This week’s Doctor Who, entitled “Extremis”, was a confusing, heady episode that stole heavily from at least one modern classic of science fiction. Starting off with the most overused trope in all of television, the flashback, we start a “Long Time Ago” with The Doctor talking to a race or culture of some sort that is comprised of executioners. Executioners that pride themselves on being able to kill any being and hire themselves out to do so. Here they explain that a member of the doomed’s race must be present and actually throw the switch. Here is where we got confirmation of what just about the whole bloody internet had guessed, that Missy is indeed in the vault we’ve been seeing this season.
Designed as a fail safe to confirm she stays dead, the vault is meant to house her corpse for a thousand years following the execution. This certainly brings up a number of questions about how they tracked the Doctor down, how Missy escaped the Daleks last time we saw her, and how they managed to capture her. Something The Doctor has yet to be capable of.
A lot of that information got doled out in little tidbits, as we keep hopping from this to the present, or what we think the present is. Clever or just coincidence, the Sonic Shades from last season became very important with The Doctor still blinded from last week. Now psychically linked, they provide him with a sort of crude sonar and tracker so he can tell where people are and their general gender, species etc. This gave the show ample opportunities to have some fun while not turning the whole episode into an offensive Mr. Magoo cartoon. Basically starting the episode is him using the shades to receive an email: Extremis. This will come around later.
The Doctor is visited by the Vatican and the Pope himself, though not specifically called by Francis or even made to look like him, it appears the show only has so much room for sacrilege. Though they do take an old papal legend about a female pope and mash it up with Pope Benedict of the year 1032, saying that Benedict vouched for the Doctor and heavily implies that she was romantically entangled with him. My initial thought was that this was going to become their “Da Vinci Code” with secret Vatican documents and trips to secret libraries under The Vatican. I also really liked the exchange between the Cardinal and The Doctor when he offers confession even though The Doctor has said his confessions would take too long. It’s the first of two moments that remind us of the blood on his hands.
The second of those moments happens back in the past with Missy. Which for the sake of being slightly less confusing than the episode itself, let’s dive back to that plot thread. So as The Doctor is about to execute Missy, a hooded religious figure arrives to give The Doctor counsel. As he speaks his words there begin to be a ring of familiarity until we see he is reading not from a Bible but something much more important to The Doctor, River’s diary. In a fantastic moment, Nardole has come to keep The Doctor honest and kick his butt if he disappoints his dear departed River. This shows why The Doctor trusts Nardole so much and how they’ve become such close companions, if not a catty pair.
In typical Who fashion, The Doctor messes with the special Timelord killing machine so Missy survives, if not a bit crispier than before. He then states that he will keep his promise and guard her body in the vault, and alive, for the thousand years he promised. That’s where the second moment comes to remind us how scary he is to the universe. When the executioner threatens his life, The Doctor cooly asks him to bring up his records on how many he has killed. As we listen to the tally go on and on and on we remember this isn’t just a silly man with a blue box. He is a man who makes huge decisions exterminating whole civilizations at times even while saving countless others. He is a scary enemy and the executioners flee both for comical effect and as a reminder you don’t threaten the Doctor.
So getting back to our main story, the gist was that a book called Veritas is being read and everyone who reads it kills themselves. So of course The Doctor wants to read it too! In a very funny scene, we first see Bill bring home a date and we see that she is still in the closet with her roomie as they have a funny back and forth about her not bringing any guys home. This very much surprised me. Bill has seemed like the “I don’t give a damn what you think” type to me. Her hiding her sexuality just doesn’t fit her character.
It’s a shame they’ve established her as a present day character as it would have been a great surprise to dole out these types of pieces of info just to find the season has taken place in the eighties or a similar recent period that was not as forward thinking as today. What worked better was when the already nervous date hears the Tardis arrive and goes to Bill’s bedroom to find the Pope and Vatican officials milling about, which sends her running from the flat. My only guess is she thinks it was a trap and Bill means to convert her. Very silly but also very funny.
So basically Bill and Nardole split off at the Vatican and find a series of portals being used by what I can only call religiously robed zombie vampire looking aliens. A very cool practical makeup design I must say. It’s in these portal rooms that we begin to get the biggest revelation of the episode. After confronting suicidal scientists, they are challenged to say a random number after a rap on the table. They begin to do so and say the same number, and again, and again, then the rest of the scientists joining in. A very creepy scene that is entirely confusing until we get the big secret.
Nardole walks past one of the projectors for what we learn is basically a holodeck and he digitizes and becomes nothing. In a move even bigger than The Matrix, the bulk of this episode has occurred in a simulation, but not one where our heroes are plugged in, no they too are fake, all simulated versions of the real people. All for this alien species to plan their domination of earth. Those that find the truth kill themselves because it will disrupt the simulation and even these virtual people feel so real they want to save humanity.
This leads to the biggest damn twist as we find that The Doctor is also just a virtual version of the real thing, but too well simulated. He uses his Sonic Shades to record his memories of what has happened in the virtual world and emails it to his real world self, warning him about the impending invasion. An email called Extremis, the very one the episode started with. In other words, the whole episode has been The Doctor reviewing the memories in the email he was sent.
In what could have been a hacky and angering turn of events, here was masterfully executed. All the clues and pieces are there and on a second viewing will make perfect sense but laid out in a way that the first time through you would have no clue whatsoever. Also ending with The Doctor imploring Missy for help in the vault is a pretty big clue of where things are heading. After last week’s dreadful episode, “Extremis” was a fantastic story that blended multiple elements of sci-fi and horror for one of my absolute favorites of Capaldi’s era.