Welcome to DoWntime’s not-too-regular column, Assessing Stress. That’s where we assess … stress. Or more accurately, talk and debate about the newest episodes to hit the television screen, the new releases from Big Finish, and all these good things. And finally, it happened. We got back to a full, four-people crew! Hurray us! Of course we had to extract Scarves from the little hut he had taken shelter in, somewhere near the Balkans, where he was hunting wolves and reading Mitlon, but Tibère had contacts among the French secret service, so it was a pretty smooth ride, all things considered.
And joining us today is David Nirved, writer of Who fanfiction and essays, generally awesome person, and the only hardcore “Fear Her” fan in the world. He’s the one that held Tibbles at gunpoint and forced him to write that article about it, if you recall the oh so old beginnings of this lovely blog. Anyway, let’s dive into it.
Oh, and a random piece of information – we’re going to run an article on the episode’s philosphical themes in the coming days! Stay tuned.
Spoilers follow, obviously. And it should be obvious if you have seen the episode – but be warned that we’re gonna talk about suicide in that talk, so have a content warning.
1) General Thoughts
TIBERE: I think some people came – understandably – at series 10 with this narrative in mind that Steven Moffat had exhausted all his creative energy, that series 9 was this sort of grand finale tying all his themes together, impossible to top or expand on. And I could see, somehow, how the first episodes, which were reinterpretations of well-known, classic Who tropes and conventions, could fit into that. “Oxygen” started going into new, exciting directions, and this is basically the point where the series explodes into pure meta, abstract, Moffat-y goodness. I wouldn’t necessarily said it surprised me or shocked me at a deep, fundamental level – it’s basically the continuation of “Listen” and “Heaven Sent”, the two other “let’s place the Doctor in an impossible situation and wait for the Hugo Awards to drop” episodes of the Capaldi era, and when you start with “Listen” you probably ain’t gonna top that. But still, it’s a perfect culmination of everything this series has been building too, taking the political and personal and making it metatextual and metaphysical in the best, most engaging way. Hell, it even steals a line from “Last Christmas”, with Bill repeating the “it’s a long story …” mantra at some point. Maybe I wasn’t surprised (or at least, I wasn’t surprised to be surprised, oh my god layers of reality this is so complex), but I was totally engrossed and I absolutely would claim this is one of the best things Moffat ever wrote.
SCARVES: I am left wishing that “Heaven Sent” (which was definitely robbed by Jessica Jones, a show I like a lot, to be clear) or “Listen” won their Hugo nominations. Or got any recognition at any other award ceremony that isn’t embroiled in the “taken over by alt right fandom” episode that has swept up the Hugos in the last two years. But maybe this’ll get the recognition those episodes didn’t. Either way, I loved “Extremis”. It was strange and unnerving in all the right ways, and felt like it was really pushing the boundaries of what Doctor Who can be: I’d be amazed if this didn’t spark similar “think of the children!” complaints to “Dark Water”, and Doctor Who is generally better when it’s attracting the ire of the Mary Whitehouse’s of the world.
SCRIBBLES: Really, this is the episode I’ve been waiting for all series, as I’ve sort of suggested in our last few pieces. Everything leading up has been good, for sure. But nothing has blown me away. They’ve been safe, working within fairly simple confines, more to introduce Bill than anything. “Oxygen” sort of started the transition, but it still had some vital setup to do. This was the episode I was hoping would really be the exciting new break, and it did just that. I don’t know what Doctor Who will be without Moffat trying to push the envelope once a year, but I think it will be much lesser for it. That was brilliant. I’m biased, though, this was about some of my favorite thematic and conceptual areas. I’d give a 10 to any episode that talks about Mario getting sick of being killed by the player and rebelling.
DAVID: Doctor Who, for me, is always at its best when it’s pushing boundaries, getting experimental, trying something new. And so far, like you guys say, Series 10 has been a bit safe. Don’t get me wrong, I have adored Series 10 so far, it’s just been so fun. But a Moffat series just wouldn’t be right without one of his now trademark “to hell with the rule book” episodes. And for me, “Extremis“, has been the experiment that’s worked the best. It’s terrifying, and funny, and clever, and the writing is so tight. It really shook me to be quite frank! And I think what works about it is that it’s so very… Moffat. It has all his trademarks, his writing style, his vision encapsulated in an episode. Very meta, a fascinating exploration of what makes Doctor Who as a show so important.
TIBERE: It’s a weird departure from the rest of the series. It abandons the very simple style of the first five episodes, for starters – and it also marks the reintroduction of a huge lot of canon, from Missy to River. Maybe that’s being antithetical to the “soft reboot” approach Moffat had wanted to adopt for the new series, yes, but it’s a joy and I do think that the continuity is approached in a way where it’s not essential to enjoy the episode or understand its theme. The emotional core is not there.
