Steven Moffat returns to Doctor Who writing duties this week with “Extremis”, the first chapter of a three-part story. We’re also back in a library for an atmospheric scene-setting tale of conquest by computer simulation. What’s surprising is that he chose to unveil, fairly immediately, that Missy (Michelle Gomez) is the occupant of the vault. In retrospect, that The Master — either the Gomez or John Simm incarnation — was sitting pretty in the vault came as something of an anticlimax. However, the function of the episode is also to tell us how she got there, and it compliments the themes about free will in an intriguing and doom-laden ‘invasion of Earth’ episode.
The opening of “Extremis” reminds us of the dire state The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) was left in at the end of “Oxygen”. He’s still blind and, before that fact properly sinks in again, we’re whisked away in flashback, after River’s fate at the end of “The Husbands of River Song”, to a planet whose inhabitants have a pride “to serve as executioners to every living thing.” And that includes Time Lords. In this case, even though the sequence toys with some misdirection to fool us into thinking it’s The Doctor being executed, it’s Missy whose hearts, brain stems, and cells are for the chop. It reminded me of the classic story “The Brain of Morbius”, where we learned the similar fate of renegade Time Lord criminal Morbius was execution in a dispersal chamber, atomised to the nine corners of the universe.
The Doctor is charged with Missy’s execution, damning her to death and imprisonment in a Quantum Fold chamber for a thousand years. “Life can be a cunning enemy,” warns Rafando (Ivanno Jeremiah) and by the end of the episode The Doctor sets out to prove it when he overloads Rafando’s Fatality Index app, and fiddles with the wires on their execution chamber after realising he can’t bring himself to actually kill Missy. Accepting she’ll still be stuck in a vault for a thousand years, he promises to guard it.
However, before we get to this pay off, there’s some deliciously played banter between Missy and The Doctor. Gomez pitches her performance particularly well, playing to the audience and almost making us feel sorry for her character’s demise. There’s an emotional crack in her voice as she pleads for her life and asks for mercy based on her friendship with The Doctor. The vulnerability we see here adds some much-needed depth to the character and gets to the heart of the Missy-Master and Doctor relationship.
Meanwhile, in the present day, the blind Doctor pleads with the incarcerated Missy that his disability must remain a secret lest his enemies exploit it. The episode’s as much about The Doctor’s fear of his current weakness and disadvantage as it is about what makes us know we are real and living in a real world. It’s at that point that his sonic sunglasses, now a visual aid, receive an e-mail that sends the episode off down a parallel narrative about an ancient book, The Veritas, written in a lost language that defies translation.
The Veritas is kept in the Haereticum, a secret library of blasphemous texts beneath the Vatican. All those that have translated and read the book have committed suicide and now The Pope (Joseph Long) is calling upon The Doctor to reveal the true mystery of the writing. After all, he comes recommended by Pope Benedict IX in 1045. “Lovely girl. What a night!” recalls The Doctor, claiming another notch on his bedpost and confirming Moffat’s view of the Time Lord as a bit of a cad about time easily beguiled by a set of castanets.
However, these humorous asides are a welcome bit of relief in the darkness that descends over the episode. I particularly liked Nardole (Matt Lucas) having to step in to cover up for The Doctor’s blindness. “Oh, yes. I can see that it says, er, ‘Veritas’,” he bluffs as Cardinal Angelo (Corrado Invernizzi) pushes a piece of parchment over to The Doctor to read. The biggest laugh out loud moment is the wonderful scene that starts with Bill (Pearl Mackie) bringing home her date, Penny (Ronke Adekoluejo). Not only does she have to explain away the disastrous house move of “Knock Knock”, put Penny at ease, and deal with Moira’s inability to put two and two together from the hints Bill keeps dropping her about her sexuality, but there’s the question of The Pope and his cardinals appearing in her bedroom. No wonder Penny runs for the hills as The Pope appears just after Bill reassures her about guilty feelings.
