In the Vatican’s secret library of blasphemy lies an ancient book known as The Veritas. Whenever anyone throughout history has read this book, they’ve taken their life immediately. When a new translation leaks online, the human race finds itself in great danger. The Doctor decides to read this text in a bid to uncover the truth, but can he himself survive?
So far series 10 has included several strong episodes within its lineup. What’s more, the newly implemented tempo can be considered something of a breath of fresh air, at least in the context of the show’s 21st century iteration. In spite of this, with exception for perhaps Thin Ice, we’ve had nothing truly innovative as of yet. Seeing as Moffat is clearly on autopilot at this stage into his tenure, it’s perhaps safe to assume we’ll probably have to wait until the new creative team come aboard before we start getting regular game changing Doctor Who again. Fortunate for all, when it comes to episode six’s Extremis it’s safe to say the tenth year of New Who finally has a ground-breaking belter to help challenge the less optimistic mindset I’ve been harboring toward the current series.
Slow pacing helps this one more so than any other of series 10’s episodes to date, albeit for reasons which initially sound unusual. For one, the ideas lying behind much of Extremis’ premise aren’t all that complex in and of themselves. The fact it moves at such an unhurried and, at times, nonlinear rate allows time for the story to steadily unfold, expanding in its intricacy as things progress.
The general premise for this episode is the characters and surrounding world are virtual replicas of reality. Everything playing out during its 45-minute run is a simulation assembled by a group of aliens – known as the Monks – devising a trial invasion of earth prior to executing an actual one. Not the most intricate of concepts. The artificial reality could have been revealed at the start if they wished; making this a story about the Doctor and Bill trying to contact the outside world.
Instead writers Steven Moffat and Daniel Nettheim skilfully spread the premise out over Extremis’ entire run time. This is done by containing the plot’s exposition within a book known as The Veritas, yet seeing as the Doctor’s blind he’s unable to read it for vast stretches of the episode.
The Veritas’ big reveal is stretched out farther by having the script regularly jump to a flashback subplot regarding the Doctor preparing to execute Missy. In addition to this clearing up some series ten story arcs (who’s in the vault and how Nardole came to be the Doctor’s chaperone), it breaks up and adds depth to the primary story unfolding onscreen.
Saying that Extremis uses a blind protagonist and flashbacks to slow down what’s essentially a straightforward premise sounds almost like a criticism. In some circumstance this might be seen as a lackluster attempt at padding out a hollow idea. Fortunately Moffat and Nettheim manage to make this work to the episode’s advantage; allowing them to turn what could’ve been another generic story into a tense, puzzle-box, high-concept sci-fi thriller in which our heroes – and by proxy the audience – slowly learn that the world around them is false.
Slowly drip-feeding information regarding the simulated reality amplifies tension. Audiences knows a dark truth lurks within a text our heroes have yet to read, yet such answers remain a mystery right up until the climax. By the time the reveal comes into play, viewers are more than eager to learn what’s going on.
All of this could have come tumbling down at the last second of course, especially if the big twist wasn’t any good. That’s the problem with “mystery box” stories, if the big surprise isn’t any good, everything falls to pieces in a heartbeat. These kinds of narratives are made or destroyed based entirely on their endings. Except a reveal in which aliens have manufactured a simulation to trial an invasion is a solid reveal with chilling ramifications.
You could perhaps argue this is a retooling of the “it’s all a dream” baloney occasionally seen in stories, except it’s not as tacky as that. For one thing the twist has detrimental ramification upon the characters we’ve been following all episode. They’re essentially going to die now they’ve discovered the truth. Sure, the real bill, Nardole and Doctor we’ve spent time with over the past five episodes are fine; however the specific individuals we’ve just spent 45-minutes of our evening with won’t be alive for much longer (plus considering Bill & Nardole’s horror after realising what’s going on, it’s safe to say the subjects of this duplicate-reality are sentient).
Plus unlike the “it’s all a dream” trope, discovering the world’s unreal doesn’t resolve everything in a heartbeat. Instead its revelation triggers the simulated-Doctor into contacting the real-Doctor; setting up the following story. The big reveal kick starts the premise for next week’s episode; in which extraterrestrial Monks plot to tear our planet to shreds.
Which brings us onto the subject of how to successfully execute multi-part Doctor Who stories, because Extemis seems to do this more efficiently than most. More often than not a two-parter will tell one half of a story in episode one and finish it all off in episode two. This can be fine of course, except it means watching as it airs can at times be a pain. We only get half a story one week, unable to receive any sort of payoff until the following. Whereas this is ok when watching it on Netflix or Bluray, it’s somewhat frustrating at a story’s time of release.
