A few years ago, there was a Big Finish audio called ‘Omega’. In it the Doctor takes a time-travelling tour ship to the Sector of Forgotten Souls, in order to solve an ancient mystery. As events unfold and people start dying, it transpires that malevolent Time Lord Omega – last seen in ‘Arc of Infinity’ – may be responsible. The rug is yanked out from underneath the audience at the end of episode three, whereupon it transpires that we believed was the Doctor – and, indeed, who believed himself to be the Doctor – is actually Omega, still trapped in the Doctor’s form, and it is at that point that the real Doctor turns up.
Big Finish actually pulled this stunt twice within a matter of months – I’m not going to tell you about the other story, as I’ve already ruined one. It is the sort of thing that is very easy to do on audio, dealing as it does with the deliberate withholding of specific information (the other story, for example, neglects to mention that the person we believe is the Doctor actually has eight limbs). Audio dramas rob you of your sense of sight – curiously appropriate, given this week’s content – and consequently it is much easier to tell particular types of story. For a while I held the conviction that it’s the sort of thing that would be impossible to do on TV, although there are ways round it; it’s just a question of finding them. Instead, I lamented the fact that the ultimate test of faith – a Doctor who was, for whatever reason, either untrustworthy or Not What He Seemed – was something that had for the most part been untouched in New Who, with certain exceptions. Oh, subterfuge is fine. Constantly the Doctor works against our expectations. And we’d had the trickery of the Eleventh Doctor and his Ganger duplicate in ‘The Almost People’, a minor skirmish to expose one of Amy’s particularly irritating character flaws. But that was as far as it went, until this week.
‘Extremis’ is, to all intents and purposes, ‘The Android Invasion’ for the Matrix generation, with the added twist that the false reality is the final reveal, buried in an ancient text that has leaked onto the internet. This news is delivered by a collection of cardinals and the Pope himself (Joseph Long, who – while not reaching the dizzy heights of brilliance he achieved in ‘Turn Left’, nonetheless provides the episode’s comedic highlight). The Doctor’s blindness is an assailable obstacle, thanks to a pair of headphones and Nardole’s penchant for filling in the blanks that the Daredevil-esque sonic sunglasses can’t provide, conveniently picking out essential details like a subtle, always-on audio description.
It concludes – get this – with the Doctor sending an email to himself. That’s the dramatic climax. Still, the notion of a Doctor-who’s-not-the-Doctor is quietly wonderful, even if its denouement is a little too neat. Characters in this newly-created ‘shadow’ universe reach their moment of clarity with sudden, unilateral nihilistic desolation: it is strange, somehow, that everyone who reads the text experiences the exact same reaction, almost as if it were as pre-programmed as the numbers they spout in the CERN cafeteria in what is arguably the episode’s strongest sequence. One might argue that – as with many of the series 10 episodes – ‘Extremis’ might have benefited from a two-part narrative. Moffat has clearly worked hard at the dynamic this year, to the extent that the stories have suffered: for the most part it’s not a problem, as the Doctor and Bill have been so wonderful to watch, but we paid the price in ‘Knock Knock’ when they were split up for long periods. ‘Extremis’ is a joy from start to finish, but you wonder whether the surprise of the simulated universe might have benefited from a little padding, perhaps split over a cliffhanger and its resolution.
Or perhaps it will be. It’s no secret that ‘Extremis’ is the first part of a loose trilogy – with the Monks taking centre-stage in next week’s ‘The Pyramid At The End Of The World’. Their presence in ‘Extremis’ is light and insubstantial, in much the same way that the Silence played a comparatively small part in ‘The Impossible Astronaut’, before the meat was grafted to the bones in the second installment. The Monks are underwhelming – “Imagine if a Silent had died while cosplaying as a member of the Sibylline Sisterhood”, says Doctor Who Magazine, in what is as good a description as any – but their role in things is yet to be fully defined, and it is entirely possible that we will see the knock-on effect of the simulated universe in other ways. Unilateral suicide sends a strong message, particularly in light of the episode’s tiptoeing around the nicer side of Catholicism, but it seems unusual that it was the only response. Surely there’s a place for people who reject the truth of the Veritas, or those who, having been presented with the harshness of reality, choose to accept the illusion – as Cypher did over his dinner with Agent Smith.
It’s bonkers. The action moves from the Vatican to the Pentagon to CERN for no reason other than it can, with a global conspiracy that is almost as needlessly elaborate as the Cyberman’s convoluted plot in ‘The Wheel In Space’. Everything is duplicated exactly, right down to Bill’s neurotic stepmother. The technology involved must be astronomical, but presumably it’s no more difficult to do than the computer simulations run by New Line when they were planning the battle of Helm’s Deep (legend has it that during one such simulation, the pre-programmed orcs took one look at the seemingly impenetrable fortress, and promptly did a runner). It makes you wonder why the Monks are spending their time and efforts playing sitting inside playing video games instead of actually getting on with the invasion – but while you never quite figure out the answer, at least you know why their skin is so pockmarked.
The fact that the secret of the vault is ostensibly revealed not in a single climactic moment but in a laboured sequence of drip-feeding flashbacks is undoubtedly going to be a disappointment to the thousands of viewers who’ve been pacing the floor for the last six weeks. Through a series of remembrances we learn that the Doctor was asked by an unknown body to execute Missy and guard her corpse – only to be interrupted by Nardole, sent as an ambassador for the conscience-pricking River Song, leading to Missy’s apparent incarceration. It’s neither a shock nor a surprise – the flashbacks aren’t particularly interesting, and by the time we get to the last of Missy’s pleas you’re practically begging for the Doctor to pull the trigger and open up ‘the Pandorica – and the manner in which events unfold indicates that this is not the end of the story, particularly as we do not see the vault actually open, nor do we learn unambiguously who is inside it. Put another way, Missy supposedly went in – but we do not see this happen, nor are we even sure that she is still in there, at least in a form we would recognise. It may yet turn out to be as simple as the the provided explanation – but that wouldn’t be very Moffat, somehow.
‘Extremis’ is likely to be divisive. Some people will love it, others will hate it. On its own, it does not easily stand up: as part of a trilogy, history may judge it more kindly. Some will rail against its supposed cleverness; others (like me) will see this as an example of Moffat pushing things as far as he can, and perhaps not quite as far as he wanted (how more daring might it have been had we discovered that every previous episode, and not just this one, had been a simulation, and that it turned out that David Bradley was guarding the vault?). Some will cheer at the audacity of actually killing the Doctor; others will produce a series six box set and cough gently. This is not one for the ‘generally good’ or ‘generally bad’ pile: it will tread the uneasy tightrope between the two, with fans and critics either side, anxious to give it a push one way or the other. In the grand scheme of things, it’s Marmite. But that’s OK. I happen to like Marmite.