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Review: Extremis

Warning: spoilers.

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.

 

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The Seeds of Doom

Sitting in the café at the local leisure centre. One eye is on the uploader, another on this screen, a third on the Americano that’s cooling to my upper left, and a fourth on Joshua’s swimming lesson. And they say men can’t multitask.

‘The Seeds of Doom’ – not to be confused with ‘The Seeds of Death’, an as yet unwatched Second Doctor story – caught us rather off-guard. It contains a nice little two / four split, moving from an Antarctic base, all fake snow and great big furry muffs (you – yes, you at the back – you can stop sniggering, and then come up here and explain the joke to the whole class), in the first two episodes, through to a posh English mansion, with an impressive garden and amazing greenhouse, both of which carry weighted significance in the story. Only I’d failed to realise our stay in said mansion would be extended over a hundred minutes rather than fifty. It wasn’t until the end of episode four, and the realisation that in the remaining few minutes they had an awful lot to wrap up, that I realised there was much more of the story left to be told.

As a parenthesis, I remember experiencing similar feelings of bewilderment at the end of Attack of the Clones and The Matrix Reloaded – both of which, I thought, were fairly muddled and both of which left an awful lot to unpack in their respective sequels in order to bring the story arc to a satisfying and rounded conclusion. The unfortunate truth – the astute among you will have seen this coming – was that neither Revenge of the Sith nor Matrix Revolutions manage anything of the sort, leaving instead a sort of shell-shocked emptiness trailing in their wake. There’s no real sense of closure or satisfaction, very little emotional connection, and you carry a begrudging sense of admiration for the visual spectacle but feel, perhaps, that the whole appearance of both films, if anything, simply gets in the way. You’re left empty, hollow and unsatisfied. It’s sort of how I imagine sex with Katie Price. In any event you can imagine I was pleasantly surprised to see ‘The Seeds of Doom’ stretch to a very comfortable six-episode narrative with plenty of cliffhangers – the good, old-fashioned sort – and a reasonably terrifying monster. Again, how I imagine Katie Price.

We open in an Antarctic base with a superimposed snow effect. (The base itself looks like matchboxes but it is admittedly quite impressive when it later goes up in flames.)

"Camelot!" / "Camelot!" / "Camelot!" / "It's only a model."


The seeds themselves refer to a couple of pods that are found buried in the Antarctic, unearthed by some researchers sporting ludicrous facial hair.

Worst. Fake. Beard. Ever.


I mean you can practically see the glue. The best thing to do in such circumstances, of course, is to pair him with another scientist similarly garbed, in the hope that two fake beards will sort of cancel each other out.

Oh, look. ZZ Top.

While all this is going on, Doctor and Companion are wandering around investigating and generally making a nuisance of themselves. The beards were bad enough, but award for fashion disaster of the week goes once more to Sladen. (And I don’t care that it was the seventies. It’s bloody awful.)

Sarah Jane was running late for her audition for Rainbow.

Back at the lab, one of the pods germinates and latches on to the unfortunate Winlett, who is rapidly transformed into Swamp Thing.

I mean it’s fair enough, really, because if you’re going to turn a man into a plant there’s only so many ways you can do it, so some overlap – whether intended or not – was inevitable. Anyway, stomping around the Antarctic for a while, killing several people in his wake, Winlett is eventually destroyed when the base is destroyed by two saboteurs. The Doctor and Sarah Jane – who have come to investigate – escape with their lives, just barely, and regroup back in London. Here the focus shifts onto millionaire Harrison Chase, who is constantly looking out for rare and valuable specimens with which to embellish his collection.

Part of the joy of ‘The Seeds of Doom’ comes from its casting. Classic Who boasts a wealth of fine character actors in all manner of roles, back in the days when you didn’t need to cast pop stars or comedians to get a big draw. (It should also be noted that this particular bugbear of mine took root before the show’s resurrection – as tempting as it is to blame this on Julie Gardner, it really started in the 80s with Hale and Pace, not to mention the whole Ken Dodd thing.) ‘Pyramids of Mars’, in particular, has a substantial number of established performers (including Village of the Damned’s Bernard Archard, and Michael Bilton, who played Old Ned in To The Manor Born), most of whom don’t live beyond the first episode. Typically these supporting characters carry dignity and weight, irrespective of what side they’re on, and they’re always fun to watch.

‘The Seeds of Doom’ has Boycie. Who is, in this, an utter bastard. He carries the accent he’d later adopt in Only Fools and Horses, more or less, but a little less London. He is still an utter bastard, even though you expect him to mutter “All right, Rodney?” every time Baker walks onto the screen. It’s nonetheless a chilling performance, and we’re left devoid of any real sympathy for what is, as Sarah Jane points out, really a very lonely character.

John Challis, wearing an amazing polo neck.


There is a hint at redemption for the man, in his closing scenes, as the monster closes in. A frustrated and angry Scorby rants at the Doctor and Sarah Jane, as he frets about their imminent destruction:

SCORBY: So what are we supposed to do? Wait here until the Krynoid reduces this place to rubble?

SARAH: Don’t be so negative. Major Beresford’s going to come up with something.