SCRIBBLES: It’s also really a huge case for something Moffat’s talked about a fair bit, a multi-part story in which each episode deals with its own contained issue, stands as its own thing. “Extremis” isn’t just a build-up to a huge, continuity-utilizing epic multi-episode story, but something that finds a distinct conceptual phase in that and works wonders with it. I hope we never go back to the classic two-parter mold again, giving each episode its own themes and narrative concerns to attack is so much more exciting. “The Girl Who Died“/”The Woman Who Lived” and “Face the Raven“/”Heaven Sent/Hell Bent” were my favorite experiments in storytelling format with Doctor Who last series, and I’m glad that approach appears to be extended to this year’s three-parter.
TIBERE: Oh, so much this. I mean, the two-parter, it’s not really something that is done much these days, is it? Series 9 felt very conservative on that front, as a sort of back-pedalling after series 8, and maybe an attempt to woo Classic fans. And to be honest, those series 9 two-parters … Well, they’re not very good. And even when they are good, they suffer from massive, gigantic, colossal structural issues, whereas the arc stuff – contained, as you said, in loosely connected stories, was some of the most original, most creative, most interesting and thought-provoking stuff Who ever did. Really, series 10 feels like the best structured of all out the Moffat series so far, maybe even edging 8, who had some pretty damn impeccable plotting. It’s incredibly enjoyable – and let’s not forget the fact “Extremis”, while being the first part of a triptych, is also a direct follow-up from “Oxygen” and carries some symbolism and plot thread from that story (the Doctor is in the darkness, after he “fell” into a Chasm, and so on …)
SCARVES: I like two out of the three series nine two parters, for the record – my only real problem is with “Under the Lake/ Before the Flood”. But they aren’t my favourites of the season, and I think Series Nine’s true success wasn’t in bringing back two-parters, but in succeeding in making the distinction between two parters and one part stories irrelevant – that’s what make “The Girl Who Died”, “Face the Raven”, “Heaven Sent”, and “Hell Bent” work brilliantly both as individual, self contained units of storytelling, and as parts of larger stories.
SCRIBBLES: I stand with Scarves on “Under the Lake/Before the Flood” being the conspicuous dud with handling the two-part structure. It deals with significant padding issues, the first part is a run-around and the second part tries to be something different before letting the ghosts out and running around again because it just doesn’t have enough to do. But like I said, and like I think Tibere is taking even further in arguing, is that the new format is even more special and exciting and efficient. Like you say, making the distinction makes the whole thing feel like more of a tremendous piece of storytelling, more of an event, really. It lets you feel a bit more satisfied coming away from the TV having seen a full story, while all the same being hyped as hell for the next phase.
DAVID: My problem with two-parters is that it feels unfulfilling, in a way. We’re getting half the number of stories in a series, and especially with Series 9, my disappointment or lack of enjoyment was being carried over two weeks. Moffat is usually very good at that, in fairness – he manages to give each part of his two-parters a distinct identity, so they feel very different. And this is a logical extension of that: three stories, that are loosely connected but form a mini-arc. That’s how it should be done, in my humble opinion.
TIBERE: Exactly. They can be done right – “The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon” is absolutely one of my favourite Who stories ever, but they are incredibly difficult to pull off in a satisfying manner. They’re a gamble, and one that is not really worth making, I feel, especially when you have new, fresh opportunities to tell new stories with new formats.
SCRIBBLES: And that’s what “Extremis” feels like. Bold and fresh and utterly new. Tremendously exciting stuff.
2) Virtual Reality
SCRIBBLES: As a writer and media scholar, my instinct is to interact with virtual reality less from a perspective of technology and more from a perspective of storytelling. Because it is, ultimately, a sophisticated medium of storytelling, just like, say, video games are, the other concept leaned heavily on in this episode. And in engaging with it, Moffat asks one of my personal favorite questions to ask about fiction. What happens to a fictional character who realizes their own fabricated fictionality? A writer sort of becomes a god of the world they create, but rarely is that a benevolent act. Killing and suffering and pain, that’s what makes good drama, but it’s tremendously cruel to the constructs of the characters, if you imagine them with their own feelings and agency. So what do they do if you give them space to see who is really inflicting that pain on them and rebel? There’s a lot of interesting directions one can take that in, and I feel like you could get a whole extra episode out of “Extremis” and I wouldn’t mind even if the rest of the audience did! But its ultimate answer of using words to reach outside the construct and express that pain to the world, well, that’s a good way of doing it.
TIBERE: For starters, it totally is a continuation of Moffat’s now long-running trend of making us question the rights and life of entities we take for granted: from AI rights to animal rights, there’s a fine fine line. [Dear reader, you can read more of our thoughts on the subject that way – https://downtime2017.wordpress.com/2017/04/14/scarves-and-celery-turning-people-into-things-the-late-moffat-era-and-animal-rights/ ]
SCARVES: AI characters realizing they aren’t real is a great concept for a virtual reality story. And I like the ethics behind it: it places the perspective of the story on the people who are usually at the whim of the people controlling them, as Scribbles says, understanding the agency of things that we usually see as tools.
