Some people believe we’re all living in The Matrix, and Steven Moffat just delivered a wonderfully clever and so very Doctor Who spin on that modern paranoia in “Extremis,” the first installment in a promised trilogy dealing with the attempted invasion of Earth by an as-yet-unnamed new alien race. Plus, rather than belabor the point a little longer Moffat saw fit to end the vault mystery and confirm one of the more obvious fan theories about who exactly is behind that damn door. The episode as a whole could be criticized for deus ex machina-related reasons, and for some, it might seem like yet another example of Moffat putting cleverness ahead of emotion. Those people would, of course, be wrong. “Extremis” is Moffat-era Doctor Who at its best.
Here’s what I liked and didn’t like about the episode, although, frankly, there wasn’t much I didn’t like:
What I Liked
–How different it felt. Doctor Who has felt different this entire season, partially owing to the very un-Clara-like energies brought by Bill and Nardole, partially due to the more budget-conscious stories prioritizing more Earth-bound adventures. Heck, we’ve already adjusted to it by now but it’s an entirely different look for The Doctor to have an actual job and not just one he abandons after a single “undercover” episode. That means this season has recurring, Doctor-specific sets (i.e., his classroom and office) other than the TARDIS, which might be the first time that’s happened since Pertwee was stuck on Earth working for UNIT.
However, even by season 10 standards “Extremis” felt especially different. In fact, it felt more like an episode of Sherlock, with someone contacting The Doctor at his known residence, expo-dumping the details of the mystery (a new translation of an ancient text is causing all those who read it to commit suicide) to be solved whilst quick-cutting visuals supported their case and then promptly going away to allow our alien Sherlock to solve the puzzle with the begrudging assistance of those closest to him. Even the music sprinkled in the background of The Doctor’s meeting with the Pope felt lifted straight form Sherlock.
This would hardly be the first time Moffat has taken full advantage of his simultaneous stewardship over both Doctor Who and Sherlock, lest we forget Matt Smith’s hilariously failed impression of Sherlock in “The Snowman.” However, there the imitation was brief and played for knowing humor whereas here it was more prolonged and far less overt, a case of one show aping the structure of another show without directly commenting on it.
But then things turned so deliciously Doctor Who with scary monsters, a strange white room capable of transporting people to notable locales around Earth and a series of flashbacks revealing the Doctor’s inevitable deceit of Missy’s judge and jury who foolishly nominated him to be her executioner.
–The twist. “Extremis,” in some ways, recalls South Park’s “Woodland Critter Christmas” not just in the “none of this actually happened” twist but in the way you gradually go along with the increasing craziness of the plot because it doesn’t actually seem that out of character for the show you’re watching. The cute woodland critters Stan discovered are actually blood-orgy-loving Satan worshippers who tricked him into helping them bring about the Anti-Christ? WTF? Actually, on second thought, that does sound like something South Park would do. Similarly, the Doctor is visited by a comic relief Pope, crashes Bill’s date, wanders through a labyrinthian Vatican library where he encounters monk-like monsters before somehow escaping to the Oval Office? Eh, I guess this is just going to be one of those especially strange Doctor Who episodes.
Of course, “Woodland” turned out to be a devilish short story written by Cartman, and “Extremis” is actually a Matrix-like simulation being run by aliens as a test case for their planned invasion. That rug being pulled out from under us should seem annoying, yet I found it fascinating to glimpse how an artificial Doctor would still fundamentally behave like The Doctor, not dissimilar to when Matt Smith had his own clone in “The Almost People.” Plus, given the amount of surprisingly serious (i.e., academic) thought being given to the “are we somehow living in a virtual reality?’ theory it was almost Doctor Who’s sci-fi duty to offer its own interpretation.
–The jokes. Moffat episodes usually have more witty asides and one-liners than you can count, and “Extremis” was no exception, from pretty much every single sexual innuendo-draped line during Bill’s awkward, Pope-blocked date (particularly loved Bill’s “Probably not as strict as mine” in response to her foster mother saying “I have very strict rules about men”) to Nardole’s prolonged explanation to Bill about who the Pope is to the Doctor’s not-wrong assessment of Moby Dick: “Honestly, shut up and get to the whale.”
-The Monsters. Suitably scary-looking.
–Nardole’s tougher side. Well, it’s hard to call it “a tougher side” when “Extremis” saw fit to undercut Nardole’s self-confident boasts about his badassery by immediately having him recoil in fear at the sight of a dead body. However, “Extremis” still gave us our best understanding of Nardole’s role in all of this, revealing he’s not so much acting on The Doctor’s orders as he is River Song’s, and though he might appear to be the bumbling comic relief his need to follow his orders can easily bring about braveness as well as a surprising cleverness. He, after all, is the only one in the episode who figures out the basic mystery without the benefit of either reading the Veritas text or having it explained to them.
–Nardole enabling The Doctor’s charade about not being blind. If the real Nardole covers for the real Doctor like the artificial one does in “Extremis” then eventually someone’s going to catch on how often Nardole seems to be offering unsolicited narration. Until that moment comes, though, it’s an awful lot of fun watching the various little ways Nardole tries to subtly enable the Doctor’s charade.
–Missy. We are likely guilty of overthinking the vault mystery. It’s not River nor is it some future or past version of The Doctor. It’s Missy, and she was always the most obvious candidate. Now we have the full details (she did something bad, warranted a significant punishment, the Doctor intervened), and while it’s doubtful that many believed for one second The Doctor would truly execute Missy it was still a nice excuse for us to see Michelle Gomez deliver a “as long as I’m going to die I might as well be honest with you” speech. Bonus points for how quickly she stopped pretending to be dead.
What I Didn’t Like…Yet Also Kind of Admired
–The “these people didn’t exist?” problem. It seems appropriate that “Extremis” would reference Star Trek (Doctor Who’s second Trek reference in as many weeks, btw) because the episode shares a lot in common with various Trek holodeck, time travel, or alternate dimension episodes where it turns out in the end we were watching characters who didn’t actually exist or were not actually the real versions of the Enterprise/DS9/Voyager crew members. Voyager, in particularly, resorted to this sci-fi trick with alarming frequency.
So, there is the inevitable let-down that the majority of “Extremis” featured artificial versions of the show’s main characters, like we just dropped in for an episode of Grand Theft Auto: Doctor Who (as the Doctor put it) on the outer-space equivalent of YouTube. However, Moffat found a way to do this without it seeming like a completely cheap trick since the artificial Doctor successfully warned the real Doctor of what’s to come, meaning the artificial world directly informed what we’ll see play out over the next two episodes. Plus, there is certainly a boldness to a twist where even The Doctor turns out to be a victim of or pawn in the big bad’s evil scheme. Bill and Nardole? Sure. But The Doctor too? Wow. It allowed the show an opportunity to actually let The Doctor lose the fight while at least making a Hail Mary pass to ensure someone else might win the battle.
What We Learned About the Vault Mystery This Week: Everything. No need to keep track of this anymore.
What about you? What did you think of “Extremis”? Let me know in the comments.