Is it a reflection on the prudence of being showrunner as long as Steven Moffat has, that my initial reaction to what is undoubtedly the most daring and experimental storytelling Doctor Who has done since the classic series (perhaps short of Heaven Sent) was a feeling of being underwhelmed? I will admit that my expectations were fairly high for this one. The synopsis sounded amazing. The vault was opening. Missy was returning. A three-part mid-series arc was kicking off. All the advance reviews were drooling with acclaim. Steven Moffat was writing. The episode I anticipated in alignment of these auspicious stars was never going to be matched by what aired on the weekend.
But I think there’s a point to be made that what is undoubtedly an exceptional and distinguished episode has the potential to fall flat for many seasoned viewers, simply because this is Steven Moffat 101, and we’ve all become exceedingly familiar with Steven Moffat 101 over the last seven years. To be sure, Extremis is Steven Moffat 101 taken farther than it’s ever been taken before. It’s Moffat in his final hours—in extremis, you might say—digging deeper into his magic hat than he’s permitted himself before now, pulling out his wackiest, most envelope-pushing ideas and saying “F*ck it, let’s do it”, just because it’s his last chance to make the Doctor Who stories he wants to make and just because he can.
But those of us who unironically refer to ourselves as “Whovians” have got to know the creative mind of Steven Moffat very well by now, and we know in a good level of detail what the inside of his hat looks like by now. So when we’re confronted with something new from inside the hat, even something from deeper within the hat than we’ve seen before, we’re not necessarily surprised anymore, and we’re not necessarily as impressed as we might have been seven years ago. It’s meta-reality. It’s timey-wimey. It’s clever psychological gimmicks. It’s Things Which Are Not What They Seem. It’s locked boxes (literal or figurative) with flashing neon question marks hovering over them. It’s the Doctor as pseudo-deity. It’s The Pandorica Opens. It’s Silence in the Library. It’s The Impossible Astronaut. It’s the distillation of a number of the familiar tropes and ideas we’ve seen in Steven Moffat’s writing many times before, and arranged into a configuration which is entirely new and interesting, but yet still familiar.
The point I’m trying to make in saying all that is that I just wish I could have had the privilege of watching this episode having not seen all of Moffat’s previous work – several times – before. Because it is a brilliant script. It’s an ingenious and daring script. It’s pushing against the outer limits of what’s possible on Doctor Who, and that’s always a good thing. This is Moffat taking his familiar ideas and making something genuinely innovative and interesting out of them, as opposed to, you know, The Name of the Doctor. It’s just that I feel I need to take a step back and take a more objective view of this episode to truly appreciate it as the brilliant piece of writing it is. As I said, apart from the final 15 minutes, I finished watching this episode feeling underwhelmed. But it’s ironic because this script had everything I want and ask for in a Doctor Who story: it was experimental, it was dark, it was atmospheric, it had huge, thrilling, audacious ideas that it wasn’t shy in teasing out indulgently. It improved on a rewatch, but I can’t shake the feeling of ambivalence. I think it really is that I’m just getting bored of Moffat’s style. For what it’s worth, my dad, a Casual Viewer™ whom I’m in the process of converting into a proper Whovian, absolutely adored this one. Which I think is very telling.
To actually say something about the story, though. I’ve already waxed about how daring this script was, but can we just take a moment to appreciate the significance for Doctor Who of the ideas this story is playing with? There were an unbelievably suspenseful five minutes or so when it looked like the episode was about to say that the Doctor and Bill—the Doctor and Bill we know—were part of the computer simulation, that everything we’ve been watching for six weeks was part of the computer simulation—if not everything since 1963. I’d have been awed, if profoundly disconcerted, if the episode had gone that far, but, perhaps for the best, it didn’t. Still, I think hyper-advanced aliens creating an elaborate computer simulation of the Earth to practise conquering the planet is my favourite idea the show has played with. And telling the story from inside the Matrix makes for thrilling, mesmerising storytelling, as well as some of the out-and-out darkest material we’ve ever seen on Doctor Who. Existentialism aside, the depiction of an apocalyptic gnostic text causing the mass suicide of the scientists at CERN and the suicide of the President of the United States alone in his office, was bracing and provocative in the best way possible.
There were bits of the episode that positively didn’t impress me. It felt excessively busy. I think it could have done with less globe-hopping, a tighter and more compact narrative, or else a full 60 minutes to allow for something more slow-burning and detailed. Although I realise in the case of the former that we wouldn’t have then got the brilliant scene in CERN. The alien monks, I thought, were also quite nondescript and perhaps lazily conceived and designed. They looked like a cross between the Silents and the Pyroviles, and in design conformed to the typical profile of ugly humanoid Doctor Who aliens. I can perhaps forgive the design of the alien monks though, because as yet we don’t know what they are—I expect we’ll find out more about them in the next episode. I’m aware of the popular theory that the monks are the Mondasian Cybermen, and I’d be delighted if that were the case. But I’m sceptical that they are the Mondasians—somehow it doesn’t seem like their style, and I’d question why the Mondasians (or the Cybermen generally) would want to make themselves look like weird ugly blue aliens in the simulated reality rather than humans. Design and conception aside, though, I’m intrigued by the monks, by their identity and what their purpose and intentions are. Actually, on the connection of learning more about the monks in the next episode, I’m prepared to forgive a lot about this episode when I consider it in its context as the first part of a two- or three-part arc. As a standalone, it needs some work, but as Part 1 of 3… let’s wait ‘til we see Part 2 and 3.
As for Missy, though. The constant flashbacks to Missy was one of the things congesting this episode, making it feel a touch busier than it needed to be, but the connection between Missy’s pleading in extremis with the Doctor, and the (simulant) Doctor’s actions at the end of the episode, having discovered the horrible truth of his identity as a simulation, was quite neat and poignant. It was also very interesting seeing another side to Missy, the side of herself she only reveals in extremis. But I can’t say I’m not disappointed that it’s Missy that’s in the vault after all. There was a tweet I retweeted on Twitter after the episode that said “Missy is in the vault” with a picture of a woman covering her mouth with her hands in a mock gasp, with the caption *pretends to be shocked*. I think that was the general sentiment of the fandom upon learning that, yes, as we’ve all been expecting since we heard that piano, it was Missy in the vault after all. A part of me was hoping, anticipating, that Moffat wasn’t going to go for something so predictable and uninteresting—because it really didn’t merit the hype and the overbearing confected mystery around the vault for the last six weeks—but maybe this is just something else that sounded more impressive in Moffat’s head than it was ever going to be in reality. There’s still the (slight) possibility that it’s not Missy in the vault after all—and, knowing Moffat, I still wouldn’t be surprised if it weren’t—but what’s more interesting to me now is what the significance of the vault is supposed to be. Why was Missy put in the vault at all, and why do we need to know that the Doctor spent all this time guarding Missy’s body? I’m expecting, pleading, for a worthwhile payoff for all this.
We’re at the mid-point of Series 10 now, though. Things are picking up now in earnest, as I hoped they would. After such an unassuming, albeit solid, start, this series has certainly taken an unexpected turn for the darker, and it looks like we’re in for a thrilling couple of weeks. To continue on from my theme from last week of admitting to the egg all over my face, this series has been consistently strong so far, and if this episode is an indication of the direction this series is heading, Series 10 could very well turn out to be Moffat’s strongest series of all, as I predicted. We haven’t had any stories I’d consider out-and-out classics yet (this one and Oxygen have come the closest), but I can’t believe that this series will not deliver up at least one. We still have Peter Harness, Toby Whithouse and Steven Moffat’s last-ever finale in two parts, after all.