In the sixth episode of the tenth series of Doctor Who, the Doctor and Bill are brought to the Vatican to read a secret text. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Doctor Who.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of internalized homophobia, suicide, and ableism.
I realize a lot of us who have been watching Doctor Who for years have had issues with Moffat’s choices. I just realized, however, that there’s been one episode each series since series eight where Moffat has just knocked it out of the park for me. I adored the personal, circular nature of “Listen,” and I still think “Heaven Sent” is the best episode of series nine. Both of them were ridiculously ambitious, frightening, disorienting at times, and managed (in my opinion) to execute ideas that could have easily fallen apart.
There’s a bit of a similarity in those episodes within “Extremis,” but it is still very much its own thing. And oh my god, I LOVED THIS SO MUCH. In hindsight, I can now see the exact moment when the story switched from our world to the Shadow world, and knowing that helps me to wrap my mind around this experience. Because lord, this is an EXPERIENCE, one that is largely mystifying until Nardole is the first one to piece together what everyone else discovered when they read Veritas. There are a lot of pieces here, and I want to discuss as much of this as possible, so I’m gonna branch out to various topics at this point. LET US START WITH
Bill and Penny
One of the truly great things about the writing for Bill is how casual the scripts have been about her queerness. She’s a lesbian, and yes, that matters to her identity and her story, but there are no after-school-special type lessons to be taught. Which doesn’t mean there aren’t things to learn from her story! It’s just that she gets to be a part of these complex narratives as a whole character, and her being a lesbian is one aspect of that.
I loved that she brought Penny home, first of all. (I can’t remember who her flatmate is, though. Like, her name, I mean.) In that, there’s a beautiful interaction that is something I have been through myself as both parties. After I first came out, I was Penny; I’d been dealing with years of internalized homophobia, much of it caused by a religious upbringing. I am not even exaggerating when I say that when I was nineteen, I had a guy tell me that I didn’t have to feel guilty for having sex with him. He saw it; he felt it; he knew exactly what I was going through because he had gone through it. Years later, I was seeing someone who was older than me, but still struggled with that same guilt, and I had to assure them that we’d done nothing wrong. This moment between Penny and Bill is so short, but it meant the WORLD to see it on screen, to see how caring and sympathetic Bill was. Also, as an ex-Catholic, the sudden appearance of the Pope was so fucking FUNNY to me. I can’t even imagine experiencing that, IT WAS TOO MUCH.
So, I said this on camera, but BOY, would I ever love to read the heretical texts that the Vatican has. I am certainly not a Catholic anymore, but I still want to visit the Vatican? Something tells me with my big ol’ Crossbuster tattoo on my neck, they won’t let me in, but look. There’s just so much DRAMA in that church! And I like their buildings! Aesthetically, it’s all very pleasing to me. I just have a problem with… well, literally everything else.
But that’s not what this is about! Moffat does a clever thing here by creating tension with his use of the Vatican in this context. The Pope seeks out the Doctor, which we already know is an exceedingly rare thing. But it’s not just that; Moffat builds the tension by slowly revealing the strangeness around the Veritas text: it was written long ago, but no translations exist. Well, until some translators all succeeded in translating it, and then immediately killed themselves. It’s a horror trope I’ve seen before quite a few times. (I think the Masters of Horror episode “Cigarette Burns” is probably my favorite use of this trope, and lord, it’s REAL fucked up.) So, naturally, the tension changes: What does Vertias say? Why is it so horrible that it compels people to commit suicide afterward? Will the Doctor and Bill suffer the same effect if they read it, or is there something else going on here?
However, it’s the whole idea of the heretical library that really made this work for me. I love where this is set, and the set design is gorgeous. It’s a massive library that’s dark, easy to get lost in, and contains the “banned” texts of an entire religion! Thus, it’s the perfect place to stage so many important scenes pivotal to “Extremis.” While watching it, it appealed to the ex-Catholic in me. But in hindsight, it’s fucking BRILLIANT. Where else would a computer program “hide” the text that reveals what it is? It works on a real-world and a story level, and I admire that.
Unraveling the Truth
Another aspect I enjoyed in this episode was how much time Bill and Nardole spent together without the Doctor. Moffat also unravels the truth through them, too, right up until the big reveal scene in the Oval Office. The Doctor only provides the final piece. Instead, Nardole and Bill are the ones who venture through the device that the creatures (what do you even call those corpse-like things???) used for projection to piece together what’s actually happening around the Veritas text. But before they step through one of those portals, there’s a fascinating scene where Nardole scolds Bill for not doing as he says. In that, we discover so much more about who Nardole is and why he is around. Well, it’s that coupled with the flashbacks to Missy’s execution, but I’ll get there in a bit. Nardole is here because River Song specifically asked him to watch over the Doctor, to make sure he doesn’t do anything too extreme after her death. It puts his actions in a new context, particularly since he is so quick to criticize the Doctor! HE MAKES SO MUCH MORE SENSE NOW.
Anyway, hi, the scene in CERN wasn’t okay? Like, there was such an intense combination between giddiness and sadness in that room, and it made for a bizarre, unsettling experience. I admit that I still had not figured out what this was during that whole bit. Nardole had to spell it out, and even then, I still didn’t get it.
So, I also said this after the episode was over, but despite that this episode happened in a Shadow world that was a COMPUTER SIMULATION SO SOME UNNAMED ENTITY COULD PRACTICE DOMINATING EARTH (!!!!!!!), the events here matter. And I love that. I love that even though it’s all a simulation, Moffat found a way to give the story weight and meaning. It’s not all erased in the end, and this is not an episode without consequence. No, the framing device is right there in the beginning! The Doctor receives an email with the subject, “Extremis,” and then what we watch is his recording of events. So, at some point in the future (I hope it’s the next episode???), the actual villain will reveal themselves, and now, the Doctor is prepared for their arrival. But there’s a real great moment in this that I appreciated more than anything else: the Doctor telling Bill that Penny is not out of her league and to reach out to her. YES. I LOVE IT. I love that he recognizes that Bill deserves a personal life and he also learned not to interrupt it!!!
One other thing: I’m still curious what people’s thoughts are on the Doctor’s blindness. Again, not my lane, but there were moments where the Doctor’s blindness had some negative coding? I don’t know, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what exactly triggered that response. He isn’t magically cured (yet), and he regains his vision briefly by trading something from his future, but I don’t know if other folks would consider this meaningful representation, you know? I doubt it’s going to remain, and thus, it’s more like a temporary disability for… what? Entertainment? A metaphor?
OH MY GOD I ALSO LOVE THE FLASHBACKS. Every part of this episode feels like it belongs here, and the reveal of Missy’s fate works so much. It had to happen here so that we could get that moment at the end of “Extremis.” Can we trust the Master? I’d like to say that we could, and there was something deeply touching about her saying, without reward, that she was the Doctor’s friend, just before her “death.” Y’all, these two characters have been through so much, and the Doctor couldn’t truly kill her. And thus, the oath is revealed: he promised to watch over her body (one that happens to be living) for a thousand years.
And with whatever horrible thing on its way to take over earth, the Doctor told the truth: he might need Missy’s help. The question is: will she give it? Will she be good and save Earth, or will she forever choose herself over others?
The video for “Extremis” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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