BBC One – 7:25pm – Saturday 20th May 2017
Written by: Steven Moffat
Directed by: Daniel Nettheim
WHAT LIES BENEATH
Well I certainly wasn’t expecting that. After setting up what was presumed to be a season-long mystery in “The Pilot” and teasing it in each subsequent episode, we were casually made privy to who was inside the vault the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) has sworn to guard at this innocuous mid-series point. I’m a week late in getting my “Extremis” review posted, but I will still warn those even tardier than I that SPOILERS FOLLOW, so continue at your own risk…
“Life can be a cunning enemy.”
A long time ago, and revealed through flashbacks scattered throughout the present-day narrative, the Doctor is tasked with carrying out the execution of Missy (Michelle Gomez), the female incarnation of the Master who was the lead antagonist throughout series eight. Loath to be the bringer of death (and perhaps hopeful she will change her ways), the Doctor plays hard and fast with the terminology of the executioner’s vow and instead locks her – alive – inside the quantum fold chamber, which he will guard for a thousand years.
I’m not against the return of a popular former foe and one as powerful as Missy makes sense being behind locked doors, but I think I was hoping for a more unexpected and jaw-dropping inhabitant after so long a build-up. I had heard various online speculations that it might be a former incarnation of the Doctor in there, or perhaps Capaldi’s forthcoming replacement, so for it to simply be a recognisable “big bad” feels a little obvious and anticlimactic.
Showrunner and episode scribe Moffat instead saved his tricks for the plot-proper, which combined elements of a theoretical and conspiratorial Dan Brown novel with the concept that powered The Matrix. “Extremis” is the name of a recording a simulated Doctor emailed to his real-world self which reveals an alien race of skeletal Monks are planning to invade Earth by first carrying out a practise run on a “shadow” programme, akin to a video game or Star Trek’s holodeck.
“Truth in the heart of heresy.”
This head-scratching realisation is hit upon after the still-blind Doctor (following the events of “Oxygen”) is invited by the Pope (Joseph Long) and the Holy See to enter the Vatican’s forbidden library of heretical tomes (“Harry Potter!” Bill remarks as they enter the Hogwarts-like multi-levelled construct) and read Veritas, a secret ancient text which has driven all its previous readers to suicide.
But while the Doctor is busy borrowing five minutes of eyesight from his future self in order to forgo the use of his sonic spectacles and read
Angels & Demons the Veritas, Bill (Pearl Mackie) and “secret badass” Nardole (Matt Lucas) wander through a portal which pushes at the very limits of Virtual Reality. Moffat presents and plays with sophisticated sci-fi themes effortlessly, even if the wordy conclusive explanation of this tech-heavy plot does test even the most intellectually-savvy minds, despite throwing in a number of pop culture analogies (“Like Super Mario deleting himself,”).
Intelligent, confident, funny, creepy and challenging, “Extremis” is new Who firing on all cylinders. I do feel that it was perhaps too twisty and clever for its own good (seriously, what child or casual fan would have a chance of keeping up with that reality-questioning concept?), while the vault reveal was perhaps a mite underwhelming, but otherwise this is strong work week-on-week from cast and crew. Bravo.
CR@B’s Claw Score: