Doctor Who S10E06 “Extremis” REVIEW
Essential Plot Points:
- IN FLASHBACK: The Doctor is summoned to a planet that specialises in execution, because Missy due for termination and only a Time Lord and execute another Time Lord.
- The attending Time Lord must then stand guard over the body – which is placed in a special vault – for a thousand years to make sure it doesn’t regenerate (presumably).
- But the Doctor surreptitiously knobbles the execution machinery and Missy lives; he points out his oath only says he must guard the body, not that the body must be dead.
- IN THE PRESENT (a relative concept at best on this show): The Pope and his envoys visit the Doctor at the university.
- The Doctor has new glasses that give him a form of vision, though they’re not big on details – he can only see outlines.
- The Pope is worried about an ancient book called the Veritas – everybody who reads it ends up killing themselves. He asks the Doctor is he’s prepared to read it.
- Picking up Bill along the way – and scaring off her new girlfriend Penny, who’s freaked by seeing the Pope in Bill’s bedroom – they all take a TARDIS ride to the Haereticum, the Vatican’s secret library of blasphemy. This is where the Veritas is stored inside a caged chamber.
- They find a scared-looking priest in the cage, who has emailed a copy of the translated Veritas to CERN. He immediately runs off and shoots himself.
- As the Doctor secretly works on a way to “read” the book even though he’s blind, Bill and Nardole investigate a strange portal that appears in the library.
- Bill and Nardole find themselves in a massive “crossroads” – a chamber with portals to places around the globe, including the Pentagon, CERN and the Whitehouse.
- The Doctor “borrows” some sight from his future self (unsure what the payoff might be for doing so) but before he can read the Veritas, some alien monks appear and try to take it off him.
- The Doctor escapes but his eyesight is already fading.
- Bill and Nardole find that the scientists at CERN are counting down to killing themselves in a mass suicide. When they ask why, the scientists get the pair to say random numbers aloud; Bill and Nardole keep saying the same numbers and eventually all the scientists join in.
- Bill and Nardole scarper before the place blows up.
- Back at the “crossroads”, Nardole works out that they are in virtual world. When he steps behind the projectors creating this world, he disintegrates pixel by pixel.
- A shocked Bill follows a trail a blood through the crossroads from the library portal to another portal that leads to the Oval Office in the White House where…
- …she finds the president, dead (he’s read the Veritas), and the Doctor.
- The Doctor has used a computer app that reads out text aloud to listen to the Veritas.
- It tells the ancient tale of a demon that wanted to conquer the world but to do so it needed to learn about the world first, so it created a “shadow world” to practice conquering “full of shadow people who think they’re real”.
- The Doctor surmises that what they’re inside is the modern equivalent: a computer simulated world created by aliens who want to know their enemy.
- The alien monks arrive and “kill” Bill. The Doctor tells them he knows their plan, and they’re all, “So what are going to do about it, Mr Unreal?”
- Luckily his glasses have been recording everything and somehow he manages to send all the details they’ve gathered about the monks’ plans to the real-world Doctor’s glasses via email (because even a digital Doctor is super-clever and can work out how to hack into the simulations systems to send an email).
- The Doctor phones Bill and tells he she needs to go on a date with Penny immediately, because something big is coming and they’re going to be very busy.
Doctor Who does The Matrix. Sadly, there’s no bullet time but other than that “Extremis” is a hell of an enjoyable ride. Absolutely preposterous, but hey, some of the best Doctor Who is.
To be fair, Doctor Who predated The Matrix by over a decade with the whole “virtual world inside a network” shtick in “The Deadly Assassin” (1976), in which the Doctor entered the Matrix (oh, yes) on Gallifrey to battle the Master. But this is the first time an episode of Who has started (flashback and brief prologue sequence aside) inside the virtual world, like The Matrix, with neither the audience nor the characters understanding the true nature of their reality. It must also rate as the first time the Doctor has spent whole episode of Doctor Who essentially watching an episode of Doctor Who.
And while the “characters discover they’re in a virtual world” scenario is a well-worn trope in sci-fi now, “Extremis” still manages to feel fresh and come up with a few new twists. It’s also the first episode this season that doesn’t feel like it could be from the first season of an all-new show; after five episodes of The Time-Travelling Lecturer with Bill slowly discovering the Doctor’s backstory along with the audience, “Extremis” is Who-lore heavy with references the River Song and Missy reappearing – if you didn’t know Time Lords can regenerate, and that Missy is the Doctor’s arch enemy, that whole “execution” scene would have been mystifying. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just interesting that Moffat has decided that now’s the time to get back to making a show with a 54 year history and not pretending otherwise. It was fun while it lasted.
