❉ This year’s long game begins...
“They read the Veritas and chose Hell.”
Depending on your point of view, ‘Extremis’ was either a triumph or confusing.
If you were tuning in hoping to be entertained by one of this year’s impressive stand-alone stories, you were confronted instead by a story that set up a number of mysteries.
Like all the recent episodes it was a stylish mixture, riffing on Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code – an arcane, secret text at the heart of the Vatican – and variously delivering Missy (the ever wonderful Michelle Gomez), mature lesbian relationships, virtual reality and a new, sinister enemy in demonically faced, red-robed monks. There were also references to River Song, highlighting the compassion in the Doctor’s character as he attended Missy’s apparent execution.
After the intrigue in the last few episodes about who or what was in the vault the Doctor and Nardole have been guarding, it made sense at this point in the series that that question was (apparently) finally answered, so you were either rewarded as a long-term viewer or rewarded within the confines of this week’s episode. With that mystery answered, setting up more seemed fair enough. The continuing flashbacks to the scene explaining Missy’s incarceration in the vault did seem to take a long time to get to the point, but the stunning and impressively sombre location where it was situated kept you interested.
Setting up a long-term mystery allowed writer Steven Moffat to play with viewers’ perceptions. The reveal that the story set in the Vatican had all been a virtual reality simulation may seem a bit of a cheat – it’s been done a lot in film and television before – but it made for some wonderful juxtapositions: the Vatican labyrinth, the Pope and his retinue gate-crashing Bill’s flat, the Pentagon, the Oval office and the cheerfully suicidal Cern organisation. The latter sequence, in particular, with the Cern employees, Nardole and Bill all quoting identical numbers as the clocks counted down on sticks of dynamite hidden under tables, was both quirky and chillingly dramatic. Nardole realising he wasn’t the genuine article was also wonderfully surreal.
This time around, Bill was paired with Nardole for most of the running time and, just like her partnership with Peter Capaldi, you can tell Pearl Mackie enjoys sparking off Matt Lucas’s funny and sharp characterisation. Capaldi himself continues to give the defining performance of his tenure as the Doctor, by turns exhibiting gravitas, good humour and a steely determination to succeed, despite the loss of his sight which, with the end now in sight for this regeneration, adds to a mounting sense of crisis and foreboding.
OK, there might not have been a lot here for kids – and the demonic monks might have been a bit strong for very young viewers – but there was enough in the creepy, surreal ambience and quick changes of scene, ably directed by Daniel Nettheim, to keep them interested.
Overall, ‘Extremis’ maintained the high standards set by the rest of the season.
❉ ‘Doctor Who’ airs on BBC One every Saturday at 7.20pm. Click here for episodes and extra content.
❉ Series 10: Part 1 will be available on DVD & Blu-Ray 2 May 2017, with Series 10: Part 2 available on 17 July 2017. Complete Series 10 available on DVD & BD later this year
❉ Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ and ‘SFX’. He is the author of books on the iconic TV series ‘The Prisoner’, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’. His biography of the actor Ian Carmichael was one of ‘The Independent’s Top 10 Film Books of the Year for 2011.