Doctor Who: 10-06 “Extremis” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
Last week was, to put it lightly, a bit dramatic. Marauding re-animated corpses on a dilapidated space station under the duress of capitalism, Bill’s first adventure into space was an eventful one. Oh, and The Doctor is now blind, and he’s trying to hide it from her. Ideal time for a breather episode, to take proceedings back down a notch? Oh no. The Vatican has arrived with an urgent message for The Doctor, concerning an ancient text, the Veritas, which has recently been re-translated from a forgotten language, causing all involved to promptly commit suicide upon discovering what its contents entail (“Veritas” literally meaning truth). The problem is, they want The Doctor to read it himself. Which, considering his new impairment, is easier said than done. Breather episode? Nope. Welcome to Extremis, the first of three episodes in what Steven Moffat is naming the “Monk trilogy”.
We kick off with a flashback to a long time ago (with a wonderful voiceover) where The Doctor has been brought to a planet that specialises in executions of all living beings, specifically to carry out the execution of one familiar individual- Missy. We then cut back to the present, where representatives from the Vatican, and the Pope himself, have come to the university personally requesting The Doctor’s help regarding the Veritas. From there, the episode flits back and forth between The Doctor’s modern day Veritas puzzle, and his execution duties (which seem to take place not long after The Husbands of River Song), slowly unveiling the story’s hand as we begin to learn just what horrific truth lies within the Veritas. Yes, if you weren’t already aware, this story is the second of the series written by Steven Moffat himself, and this is trademark Moff at his best.
To say there are many people who are less than a fan of Moffat’s writing sometimes and his quirks that come within would be an understatement, but rest assured, because Extremis is Moffat distilled to the writing that he deals with at his very best- an intelligent, ruthlessly confident and efficient story that deals with mature themes and brings the most out of the actors involved. For those who have been irritated by some of Moffat’s writing turns in the past, I’d be assured in saying that this episode, while still having that classic mystery box styling, is one that has its hand lain out quite clearly by the end, with every detail the audience needs to understand the story within (with the naturally required loose ends leading to next week). There’s nothing here that should irritate or confuse the audience with all the details that still need addressing being meaty discussions intended for us to talk about. The story played out in Extremis– one of religion, faith and y’know, the fact none of it was in fact real and was all a simulated world, is wrapped up by episode end. Confident, layered storytelling that warps from one episode to the next with a swagger is fast coming to define Series 10. Episodes one to three’s decision to focus on character building is gratified as each episode airs. With characters firmly established, these higher stakes, grander stories can be deployed to their highest potential.
As the episode reaches its thrilling climax, it’s truly a magnificent achievement of writing to see it all come together as well as it does. There will be those who feel slightly off-put by Extremis’ gradual, purposeful build, after the breakneck speed of last week, but it’s in the nature of the first of a three-parter to set events in motion. The cuts between the events transpiring on the execution world, and what’s occurring in the modern-day, are done smartly and at a pace that allows the story to unfold naturally. The Vault’s contents are discovered in this episode of course, but it’s dealt with quickly, almost instantly, and allows the rest of the story to flow. This episode is full of “how’s” from how Missy ended up in the vault, to what the nature of the Veritas is, how it is killing people. For myself at least, the way Extremis deals with its story so impeccably, balancing the tightrope of the events in the past with the ambitious, deeply layered story in the present is remarkable. This is a heavy episode thematically- assertions on faith, suicide, all up to the nature of reality itself are within. The suicide isn’t glossed over either- the President lying dead with pills in hand, a group of scientists celebrating as explosives count down- it’s grim stuff to watch at times, making you question just exactly what you yourself would do if a truth as earth-shattering as “you are not real” was revealed. We’ve all seen The Matrix, but this is more than taking a blue or red pill- this is the world in which nothing you do matters and suicide is optioned by everyone who discovers reality.
