability to admit his blindness to Bill is perhaps the old pride rearing its head. His face-off with the Monks, although desperate, is classic Doctor, and Capaldi continues to show us just how much he’ll be missed with another stunning performance. This more fallible, rattled Doctor suddenly feels very old.
In the midst of all this seriousness, there’s still room for warmth and jokes. Bill finding the Pope in her room. Moira’s tacit recognition of Bill’s sexuality, in an awkward, but rather lovely scene, in which both not much and everything is said. Nardole the badass, licensed to kick the Doctor's arse by River. The Doctor’s catty put-down of Harry Potter, and the Moby Dick gag. Perhaps best of all is Missy’s disgruntled retort of "I've just been executed, show a little respect!”
Ah yes, Missy’s in the vault. Absolutely no surprises there, but we do cut back and forth to her ceremonial execution. Whatever Missy’s done, it’s a biggie this time. Brilliantly, Moffat slowly seeds the flashback of Missy’s ceremonial execution by pompous men in capes, but keeps you guessing at exactly what atrocity she’s committed. You know from the start that the Doctor’s not going to agree to execute her, but honour their friendship through becoming her keeper, and Capaldi and Michelle Gomez’s dialogue poignantly signposts this, in one of Gomez’s quietest performances, as Missy actually pleads for her life. As we discover, the Doctor’s been guarding her for a long time. At the end, he’s whispering through the vault door that he’ll need his old frenemy’s help. Something’s coming. And with that, another very good episode of Doctor Who leaves us with a lingering quote.
"Honestly, shut up and get to the whale.” No, not really. I’ll get my coat. "In darkness we are revealed."