TIBERE: I must admit I’m myself not the biggest expert on video game theory and ludonarratives, but I’m gonna try and bullshit my way through this one. I think an important thing about video games is that they exist only, as a media, through the interaction between the player, the avatar, and the pre-set environment. Like, there has been a lot of attempts to make video games more like movies, more like other media, and generally they failed pretty badly, specifically because it’s not about being “told” a story, it’s interacting with one, and shaping one. The game is defined by rules, essentially – boundaries, limits (those are called Extremis in Latin, btw): and it is the player, and his avatar’s, struggle against those limits that create a tension, that create enjoyment. It’s not a coincidence if some especially acclaimed games have weaponized the narration, the very concept of linear progression through an environment – Portal is an obvious example, and “Extremis” references it through the aesthetics of that white room with blue portals; but another example is The Stanley Parable, where the entire game is you literally trying to get away from the narrator. That’s also why there are so many players that devote time to “breaking the game”, finding the cheat codes, going through the walls, bypassing the limits. That’s what the Veritas is – it’s something the players, trapped inside the game, have coded, it’s a mod, it’s a cheat code. “Extremis”, if you interpret it from a purely ludonarrative-driven perspective, which is probably not something you should do, is about someone creating a game without realizing the nature of what a game is – and therefore losing to the players that, through the powers of emergent gameplay, find a breach and exploit it. It’s a weird, paradoxal celebration of gaming culture, in a way – it’s mixing hacking with priests, in a wonderful bit of Moffat syncretism. And that’s really interesting, because I’ve never seen a Who story that I think tries to engage that hard with the contemporary world. Even Sherlock – it has modern aesthetics, sure, but in essence, it’s a very traditional, 19th-century story that just happens to be updated – especially if you take series 4 and its annoying dogmatism into account.
SCARVES: I don’t know if this is true, but I read that apparently Moffat is a fan of the Portal games, for what it’s worth.
SCRIBBLES: That was mentioned in Doctor Who magazine, as I recall. And the imagery of Portal in particular dominates this episode with the system of projections. There’s even one shot where the blue portal flashes orange for a moment, I was cackling at that reference.
TIBERE: Systems, and technology on one side – but on the other, it’s an episode that lives off classicism. It’s set in the Vatican, in a big library (let’s admire Moffat’s interview claim that “books are virtual reality”, please) – and it quotes ALL the philosophy. Like, the central conceit of the episode is clearly from Descartes – he said “I think, therefore I am”, everybody remembers that, but the reasoning behind that sentence is a bit less well-known. Basically Descartes tried to assess if there’s a way to be sure of our reality – he said that we are probably real, because we live under the rule of God and that God has no reason to deceive us. But it’s possible to theorize that a “bad genie”, to translate the French literally, or a “deceptive demon”, to use the more elaborate translation, an entity of power comparable to God but with evil intentions, could deceive us and lead us astray. And then, the only certitude that remains is that something called “I” exists, and that this “I” is thinking. Sum res cogitans – I am a thinking thing. That’s what Moffat does: he makes the Genie in Descartes’ theory a literal Who villain. And of course, as an antithesis of God, the Monks corrupt Catholic iconography, with their name and their big red robes echoing the ones of the cardinals.
DAVID: I really hope it’s not just me who has had this nightmare more than once. What if we’re all just characters in a giant computer? And what if we’re just living inside a dream, but Moffat has done that existential crisis before to great effect in “Last Christmas“. And it’s so meta! The Doctor and all the characters are just fictional creations, who behave at the mercy of the writer, Steven Moffat. What if they realised they were just acting on behalf of some omnipotent figure? What if I realised that I was just a character in a game? It’s a scary thought. It is very much like playing God – which obviously links in with all that delicious religious imagery in the episode.
SCRIBBLES: Oh good point about the religious imagery link, it’s a very conscious choice, I’m sure, linking the concept of god to the writer god, in which all the constructs have in the end is faith, either to aid them to conform or rebel, free will being the sort of thing usually itself being a very religious question. While I have not had that nightmare, I have had many daydreams about being on the other end. What if my characters realized I was doing something like that to them? How would they feel? Would they forgive me? Would they hate me? It’s a weighted concept on all ends, I find myself as much excited to see the Monk’s outlook in the upcoming episodes as I am to see the Doctor and Bill fight back. To me, they’re feeling like a twisted parody of writers so far, showing no sympathy for their characters whatsoever, just wanting to assert narrative control of plot, and I love it.
SCARVES: And this exploration of Artificial Intelligence is a lovely development of Series 10’s theme of destructive systems gone wrong – the ship in “The Pilot”, capitalism in “Smile” and “Oxygen”, Imperialism in “Thin Ice”, and private property in “Knock Knock”. Here the system is fiction itself – the character’s own unreality is the thing they are trapped in – but this episode is the first one to show our heroes properly rebelling against said system and seeking to build a new one, instead of just surviving it – the AI Doctor rebels against the idea that his lack of reality means his existence, such as it is, is without meaning, and uses his fictionality to have a real impact against the monks, who seek to control him.