After the quicksilver pacing of the last five episodes, Moffat and director Daniel Nettheim opt for a slower burn as the story surrounding this strange book begins to unfold. It’s dark and funereal in tone, and its pacing and structure may well put off some of the audience. Moffat also returns to familiar concerns about how we see things, how technology affects our perception of reality, and how virtual realities define our own sense of identity. We saw an example of this back in Donna’s virtual life in the library during 2008’s “Forest of the Dead”, and more recently the idea of The Doctor copying himself in order to escape the confession dial in “Heaven Sent”.
As well as stories that delve into these areas, Moffat also likes to disturb the viewing experience, using the opening titles in “Extremis” with their video break up as a uncanny suggestion that what you are seeing is a recording sent to you from within The Doctor’s own augmented, sonic sunglasses view of the world. Reality and time are constantly rewritten in Moffat’s Doctor Who episodes and, increasingly, these indulge in self-conscious, playful visual references to themes of duality and alternate reality. “Extremis” is very much another facet of that storytelling.
The religious aspects of the story do look at the notions of sin, faith, and truth, but the episode doesn’t take a rigid position on a belief in God. When the Pope wishes that God will light their path into the library, The Doctor merely responds with “well, he could certainly give it a go” and after the Cardinal explains that the layout of the library may confuse the uninitiated he also offers “sort of like religion, really.”
There’s an interesting scene between The Doctor and the Cardinal about Catholic confession and regret that dovetails into the flashback to Missy’s execution. It parallels with the idea of the Fatality Index, the impossible numbers of the dead that The Doctor has accrued over the centuries and the appearance of Nardole as a priest sent by River to ensure that The Doctor’s virtue is indeed virtue in extremis. Or, in other words, River Song has sent Nardole with “full permission to kick your arse.” That virtue is also something to be considered when Missy begs The Doctor to teach her to be good. He reminds her that it comes with the caveat that goodness often occurs “without hope.. without witness… without reward.”
Nardole’s also on hand to underline the point. “The moment you tell Bill, it becomes real. And then you might actually have to deal with it,” he counters to The Doctor’s virtuous decision to keep his blindness on a need to know basis. What also strikes me is how Moffat has slowly transformed Nardole from comic relief into someone made of sterner stuff, unafraid to stand up to The Doctor and bring him down a peg or two. It’s also reflected in Lucas’s thoughtful performance. The relationship between him, Bill, and The Doctor is most appealing and, importantly, feeding into the episodes without either of the companions operating as mere plot devices. It is also a good idea to split them up.
Once the story shifts to the library then we get to Moffat’s thesis. “Truth in the heart of heresy,” notes The Doctor as he proceeds to the room containing the Veritas. “And death in the heart of truth,” notes the Cardinal. It’s also interesting to note that religion and particle physics, linked by the priest who sends a copy of the Veritas to the scientists of CERN also touches on the real debate held between scientists, theologians and philosophers to search for common ground on the origins of the universe.
The truth in heresy is, of course, that the Veritas reveals the existence of a shadow world to the simulants living there: a computer simulated Earth constructed by alien monks in order to run invasion scenarios and prepare for conquest of the real planet. At the heart of this truth is the shadow of death as each of the simulated populations slowly realise they’re not real. This self-awareness allows The Doctor, himself a simulation, to send an e-mail to the real Doctor back on the actual Earth.
These ideas pulls in many divergent references. Not only do we get a bit of Dan Brown religious conspiracy theory and allusions to numerology, but also we’re in the realm of Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose, itself a story of signs, symbols, and religion, and how we read those signs and symbols. The translated sacred text leaving behind a trail of bodies is very similar to Eco’s own story wherein a system a signs might possibly underpin an Apocalyptic scenario. It also focuses on the medieval debate about the nature of reality and the significance of the empty sign.
