GUEST POST: Philosophy is only philosophy in Extremis

by James Blanchard

Steven Moffat’s “Extremis” is one of the few episodes of Doctor Who ever to illicit a physical reaction from me. I spent every minute, of the last ten minutes, saying “oh noooo” as the truth of the story was revealed. I spent another ten minutes just thinking about it afterwards, not because it confused or annoyed me, but rather I was amazed at the sheer amount of philosophical critique and content poured into such a short amount of time.

Extremis” is one of the most overtly philosophical Doctor Who stories ever – in fact, the whole episode acts like a critical timeline of the practice. The story starts in the Vatican, in the ancient, classical world, dealing with classical philosophy of essence and ethics; it ends in the Oval Office, in the modern (or even post-modern) age, with the characters facing the harsh reality of a staggeringly indifferent world. To me, “Extremis” was a fascinating exercise in the use of the Doctor Who universe and its characters to describe how it can be possible to live a good and virtuous life in an ultimately existential universe.

Straight away, in the very premise, “Extremis” builds in two well-known and important concepts in classical philosophy: the ‘shadow world’ created by the villainous Monks to practice their invasion of earth immediately draws up Plato’s allegory of the cave, and Descartes’ deceiving demon. First, the cave is an allegory used by Plato to demonstrate how human senses are not trustworthy in the search for truth; he asks us to imagine prisoners in a dark cave, chained so tightly they cannot even turn their head, watching shadows play on a wall. Plato says these prisoners, who have never known anything different, would believe the mere shadows to be the extent of their reality. In fact, Plato says the prisoners would be enraged by the suggestion their world isn’t real. We see this in “Extremis“, especially with Bill – she hits the table and chokes back tears as she demands we accept the information of her senses; she feels the world is real, and therefore it must be. However, “Extremis” does depart from Plato here – whilst Plato’s prisoners are real, and simply lost in an unreal world, Bill, Nardole and the Doctor are as simulated as their reality. This is a modern critique of classical, essentialist philosophy, because ultimately there is no essential difference between the shadows and the prisoners, nor Bill and the simulated chair she sits in.

Second, is Descartes’ deceiving demon. Descartes is famous for his phrase cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am” – he imagines a demon, capable of fooling all the human senses, constructing a totally artificial world for us to live in. Like Plato’s cave, we cannot trust our senses to give us truth.

However, we can trust in the idea of our existence; for us to even think about our world (real or not), there must be a thinking agent, and therefore a self. It is, I think, close to a stroke of genius on Moffat’s part to – almost literally – make the deceiving demon the villain of “Extremis“, in the form of the Monks, with the episode directly referencing the concept (in something of an ayyy moment). It’s a fantastic demonstration of how to get across a philosophical message by weaving themes and narrative together. But again, the episode acts as a critique; “Extremis” points to the main flaw with Descartes’ argument, in that we cannot know the extent of the power possessed by the deceiving demon, or, indeed, alien invaders. The ultimate deception for the demon to perform would be to convince the shadows they are real – which is exactly what the Monks have done. Once again “Extremis” gives us an existentialist view, demonstrating there is no difference between the shadow world and the people who live in it.

There is another key concept that crops up, that being virtue. In fact, virtue is brought in with a direct link to the story’s title: “Virtue is only virtue in extremis, without hope, without witness, without reward.” Again, I think there’s a critique of classical philosophy in this – taking virtue as defined by an essentialist like, for instance, Aristotle, it doesn’t really apply to the Doctor; where Aristotle argues virtue is a mean, moderated behaviour (being brave is a virtue, because it is not cowardly, but because it is also not excessive and arrogant), the Doctor as a moral character seems to lurch from vice to excess, depending, really, on his feelings and his circumstance. That said, this part of the story does take some cues from classical philosophy, especially in a political sense. Take the case of the Doctor finally reading the Veritas: most simply read the text and take their own life, lacking the strength to accept it. The Doctor, though, doesn’t read the Veritas, rather he hears it spoken to him. For Aristotle, the ability to speak and use language beyond primitive noises is what sets humans apart from the rest of the natural world, and what makes us ‘political animals’, naturally disposed to civil living, progress, and politics. The Doctor doesn’t simply take in and read the Veritas, he hears it, debates with it, and does politics with it, and is one of the key reasons he is able survive the experience, and resolve to live (at least, to some degree) meaningfully beyond it.

The other cue, again, comes from Plato, with the Monks – in tune and accepting of the truth of the world – present themselves as it’s natural rulers, its ‘philosopher kings’.

On this, though, the Doctor outdoes the Monks, and “Extremis” seems to suggest the Doctor would make a far more virtuous ruler. The Doctor reads the Veritas and survives; he accepts the truth, that there is no essence to him or his world, that there is no greater meaning beyond the shadow of his existence, and resolves to be virtuous despite it. For me, it’s this part that makes “Extremis” truly great, the meeting between classical and modern philosophies. The Doctor is the Platonic, virtuous ruler, accepting of truth, and the truth itself is existential, that the world is without meaning, purpose, or, ultimately, a god. This epiphany even happens to him inside the Oval Office, the most important political location in the world. I see Kierkegaard’s musing why, in a world so devoid of meaning, we don’t simply commit suicide echoed in the Doctor’s sorrowful “turn me off”, and I also see Kierkegaard’s belief in Jesus Christ as the main reason to continue in the world reflected in his realisation that he can, still, carry on. In this instance, Christ is substituted for selfhood: “belief is all I am.” The Doctor realises he can still be virtuous, even if he is only a shadow conjured by a demon.

So where does the story go from here? Without wishing to speculate, a story as deliciously detailed as Extremis with two more parts to come is hard not to think about. The marketing for next week’s story, “The Pyramid at the End of the World“, already seems to hold some clues as to similar themes. The synopsis suggests that the Monks can only conquer the earth with the express invitation of the human race, pointing to possibility of the continuation of the idea that they present themselves as philosopher kings, and virtuous, rightful rulers. I think it’s likely we’ll also see a continued theme of selfhood in an existential universe, perhaps with a more political viewpoint – it’s certainly in the character of Doctor Who as a show to reject reliance on a hierarchy of political rulers. I can see it instead asking us to rely on selfhood as the political agent in our lives, perhaps advocating a politics based on a more collective, civil and democratic society, like the one argued for by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in The Social Contract. But however the story continues, I found Extremis to be a fascinating exploration of some of the biggest themes in the field of philosophy, and – I hope – is a pre-curser to much more to come.

James Blanchard (@Heaven_5ent) is a Steven Moffat fanboy with all the philosophical nous and insight of Jean-Paul Sartre, and his good looks to go with it, too

2 thoughts on “GUEST POST: Philosophy is only philosophy in Extremis

    • Definitely. It’d be interesting to try and make a list of all the philosophical references in his scripts at some point – although I’ll admit it definitely is beyond my skills. I did pick up some Albert Camus in “Heaven Sent”, though, although to be honest that was mostly thanks to Scarves’ writing on the subject. I personally tend to read Moffat’s stuff more through literary references and metatextual stuff (probs because that’s more my field of studies), but that’s part of its richness – there are a lot of ideas and ideologies juxtaposed and linked together through the power of good ol’, ridiculous sci-fi.


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