SCRIBBLES: Indeed! And I think if we look forward a bit, “Pyramid“’s system may very well be the earth invasion narrative itself, seeing as it’s being promoted as one that will take that Doctor Who storytelling approach to its breaking point, with Moffat interviews suggesting they even considered blowing up the earth. The concerns of social systems are being mapped alongside Doctor Who ones, building to, from the sounds of “The Lie of the Land“, a satire of Trump of all things! This is a series that’s digging in with politics and metafiction on a spectacular scale, and god, the world would be lesser without it.
TIBERE: Because I think that above all else this is a political narrative. I’ve seen a lot of people saying that the episode was “trying to hard to be clever”, or was disconnected from the rest of the series’ narrative, but I couldn’t disagree more – it’s political and builds from the political elements previously introduced. It asks the question: the world is not your world. It is controlled by powers that do not care for you, that see you only as numbers, raw data, that may be, for all you know, entirely beyond your comprehension. What do you do, then? And I do admire the ambiguity of the episode there. Because there’s the whole suicide thing – and by the way, can we appreciate how utterly chilling that CERN scene was? -: there are people who refuse to play the game altogether, who deny the conditions that are imposed onto them. And it’s presented as being a “good” option, in a way, I suppose …
SCRIBBLES: I think this episode could have been very unfortunate in its messages about suicide, and I’m glad it cordoned that off within the metafictional reality rather than the “real” one. Suicide is obviously not something you wish to advocate, and it’s treated as a desperate last attempt at agency by people who have stared into the existential void and found meaning empty. But it’s not the best method of agency, not the best way to take control of the situation…
TIBERE: But the thing is, at the end of the day, the best option, the one that really saves the day, is the one the Doctor picks. He initially just accepts deletion fatalistically, but he decides that it’s in the darkest moments that you can show who you truly are, where you can fight the best and where you can shine the brightest. Yes, refusing to get dragged down in pointless debate and an ever-more-absurd world can be a good solution, but it won’t change the world. There’s a relevance, and an aggressivity to that narrative – it feels like something that could only ever had been written in 2016. And boy is it perfect.
DAVID: And that’s the point of the episode – refusing to give up, standing by your goodness, even in the face of adversity. “In darkness we are revealed”, and at such a dark political time as we have, it’s more important than ever to stand by our values and be good.
SCRIBBLES: We’ve seen the “never cruel or cowardly.” Here’s the “never give up, never give in.” And it’s inspiring. It’s true that when we’re at rock bottom, we see the most of what we’re capable of. In times of darkness, even getting out of bed can be a victory. To get to the core of a person or character, you see how they respond in the worst of times. Strength and bravery are just the ability to keep going when things seem empty and done. Anyone can do it, if you find something to cling to, some faith. And I find it interesting here that the Doctor’s faith isn’t a religious one, but that in the narrative of Doctor Who itself, contained in River’s diary. Fiction as the source of strength that can conquer suicide-inducing darkness, that’s a pretty poignant and hard-hitting message. And I suppose that also gets at what the role of Doctor Who is in times of political apocalypse like we’re in now with Brexit and Trump. To build us up and give us faith so we can keep on fighting.
TIBERE: Ultimately it falls back on Moffat’s central conceit, the most crucial of them all – the performative nature of the Doctor’s role. The Doctor is not a name, it is an ideal, and everyone can live up to it, even the lowliest of pawns, the insignificant subroutines, the meaningless duplicates. It’s already a beautiful message, but what “Extremis” does is turn it into a Guy Fawkes mask, into a political statement, yelling to the viewer to go and change the world.
DAVID: And the Doctor’s line – “You don’t have to be real to be the Doctor. Long as you never give up” – is a perfect summary of this, and of Moffat’s central message of the show. In order to change the world, to fight back against the system that we find ourselves as merely characters in, we have to live up to those ideals. We have to be the Doctor.
3) The Doctor, who isn’t the Doctor, and the companions, who aren’t really the companions
SCRIBBLES: On Tumblr I called this a character piece, to which someone responded, “for whom?” Which is a fair question. The growth of the characters in this is erased, sure, as a result of them not being the real them. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t reveal a wealth of information about the Doctor, Nardole, and Bill. As is often the case, putting a character to the breaking point reveals an awful lot about them, Certainly I feel like I know Nardole better, and the Doctor’s epiphanies about faith were something special, particularly given what we learn about him through the flashback sequences and given the “real” Doctor sees everything that happened. Bill gets a bit less of the exploration, but we still learn new things about her relationship with the Doctor, how he looks out for her, that sort of thing. Their conversations about her love life, both inside and outside the projection, were very lovely and rich in their simplicity. And Bill telling the top of the Catholic Church they’re going to hell for stopping her from hitting it off with a cute girl is probably my favorite Bill moment ever.
