Doctor Who S10E6: Extremis
Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie, Matt Lucas.
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There is a stunning concept at the heart of ‘Extremis’.
The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is summoned to the Vatican at the behest of the Pope himself. Buried in the most secret room of the Vatican archive is a book, known as “Veritas”. It is a text older than the church itself. Everyone who has ever read it has immediately committed suicide. Can the Doctor solve the mystery, or will exploring the secrets of the book force him to take his own life?
Season 10 of Doctor Who has been typified by a deliberate return to the basics, presenting largely self-contained science fiction stories aimed to delight and occasionally horrify an all-ages audience. It has felt like a breath of fresh air after several seasons of complex and involved story arcs involving time travel, Time Lords, cracks in the universe and impossible girls. Viewers delighting in this simpler take on Doctor Who should potentially gird their loins, because with “Extremis” the more complex take on the series returns with full force in this unexpected, twisting episode by series executive producer Steven Moffat.
Much of the satisfaction in watching “Extremis” – and there are some tremendously good moments to be found – comes from the surprise in seeing it happen, so it would be mean-spirited to discuss the minutiae of the plot here. Talking it broad terms it is a story that smoothly expands a crisis over a book into a threat against the entire human race, drawing in such disparate locations as the Vatican, the Pentagon, the White House, CERN in Switzerland, and even an alien planet in the distant past.
The self-contained nature of the season’s earlier episodes is blown out of the water. “Extremis” follows on directly from last week’s “Oxygen”, with the Doctor rendered blind by his injuries in that episode. It ends with a direct lead-in to the following episode; indeed the entire episode feels like an extended prologue. That does hurt it a little. Events take a surprisingly long time to kick into high gear, with the real resolution and meat of the story relegated to the following week. What is left is a bunch of great ideas and atmospheric moments that fail to build to a self-contained conclusion.
Peter Capaldi is great once again, presenting a multi-faceted and emotionally nuanced Doctor. Pearl Mackie continues to develop Bill into a wonderful new companion, and the episode should be praised for the matter-of-fact and non-jokey manner in which it presents her homosexuality. Matt Lucas is somewhat problematic as Nardole. He plays the character very well, but it is that character who seems to grate on the nerves the more screen time he is given. As a fussy butler who lectures the Doctor on personal responsibility he has been marvellous. As a fully-fledged companion in the thick of an adventure he overwhelms and irritates. A little Nardole, it seems, goes a very long way.
The mysterious vault, which the Doctor has spent the season guarding, is finally explained. While it does not open, we do learn what is hidden inside. It is not a particularly unexpected answer, but it does nicely shift the mystery from what is inside to what is going to happen to it. With this episode coming at the season’s mid-point, there is a definite feel of events being kicked up a notch for Capaldi’s home run.
There is a stunning concept at the heart of “Extremis”, and it does feel that to an extent the entire episode has been built backwards from that revelation. There is an intensely creepy scene that stands as one of Moffat’s very best – it involves shouting out numbers – and a nicely horrific new monster for the Doctor to challenge. Ultimately, however, it does all feel a bit too much like an extended prologue. How the story develops next time will likely determine how effective this episode is in the long run.