Another week, another episode of Doctor Who, another review. This week’s episode, Extremis – written by Steven Moffat and directed by Daniel Nettheim -, was the first episode of this season that I was really looking forward to. I mean, I was excited about the other episodes, don’t get me wrong, but I was most excited about this one. Especially after the teaser in this month’s Doctor Who Magazine that revealed that this would be the episode where we discovered what was inside the Vault. I love arc-heavy Doctor Who and I love when the show does different things, especially when it explores religious aspects. I’m always fond of science fiction exploring religion. And the central premise of Extremis was awful religious-sounding: ‘The Veritas. The truth. Truth so true you can’t live with it. Is that looking into hell… or seeing the light?’ Everyone who has ever read the Veritas has been found dead. In a forbidden library at the heart of the Vatican, the pope urges the Doctor to read the ancient text – but can he handle the truth? As always, this review will not be spoiler free, so stop reading now if you haven’t seen the episode! Plus, due to the nature of this episode, this review will also be somewhat of a recap as it’s impossible to talk about this episode without going into the specifics of the plot. So, seriously, don’t read this until you’ve seen the episode.
While the big question of what’s in the vault is probably the thing on everyone’s mind, I’m not gonna talk about that until later on in the review. We’re gonna start with my thoughts on the episode itself. And, goodness gracious, was this one hell of an episode. I’m not quite sure I have words to adequately describe what I just watched. That being said, it was good. Really good. This is possibly one of Steven Moffat’s best scripts in a long time. It does the impressive feat of telling an entire story, having it make sense, and having it also be the setup for two more episodes. And, aside from that, it juggles a lot of different themes and ideas, and somehow makes them all successfully mesh together. On the one hand, there’s the whole “what would you do if you found out that you, your life, and everything you know wasn’t real and was merely part of a simulation” trope that’s been very popular in Sci-Fi since The Matrix; on the other hand, there’s an interesting exploration of the Doctor’s relationship with religion. I mean, the episode includes the Pope, the Vatican, and lots of priests, bishops, and cardinals. How was it not gonna tackle religion? And tackle religion it does, with a surprising amount of grace – no pun intended. How does the episode manage to juggle all of these things and produce a successful, entertaining, surprising hour of television? Let’s find out.
The episode opens with a flashback where the Doctor has been tasked by some unnamed civilization, led by a man named Rafando (Ivanno Jeremiah), to execute Missy (Michelle Gomez), for crimes unmentioned. He’s given the gig because as per their rules, a Time Lord can only be killed by another Time Lord, and as Time Lords are a bit hard to come by still, the Doctor was their resident choice. Additionally, the Time Lord who executes another Time Lord must make an oath to guard that Time Lord’s dead body – which will be placed inside a special kind of vault – for 1,000 years. The two of them share a moment where Missy appears to offer him genuine condolences for the loss of River, and the Doctor hesitates with going through with her execution. After that, we find the Doctor sat in front of the vault, wearing his sonic glasses. The Sonic Glasses receives an email entitled “Extremis”. The Doctor opens it, and we’re launched into the plot of the episode. As the summary says, the Vatican is in possession of an ancient text, called the Veritas – literally, “The Truth” -, that causes whoever reads it to kill themselves, and the Pope wants the Doctor to read it (because Pope Benedict IX – who the Doctor, and the episode, insinuates may have been a woman – recommended him as someone who could be trusted), and, naturally, the Doctor goes along with them to read it, picking up Bill on the way (and interrupting/ruining her date in the process).
On the TARDIS, the Doctor and Cardinal Angelo (Corrado Invernizzi) share a conversation where Angelo offers the Doctor the opportunity to participate in the sacrament of confession (an offer the Doctor was previously given by Pope Benedict IX; he said it would take too much time). Angelo says that the Doctor looks like a man who has a lot of regrets, which leads us into our next flashback. In this flashback, the Doctor is still hesitation over whether or not to execute Missy. A hooded priest arrives to talk with the Doctor. The priest turns out to be Nardole (Matt Lucas). It’s here that Nardole’s backstory and purpose for being in this season are revealed: Nardole was sent by River Song to keep an eye on the Doctor; he gives the Doctor River’s diary and acts as a kind of moral compass for him. Essentially River’s eyes and ears to take care of the Doctor now that she’s dead. Once the flashback ends and the TARDIS lands, Nardole confronts the Doctor about having not told Bill about his blindness – a result from last week’s episode.