SCARVES: I mean, the whole point of the episode is that the characters were exceptionally accurate AIs, so much so that the AI Doctor has every reason to claim to be the “real” Doctor. So the things we learn about the Doctor, Bill, and Nardole, are very much true to their characters, and expand on what we know about them. And there are lots of fascinating details in the contrasts between the virtual reality and the reali world – the Doctor recognising what he got wrong in the virtual world, and setting Bill up with Penny before they have to go and save the world, instead of interrupting their date (which the Doctor is wont to do – and accidentally sending the Pope, jabbering in Italian, on a date between two women, might just be the worst the Doctor’s ever screwed up his friend’s date). And I like that real world Bill thinks Penny is out of her league when she’s alone, but when her AI self is on said date, she’s the one taking lead, reassuring Penny. And those two things go together nicely, to inform our understanding of her character overall – she’s increasingly coming across as an extrovert who draws her energy, excitement, and self confidence from being around other people..
SCRIBBLES: To me, that was an interesting existential and philosophical grey area. The implication is, by the Doctor convincing her to go on this date that night, it sets into motion the events we just saw in the projection. But he’d have never told her to had he not gotten the message from his projection self. It’s a sort of nice little moment of ambiguity calling into question how deep the layers of fiction could go, just as a cheeky aside. I love it. I hope we see more of Penny in upcoming episodes, I love Bill hitting it off with ladies all over the place, but I’d also love to see her in something stable and loving.
DAVID: Can we please talk about Nardole? He basically acts as the Doctor’s personal Veritas in a way – he provides truth, guidance, wisdom for the Doctor. He even shows up as divine intervention for the Doctor during the execution scenes. He explains to the Doctor what is going on because the Doctor is of course blind (both literally blind and blind to the truth). And he understands the truth of the Doctor’s thoughts – he won’t tell Bill about him being blind because “the moment you tell Bill, it becomes real”. Appropriate that the Doctor wants to hide from reality inside a virtual reality. And Nardole acts as this guiding light, to show him the truth.
TIBERE: I think it’s definitely possible to see Nardole as a bit of a religious figure, too – we do get to see his inception, his first appearance in the narrative of series 10 proper, and he’s dressed as a priest. He echoes, in a way, Cardinal Angelo’s offers of confession – he is in possession of the sacred book (the Diary of River Song), he knows the narrative laws, but the Doctor won’t really trust him, because, as he confesses at the end, the Doctor is not sure he believes on anything. He is a figure of anarchy, an anti-narrative almost, that can’t be bound by any philosophical or conceptual restraints, even if the footprints he leaves throughout history make up the basic building blocks of a philosophy, an ethic.
SCRIBBLES: Yep, a religious figure enforcing the laws of the Doctor Who narrative and holding him to the mark to be the Doctor, the way the likes of River and Clara used to. Nardole is sort of the basic glue of Doctor Who right now, armed with that diary. I also loved that he was the first person to work out the nature of the projection, really proving his worth and value to the show. His determination to know, even with the dawning realization of horror, and to test his theory for Bill, was really a beautiful moment of strength from his character. And I love that he put this all on himself, rather than Bill. It’s fascinating how seriously he takes his responsibility to keep Bill safe. It could come across as really patronizing, and indeed Bill initially takes it that way in a very good character moment for her, but after they talk it out, it rather becomes quite sweet. And I think in future I will pinpoint Nardole’s “Nothing secret about it, babydoll” as the exact moment I fell in love with his character.
TIBERE: “Nothing secret about it, babydoll – AAAAAAAAAARGH”. Don’t forget the best bit.
SCARVES: I also found the scene next to the projectors a fascinating Bill moment – she decides that she doesn’t want to know if she’s real or not, considering placing her hand outside of the projection, but then changes her mind, and decides to find the Doctor instead.
TIBERE: It echoes a lot her “The Pilot” line, “let me have some good dreams, for once”. There’s a tension to Bill – because she is an embodiment of everything progressive about Who, being, you know, the WOC queer badass that she is; but at the same time she not really want that burden, she doesn’t want to be faced with all the horrors that wait in the cosmos. She just wants to be normal and accepted by a world that’s very much not normal.
SCRIBBLES: I think that was a very good Bill moment. When faced with existential horror questions, she strives to get the hell on with living and sorting things out, not letting the horror get to her even though it nearly does. It’s a wonderful counter-perspective to the Doctor, who is very nearly overwhelmed by it, and the CERN people, who are totally overwhelmed by it. I wonder if, had Bill not had the strength to keep going, if the Doctor would have managed to keep going. Certainly with past companions like Clara or Donna, it sometimes took their will to keep going to keep the Doctor still caring about survival. Bill is strong and determined enough to keep living in the face of total oblivion, and that’s a fascinating thing we didn’t know about her before. I expect that’ll play hugely into upcoming episodes, too, as it sounds like she may have to take up the mantle of heroism when even the Doctor loses hope.
SCARVES: I think it’s also healthy to show that Bill and the Doctor, upon learning the truth of the Veritas, don’t commit suicide, as everyone else does – that is one reaction characters have to this existential crisis, but it’s not the only one, or one that has any positive effect.
TIBERE: I think there might be a link to the fact both the Doctor and Bill are these sort of very open-minded figures – like, the Doctor is literally a “Doctor of Many Things”, and Bill is his student. They go beyond simple dogmatic systems of belief. Whereas the priests, just like the scientists, make sense of the world entirely through one prism: rationality or religion – and when that support falls short, they are lost.