SCORBY: Oh yeah. That laser gun was useless, wasn’t it. Look, I’ve never relied on anybody, just myself. I’ve always got myself out of trouble. Africa, the Middle East, you name it. I’ve not been a mercenary for nothing. I’m a survivor, right?

DOCTOR: Hmm? Scorby, bullets and bombs aren’t the answer to everything.

(The room shakes and more ceiling plaster comes down.)

SCORBY: What are we going to do?

SARAH: Oh, just shut up, will you? We’re all in the same boat.

It was at this point that Emily turned to me and said “Do you suppose he had an unhappy childhood?”. And I suppose he did, but the lovely thing about this scene is that it’s so underplayed. Challis rants, and the implication that he’s seen and experienced dreadful things is heavily implied, but there’s no resolution, no sudden character development, and no moment of clarity for any of the characters. It’s the sort of scene that Russell T. Davies would have been unable to write. Or, if he had, it would have come out something like this:

SCORBY: What are we supposed to do? Wait here until the Krynoid reduces this place to rubble?

ROSE: Oh come on, now, where’s your sense of optimism? The Doctor’ll get us aaart of it, won’t he? That’s what ‘e does. Doctor?

DOCTOR: [not really listening, apparently fiddling with something on a nearby window ledge] What? Oh, yes, of course. That’s right. Still got…ooh, a good fifteen minutes before the end of all civilisation. Plenty of time.

SCORBY: But you don’t have any ideas! You’re fresh out! You can’t turn to your friends out there, they’ve got nothing! You can’t rely on them! [beat] You can’t rely on anybody.

DOCTOR: [turning, addressing him properly, walking across] You know, you talk a lot about being alone, Scorby. Almost out of necessity. And somehow I think it’s because you’ve had to be. [He is now very close to him.] That’s basically it, isn’t it?

Scorby stares hard, swallows, doesn’t respond.

DOCTOR: There’s nothing wrong with feeling vulnerable and reliant on others. That’s not a sign of weakness, that’s a sign of strength. Shows you’re a team player. But you’ve not been able to do that for a long time, have you?

The piano is starting up.

SCORBY: [after a long pause] I was…twenty-three. We were in the Gulf. Doing a sweep of the eastern outskirts of Kabul. Pinned down in a room by sniper. Seven of us. No way of taking him out, not without him…managed to get coordinates out over the radio. They said they’d come get us.

DOCTOR: But they didn’t.

Piano and strings louder; we can hear faint, echoing sniper fire as background FX.

SCORBY: I lost my entire squad that day. We had to move eventually. Jennings was wounded, had to get him to hospital, couldn’t just…worst thing is it was my call. I was in charge. They died because of me. And I learned something that day, Doctor. Learned you can’t rely on anybody else. And that sometimes it’s best not to have anybody rely on you.

The Doctor stares for a moment. The piano and strings build to a crescendo as Scorby breaks down.

DOCTOR: I know what it’s like. You may not think it to look at me, but believe me I know. And I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.

Aaaaanyway. While Scorby’s been spending all his time threatening the Doctor, the second pod germinates – this time the unfortunate victim is Keeler, scientist and somewhat reluctant villain. Keeler’s basically a decent enough chap, a voice of reason who doesn’t deserve his grisly fate, irrespective of what side he’s on. Both Keeler and Scorby, however, stand in the shadow of Harrison Chase, their eccentric (“Poor people are crazy, Jack. I’m eccentric”) employer who is determined to TAKE OVER THE WORLD using plants. As you do. He does this by playing the organ, conducting ghastly experiments and feeding his victims into a compost machine – “The sergeant’s no longer with us,” he remarks to a cornered Sarah in a typical fit of Bond villain delay tactics that conveniently allows the Doctor to reach her in time. “He’s in the garden. He’s part of the garden”.

The sinister Mr Chase, complete with a lovely pair of gloves.

Would you trust this man to water your plants?

It all comes out in the wash – well, the flames, actually – when the house is destroyed by the RAF, mirroring the earlier destruction of the Antarctic base. The closing episode is suitably frenetic and intense, with menacing plants that sound incredibly like the Triffids in the 1980 TV adaptation of John Wyndham’s masterpiece, which led me to deduce that the production team lifted their sound effects from whatever they’d used here (which is again understandable, seeing as once again there’s probably only a set number of ways you can do menacing plants, and it’s only fair, seeing as ‘The Seeds of Doom’ owes so much to Wyndham as well as Quatermass). There’s a general sense of scalating tension, not least from the Doctor, who it seems spends the entire story permanently grizzly, forever shouting at someone or other. For all that doom and gloom it’s a ripping yarn – compelling from its first minutes to its last – although the serious undercurrent is undermined in the final minutes with an amusing final scene where Sarah Jane and the Doctor head off for another adventure, only to arrive promptly back in Antarctica when the Doctor forgets to reprogram the TARDIS. The snow makes it impossible for them to get their bearings and they can’t figure out whether they’ve already been, or are in fact yet to arrive. The two make a hasty exit before they cause any ontological paradoxes, which is funny, because in my experience that was never something the show really worried about…

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