August 13: "Extremis"

Interesting; the recap at the start of this episode uses a slightly less hysterical line reading from the Doctor ("I can't look at anything ever again") than at the end of "Oxygen", as if they know that now it's not a cliffhanger any more they can dial it down a bit.  In some ways it's a lot like the classic Who days of providing slightly different reenactments of cliffhangers.

The last couple of series, Steven Moffat has been taking an episode and using it to push the format of the show.  In series 8 it was "Listen" (a bit), last series it was "Heaven Sent" (a lot), and this time it's "Extremis".  The clues are there at the beginning, of course, with the Doctor getting an email called "Extremis", but we don't really remember that as the story progresses.  No, this time around Moffat is going full-blown Dan Brown conspiracy theory thriller, with forbidden texts in the Vatican and suicidal CERN physicists.  (And remember, The Da Vinci Code borrows a lot from The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, the book that claimed Jesus and Mary Magdalene married and had kids who ended up as part of the Merovingian dynasty and which was co-written by Henry Lincoln, who also co-wrote three Troughton stories -- thus bringing the Doctor Who connection around full circle.) Consequently we get lots of clandestine meetings with high-ranking Vatican officials, including the Pope himself (albeit not the real current Pope, Francis, probably because a) it's not great to involve the real Pope in this story, and b) Francis isn't Italian, and they clearly want that European Da Vinci Code vibe) and rumors of a text, the "Veritas", that is so dangerous that everyone who's translated or read it has subsequently committed suicide.  (An idea which unintentionally mirrors Monty Python's "Killer Joke" sketch.)

The Doctor seemingly executes Missy. ("Extremis") ©BBC
Interspersed with the Veritas storyline is the Doctor remembering an encounter with Missy, who'd been captured and was going to be put to death.  It's...actually not quite clear why he's remembering this now.  Certainly the thing River Song said about him that Nardole reads to him ("'Goodness is not goodness that seeks advantage.  Good is good in the final hour, in the deepest pit without hope, without witness, without reward.  Virtue is only virtue in extremis'") keeps coming to mind, so maybe that's why, but it does feel on some level like Moffat just wanted to get the fact that Missy is the one in the Vault out there now so he didn't have to worry about teasing the viewers the rest of the season -- and, of course, so that he can use Missy later in this three-part story, and it makes more sense to introduce her here than in the next episode.  But it's an interesting storyline, and it makes clear just why Missy is in the Vault (because of that "without witness" stuff), and why Nardole is still around too (because River sent him after the Doctor).  It just doesn't quite gel with the surrounding storyline.

But that's OK.  This is an episode that nevertheless succeeds because it commits to its premise. We get a secret library of heretical books under the Vatican, created by Pope Benedict IX, who was apparently a woman.  (Interesting that Moffat chose a pope considered to be one of the all-time worst to retcon as female.)  There's some creepy decaying monks walking around threatening people, and portals that lead to places all over the world.  Even when things get a bit weird, they still do a great job of having everything slowly unfold, so that by the end, when the Doctor is confronting the Monks in the Oval Office, next to the body of the American president (who isn't orange, interestingly enough -- see next episode for why this matters), it's still a logical progression.  But the best thing is that the only really logical way to end the story Moffat is telling to basically have the Doctor and his friends lose, and so that's what happens.  There's no deus ex machina here, no Missy swooping in at the last minute (say) to fix things.  Instead we learn this world is a simulation, for the Monks to work out their best plan of invasion, but this doesn't feel like a cheat because the whole episode has been building to that moment.  The Veritas and the Shadow Test wouldn't work in the real world, but because they're in a computer simulation it does.277  And the way the characters also discover this -- Nardole by moving outside the limits of the projectors, Bill by being told the truth, the Doctor by reading the Veritas -- is also well done, with no punches pulled.  And finally, because the episode straight up told us about this Extremis email, there's no sense of letdown that, in some ways, it was all a dream, because we knew that going in, even if we didn't necessarily realize it.

It's the first part of a three-part story, so "Extremis" doesn't wrap things up all nice and neat.  But what it does do is mess with our heads, just a bit, but in a way that feels satisfying.  This is an episode that fully commits to its premise, with hardly a foot misplaced.  This is another success in a series filled with successes, but it does leave you wondering: how can the next two parts of this story match this?  I guess we'll have to watch and see...

277 Personal moment of pride: the minute they started doing the Shadow Test I instantly realized it must mean they were in a computer simulation because of pseudorandomness.  It made me feel clever.