DAVID: There are a lot of parallels between the Doctor and Bill in this episode. We especially see that in the opening few scenes with Bill and Penny. Bill’s line of “I don’t like knowing the names, I only get attached” is so Doctor-y! We can see she’s learning from him, becoming more like him – he’s an influential figure, both on the characters and on the audience. And Bill clearly wants to keep her sexual orientation a secret from her foster mother – she tells Penny not to feel guilty but something is obviously stopping her from being honest, from revealing the truth. And likewise, the Cardinal tells the Doctor that he’s “a man with regret on his mind”, someone who needs confession.
TIBERE: It’s interesting to see Nardole as being both this almost religious figure and a workmanlike valet, in a sense. I do wonder if there’s not something of a self-insert on Moffat’s part here: he is the quiet curator of the show, the one that yells at the Doctor where he gets too silly and out of control, and who is trying to make the whole madness of the situation cohere into one arc – guarding the Vault.
DAVID: I think it’s interesting to see how the main plot mirrors the Doctor’s interactions with Missy. He acts as a God-like figure towards her, with ultimate power over whether she lives or dies. And at first, we see him seemingly kill her, to utilise his power and destroy her. But of course, the Doctor being the Doctor, he rebels against that system, the strict rules of the Fatality Index, and allows her the chance to live.
SCARVES: There were many things I liked about the Doctor/ Missy Plot. I appreciated the lack of a clear link beyond the “without hope, without reward” line – the episode is essentially two separate stories, and feels different to previous Moffat stories, that would have used one plot as a framing device for the other. But that is made impossible by the fact that the B plot of the Doctor being summoned to execute Missy is the episode’s past, while the A plot of the virtual reality is set in the story’s present. But then, the real framing device, is the Doctor receiving the email from his virtual reality self in the pre credits (which we are mislead into believing is a linear event, lining up with the following scene of the Doctor meeting the Pope and being given a case by the Vatican – great Moffat misdirection!) And I loved the way the reveal that it’s Missy in the box was handled. People have said it was underwhelming, and obvious that it was her in there, but the season’s never been trying to surprise you about who’s in there – that’s why it’s a mid season reveal, made with the Doctor whispering to her through the door at the beginning of the episode, instead of a finale cliffhanger reveal, with Michelle Gomez unveiled lying on top of a piano (although we may well get a shot of Michelle Gomez lying on a grand Piano when we do finally see post-imprisonment Missy). As Steven Moffat said in his Radio Times interview, it’s not about who’s in the vault – we all knew it was going to be Missy – what’s interesting, and important to the story, is why she’s in there – the Doctor promising to guard her in the certainly vain hope he can redeem her is a fascinating character dynamic to play with for the rest of the season.
TIBERE: There’s also quite a bit of symbolical parallels between the two plots. Well, not just symbolical – you do get some nice symmetry, with the Doctor’s “reading aid”, electrocuting him just before Missy is “killed” through an electric shock; and the final speech the Doctor delivers to the Executioners is very reminiscent of the one he gives to the Monks. It also one of Missy’s finest episodes, even if she’s barely in it.
SCRIBBLES: With all due respect, every Missy episode is one of Missy’s finest episodes. She hasn’t had a bad one yet. Moffat’s writing and Gomez’s performance keep finding powerful new angles for her, and it makes for what’s easily the most compelling take on the Master, well, ever. Extremis just holds the pattern of finding new emotional richness and complexity to her with each outing, and it’s wonderful.
TIBERE: I stand corrected. I think what Michelle Gomez does so well is portraying this screaming, over-the-top maniac but, at the same time, giving a clear idea to the audience that it’s all an act, that the Mistress is embracing her reputation as a villain, but that there is something deeper, hidden beneath. And when the shell cracks, she is devastating – her “I am your friend” is up there with “I need my friend back” from series 8. There’s a real, powerful tragedy at work, here. Not to forget the symbolism – I suppose the coming stories will leave us plenty of times to reflect on that further, but in a way Missy represents all the Doctor’s worst, darkest impulses, that he has bottled up and put in a little box, buried underneath an university and kept day and night. It’s maybe the rejection of all these instincts that allow the Doctor to progress so much as a person, and as an ally to Bill.
DAVID: The Doctor has definitely been a lot more light-hearted this series since he’s locked away Missy and repressed that darkness. When she is inevitably let out of the Vault, might we see that change?
SCRIBBLES: I expect it’ll make the finale hit all the harder, too. It certainly sounds like the remainder of this run will be built heavily on the relationship between the Doctor and Missy, and Gomez has teased that there will be a moment when Missy remembers how properly bad she is. And at this current rate, that inevitable beat will make for an emotional suckerpunch, particularly with how brilliant these actors are at selling it.