One of the joys of Extremis is it offers a resolution wrapping this particular episode up while keeping the larger scope of this three-parter’s story open. The Monks are still at large and the Doctor remains sightless, not to mention Missy is about to be released from the vault.
All of this proves that in 2017, Doctor Who is more than capable of successfully pulling off a serialised structure if the BBC wished to do so. Rather than having standalone stories each week, in theory they could do a twelve-part serial in which each episode leads organically into the next, maintaining a complex arc throughout. Several years ago, such a claim would sound naive. The show moved at such a speed and had grown so accustomed to utilising a “monster of the week” approach that bridging every episode felt far too risky a move. Except now there’s proof suggesting slow-building stories and sweeping narratives told across multiple episodes is possible.
Arguably at the time of writing Extremis is only a successful first part out of a yet-to-be-aired trilogy arc, meaning it’s still too early to tell whether it’ll work over a three week period. However seeing it function so successfully in a series embracing world-building structures makes serialised 21st century Doctor Who feel more plausible than ever before. We’ll just have to wait two more weeks to find out whether such a claim holds water.
It’s structure and execution aren’t the only impressive additions to Extremis. Amidst all of this plot and narrative hullabaloo, there’s plenty to say about the episode’s characters, who successfully propel all of this non-linear intricacy forward.
For one thing we’ve got a lot more Nardole again this week. It’s impressive how quickly he’s gone from awkward background character to competent secondary-companion. For the first four episodes he was pointless, last week he was fine-but-disposable, and this week he’s a natural part of the series ten lineup.
During the flashbacks it’s established Nardole is watching over the Doctor at the instruction of the Timelord’s late wife River Song. Upon having this information revealed his place in the series immediately makes sense. Matt Lucas is surprisingly good at playing a character chaperoning the Doctor and Bill. He keeps them in check, guiding them through the larger surrounding story and offering exposition whenever the Doctor’s absent. Nardole’s character could easily become a problem if he lasted in the show for too long, however for one series it’s a nice change which offers a fresh dynamic. It’s a bit like having a Kryton-from-Red-Dwarf type character aboard the TARDIS.
As always, Pearl Mackie continues to prove Bill Potts is one of the best things to happened to the show in recent years. We get a glimpse into her day-to-day life this week (even if it wasn’t technically the real her) which is both pleasant and – based on the context of the date sequence – downright humorous. Only quarrel this time round is she’s too smart and self-aware to miss the obvious regarding the Doctor having no sight. For her to not notice all the blatant signs of his blindness felt far too out of character. This is quite a minor quibble, however, so it can be overlooked without any hassle.
The Doctor’s an interesting crumpet this week. They’re keeping him blind for longer than two stories. Maybe even for the whole series perhaps? It could potentially work if done properly. Admittedly it’s interesting to see him manoeuvre through stories without sight. It’s a nice way of forcing the character to come up with innovative ways of progressing through each story. Having said that, they’ll probably wrap up this little side-plot by the time the final of this three part mini epic comes to a close in a fortnight.
Speaking of arcs, it seems a lot of series ten’s enveloping mysteries have been wrapped up this week. We now know the Doctor and Nardole (who’s there at the request of River Song) are under oath to watch over Missy’s body for a thousand years (though we’re not entirely sure why as of yet). Missy’s body has been been locked away in the mysterious vault hidden at St Luke’s University; hence why the Doctor set up shop there working as a professor.
Having so much of the story arc cleared up halfway through the series is a nice of keeping things moving. We’ve seen story arcs progress and shift in shape several times during New Who – series five and six in particular – and although it’s been a bit wobbly at times (series six), it’s also made for a much more engaging run when done properly (series five). Trying to maintain a single mystery for twelve episodes (as was the case in series eight and nine) gets boring pretty fast. Plus when the big reveal is a pile of tosh (series nine’s “hybrid” twaddle), it can damage the overall viewing experience of a particular series. Keeping the enveloping ideas and stories moving forward allows for a more fresh and enjoyable viewing experience.
Overall Extremis manages to execute an interesting sci-fi concept at a pace made more stimulating when stretched over 45-minutes. What’s more is it manages to successfully kickstart a multipart story by wrapping up one primary plot before moving onto episode two. It’s well written, setting up plenty while managing to competently execute a beginning, middle and end.
A terrific contribution to series ten.
Next week, the Russian, American and Chinese armies are all set to clash at an Ancient Pyramid. The strangest truth about this event is the Pyramid at the heart of this potential warzone only sprang into existence the day before. Bill, the Doctor and Nardole are about the face an invasion like no other before; an invasion that can only begin with the consent of the human race.