The Name of the Rose refers to the name of the rose, the rose by any other name, rather than the actual, singular rose as an object itself. Therefore, in “Extremis”, it’s the simulation of the invasion rather than the invasion itself that we see. Eco was himself inspired by Jorge Luis Borges and I’ve always thought Borges was a major influence on Moffat’s reality-bending episodes. Borges and Eco were fascinated by opposing realities, labyrinths, mirror images, and doubles. In The Name of the Rose there’s a mirrored door that leads into the secret sanctum where forbidden texts are kept. It symbolically represents a passageway between the Christian world and the pagan world. In “Extremis” we see Bill and Nardole slip between various simulations through portals that mirror the Pentagon, the White House, and CERN.
Simulated realities also touch on another influence on this episode, The Matrix (1999). Aesthetically, we’ve got The Doctor viewing the events through a pair of sonic sunglasses where the readouts emulate the glowing green truth of the codes forming the matrix in the Wachowski’s film. However, the work of Jean Baudrillard and his philosophical enquiry into the nature of reality, referenced in the film, is also pertinent to some of the themes in “Extremis”.
Baudrillard always claimed the references in The Matrix to his book Simulacra and Simulation offered a very simplified approach to his ideas. According to Baudrillard, in our electronic age the real has become a Utopian ideal but to create it has also become impossible to achieve. The real has been replaced by electronic and other forms of simulation and by “models of a real without origin or reality”. We simply can’t go back and recover what was real and even if we did we would not be able to distinguish between the simulation and the real anymore.
The worlds of the Veritas, revealed in a document e-mailed from a computer, and its library, CERN, the White House, the Pentagon, and all the people in them are simulations; a hyperreal world created from matrices and memory banks. Borges always believed that there was a demarcation between the hyperreal and the real world. This is more appropriate with The Matrix and now with “Extremis” because the main characters want to erase the simulation in favour of the real. Baudrillard claimed there was no demarcation and the hyperreal was all that we were left with.
This ultimately plays on our fears about technology, how our lives are augmented by technology, and where the cybernetic age is taking us. In addition to this, “Extremis” picks up on tenets within Buddhism and Gnosticism, that a multiplicity of worlds and perspectives — the ideas of “particle physicists and priests” — are possible and that there may be a metaphysical reality beyond those we currently perceive or are awake to.
It’s also worth noting how The Doctor gains perception by hooking himself up to a Time Lord device. It provides partial vision through a borrowing of his future regeneration energy and allows him to read the Veritas and decode its meaning. He contemplates his various fates: future regenerations that may be blind, no possibility of regeneration at all, or even dropping dead on the spot. However, this is a false premise because, as Moffat pulls the rug from under us yet again, all of what we have been watching, since the e-mail arrived in The Doctor’s sonic glasses at the start of the episode, is a simulation of The Doctor, Nardole, and Bill uncovering the Veritas and the invasion of the rotting alien monks.
The end of “Extremis” loops back to the start of the story. As one of the alien creatures confirms to The Doctor “this is a game”, and through allusions to the simulated realities of gaming he realises that it is all a test of shadows; a Grand Theft Auto on a vast scale, where the systems of reality and the systems of games provide the truth in heresy. The Veritas is the calling card of an alien life form that wishes to conquer the world and it’s running a practice Earth to plan its invasion and “to assess the abilities of the resident population”. This, too, harks back to 1976’s classic story “The Android Invasion”, where the Kraals created a duplicate Earth to rehearse their invasion of the real thing. Bill realises that she’s part of the simulation having run her own shadow test with the scientists at CERN. She’s become “Super Mario figuring out what’s going on. Deleting himself from the game because he’s sick of dying.”
Peter Capaldi is outstanding this week, particularly when The Doctor understands he can only believe in himself, that he exists somewhere — outside Missy’s vault or in the pages of River’s diary — and stands between the invaders and the people of Earth. Virtue in extremis ensures that even though he isn’t the real Doctor he can at least act like The Doctor “as long as you never give up.” After he e-mails himself, the image breaks down and the White House dissolves into pixels. A recording of a simulation we’ve been watching through The Doctor’s own point of view ends with hope, with the possibility of reward and a message bearing witness: “Dear Doctor, Save Them The Doctor x.”