4) Religion and aesthetics
TIBERE: We have an episode with the Pope. That’s unusual. To be precise, if my Catholic friends have not lead me astray, he’s based on Pope John XXXIII more than the current Francis – a widely beloved pontiff. There’s something really fascinating about this engagement of the episode with religion – especially the way it portrays the intricacies of the Truth (Orthodoxy) and Heresy. The Truth is at the core of the Library of Forbidden Texts. And the pope that dominates the narrative isn’t even the stand-in for our current line of pontiffs, it’s Benedict IX, who was, if all the accounts are to be believed, a horndog, and a queer one with that. The pope that saves the day is gay, and if we believe “Extremis”, was a woman (trans representation, maybe? Who knows).
SCRIBBLES: I find it interesting that the episode does make light of the issues of religion. The line about the confusing labyrinth of religion was great. But it nonetheless endorses the importance of faith to personal strength, putting, like I said earlier, Doctor Who as a source of faith-giving power equal to Catholicism, and striving to portray the Pope with as much respect as can be mustered within the confines of a Doctor Who episode. The point isn’t what text you find strength from, or even if you believe it’s real, but rather if it inspires you to keep on living and fighting for better.
TIBERE: And it does that specifically through the aesthetic prism of the Dan Brown-esque thriller, with its grand old conspiracies and pre-christian sects and mysteries hidden in the middle of the Vatican and world-hopping plots. It’s, once again, an engagement with a very modern mode of storytelling that you just don’t really see often in Doctor Who. It’s talking this sort of conspiracy theory principle, but then turns it on its head – it’s not a factual answer that it researched, but a metaphysical one. The agents of the conspiracy are not men in black, they’re demons from hell. That’s basically the only way Who could mix with the religious thriller – it makes the mythology at the core of it real and explores the space that is built that way. Literally – we explore the Haereticum, with its blend of surrealist, Escher-like / traditionally Catholic architecture. And in the middle of it, the impeccably polished secret core of the Vatican, there’s a rusty old cage and a chair that looks like a torture device – I don’t want to read too much into it, but I do think that in an episode that plays as much with “hidden, repressed truths” hasn’t done that per chance.
DAVID: Religion, at least from my atheistic-but-at-one-point-religious point of view, seems to be about finding truth amidst the chaos, and about life beyond our reckoning. And that’s what this episode is all about! The Doctor reads this sacred text, which reveals the truth of the world he is living in – that there is more beyond that life, that the world is manipulated and controlled by an omnipotent but distant figure.
SCARVES: Yeah, this episode isn’t a savage takedown of religion, although it certainly has a fair amount of skepticism towards it, and a healthy desire to poke fun at the problematic parts of it – see Bill’s happy and tentative first date being interrupted by the Pope, resulting in a delightful scene of a lesbian telling a group of Priests that they’re going to hell, a lovely reversal of the dynamic one would expect between said girl and said priests.
TIBERE: That scene is incredible. It’s like, a perfect syllogism/pun. “Don’t put the Church in the Bedroom, the Pope is the Church, therefore don’t put the Pope in my bedroom”. And it’s just a really lovely slice of well-written queer characters – it’s like if the cultural weight that hangs above pretty much all same-sex relationships was suddenly made manifest and arrived willy-nilly in your bedroom.
SCRIBBLES: A woman still working out her sexuality entering a bedroom to find the Pope, it doesn’t get more hilariously horrific than that. The poor virtual Penny was probably traumatized.
TIBERE: Also I do really like the fact they elaborate a bit on Bill’s closet status, so to speak. It’s pretty obvious that while she’s open about her sexuality to her friend and fellow students (cf. “Knock Knock“), she has much more trouble communicating her sexuality to her (foster) parent and dealing with that kind of relationship. It’s very relatable.
SCRIBBLES: Speaking of religion, I know I’ve seen some debate on the inclusion of the suicide as mortal sin line. It’s true to Catholicism, as I understand it, and it’d be conspicuous if it were absent given the subject matter, but it’s pretty fundamentally uncomfortable to see. I know I saw some people who were triggered by it, and I do feel for that. If any Doctor Who episode required a trigger warning, it’d be this one. It’s not the darkest episode by far, but it’s engaging with some heavy and emotionally raw topics.
SCARVES: Absolutely. Suicide being a mortal sin is a belief many Christians hold, and one that is, as far as I understand, deeply embedded into the Catholic belief system. I think it’s a deeply problematic belief, as it demonises people struggling with suicidal ideation, people have tragically committed suicide, and offers no comfort to people grieving relatives who have taken their own life. I don’t think the episode sides with the perspective that suicide is a mortal sin, just depicts people who do believe that. But it doesn’t offer a clear rebuttal to that attitude, largely because there’s no clear space in which to do so. Heck, the same applies to the episode’s approach to suicide as a whole – it depicts a lot of suicide, and never endorses it, but never clearly makes a statement against it either, in the way that Moffat managed so wonderfully profoundly in “The Lying Detective” with Sherlock’s “Your life is not your own, so keep your hands off it!” As a result, it’s an episode that clearly needs to be prefaced with a trigger warning.