They arrive in the Haereticum, a library hidden underneath the Vatican that’s filled with forbidden and heretical texts, and the Doctor and team are led by Cardinal Angelo to the center of the Haereticum where the Veritas is held. On their way, they encounter an odd light emitting from what appears to be a portal inside a wall that shouldn’t have a portal inside it. The Doctor, Bill, and Nardole go off on their own to the cage where the Veritas is being held while Cardinal Angelo stays behind to look at the portal. Shortly thereafter, a hand appears through the portal and pulls Cardinal Angelo inside, marking the last time we see him. As the Doctor, Bill, and Nardole arrive at the cage holding the Veritas, they find a priest – Piero (Francesco Martino) – with a gun waiting for them inside. He apologizes for sending “it”, whatever it is, runs off further into the Haereticum, and shoots himself. They find a translation of the Veritas on a computer the priest left inside the cage, and the Doctor sends Bill and Nardole to investigate the gunshot they heard while he examines the contents of the Veritas.
As Bill and Nardole investigate the now dead Pierro, the Doctor takes out a machine he took from the TARDIS; one designed to temporarily return his eyesight for the price of something from his future. (He mentions it could be anything from all his future regenerations being blind to him having no future regenerations at all). This works, and the Doctor has himself strapped into a chair by who he believes is Cardinal Angelo. As the Doctor’s eyesight returns, he sees that Cardinal Angelo was not the one who restrained him, rather, it was a Monk that looked quite a bit like a mummy. The Monks take the Veritas, as they do not want the Doctor (or anyone) reading it, but unbeknownst to them, a copy is still on the computer, which the Doctor is able to escape with. As he runs from the Monks, his eyesight begins to fail again, leading to one of the tensest action sequences in recent Doctor Who history where it really feels as though the Doctor is in actual danger of not surviving the ordeal.
Meanwhile, Bill and Nardole have investigated Pierro’s body and discovered another portal. They enter the portal and end up on the 3rd floor of the US Pentagon. They quickly retreat back through the portal and end up in a room full of portals. They travel through another one and end up inside CERN, where all the scientists have gathered in the cafeteria. Underneath all the tables are bombs rigged to explode in five minutes. It turns out that the dead priest had emailed the Veritas to CERN, who then read it and decided that killing themselves was the way to go. As Bill and Nardole try to prevent this, Nicholas (Laurent Maurel) – the leader of the CERN scientists – has Bill and Nardole name the first numbers that come to their heads. Each time he has them do this, they both name the same number. Soon the other scientists join in and they’re all naming the same number. Bill and Nardole freak out and return to the room of portals. Here, Nardole begins to figure out what’s going on: the room of portals isn’t really a room of portals; it’s a room of projections. Each “portal” leads to a projection of the world; everyone inside each projection is nothing more than a simulation. Nardole walks outside of the field of projections and disappears into raw data.
Fearfully, Bill runs through another portal and ends up inside the Oval Office. The Doctor is here waiting for her. He explains the situation to her; the Monks have been running simulations on how to take over Earth. The simulations were designed to test the intelligence and skills of the human race so the Monks could figure out the best way to defeat them. It’s here that Pearl Mackie does her best acting so far this season. She refuses to believe what the Doctor is saying – she can’t believe it. What she’s experiencing feels real; how can she be nothing more than a simulation? It’s a really moving scene, one that we all can identify with. For most of us, we all at some point question why we’re here. Due to the popularity of the “life is just a simulation” trope, most of us have thought about the idea that we’re nothing but simulations inside a machine, so it’s easy to identify with Bill’s fear here. A Monk appears and turns Bill into a cloud of raw data. The Doctor confronts the Monks with the knowledge of what their plan is. Like all good Doctor Who monsters, the Monks tell the Doctor that there’s nothing he can do. Then, in the biggest twist of the episode, the Doctor tells them that the Sonic Sunglasses are linked with his brain and have been recording the last few hours of his life – and he emails the footage to himself.
