Steven Moffat has never been one for taking the easy way out. He’s been setting challenges for himself pretty much his entire writing career. His philosophy seems to be, push yourself, make yourself work harder as a writer to take your writing into places you’ve never been before, and – this being the tricky bit, maybe – don’t forget to take the audience along for the ride. Of late, he has been getting better at telling the viewers at home what the resolution is, as well as showing it to them on the screen, even if occasionally he slips back into making them work it out for themselves (having provided them with all the clues); Hell Bent was guilty of this, with its multiple potential explanations for what the Hybrid could be (of course the real answer was provided via clues throughout the rest of the episode), while Listen had been its ultimate expression. Extremis, in common with the rest of this year’s experiment in simplifying the format, took the lower example of the higher road, and pushed the envelope as far as Heaven Sent last series, while keeping things easy to follow for beginners. You only really needed a passing acquaintance with The Matrix, or maybe Tron or even Carnival of Monsters, to be able to understand what was going on in Extremis, and even if you didn’t, the entire premise was spelled out in dialogue and action quite well enough for you to get it.
The starting point for all this was, very loosely, the same as that of 1975’s The Android Invasion; an alien race run a simulation ahead of a planned invasion of Earth. Here it was a very modern simulation, however, being run inside a computer programme with exact copies of everybody and everything on the planet, from a series of hubs reproducing strategically important locations. The way into the mystery was perhaps more interesting than the way back out; whereas in 1975 the Doctor and Sarah pitched up in an apparently deserted English town, only to discover even stranger things happening around them, here it was Dan Brown who led the way into the story, producing an ostensibly ancient text that was so heretical everybody who read it immediately took their own lives afterwards. There were shades of everything from Castrovalva to The Ring in the set-up, with the modern ancient text and its read-me-and-die nature, but the plot was rigorous and thoroughgoing in making sure all these elements made sense (it even gave us an example of the TARDIS translation function not working inside the simulation, a clue as to that we weren’t any longer in the Real World). The resolution, in fact, was so far removed from the mythical promises the story seemed to be making about the book, that although it was a very gradual reveal rather than the usual single moment of rug-pulling, it still felt properly sinister. A sleight of authorial hand that made Extremis unique and distinctive, despite its many debts to popular texts of the last couple of decades. Steven Moffat took some very ill-matched ingredients and out of them whipped up something immensely satisfying.
And immensely dispensable. It’s unlikely the Doctor learned anything here – even the fact that the alien invasion is on its way – that he mightn’t have learned just as easily next week. So this episode might well not have happened at all – and in a sense it didn’t – for all its impact on the trajectory of the series. And that was what was beautiful about it. Extremis took a dialogue about the nature of life and its relationship with religion as its playground, and was very deferential – if a little playful – towards both, while only pretending to really be interested in either. Typical Doctor Who, in other words, wearing its influences on its sleeve while at the same time bending them to fit its own agenda. And in its irrelevance it made itself compulsive. It kept you glued to the screen by constantly shifting in front of you, despite also giving the impression of something contained and leisurely paced, and its impact upon the principals was profound in its superficiality.
Pearl Mackie was back to her shining best, unaffected and funny and proactive this week after a slight blip in her willingness to get involved in Oxygen. And Nardole was a much greater presence, both in the main plot and the wraparound side-story, not just because of his engagement and problem solving, but also because of the deliberate nods, played with a sense of mischief, about his true nature. Capaldi was simply brilliant, quietly and subtly immersing himself in his character’s blindness while simultaneously driving the plot and making it light enough to want to follow. Extremis was very funny, but almost always in order to elevate the tension rather than to puncture it. The Doctor’s final entreaty to Bill to have a night of fun before the soldiers head into battle against possibly their most dangerous enemy yet, was a fine moment both of character development and of establishing the severity of the situation.
We mustn’t forget Missy. Underplaying to the point of ambiguity, Michelle Gomez revealed herself the apparent answer to the puzzle of the Vault, while setting up a new mystery – why the Doctor might want to keep her there and how she might subsequently figure as the rest of Series Ten unfolds. The revelation itself wasn’t unexpected, the manner of its revealing was completely out of left-field. The interpolation of the scenes in which this happened was occasionally a little jarring, although the use of actual flashbacks within a simulation with no real past was quite a bold move, a further experiment in pushing the limits of Doctor Who’s conceptuality.
It’s difficult to say until their true nature is revealed, but the Monks themselves felt a little incongruously matched with their methods, albeit they were an unsettling presence in an already disconcerting narrative. Physically, they look like the primitive cousins of the Silence from Series Six, something slightly unformed but with plenty of potential for spookiness. They’re less the classic Doctor Who monster as we understand it of yore, but they are a nagging reminder that Steven Moffat’s approach is to create monsters out of half-remembered bad dreams and misappropriated playground games rather than stuffing animals in boiler suits and giving them gruff voices.
Extremis is a turning point in Series Ten. The simple, character building narratives of the past few episodes were left behind in favour of giving Bill a truly abstract, multi-layered event to contend with. And it was this year’s spiritual successor to Heaven Sent, a densely-plotted but affecting puzzle box of a story that essentially leaves its characters and the wider narrative untouched while quietly advancing them in unseen ways. It’s very much a signature piece for Steven Moffat’s vision of the series, outwardly respectful of institutions that might be open to criticism, but very ostentatiously critiquing of the institution of Doctor Who itself. It’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that Moffat has made his stock in trade. It’s compulsory but immaterial viewing, an episode that will divide fans in their appreciation of it. But nevertheless brave, essential television for Saturday evenings.
DR. WHO SERIES 10, EPISODE 6: “EXTREMIS” / DIRECTOR: DANIEL NETTHEIM / WRITER: STEVEN MOFFAT / STARRING: PETER CAPALDI, PEARL MACKIE, MATT LUCAS, MICHELLE GOMEZ, CORRADO INVERNIZZI / RELEASE DATE: AVAILABLE NOW ON I-PLAYER (AIRED 20TH MAY)