“Virtue is only virtue in extremis.” Steven Moffat is back on Doctor Who scripting duties with an adventure that spans from the Vatican to CERN, and from Washington DC to a far-off planet in the past. There’s no understating its reach, but Episode 6, Extremis, is disappointingly let down by its grasp.
In a remarkably accessible 10th season, it’s the first episode to require a “Previously…” recap at the top, reminding us that after an accident in the last episode, the Doctor is blind. Much to the chagrin of his valet and now seeing-eye, Nardole, he tries his best to keep his blindness secret from his companion, Bill, but becomes vulnerable, when pitted against a threat that must be read. Or rather, one that must never be read.
For when the Vatican comes calling, it’s because a forbidden text from their library of heretical literature has been newly translated and published online. Nobody who reads the text has lived long to tell the tale and it seems that shadowy forces are moving to spread the bad word. Even the Doctor might have trouble with the titular truth contained in the Veritas, especially as he agonises over both his newly vulnerable condition and his memories of a deal that took place “a long time ago”.
There are a lot of fine, thought-provoking ideas in this paranoid conspiracy story, but there’s something a little off in their execution. The genesis of these ideas is solidly creepy, but they’re laboriously meted out across the 45 minute running time, in an episode that feels shockingly ordinary, after such a strong variety of stories this season. The tone is darker and more serious, more in keeping with Season 9 than anything else, but somehow, this feels more disjointed.
The staggered structure, bouncing between the present crisis and the Doctor’s flashback, doesn’t help it one bit. It often feels like Dan Brown guest-wrote an episode of Sherlock, with all of the author’s overly descriptive fodder and none of the breakneck pacing or intelligence of Moffat’s other big show. It’s scattershot and disorienting, in a bad way, as opposed to the masterful way in which Peter Capaldi plays the Doctor’s disability, with lashings of dramatic irony.
That said, there are definite highlights that counter the otherwise sluggish tone, the best of which involves random numbers. It’s a creepy scene of the kind we’ve seen in Moffat’s episodes before, but it shows us what’s going on and makes your spine tingle while doing it, but for too much of the rest of the episode, we’re only being told the same.
Elsewhere, there’s a creepy new adversary and Matt Lucas finds a whole new dimension to his performance as Nardole, although that might be at the expense of Pearl Mackie’s Bill. Ivanno Jeremiah (best known as Max in Channel 4’s Humans) is brilliantly pompous in a guest role too, expertly punctured by Capaldi’s Doctor and another cast member.
Somehow, it doesn’t quite come together until its final 10 minutes. There are monumental revelations about both this plot and the overarching story of the season on the cards (a lot sooner than you think in one case), and it’s just unfortunate that it takes until the very end of the episode for the scope of its ideas to be felt, rather than merely explained.
Extremis is an insidious and imaginative globetrotter of an episode that unfortunately lacks the pep and pace that we’ve enjoyed from Season 10 so far. For all of its scope, it still looks as if it might be the cheap episode of the season, taking place in conference halls and corridors and standing sets from previous episodes; for all its creativity, there’s an internal obscurity that holds back too much for too long. In the end, the truth sets it free – you’ll be clamouring for the next episode, even if you won’t be too keen on revisiting this one.
Additional notes (contains spoilers)
– Extremis is the first of a three-part story and as Part Ones go, it’s uniquely heavy on setup. For the first time since 1970’s Third Doctor serial Inferno, the cliffhanger is the utter defeat of the Doctor and his friends in a parallel universe. In this case, the fake Doctor leaves the prime timeline Doctor with a warning via the sonic sunglasses, here used as both a shield for his blindness from Bill and a psychic interface with the world he can no longer see.
– The powerful new enemies introduced here are mysterious robed figures who have undertaken countless social experiments in conquering Earth, using sophisticated simulations. I’m not sure if the Veritas is meant to be one weapon they’re testing against the human psyche, given how anyone who reads the “test of shadows” finds out they’re not real and commits suicide to opt out of the simulation, “like Super Mario” getting “tired of dying.” By its nature, it wouldn’t be as effective under uncontrolled circumstances, but I guess they learn something. Even if it makes the episode feel more like a prologue than a story, it’s an interesting introduction.
– The appearance of the Pope (Joseph Long) is very much cut from the same carnivalesque appearances of Robin Hood and Santa Claus in the Capaldi era, speaking entirely in generic Italian outbursts (apparently, the TARDIS translation circuits stopped working there), before exiting gracefully early on. It was worth it for that hilariously interrupted date for poor Bill and Penny, though, and there’s a fun nod to the “Pope Joan” theory regarding Benedict IX.
– The confirmation that Missy (Michelle Gomez) is inside the vault is almost thrown away like it’s nothing in the pre-title sequence, which leaves me wondering if there’s a bigger surprise coming. We know why the Doctor believes Missy is in there, but she’s slippery at the best of times and he has been neglecting his duties after all. Incidentally, Gomez is one of the other things that feels off about this outing – she’s more subdued than usual and with so little screen time, I was waiting for a volte that never came, unless you count her cheekily sleeping off her execution.
– The flashbacks really don’t leave any callbacks unused either. Missy appears to be undergoing the same execution process that her previous incarnation did in the 1996 TV movie, when the Doctor was also called to witness the Master’s sentence being carried out and retrieved his remains. The Daleks and the Prydonian chapter of the Time Lords are also mentioned, and then there’s Darillium, the resting place from which the Doctor’s late wife River Song sent Nardole to kick his arse. We’re going to need a bigger “Previously…” bit.