We return to the opening scene: the Doctor sitting in front of the vault, having just received an email entitled “Extremis”. The screen flashes with the words “Recording Ends” and it dawns on us that everything we’ve seen since the beginning of the episode has only been the recording of the simulation. All of it happened, but it didn’t happen at the same time. The Monks were running simulations and are still intending to invade and conquer Earth, but now the Doctor knows of their plan and can do something about it. The Doctor returns his attention to the vault. He begins speaking to the person inside of it: Missy. We flashback, again, to Missy’s execution. The Doctor appears to pull the lever and executes Missy. Only, of course, he didn’t actually execute her. He intends to keep her alive, but locked up inside the Vault, with him fulfilling his oath to guard her body for 1,000 years. The rules were never really clear that he had to be guarding her dead body, after all. So, it turns out that Missy has been inside the Vault the whole time, and the Doctor made an oath to both her and himself to keep watch over her. Question answered, right? Maybe.
The big question now is: is Missy still inside the Vault? With everything we know about Missy and her knack for mischief, and the fact that we know that John Simm is returning this season to portray his incarnation of the Master again, can we really be sure Missy is still inside the Vault? I have a feeling that she’s not in the Vault anymore, that she’s somehow switched places with her earlier incarnation, and now it’s the John Simm incarnation of the Master that’s imprisoned within the Vault. That would give us a pretty easy way to bring his Master into the series – presumably in the finale. So, while it’s been obvious pretty much from the beginning that Missy was gonna be the one in the Vault, there’s still so many different ways Moffat could take the story that the revelation doesn’t really feel like a disappointment. Firstly, it’s very much in character for this incarnation of the Doctor, especially after the way their relationship was depicted in series 9. Capaldi’s Doctor would elect not to kill Missy because he really does view her as his friend. She might be a friend that really enjoys killing people and causing mayhem, but she’s still his friend and he still sees hope inside of her. And that, alone, makes the reveal satisfying. He’s hoping he can rehabilitate her like he was going to do at the end of series 8.
Extremis was a rollercoaster of an episode. Once it started, it didn’t stop. Every so often there were twists and turns and loop-de-loops, and it was a format pushing, entertaining, well-crafted story. While all the acting was, as always, very good – again, especially from Pearl, -, this episode was really Moffat and director Daniel Nettheim’s episode. It gave Moffat a chance to show off his superb writing skills one more time, showing his evolution as a writer. It’s really one of his best-crafted scripts. It’s like he took all of the criticisms he always gets, and actually tried to improve on them. There were lots of twists and turns, but they felt earned. Characters were in character, and things happened to them that were important and drove their urgency forward. From a writing standpoint, it just really worked. He incorporated those seemingly disparate themes of religion and existential questions with care and dignity. He didn’t take any potshots at religion; the Doctor was surprisingly respectful to the Pope. It was nice. And then there was Nettheim’s directing. He’s an expert at crafting a tense mood. He made sure that the visuals kept marching along at the same pace that Moffat’s script marched. His choice of framing, his use of sound, lighting, and visual effects, and his direction with the actors all led to an expertly crafted episode of Doctor Who. He should be proud of his work.
Extremis is easily the best episode of this season thus far. It’s a powerhouse of an episode that explores the Doctor’s relationship to religion, his relationship to his friends, and humanity’s relationship to reality and how they react to their reality being challenged. It tied into the ongoing arc of the series and brilliantly set up the next two episodes of this three-part story.
I give Extremis five out of five wands.
Doctor Who continues next week with The Pyramid at the End of the World premiering at 7:45 pm (BST) on BBC One and 9 pm (EDT) on BBC America.