Doctor Who: Totally Arduous to Really Define Initial Section

by thethreepennyguignol

Well, that’s me shown. After complaining last week that the show was becoming somewhat forgettable, Doctor Who hit back with an episode that’s going to be niggling at the back of my head for weeks.

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Written by my personal nemesis Steven Moffat himself, Extremis featured all his best and worst qualities at once in a wildly-plotted mish-mash of ideas, characters, and existentialism, not to mention a good dose of Missy to cure what ails us. A high-concept start to what looks set to be a manic three-parter, Extremis was anything but forgettable. But was it actually any good?

The plot followed the Doctor, Bill, and a surprisingly bearable Nardole as they careered over to the Vatican on the orders of the Pope to investigate an ancient text whose translation had led all who read it to off themselves. In fact, let’s take a little pause as that brings me to my first point of contention here, and that’s the depiction of suicide in this episode.

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I’m not going to argue that no shows aimed at kids should depict suicide. But, as recent controversies have shown, we need to approach this topic with the utmost care less we send out an ugly and dangerous message. The suicides here were shown as a way for those who’d discovered they were part of a centuries-old simulation to rebel and escape their fates as nothing more than NPCs, and frankly, that’s some fucking irresponsible bullshit. To suggest that suicide is a way to flee a world that you feel doesn’t live up to your standards, and to use that concept as a mere hand-waved plot point when there were so many better ways to write those characters who discovered the truth out of the show, seems just jaw-droppingly poorly thought through. I thought that nonsense about a child’s medication stopping them from saving the world was bad, but this is a whole new level of ill-considered storytelling. It really put a damper on the episode for me, not because I don’t think DW should be dark or tell challenging stories, but because depicting suicide as a form of escape is just so flagrantly and obviously stupid that I can’t believe no-one went “uh, is this casually pro-suicide message the one we want to be sending with this episode of Saturday night family television?” before Extremis so much as made it out of the writers room.

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Phew. Anyway. While that was some nonsense, there was plenty of good stuff about the episode – it’s frantic and complex pace that differed from the oft-trudging simplicity of episodes past and that allowed the Doctor a plot while Nardole and Bill did their own thing for a bit, a story that actually held together relatively well despite forming the first third of a wider arc, and the re-introduction of Missy, to name but a few. And God, on that latter one, this season has required a dose of the ever-fabulous Michelle Gomez – I didn’t realize it’d missed her until she lifted her head after apparently being executed and demanded some respect for the recently-offed. She continues to utterly delight, and I don’t give a shit about what any of you demon-Mary-Poppins detractors have to say about it.

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And fuck, there’s no understating the fact that at least this episode had a big heaping of ambition to go with it. Yes, Moffat has a habit of setting up these enormous plots and then watching them vanish up his own bootstrap paradox, but this episode was packed with relatively complex sci-fi ideas for the tea-time slot and leaned into the darker elements, for better or for worse. The monsters were pretty creepy and actually seemed consequential as opposed to being there so the Doctor could do a big speech about compassion at them while casually letting a bunch of innocent bystanders die, and Pearl Mackie continues to prove herself as one of my favourite assistants of the last few years (ie, better than Clara).

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But it wouldn’t be a Moffat episode if I didn’t have a whole heap of Bad Thoughts about it. Aside from the suicide issue I mentioned above, the whole story felt brittle – it wasn’t helped by the fact that it was bouncing back and forth between the actual plot and a flashback to Missy’s attempted execution in a bit of plotting that left the episode satisfyingly meaty on one hand and a little jumbled on the other. Speaking of jumbled, this episode also had to handle the fact that the Doctor was still blind, then wasn’t, then was again, maybe, that Bill didn’t know and somehow didn’t notice the fact that he kept having to have his surroundings explained to him, the reveal and lingering question of what is or was in the vault, whether or not the reality we find ourselves in now (in-show, not in real life, but now you mention it…), and who the big bad influencing these aliens to try and get the Earth nice and fallow for an invadin’ actually is (clue: it’s John Simm’s Master. Or Clara. Because it’s always fucking Clara).

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In fact, Extremis reminded me of Heaven Sent, what with the whole thing being set inside a simulation that was broken down at the end of the episode to set up for something apparently bigger next week, and we all remember how that story resolved itself. Any multiple-part story lives or dies on the strength of what surrounds it, but I could see Extremis going down as a modern Who classic or a famously faulty flail for former glories. There are so many questions that need to be answered – if the villains didn’t want the Doctor to find the Veritas text, why did they leave it in the reality they created around him? What happened to this Nardole and Bill, and will we see them again? As a physics student, how did Bill not know what fucking CERN was? – and, after Listen’s endlessly hanging threads, I’m not confident in Moffat’s ability to answer them. I’m sure there’s a double-bluff about what’s actually residing in that vault, and I have the feeling that that’s the question the show is more interested in finding a response to than any of the more immediate questions this episode posed.

Ah, fuck it. I could easily write a thousand more words on this episode, but I’m not sure I’d be doing anything but going over the minutaie and trying to figure out minute-by-minute if this was actually brilliant or terrible. Certainly, it was truly stimulating (not just Michelle Gomez was in it, you sicko, bu yes, because Michelle Gomez was in it), and that’s the first time I’ve been able to say that about the show this season. While we’ll have to wait to see what the next couple of weeks bring, I give Extremis a very confident shrug and confused brow-furrow. I’ll have you yet, Moffat, you maybe-genius-maybe-hack.

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