In my very first review for this series, I ventured the thought that Series Script Editor Steven Moffat was perhaps just a little too clever for his own good. The latest episode, entitled Extremis, has done little to persuade me that my analysis was wrong. While the episode explores several intriguing ideas and concepts, the execution leaves the viewer feeling more than a little disappointed by the end.
I should warn that in contrast to my previous reviews, one cannot review Extremis properly without extensive plot spoilers – so let the reader beware before they continue!
That warning delivered – Extremis is an uncomfortable mismatch between the Matrix movies, and a Dan Brown novel. The Doctor is ostensibly brought to the Vatican City (by no less a personage than the Pope himself) to read a book entitled ‘Veritas’, a book that has induced everyone who has read the book to take their own life. By the end of the story, we discover that the world we have been viewing is not real, but instead a simulation used by an alien species to simulate an invasion of earth. The story concludes with the simulated Doctor sending a recording of his experiences to the real Doctor, who receives the file and learns that earth is under threat of an alien invasion.
As the reader will quickly conclude, the plot only works when you have no idea what is going on, and when you realise that the story is nothing more than a fabrication within the story’s universe you feel cheated and let down. You end up with zero empathy for the characters because there was no cost for the hardships that they faced. On one level the story was clever, but on another level it was so self-reverential that with the right coloured rosette it could stand for Prime Minister.
Just to add into this massive mix of disappointment, three further things left a sour taste in the mouth. First of all, the Doctor’s blindness has not had the affirming impact I had hoped for. The Doctor resents being blind, and is trying to hide it from Bill. Perhaps in time this will work, demonstrating that it’s okay to feel frustration for physical limitations. At the moment though, we are not getting the message that those who are blind can still lead active and fulfilling lives. Secondly, we discovered (or rather, it is strongly hinted) that the person inside the Vault is Missy, supposedly ‘executed’ by the Doctor, we discover that he instead promised that he would guard her for one thousand years. We find him now pondering how he can do so when he is blind. Maybe this will develop over the series … but the semi-frequent flashbacks to Missy’s ‘execution’ didn’t really add anything to the development of the story, and felt rather forced.
My final disappointment is less episode specific, and more an ongoing regret for the way the current production team have such a downer on faiths and religions. While it is no secret that many in the BBC production team subscribe to a liberal secular view of the world, there is something slightly distasteful about the sneering way Moffat-era Doctor Who has taken a publicly condescending view of religious faith. While I do not subscribe to the Catholic faith, and have many deep concerns with the Roman Catholic church, I also value the liberty each of us ought to enjoy to choose what we believe. In a pluralist society that does not immunise any of us from debate, scrutiny, and even ridicule (pity the poor members of the Flat Earth Society …), but I have been really disappointed that Doctor Who has had a persistently anti-faith monotone. The history of Doctor Who has been about exploration, and the pursuit of truth and higher ideals. While that deservedly means shedding light on uncomfortable truths, there’s something more than a little uncomfortable where a viewpoint is mocked merely because it does not align with that of the author …
Who would have thought that a less than memorable episode of Doctor Who could lead to such a controversial and heavy side discussion? That’s what makes it such a great and enduring show!