Monday, 22 May 2017

Well, a lot happened there.

Series 10 so far has felt like a deliberate shift away from the arc-driven, continuity-heavy excesses of previous Steven Moffat series, but Extremis brings us well back into that style, with not only the start of a multi-episode invasion arc but a parallel story involving both Missy and, via Nardole, River Song. We’re back to Moffat’s tendency of coming up with a load of ideas that could individually work for a whole episode and then powering through them in a couple of minutes each, a tendency that has always resulted in episodes which can frustrate as much as they thrill, but have never been boring...

The A-story, if it’s worth applying structural terms to this episode, is that of the Doctor being summoned by the Catholic Church to investigate the Veritas. Here we’re in religious thriller territory – Doctor Who does The Da Vinci Code. If I were being harsh, I’d say that The Da Vinci Code is a good fit for Doctor Who, as like several of Moffat’s lesser episodes, it’s a really dumb story pretending to be a really clever one. If I were being generous, I’d still say that The Da Vinci Code is a good fit for Doctor Who, but because Who is, at its best, really good at mind-bending, high-stakes mystery with a little action. And also because it’s a genre that Who has never done before, which is something of a rarity.

And, you know what? I’m feeling generous. Using this format of an exciting and pacey globe-trotting adventure, Moffat manages to turn complex ideas such as the simulation hypothesis into palatable Saturday night entertainment. The use of both the Vatican and CERN neatly parallels the religious and scientific searches for creation truths, making it seem more hopeless when both sides are defeated by the big twist that reality isn’t, well, real. In fact, I’d have liked to go deeper into this, and to get to know both Cardinal Angelo and the CERN physicists better – outside of the big number-shouting set pieces, they might have had some interesting things to say about the episode’s themes. I'd have also liked an answer as to where the Veritas came from – this world was apparently an exact replica of Earth, but surely the Veritas didn't exist in that 'real' world?

But how could Extremis have spared time for all that? Perhaps by ditching the Missy flashbacks. The constant return to the execution scene feels, to me, a bit too much, and the flippancy of chucking it in alongside everything else that’s going on causes a few niggling problems... 

The executioners are under-explained (and probably will stay that way). The use of the trope where the Doctor asks his enemies to look him up and then they all run off feels like such an awkward bodge to get them out of the way. And bringing in both Missy and the references to River without Bill present goes against the initial mission statement of Series 10, which was to introduce new viewers to the Doctor Who universe alongside Bill.

It's all very jarring and, though your mileage may vary on this, I suspect Extremis would be better off without the flashbacks. On the other hand, I do like that the inhabitant of the vault has been revealed at the series' midpoint. Repeating the same tease for five more episodes would’ve got pretty tedious, and revealing it now should allow for some nice interactions between prisoner and prison guard as the series continues. But perhaps the reveal could have been more efficient – could we not have seen Missy inside the vault as the Doctor talks to her, and saved the backstory for later?

Anyway, as if that weren’t enough, there’s more going on in this episode. Let’s talk about the Doctor’s blindness. I quite liked how this was worked into the story. One other review I read criticised it for being merely used for gags, and sure, those are there (Nardole's “oh look, it’s a mysterious light shining around a corner approximately ten feet away” is particularly funny), but there's more to it than the comedy, as the blindness gives the Doctor extra challenges to overcome – not being able to detect the threats in the library, not being able to read the Veritas (hooray for audio books!). Hopefully as this arc progresses, we’ll see more ways in which the Doctor learns to use his other senses to overcome his new disability.

(And as I’m currently working through The Next Generation, I appreciate Moffat’s shamelessness in acknowledging that the simulations are sort of like the holodeck but hoping no one notices how the Doctor now has LaForge’s visor.)

Even more than last episode, Nardole really comes into his own here, earning his place on the TARDIS as much more than a comedy character – he has his own reasons to be there, has responsibilities to the Doctor, and can even be badass, in his own way. There’s less focus on Bill than any of the previous episodes this series, but hey, she’s had five episodes in the limelight, I’m happy for Nardole to get his chance.

The only real Bill-focused sequence here is her date, and while the Pope’s interruption is a very funny moment, I have to express discomfort at the way her relationship with foster mum Moira is being portrayed. Moira seems entirely defined by a homophobia so strong it reaches the point of delusion, which isn’t the healthiest relationship for Bill, and yet which Moffat has written in entirely for cheap laughs. Come on now. Doctor Who can do better.

And then we have the Monks, the new villains who’ll be terrorising the Earth over the next two weeks. There’s surely more about them to be revealed, but... I’m not convinced yet. Their design is creepy but unoriginal, reminiscent of The Fires of Pompeii’s stone priestess, and they lack any sort of physical threat – when the Doctor’s trying urgently to get away from them, we don’t really know why. Are they going to stroke him with their uncomfortably textured hands? I really want to see someone get into a punch-up with one.

Still, maybe that’ll happen in episodes to come, as Extremis is part one of a loose three-parter. And so given that it is a part one, it’s particularly remarkable just how much it packs in – perhaps more than it needs to. Still, even if this 'Da Vinci Code meets Matrix meets Next Generation meets Coupling meets Doctor Who from a few years ago' rollercoaster never fully explores any one of its many ideas, it’s a hell of a ride, and I’m eager to see what happens when the Monks invade for real.

  1. Oxygen
  2. Thin Ice
  3. Extremis
  4. The Pilot
  5. Knock Knock
  6. Smile


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