Following on from last week’s jaw dropping reveal that the Doctor has been rendered blind, showrunner Steven Moffat serves up an atmospheric, low-key episode that gets round to answering a few burning questions whilst simultaneously providing many more.
Called upon by the Vatican when a translation of an ancient text that makes those who read it commit suicide is leaked online, the Doctor, Bill and Nardole uncover a terrible secret that threatens to destroy humanity.
Said-threat is revealed to be the Monks, a grotesque creation of the the show’s talented prosthetics team, who in turn have created a virtual world (and a virtual TARDIS team to boot) in which they can practice their invasion of Earth. Its a solid idea, well executed via the small-scale events that unfold within the episode, with plenty of disjointed story threads (CERN, the Pentagon, random numbers) coalescing into one bold narrative experiment.
That the events depicted within the episode never actually happen is no cop-out mind you. The ramifications are felt, even after the deception is revealed, with the Doctor still blind and an alien invasion incoming. The twist is well executed, with plenty of subtle clues thrown in throughout, thus making for a perfect rewatch and rewind opportunity.
Amidst the creeping dread taking place within the simulated world of the Monks, we are also treated to revealing flashbacks regarding the Doctor and the Master (Michelle Gomez). There was very little doubt that the mysterious vault contained Missy, but here the why is more interesting then the who. Here we see the Master at her weakest, most vulnerable state, and yet there’s still plenty of the trademark insanity and cheek that has made Gomez’s version of the character such a thrill to watch. Her scenes opposite Peter Capaldi are beautifully underplayed and melancholic, further highlighting that these mortal enemies were once friends (a fact that has been a major theme throughout the Capaldi era).
There’s also a great bit of insight into the character of Nardole (Matt Lucas), who presence this series begins to receive due justification. Lucas naturally delivers the comedic goods, but its more delightful when he gets to be as intelligent and badass as he is here. Like Bill, he’s a perfect foil for Capaldi’s Doctor, and is here proven to be more then just a silly side character.
As Extremis ends, there’s no doubt some may still be left scratching their heads. As solid as it is, the slow and plodding nature of such an episode drags at times, with events never quite shifting into gear until the final five minutes. There’s also a severe lack of attention on Bill’s character, which has been a real highlight in even this season’s weakest stories. Of course, Extremis is merely part of a much larger story to be played out over the coming episodes, but its understandable if some viewers may feel shortchanged by an episode where essentially nothing actually happens, even if it is told in a clever and provoking manner.
Make no mistake though, Extremis is a Steven Moffat episode through and through. A mind-bending paradox that requires your firm attention throughout, it’s a slow burn of a story, but one that rewards with fresh insights into the main characters’ pasts and motivations.
Doctor Who returns to BBC One next week, as does Critical Popcorn’s Series 10 blog.