This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.
“Knock yourself out. Actually, do that. Knock yourself right out”
When the ‘a long time ago’ card popped up, and a voiceover kicked in talking about death, I wondered if the latest Doctor Who story, Extremis would be breaking the steady, confident style that’s been winning people over so much this run. Or at least departing from it a little. Here, the episode looked like it was going to zip about more, and that the pace was to be ramped up as a consequence. Not a bad thing depending on the story of course, but not something that naturally fits series 10 so far.
In fact, what happened by the end of Extremis was that Steven Moffat cleverly, quietly, slowed things right down even more, and very much to the story’s benefit. It’s said that Extremis is to be the first in a multi-part story (effectively a three-parter, according to reports), and if that proves to be the case, Moffat explored the luxuries that a prolonged part one offers, without the need to wrap a story up.
As such, Extremis isn’t action-packed, isn’t jammed with effects, and doesn’t need extensive explanations. Its idea is in fact beautifully simple: it’s a dry run for something very big, and very nasty.
This is the kind of revelation in Doctor Who I can really get behind. How many times have we seen a plan from an alien foe be foiled by a wiggle of a screwdriver, a good speech and a bit of action? Here, the foes – whoever they ultimately prove to be – are having a rehearsal. A brutally effective one. They’ve got a plan that they want to try out first, and the test run has had such an impact, that the Vatican has got involved. Then, in theory, they can refine it for when the real thing hits, presumably over the next week or two.
Also, while the foes here are busying themselves, working against them is a significantly damaged Doctor. A Doctor willing to sacrifice a little of his own future to temporarily repair his eyes at one stage, whose speech turns mournful, slower and a little scared by the end. But also, practically, the Doctor is still blind. He’s not properly resolved that yet. And whilst I didn’t fully buy when he wouldn’t tell Bill his eyes were damaged (although Nardole’s explanation that he’s not telling because then “it becomes real” and he’d then have to “deal with it” holds water), this helped make both story perspectives interesting. Credit to director Daniel Nettheim and his team for realising all of this visually so effectively.
Practically then, it means that Nardole and Bill get paired up to do the work that the Doctor would ordinarily do, and the former in particular really proves to be an able replacement (although Bill, once again, is no slouch. How impressive is it that we take for granted already just how efforlessly strong Pearl Mackie is as the character?). Nardole’s detecting and problem-solving skills are to be admired (plus we also find out that River Song is at least in some way responsible for him following the Doctor around), and the last two weeks have seen Matt Lucas really grow into the role. I’m liking Nardole a lot, not least his moment when Bill asks him if he’s a badass. He goes from steel to whelp in a second. Yep, that’s Nardole for you. A bit of mystery, and a sublime moment of comedy.
Let’s not overlook either that The Pope was an unexpected visitor in all of this, setting up the other comedy highlight of the episode. That’d be the bit where Bill brought a girl home, only for the Pope to walk into her kitchen. You can imagine that would change the course of a date somewhat.
On the surface, Extremis certainly pulled the leg of religion a little – the blasphemous Harry Potter, for a start – but what it led to was an escalation of the threat. “Particle physicists and priests? What could scare them both?”, the Doctor asks 20 minutes in. If we needed a forewarning as to how big a threat was on the way, it was right there.
“You’d be wizard at writing Christmas crackers, you two”
I like Who episodes like this. The ones that build the threat, but not show it in full. Sure, we’ve seen the foot soldiers, but we haven’t seen the Oz behind them. And as if we needed further warning, the Doctor ends the episode urging Bill to ring her potential date a night early, because of what’s coming. We’re left in little doubt that bodily waste is about to hit the fan.
A few more things. For the purposes of this episode in particular, the focus was on The Veritas, a book that leads to anyone reading it ending their life. The Doctor sort of gets round this by trying the audiobook version effectively – I suspect he’s a Big Finish fan – but everyone who’s read it, and realised how fake their life is, has ended it there. In a speech that sees Steven Moffat ruining Nintendo games for a generation, the Doctor gravely declares that “it’s like Super Mario figuring out what’s going on, deleting himself from the game, because he’s sick of dying”. In fact, every character in every computer game now apparently feels it when they die. I for one might stick to Tetris for a bit. Add all this to the list of everyday things that Steven Moffat has sought out to put a sinister spin on during his tenure on Who.
And then there’s Missy. She’s a bit of an anti-climax this week, for story reasons, as Michelle Gomez doesn’t actually get that much time here. Not least because the Doctor has been called on to execute her. Exactly who has passed down the sentence isn’t clear, but there’s a planet that does this sort of thing (with a very clicky fatality index app), and the requirement for a Time Lord to be called in to kill another Time Lord. Not that any of us thought for a second that the Doctor would do this.
The clear impression here is that the Doctor believes Missy is in the vault. Whilst we don’t see her go in, the assumption is clearly that the Doctor is helping lock her in it in the first place. Also, given that he’s been in and talking to whoever’s in the vault earlier this series, when he talks to Missy through the door, it’s a fair bet he thinks she’s in there. He’s taken her in a take away already, remember.
But this is Doctor Who. And this is Steven Moffat. We now know that the Doctor vowed to guard Missy’s body for 1000 years, yet crucially, the card at the start of the episode just tells us this took place “a long time ago”. I think that Moffat has left himself a little bit of wiggle room here, whether he opts to take it or not.
Furthermore, we’ve now seen technology that sees the Doctor, Bill and Nardole in a shadow world, with apparently the start, middle and end of their time in said world explored in this episode. But that doesn’t mean the tech hasn’t existed before. I wonder if it’s been used earlier in the run? Also, I wonder if we’ll see the vault tech used on another Time Lord – I think you know which one – before the end of the run?
One further thing: there’s a sequence where we see the US President dead in the Oval Office. For lord’s sake, don’t tell President Tweeter, or he’ll declare war on Cardiff.
“Nardole, are you secretly a badass?”
Final thoughts, then. Wrapped into a growing sense that Capaldi’s end in the show is going to be addressed overtly and soon – you caught the line about how he might have damaged his future regenerations? – Extremis is more about setup than payoff. But it’s really good setup. The initial concerns I had about the episode melted away quickly, and by the end, I found myself really caught up in it. A lot. Hopefully, what follows lives up to what’s been put in place thus far…
Read our review of last week’s episode, Oxygen, here.