“Those people you shoot at in computer games? Now you know. They think they’re real. They feel it.”
Between a secret Vatican library and CERN, that was a lot like Doctor Who meets Angels and Demons. Moffat hasn’t got a lot of time left with the show so he’s doing the craziest things he can think of before they take his (metaphorical) badge and gun and throw him off the BBC lot. This time he sort of goes down the whole “it was a dream all along” route, and I am surprised to say he not only pulled it off, he did with really well and with style.
The series so far has been less serialised than usual. All of the episodes have had self-contained stories and it’s worked really well. This week is the first of a three part story, and when was the last time we got one of those? It’s the show’s chance to prove it can do both. And ‘Extremis’ is Moffat’s annual experimental episode (we had the awesome ‘Heaven Sent’ last series).
So after last week’s cliffhanger, The Doctor is still blind. But he has his handy shades to help. These let him get a basic understanding of who he’s looking at, age, gender, etc. He also gets email! We see him open an email from himself right before the opening titles. There’s a cool clue here, when the titles end the show fizzles back in through static. A hint that what we’re about to see isn’t real, it’s like we’re watching it on a screen. But it’s subtle enough that you don’t really think anything of it.
Soon the Pope shows up to speak to The Doctor. “That’s a bit ridiculous!” I can hear you saying. Well it doesn’t matter because it’s not real! The Pope was really distracting for me because I could really tell it was the same actor who played the character who got carted off to the death camp in ‘Turn Left’. It all felt very Dan Brown, but in a good way and not in an Inferno way. I especially liked the references to The Doctor’s history with the church and a sexy female Pope (there are urban legends about female Pontiff’s so I’ll allow it this time Moffat). The Cardinal putting his hand on The Doctor’s shoulder asking him to confess gave me chills. The Doctor seems weak at a lot of points in this episode and it’s unsettling seeing him this way.
Pope Benedict said that you were more in need of confession than any man breathing. But when the offer was made you replied, “It would take too much time.”
It’s a really cool set-up this week. There’s a book in the Vatican’s library of blasphemy that makes anyone who reads it commit suicide. How awesome is that for a hook? After hearing that, the Doctor has to go an investigate.
Bill is roped into the story when the Pope interrupts her date by wandering out of her bedroom babbling Italian. This is some classic sci-fi comedy and it’s done well and, most importantly, it’s not overdone. The date flees in shock and soon Nardole, Bill, The Doctor, and half of the catholic church jet off to the secret Vatican library.
The villains this week have the potential to go on to be Who classics, which is handy because they’re sticking around for the next two weeks. They are a collection of monks with tatty robes and really gross faces. I know if a was seven and watching it this week, they’d be in my nightmares.
Their plan is long winded in that way that only Doctor Who seems to be able to get away with (most of the time). They’ve created a simulation that The Doctor and co. have ended slap-bang in the middle of. The idea behind the simulation is that it’s practice for conquering the Earth. It also allows for some pretty great pop culture references, Grand Theft Auto and Super Mario for example. I’m already watching the show guys, no need to throw out these references to connect to me. But they were admittedly well done, and gave the episode a Black Mirror quality (twice this season after the robot bee-infested ‘Smile’). If it wasn’t aliens trying to conquer the world and was instead the British government using video games to surveil the populace then I’d be convinced Charlie Brooker wrote it.
The aliens also have a nifty portal control room for their simulation. One portal to the Pentagon, one to the White House, one to CERN, etc. It got pretty dark when Bill and Nardole went to CERN, only to find all the scientists drinking and getting ready to blow themselves up. But I guess you can do that when the people aren’t technically real.
The show bounces around this week between the main story and a scene in the past in which The Doctor has been convinced to execute Missy. He doesn’t do it obviously, thanks to the recently deceased River Song’s diary and trusty Nardole. Michelle Gomez is excellent as a more toned down Missy, it’s a real shame she’s leaving at the end of the series but she is very much Capaldi’s Master. These scenes mean that’s it’s Missy (in some form) in the vault. I don’t think people should be underwhelmed by this, who knows who it’ll be when the vault is eventually opened?
The episode ended by revealing, yes this has all been a simulation. But it doesn’t feel like a waste of time. What The Doctor has learnt should be invaluable in the next two parts of the story. Speaking of, next week’s episode looks completely different. It looks like more of a grand, globe-trotting kind of adventure.
For me, ‘Extremis’ is the best episode so far, in what has already been perhaps the best season in a long time. It is Steven Moffat doing everything he does best, and reigning in some of his more divisive writing and storytelling techniques (even River Song only got a mention). It’s set the bar very high for the next two parts and I just hope they live up to the hype.
Reviewed by Jack