Doctor Who #988: Extremis

"In darkness, we are revealed."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired May 20 2017.

IN THIS ONE... The Vatican needs the Doctor to read a text that drives people to suicide, and the Vault's contents are revealed.

REVIEW: What looks like Doctor Who doing The DaVinci Code is just one of several fake-outs in this Philip K. Dickian episode that almost entirely takes place either in the Doctor's memory, or in a transmission from a "shadow world" or VR simulation run by aliens to see how they might best invade Earth. And while there are clues that what we're seeing of the present day is fake (see Theories), its slight of hand - cutting back and forth between time frames to make us forget an inconsistency, for example - prevents the audience from figuring it out on first viewing. Of course, we've seen the Doctor trapped in a repeating VR, dying every time, only to send himself a message that allows him to beat the odds. That was Heaven Sent. The situation is different, but the result is the same. The Doctor, instead of going mad at the revelation that he is not real, sends his real self a warning. The simulation is too good and the aliens have inadvertently created enough Doctorishness to defeat themselves, essentially. And that's a great idea. The idea that video game characters think they're real and that gamers perpetrate multiple murder on a daily basis makes for a nice speech, but I'm not keen on it. We hardly play simulations on par with the aliens'. Come on now.

Though Bill doesn't have much to do except fall in line behind Nardole, I'm loving Pearl Mackie in this. Her anxiety at the thought that she may not be real is tangible and well played. Love the costume. Love her reaction to the Doctor and the Pope disrupting her date (and that the date is new to same-sex relationships and a little more timid than she is, while of course, Moira is continues to be clueless as to Bill's sexual orientation). Just as Bill is hiding something from her foster mother, the Doctor is hiding his blindness from Bill, and it's Nardole, really coming into his own, who calls the Doctor out on his attitude. Nardole as secret badass who nevertheless squeals like a little girl seeing a mouse, Nardole as the voice of absent River Song... I like this Nardole. He's more than comic relief; he's the voice of truth. He sort of acts as the show's Veritas, and consequently, is the first to realize he isn't real.

In fact, it's the Doctor who, for the longest time, is blind to every situation and plays the clown. In addition to the slight humor of not seeing what's right in front of him and Nardole having to cover for him, he stumbles into Bill's date without noticing (note how the real Doctor kindly SENDS her on that date, in case it is her last). He treats her like someone to be protected, not an action heroine in own right. He puts his future self in danger by "borrowing" eye sight from the future (or is there some crazy psychic stuff going on that explains why the real Doctor's eye sight didn't come back at the end of Oxygen?). But once he's gained some sight, he clues into what's really happening. The literal meets the metaphorical, and at the simulated Doctor's lowest point (where he loses Bill and knows he's not real), his capacity for good is revealed, just as his memories (the other chunk of the episode) foreshadowed. In fact, the two time frames consistently speak to one another. And let's get to that because it's got some big revelations...

We now know who is supposed to be in the Vault - Missy. I say "supposed to be" because there's every chance she's already escaped through some means, which may be how we get the Simm Master (if the Doctor can borrow something of himself from the future, can Time Lords borrow from their past?). Think of Amy coming out of the Pandorica as an example of Moffat keeping similar surprises in his hand. Regardless, we see the Doctor on an Executioners' world, called to execute Missy (and this is another fake-out, because it initially plays like he's the one who will die), and using semantics and then intimidation to simply imprison her for "a thousand years" (has the Vault been guarded for 1000 years already, or are we, like, in the first century of his and Nardole's stewardship?). It's the Doctor being the Doctor and doing good for no reward (indeed, the opposite). The sequence also provides an origin for Nardole's companionship. Post-Darillium, he is sent by River (posthumously, or is her diary returned to her?) to stop the Doctor from doing what he's about to do. Would River really not approve of Missy's execution? She most likely would not approve of the Doctor having that particular death on his conscience - she loves him too much for that. And maybe, just maybe, River does not approve of his NOT executing Missy and forcing himself to stand guard over her body for so long. So while we get some answers, they beg many more questions. The mention of River is this interwoven plot recalls how the Doctor "saved" River in a computer... does that relate to the sim-Doctor's post-script?

