This review contains spoilers.
I was very prepared to hate Extremis: it’s Steven Moffat’s second writerly outing this series, after the sickeningly self-congratulatory The Pilot.
I was pleasantly surprised, however.
Its initial, slightly Dan Brown-ish premise sees the Pope approaching the still-blinded Doctor to ask him to read the Veritas: an ancient text in the Vatican’s library that has made everyone who has read it kill themselves. What Terrible Secret does it contain?
Interspersed with this ecclesiastical foray is another story, of a kind of which Moffat is regrettably fond: a story from the Doctor’s past. It reveals that the inhabitant of the vault the Doctor’s been guarding all series is Missy (to the surprise of precisely no-one); that he was once supposed to execute her, for reasons, and didn’t because his dead wife River Song told him not to; that he has to guard her for a thousand years, nevertheless, because he made a vow.
It’s not a great episode, but it does actually work surprisingly well. The secret – the “truth” – that the Veritas contains, it turns out, is that the world of the episode is a computer simulation set up by a mysterious alien race so they can study humankind’s defences and invade the Earth (for reasons which I assume will become clear over the next couple of weeks). This is old, old ground that runs the risk of becoming ridiculous; but Moffat eschews Matrix-style reality-bending in favour of subtle wrongnesses that are much more effective. An arm that pixelates into nothingness. Explosives packed under tables in a canteen. A room full of people all choosing the same random number. And faced with these wrongnesses, the creeping panic that Bill feels on learning the truth feels appropriate and well-grounded; the mass suicide of the CERN scientists who’ve read the Veritas seems like the only rational response, an act of resistance designed to stop the aliens learning about humankind’s capabilities.
The episode’s weak link is really the Missy plot thread, which is just not the kind of story Doctor Who is designed to tell. Against the bleak horror of the Veritas story, the various histrionics of the Doctor, Missy, the executioner and Nardole (who enters the scene to speak for River Song) are overwritten and trite. And the Missy we get here, facing her death weeping and kneeling, is unrecognisable as the Master who refused to regenerate in Last of the Time Lords in order to spite the Doctor.
Ultimately, Extremis doesn’t really feel like it’s doing much work: it makes some play with the idea that
Good is good in the final hour, in the deepest pit without hope, without witness, without reward
with the idea, presumably, that this is what the scientists are doing when they blow themselves up, what the simulated Doctor is doing when he emails what he knows to the real Doctor, knowing that the simulation will be terminated at this point and he will die. But the episode is much more interested in setting the next episode up, in establishing the capital-p Plot and capital-t Themes for the rest of the season, than in exploring its rather disturbing premise. This is a shame, on the whole, as it makes for a bitty and slightly incoherent episode – though I’m also not sure how “we are all living in a computer simulation” would have worked as a standalone.
In summary, Extremis isn’t going to be remembered as a great Doctor Who episode; but I don’t think it will be remembered as a terrible one either. Next week: who the hell knows?