This article contains SPOILERS for Doctor Who S10 E6, “Extremis.” If you do not wish to be spoiled, please make sure you have watched the episode on BBC America first, then come back and lets talk.
For the first five weeks of Doctor Who Series 10, we’ve gotten what a lot of fans and critics have been calling “Meat and Potatoes Doctor Who“: solid storytelling in episodes that don’t really break any mold or bend minds. This is not really what we’ve come to expect from showrunner Steven Moffat, who routinely during his tenure has given us heady, perception-warping adventures in time and space. I figured a return to this was forthcoming, given it’s Moffat’s final year at the helm, and episode six, “Extremis,” gave us the Moffat-y twists we’ve come to expect, in a whole new way.
“Extremis” is the beginning of a loose three-parter featuring the new alien threat called “the Monks,” so they needed to make a good (and properly threatening) first appearance, and we got that, largely. Not necessarily through their look, but what they represent, and what their plan ends up being. It’s also the episode where Moffat gave us the promised revelation as to who or what was in the vault, and while I think we all pretty much called that one a million years ago, the way it was revealed and the backstory behind it–and, indeed, how Nardole came to be the Doctor’s rule-loving sidekick–were interesting in and of themselves.
The Doctor being tasked with executing Missy isn’t the biggest stretch in the universe, nor was her pleading with him not to do it, given their friendship. The phrase “without hope, without witness, without reward” got used a lot in this episode as a poetic way of talking about the absolute truth–the veritas, if you will. In the case of Missy, it means that we’re led to believe she really is sincere when she tearfully says the Doctor is her friend, even if he has to kill her, but in my heart of hearts I feel like she had hope, witness, and the promise of reward. Because it worked–the Doctor didn’t actually kill her and only swore an oath to guard her in the vault for 1,000 years. This kind of thing is Moffat all over…there’s always a big reset button, and a way out of a sticky situation. Still, it does explain the vault thing, so at least we don’t have to keep guessing.
But that’s all the arc stuff; let’s get to the meat of the episode, and by “meat” I mean the “holy crap, the world is totally and utterly a lie” storyline. The Doctor, still blinded from his ordeal in the last episode, has now been tasked by the Vatican to read the forbidden text known as The Veritas, a hard-to-decipher pamphlet that is said to have driven everyone who has read it to suicide. Except, someone has deciphered it and is disseminating across the world, causing everyone from members of the clergy to physicists at CERN to kill themselves, and the Pope would like the Doctor to find out why.
That’s an excellent set-up to a mystery, and one that Moffat has used some version of many times before. The vault itself feels like this kind of plot device, as did the Pandorica, the Impossible Astronaut, the prophecy about Trenzalore…etc. etc. But, unlike all of those, this is a single episode device. It’s a Moffat season-mystery in microcosm. Because “the truth” is much more of a gut-punch than we possibly could have gathered: that the Monks had created the entirety of what we’re seeing (from the opening titles forward, sans the flashbacks to the execution) in a construct used to perfectly simulate the Earth for when (not if, WHEN) they invade.
I loved this idea to bits. First, it gives us the devastation of watching Nardole–and his newly revealed utter badassdom–and Bill get de-constructed into the string of numbers they are, and second it allows the Doctor we’ve been watching–who also isn’t real–the opportunity to still be the hero and give a complete account of what’s happened to the real Doctor in the real world. Sending an email might be a bit of a stretch, but the idea that the Monks were too good when creating the simulation and hence the Doctor is just as Doctory is a brilliant move.
If Moffat can be remembered for doing anything, it’s putting the Doctor in situations where he rises up to become the greatest fictional hero possibly ever. The theme of this episode is “virtue is only virtue in extremis,” but we’ve already known that about the Doctor, and particularly the Twelfth. This is the Doctor who punched a wall for billions of years in an effort to save his friend; I’m pretty sure even if he were a computer program, he’d find a way to win.
“Extremis” also works nicely as a prologue to the real showdown with the Monks, giving us an idea about what the world is up against, without actually telling us any of their plans. The fake Doctor merely sent the real Doctor knowledge that the Monks are coming, but we never actually see in the episode any of the actual plans they’re implementing. Great! Now we won’t be bored when it happens. Bill can go on a real date with Penny (loved those brief scenes) and the story can progress from there.
And next week, we get “The Pyramid at the End of the World,” by Peter Harness and Steven Moffat, which looks to be the kind of present-day, world-in-crisis story that Harness gave us last series with the Zygon two-parter. I’m most intrigued. Let me know if you’re intrigued in the comments below!
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Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor and the resident Whovian for Nerdist. Follow him on Twitter!