DAVID: The climax of this story is resolved through faith. The Doctor knows he’s not real, he is without hope, witness, reward. And yet, he believes in those core ideals. He trusts the Doctor to save the day. And there’s so much throughout the show’s history that points to the Doctor being a godly figure, a powerful force that saves humanity from darkness (honestly, I’d love to write some kind of article on that some day). And in times of need, when particle physicists and priests are praying together for salvation, it is faith in that omnibenevolent figure that is victorious. Again, that links back to our real lives. Keeping our faith, whether that be Catholicism, or another organised religion, or even in the Doctor, is what will get us through these troubling times.
SCRIBBLES: Before we leave this topic, let’s just appreciate the “Harry Potter” line, where the Doctor calls her out for her language in the Vatican, making light of the conservative backlash to children’s books about witchcraft. I found that a delightful little joke. And if I were to stretch out a bit, it sort of gets at the core thematic juggling of the episode, faith in religion and faith in narratives. Because Harry Potter is itself a very Christian text, even the sacrifice of Harry in the Forbidden Forest in Deathly Hallows a nod to the Jesus narrative. For all there is tension between worlds of faith and worlds of story, there is a sort of harmony, too, in them both channeling the same messages about human strength, courage, and love, and both offering comfort to the hurting. Doctor Who alongside Harry Potter alongside the Catholic Church, it’s a bold and arguably heretical and yet very, very true juxtaposition.
TIBERE: Funny enough, witchcraft absolutely exists in the universe of Doctor Who. See “The Shakespeare Code” and the Carrionites. Which also has a big Harry Potter reference. That’s what “Extremis” does so well, really – yes, it’s an incredibly intelligent, mature, layered and rich piece of fiction that is clever and knows it and claims it and is not afraid to be brash and provocative; but at the same time, it exists in a context that’s immensely, incredibly rich, drawing from the real world in ways that I find genuinely unique, from the narrative this series has established and from the show’s continuity. It’s a synthesis, in many respect, just as much as it is a new, original story – and it’s bound to occupy a key spot in Capaldi’s era, Moffat’s tenure, and hell, maybe the history of Who at large. Maybe it’s not the best story ever, but it cannot, and will not be dismissed.
5) Closing Thoughts
SCRIBBLES: I have not been so excited about an episode of Doctor Who since “Hell Bent” (give or take a few audios, but let’s not count those). This was stunningly good stuff, bold and clever and deep with meaning. “Extremis” is everything I love Doctor Who for being able to do, and everything I love about Steven Moffat’s time working on the show. This is the kind of thing that reminds me why I’m a fan. Even more to discuss than we were able to find in “Smile” and “Oxygen“, and unlike in those, where rough patches made the analysis as much speculative as anything, this episode has such a polish and coherency to it that the readings it lends itself to feel that much stronger. It’s a beautiful work of Doctor Who and a testament to just how brilliant this show has been. I’m not sure if anything else in series 10 will top this, but god, it might, and I am so, so excited for what the rest of this year may bring.
DAVID: Dare I be controversial, and reveal that this is my favourite episode since “Day of the Doctor“? The past few years, I’ve been able to appreciate the quality of the episodes but they’ve not had the same impact on me as when I was younger. Series 10 so far has definitely impacted me, and “Extremis” has been the highlight thus far. It’s immersive, and meta, and genius, and it’s a real Moffat-esque final outing for him. I’m so glad that he stayed on for this final year. Right at the beginning, Tibere mentioned that some people were worried that Moffat would be out of ideas by the end of Series 9 and that this series would be tacked on. I must confess, I was one of those worriers, but “Extremis” has proven me well and truly wrong. He is just as innovative and experimental as ever, and Doctor Who is all the better for it.
SCARVES: Strange, haunting, best of the season so far. Something that makes me incredibly glad that we’ve gotten, in effect, a bonus season of Moffat’s Doctor Who. A world where this episode doesn’t exist would be one that was missing something brilliant.
TIBERE: It’s a wonder. There, I said it. Probably not my favourite thing of all time – just like the series 9 finale -, but I will absolutely concede that it’s one of the best episodes the show has ever done – just like the series 9 finale -. Really, I said it talking about “Oxygen” and I’ll say it again – my criteria for “a great hour of television” is basically “well, it gave me something I have never seen before”. And while I do think I’m really attuned to the writing of Steven Moffat, to the point where I might have lost the ability to “feel” surprised by his stuff, that doesn’t stop me from appreciating deeply just how far he is willing to push the show, and what new places he finds. That’s what Who is about. Some people say space is the final frontier, but Who knows it’s the narratives, and their boundaries – and it will always, always work to push them back, further and further away. That willingness to gamble and be weird and confusing and odd is what makes Doctor Who good. It’s what makes Doctor Who last. It’s what makes Doctor Who.
SCRIBBLES: And with Doctor Who being built on such daring brilliance, it’s no wonder it can assert its place among the Church as a great source of personal faith and strength. It’s a marvel.
Here stops our “Extremis” coverage!
We’ll meet again next week – with maybe an extra stop to discuss the new UNIT audios -, and in the meantime, watch Who and be happy!