It’s always fascinating to see The Doctor interact with faiths, the things that people have faith in, and what he himself believes in. Extremis sees The Doctor dealing with faith in a big way, but not faith in a religion, not really- it’s faith in himself. As he discovers the gut-wrenching truth of the simulated world, it’s not with disappointment or anger, it’s with revelation, and soothing confidence. He lets Bill down quietly, addressing the fake nature of the world not with rage but with acceptance. And once he is confronted by a Monk, who explains how utterly pointless he is in this world, a puppet, he realises that the only thing that is important is still being The Doctor, messaging the “real” Doctor a file with the information he needs about their coming invasion. He’s The Doctor, fake or not, and he will always be that. It ties in the flashback scenes talking about virtue under extremis (roll titles) beautifully, and makes the cut back to The Doctor in the real world, with A Good Man? blaring (surely one of the best uses of his theme?) triumphant, setting up next week perfectly.
The performances in Extremis outside of Capaldi are exceptional. Michelle Gomez is back as Missy of course, but it’s a different performance- she’s still snarky, but there’s a depth here in her relationship with The Doctor reminiscent of the Pertwee/Delgado relationship, which has been growing since her first appearance in Series 8. Their existence as friends is a complicated one, and the time the episode spends with Capaldi and Gomez together is gripping. You simply can’t tell if Missy is being earnest or devious yet again. Nardole has fast become a vital part of the cast, balancing the cowardly dog gimmick with a seriously intense confidence. His scenes telling both The Doctor and Bill about, well, kicking arse, are surprising in the best way, and show depth to the Nardole character still to be uncovered. There was never any doubt Matt Lucas could put in a shift like he does here, and it’s so gratifying to see it all begin to play out. Bill isn’t so much side-lined this episode as used more intelligently- she’s the glue in which it all fits together. We’re so used by now to seeing her as the “real” one, from our own world, that to see her horror and disappearance from her subsequent realisation that she is “un-real” is powerful. Her initial appearance, on a date, is arguably one of the funniest scenes of Who- her date Penny is nervous, with Bill trying to calm her down and assure her everything is fine- and then the TARDIS rocks up and The Pope bursts in. It’s the perfect blend of humdrum reality with the brash absurdity that Doctor Who can provide to superb comedic effect- of course The Pope is the one who interrupts Bill’s date.
Extremis during its modern-day section travels from location to location as our heroes uncover the truth, taking in CERN and the Oval Office, and the whole episode has a swashbuckling, adventurous feel to it, despite the pressing questions and mature content at points within. Murray Gold’s score is perhaps at series highlight level, transferring from eerie and mysterious when in the Vatican’s secret library to highly James Bond-esque when the location-hopping occurs. Director Daniel Nettheim helmed last series’ Zygon two-parter, bringing a satisfying boots to the ground feel to his directing that matched the story, and he continues his sterling directorial work here, with the scenes in the Vatican being the highlight. The library he establishes is haunting, with corridors that seem to never end and plenty of darkened space being hallmarks of his work here, driving home the forbidden nature of the Haereticum. With The Doctor being blinded it makes for a challenge for him to show that visually, but he pulls it off superbly, a stand-out sequence seeing The Doctor being pursued by the Monks as his brief re-sighting fails with cuts to the view from his Sonic Sunglasses, unable to place where the Monks are. It’s frantic, and plays perfectly into the unknown nature of the Monks. Their appearances in Extremis are fantastically disturbing, all intimidating movements (both bodily and mouth-wise when speaking) and with cryptic motivation. They could be a truly classic creation by the time the third part of this story rolls around- I hope they fulfil their early promise as monsters. The fact they are centred around belief and faith by the nature of being monks is compelling.
There’s a lot going on in Extremis, and it’s only going to grow. But this is an episode that is nothing if not a gallery of just how fantastic Steven Moffat can be at his best- expertly blending a location (and reality/timeline) hopping episode of mature themes and big story ideas, with a gigantic array of talking points that never feels less than Doctor Who at its’ finest. It’s exquisite storytelling. Bring on next week!