Plus, we get a bonus Missy appearance, and she’s a lot more subdued than usual. Imminent execution would do that to a person, but it’s actually refreshing to see Michelle Gomez playing her in a slightly less ’60s-Batman-villain vein. So now we know whose in the vault, but it’s still a little unclear why the Doctor felt honour bound to hold to that part of the oath. Sure, he used semantic trickery to get out of killing her, but the executioners didn’t look like they had any particular leverage over the Doctor, so is he simply keeping an eye on Missy for his own reasons? Previous episodes – with Nardole reminding the Doctor about “his oath” – would seem to contradict that. So is there something more going on are we supposed to simply regard the Doctor as a Time Lord of his word?
The whole Vatican angle is cheeky fun, and it’s amusing to see the Pope making house calls. The Doctor’s blindness is integrated well as a plot point, though some of the comedy ways the Doctor and Nardole are trying to hide it are a little broad (you have to accept that the normally super-sharp Bill has suddenly gone super-thick). It’s pacy, and scary, and funny, and the ending – with the Doctor emailing himself a “save the world” message – is a great punch the air moment.
The central conceit is so deliciously audacious it just about gets away with the fact that it is also absolute bobbins. This is the single most over-elaborate invasion plan ever; not to mention that if characters inside this virtual world are regularly working out there’s something wrong with their reality, then there’s a serious flaw with using any of the data collected. How are the Monks getting all their data to create the place? What would have happened if the Doctor had tried to pilot the TARDIS to Skaro? Would that have been digitised too?
On a more prosaic level, the wonderful atmosphere built up in the rest of the episode is oddly lacking in the CERN sequences which look suspiciously like they’ve been filmed in a BBC staff canteen. The sequence where all the scientists chant the same “random” numbers is effective but the remainder of these scenes are very flat. The CERN bunch feel like they’ve wandered in from a forgotten Jon Pertwee-era story.
Despite these quibbles, “Extremis” continues the momentum from “Oxygen” which is taking series 10 from a series of solid but apparently unconnected stories and transformed it into something that feels like it’s building towards something very significant.
- The opening shots of the Doctor approaching the execution site by boat have a very striking Game Of Thrones feel.
- Okay, we’ll admit it – we were fooled. Initially we thought the Doctor was being executed (but if we’d seen the trailers we’d probably have guessed the truth which would have been a shame).
- The Haereticum looks great, and we love the fact Bill thinks it looks like Hogwarts ’cos… well… it does.
- The look on the head executioner’s face as his wrist computer goes into meltdown chronicling the Doctor’s fatality record is a picture.
- Cheeky Moffat, suggesting a pope may have been – gasp – a woman. EXCOMMUNICATE! EXCOMMUNICATE!
- The Doctor’s phone call to Bill at the end is a lovely moment.
- “That’s the word amongst the Daleks.” We love the idea of the Daleks as gossipmongers. Maybe they have their own version of Heat magazine?
- “What happened? Oh, my condolences.” Missy seems genuinely concerned to hear of River’s death.
- “She wove a spell with her castanets.”
- “You’d be great at writing Christmas crackers you two.”
- “Harry Potter”
- “Hey, there’s wifi down here.”
“Of course there’s wifi. It’s a library.”
- “Nardole, are you secretly a badass.”
“Nothing secret about it, baby doll.”
- “Moby Dick. Honestly, shut up and get to the whale.” Anyone who’s ever read Moby Dick will empathise with this one!
- Missy’s “death” is a bit overly-theatrical – it’s a real “stage” fall.
- The Doctor strapping himself into the chair feels a little contrived, and the approach of the monks as he does so seems to take forever.
- The CERN scenes all fall a little flat – they don’t feel like they’re from the same episode.
- Let’s face it – the central concept is bobbins. Any alien race with the skills to create such a realistic world populated by free-thinking individual are practically gods. But it’s still an amusing conceit.
- Plus, if they’d created a whole virtual world, why were there so few portals?
And The Random:
- This is the first time we’ve learnt that Time Lords have three brain stems as well as two hearts.
- Nardole mentions he’s come from Darillium, which is where there ending of “The Husbands Of River Song” took place – the Doctor’s “last night” with his missus.
- The vault is actually a Quantum Fold Chamber.
- The Doctor mentions that he’s part of the Prydonian Chapter on Gallifrey – we first learnt this in the Tom Baker story “The Deadly Assassin” (1976).
- “The thing about the universe is, whatever you need you can always borrow. You’ve just got to pay it back. I just borrowed from my future. I get a few minutes of proper eyesight, but I lose something. Maybe all my future regenerations will be blind. Maybe I won’t regenerate ever again. Maybe I’ll drop dead in 20 minutes but I will be able to read this.” You can’t help wondering how this is going to impact the regeneration in the Christmas special this year.
Review by Dave Golder