THEORIES: So are there in fact clues that we are watching a simulation all along? Yes. First, there's the discontinuity between the Doctor receiving the "Extremis" email and the next present-day scene in the lecture hall, a scene we get into with a glitchy fritz. That, in itself, is enough, but I think Moffat wrote some inconsistencies into the script to make the VR imperfect. In addition to things like Bill going out with Penny and the existence of the Veritas, which did not happen in our world, there's Benedict IX as a female pope. At first glance, this seems like Moffat's usual cheeky approach to history and gender fluidity, and perhaps another thematic hint at a future female Doctor, and this pope's portrait guards the door to a library of heretical texts. Makes sense in context, but not in history (Pope Joan would have been a more accurate choice, for example). Another "mistake" possibly made on purpose is Moira going out with a Howard, when she was back with a Neville last we heard. Could be she's playing the field, of course. While we certainly couldn't infer anything from the American President not looking like the current model, since Who rarely does this with contemporary world leaders, the next episode makes reference to Trump, so his appearance could be another clue. More damning is the TARDIS not translating the Pope's Italian. It calls attention to itself, but while hardly unique as far as flubs go, that at least feels like a clue/imperfection. But then, if this were really the game Moffat was playing, I'd have expected a bit of subtle redressing in Bill's apartment (change the red piece on the counter to blue, or the hen with another animal, for example). We'll likely never know how much of the episode were honest mistakes and scripted ones.

REWATCHABILITY: High - An intricate mind-blower with important implications for the Vault storyline and both the Doctor's and Nardole's characterizations.


Brian said...

"...and it's Nardole, really coming into his own, who calls the Doctor out on his attitude. Nardole as secret badass who nevertheless squeals like a little girl seeing a mouse, Nardole as the voice of absent River Song... I like this Nardole. He's more than comic relief; he's the voice of truth. He sort of acts as the show's Veritas, and consequently, is the first to realize he isn't real."

I like how Nardole is less the modern Comic Relief and more the classical Fool, being the figure allowed to speak ugly truths to the powerful under the facade of purposeful weakness and unseriousness. It's a role that we don't see properly realized often enough, and it's one that harkens back to both much of the literary/theatrical canon AND works well as a juxtaposition here; the Doctor himself, including this Doctor one notes, has often been the Fool in just such a way among both the powerful of the Universe and his more serious companions and associates.

snell said...

"We hardly play simulations on par with the aliens'. Come on now."

I think part of the subtext of the episode is the increasingly popular hypothesis in the scientific community that our entire reality is just a computer simulation. I can't say I buy that theory (or, to be honest, can't fully grok the reasoning/assumptions behind it), but an awful lot of smart people are taking the idea seriously. So it's only natural for Doctor Who to take a run at it.

Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, I've read that Moffat had the Tardis fail to translate the Pope's words because it was funnier that way. There could be a thousand hand-wavey excuses that could account for it in-story, some of which might be clues, others might be because the Doctor's condition was "off".

The thing I didn't pick up on the first time, but it makes things make more sense, is that this isn't the first simulation the aliens have run. Let me put this out there: they start out with one "snapshot" of earth as their base model, they "patch" it sometimes to deal with unpredictable significant events (which is why the BR projectors point to foci of world events), and overall there's a consistency to each iteration but with subtle changes. So it just so happens that on this, the hundredth iteration or whatever, the simulation happened to put the simulated Doctor in contact with the simulated people who knew what was happening, and I assume he used the VR projectors to send a message backwards to the real world Doctor.

Siskoid said...

Well recapped.

As for the translation joke, yes, of course, that's the real world explanation, but I could never let a No-Prize go ;-).

Jeff R. said...

I'm going to log the big theory here: It's the Doctor in the vault, and Capaldi is playing the Master, who is actually good at directed regeneration, fulfilling the promise to turn good.

(The hint was his not knowing how many people he's seen die/killed. This is the man who knew exactly how many children were on Gallifrey.)

And this episode's 'borrowing from the future' is setting up the end of the season, when Missy will do something for to save her friend that will cost all her future regenerations. Because you really can't redeem that character without giving them as permanent a death as the series will allow.

LiamKav said...

Obviously we now know who was in the vault, but on this:

"(The hint was his not knowing how many people he's seen die/killed. This is the man who knew exactly how many children were on Gallifrey.)"

Technically, only the Tenth Doctor remembered how many children had apparently died on Gallifrey. The Eleventh Doctor has either forgotten or was pretending to have forgotten. "The man who regrets and the man who forgets". So it's certainly possible that the 12th Doctor wouldn't have an exact idea of how many people he'd seen die/killed.


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