This season of Doctor Who continues its run of great episodes without, so far, a single wrong step. Extremis adds to this achievement while being a truly ambitious episode in its own right, which seeks to break all the established rules of Doctor Who season arcs, and even Doctor Who itself, in order to peel back who the Doctor really is. Long, long ago, “Into the Dalek” raised the question “Is the Twelfth Doctor a good man?” and now, as Capaldi’s time in the role draws to a close, “Extremis” seeks to give us the definitive answer.
Since 2005 it’s become cosily familiar to see some subtle hint to a Big Bad thread their way almost unseen from episode to episode, becoming more explicit in the last few of the season and then finally being revealed in all their nasty glory in the finale. So you’d have been forgiven for expecting another four or five episodes yet of mere suggestion and innuendo about who or what is in the Vault before its contents is unleashed in the finale. “Extremis” turns all that on its head by not only revealing what the Vault really is, what it contains and why the Doctor has undertaken the role of guardian over it, but that the ultimate role of the Vault in events to come may be very different than previously thought.
The premise of “Extremis” is also a departure from a typical story. Very often the Doctor is able to take one look at the menace of the week and declaim “Ah! The Zoggonians of Zog! Evil alien real estate agents with an allergy to cucumbers! Somebody fetch me a salad!” and then proceed through the obstacles to defeating his enemy from there. Sometimes he starts off with a mystery to solve (Who are they? What do they want?) which gets answered relatively early on, enabling the Doctor to take a course of action that leads the rest of the episode. But “Extremis” is all about the question, with the answer something that leaves the Doctor more powerless than ever.
In the by now classic TV show Angel, the central vampire with a soul was once confronted by the revelation that for all his efforts, all the demons he slayed, the battles he won, the world-ending plots he defeated, nothing he had done or could ever do would ever really make a difference. That he could never be more than a piece of grit in the cogs of an evil machine steadily encompassing the vast multiverse of dimensions. But this led Angel to an epiphany – the realization that all he’d done had been in the hopes of winning some brownie points with the Powers That Be, to offset the bad he had once done and in the service of his hopes of becoming human one day. But that, if none of that were true, if there was no good karma to acquire, and no moral credit to accumulate, then what he had accomplished as a hero was still worth doing simply because it was the right thing to do. All summed up in the credo “If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do.” If we have control over nothing but our own actions, then that just means our own actions define us more than ever.
The Doctor may be in the ultimate no-win scenario, but he’s still giving monsters hell
This week the Doctor reaches a similar moment of clarity. Brought low by the events of “Oxygen,” his lust for danger and his belief in his own legend as the awe inspiring stranger who sweeps in and leaves all who encounter him pondering his mystery for the rest of their days have hit a solid wall of harsh reality. Permanently blinded, he hides that fact from Bill because, as Nardole points out, that would make it real; it would be an admission to himself and to the world that he’s less than the wizard or superhero he so often presents himself to be. So it’s with great timing that he’s presented with a suitable ego-stroking scenario. No less than the Pope himself (Joseph Long) deigns to travel all the way to St. Luke’s University in person and asks for an audience of the great and mighty Doctor (“Your wisdom and benevolence have been celebrated for more centuries than seems possible,” he says in italianio, or words to that effect.) Why? Because there is a book – the Veritas – deep within the Vatican which holds a truth so terrible, so persuasive, that anybody who reads it shortly thereafter kills themselves. And the Doctor, so the Catholic Church itself believes, is the only man in all creation brilliant and wonderful enough to read it and survive. What more validation could a wound licking Time Lord ask for?
The Veritas: the book everyone is dying to read
Things don’t work out that way. Being struck blind is highly inconvenient when the very thing mission of the week is something otherwise so straightforward as reading a book. When the Doctor does finally untangle the truth hidden within the pages of Veritas he’s left never more certain of his own impotence and of the hopelessness of his situation. This is a world where the Doctor physically can’t make a difference. Facing the architects that have shaped and controlled everything since the beginning – the rotting, husk like Truth Monks – he’s reduced to begging for his own death as liberation from the pointlessness of it all. It’s the final indignity in the process begun last episode – the stripping away from the Doctor of everything he has. No companion to applaud him; no grateful populace to thank him for saving the day; no swaggering speechifying about his own brilliance in the villain’s face. And what’s left without all that? Him, that’s what. The Doctor.., “without hope, without witness, without reward.” The Doctor, facing absolute destruction in the knowledge that he can’t save himself, that nobody in this world, or any other, will know what he did or put up statues in memory of it… doing the right thing anyway. Because, like Angel said, all that matters is what he does.
The ‘extremis’ of the title is not, as you’d expect, a monster or a threat or a tool or a place. It’s the idea that only in most dire of circumstances, stripped of everything else a person has, only in extremis is their true self revealed. The Pope is a man devoted to tradition and ritual and belief but in extremis is revealed to be someone who has to know the truth of the world around him at any cost, even if it destroys his own beliefs about the world. And, in extremis, the Doctor will never give in and never give up, even when nobody will ever know what he’s done. Even when there’s no hope for himself.
Peter Capaldi continues to shine
Capaldi predictably rises to the challenge of this material and his take on the Time Lord continues to be simultaneously one of the most alien, and one of the most human, interpretations we’ve seen. Weighed down with regrets, doubts and uncertainties Capaldi can do more with a tremor of an eyebrow or a tightening of his lip than most actors could accomplish with every trick in their bag. Matt Lucas impresses by holding his own in some of the most dramatic scenes in the episode. “Are you secretly a bad ass?” asks Bill at one point; “No ‘secretly’ about it,” says Nardole. And that could apply to Lucas himself as an actor too. Nardole’s a contradiction – cowardly but a man of strong principles, playing at being the long suffering valet, but incredibly capable and resourceful during his and Bill’s side mission to the Pentagon and CERN. Only Pearl Mackie’s Bill gets less to work with than usual this week, though she does give possibly the best reaction to the TARDIS’ ‘Vworp Vworp’ landing sound ever.
New villains the Truth Monks have the whole world in their hands
“Extremis” is the second part of a quartet of stories, a kind of mini-arc in the middle of the series. As such it satisfyingly builds on the themes of “Oxygen,” and the struggle between the Doctor’s not inconsiderable ego and his desire to help others. Though the only explicit link between the episodes so far has been the ongoing saga of the Doctor’s blindness the examination of the importance of truth and, more than that, the importance of self-knowledge and being honest with oneself. It’s very satisfyingly done and with upcoming episodes having titles like “The Lie of the Land,” something that looks to be built on further. And with the episode ending with a warning that a full scale invasion by the Monks is imminent, it seems we have a suitably epic arc to look forward to.
We may now know what ‘the thing’ was that prompted the Doctor to spend half a century guarding a vault, who’s in it, and how Nardole came to be in service as the Doctor’s Jiminy Cricket. But now we have a new question – how long can the Doctor resist the temptation to let them out? Blinded, outnumbered and outgunned, he’s clearly now tempted to play the game of ‘to catch a thief’ and unleash his prisoner as an ally against a greater threat. But what fun and games would that let loose?
All we know for sure is that if the episodes to come can continue the saga of the Truth Monks with the quality and intelligence of “Extremis,” then we’re in for a treat.
[Five TARDISes Out of Five]
Doctor Who airs on Saturdays. On BBC One in the UK on at 7.20pm GMT, in the US on BBC America at 9pm EST, in Canada on Space at 9pm EST. In Australia it airs on ABC on Sundays at 7.42pm.
This episode is due out on DVD and Blu Ray on May 29th
By: Peter Nolan