‘Extremis’ closes one arc, by answering the question of who is in the Vault, and opens another, as it begins a trilogy of episodes featuring some new monsters, the Monks.
The answer to the question of who is in the Vault is answered at the beginning of this episode. It’s Missy (Michelle Gomez). As for how she came to be there, that is told in flashbacks sprinkled throughout the episode. She was sentenced to be executed on a distant planet. A machine there is powerful enough to be destroy a condemned Timelord beyond all regeneration, and their law says this sentence must be carried out by another Timelord, who must then guard the remains for a thousand years, just in case. The Doctor has to carry out the sentence. Missy pleads for her life, and even says she’ll turn good. But she seemingly accepts her fate, and tells the Doctor she is his friend. The Doctor messes with the machine so it doesn’t kill Missy, but he keeps his oath to guard her in the Vault for a thousand years.
The main plot of the episode though focuses on another time. The Doctor is visited by the Holy See and even the Pope himself (Joseph Long), who knows of the Doctor from a document giving personal recommendation to him. This document was written in 1045, and is by Pope Benedict IX, (who, in this reality, was a woman).
The Holy See tell the Doctor of an ancient text titled Veritas (i.e, the truth), written in an unknown language. It has been translated, in fact it’s been translated many times, but everyone who has done so committed suicide soon after. Cardinal Angelo (Corrado Invernizzi) makes the point that some of these translators were devout believers who saw suicide as a sin. They chose to kill themselves, and in their view that meant they would probably go to Hell. The Holy See want the Doctor to try and read the Veritas.
Bill brings home a girl, Penny (Ronke Adekoluejo). But they are interrupted by the Pope coming out of Bill’s bedroom. Penny is freaked out, runs off. Bill is understandably a bit miffed at the Doctor, who bought the Pope there in the TARDIS, but goes in to join on this adventure.
They go to the Vatican, which has a top secret library filled with forbidden heretical texts. In the library, the Doctor, Bill, Nardole and Cardinal Angelo spot someone going into a bright light in a wall, which is a portal. There is also a priest in a bookcage, who has sent a copy of the translated Veritas text via email to a laptop. He has sent it to CERN, a European nuclear research particle physics laboratory, who have replied with a message “Pray for us”.
They hear a gunshot. The priest has killed himself. The Doctor tells Bill and Nardole to go to help him, he knows the priest is already dead, but wants to be left alone to read the Veritas.
Bill and Nardole find the priest’s body, and another portal. They decide to go in, and it leads them to the Pentagon! Going back, they are in a white room with lots of portals. One they go through leads to CERN.
The Doctor uses a device which temporarily returns his sight, so he can read the Veritas. His vision is blurry though, and he mistakes a monstrous creature for Cardinal Angelo, who the creature killed. There are more, and all have a corpse-like appearance and wear red capes. They are known as the Monks. The Monks take the Veritas from the Doctor. He escapes with the laptop, and attempts to read the Veritas via the email on the laptop, but his sight starts to go before he can. The Monks corner him, but he is able to escape via a portal.
In CERN, a drunk scientist Nicholas (Laurent Maurel) takes Bill and Nardole to the canteen. It is like some weird New Year’s Eve party, as the scientists are all drinking and watching a clock count down, but here they are about to blow themselves up! When the first scientist learns Bill and Nardole haven’t read the Veritas he asks them to choose any random number as he bangs the table. Each time, every single person in the room says the exact same number at the exact same time.
Bill and Nardole leave through a portal before the room explodes. They are in the white room, and Nardole says they must be projectors! Everything is a hologram. Bill wonders when they entered a computer simulation. Nardole has a theory, but he hopes it’s wrong. He finds out to his distress he isn’t wrong. He’s part of the simulation! He disappears into digital data.
Bill goes through another portal which leads to the White House. The President has read the Veritas and killed himself. The Doctor is also there. He has read the Veritas too. It tells of an evil demon which wants to conquer the world, but first tries to have a dummy run to practice, a computer simulation of all of Earth’s history. If in doubt whether you are real, the Veritas says write as many numbers as you can think of in any order. If you turn the page of the Veritas the numbers will all be there, in the exact same order. Computers aren’t good at generating random numbers, so if you’re a simulation then you won’t be able to think of truly random numbers.
Bill disappears into digital data because of a Monk, and the Monk tells the Doctor they have run their test and will now invade Earth, gloating that he is just a simulation and there’s nothing he can do about it. The simulated Doctor however says the sonic sunglasses have been recording everything, and he has sent a copy of it to the real Doctor!
‘Extremis’ was quite an elaborate episode, with a lot crammed into it. The religious themes added gravitas, and there were some impressive scenery, especially the Vatican library, CERN and the White House. The computer special effects were pretty good too.
While the computer game twist was a good one, having it all be a computer simulation is the sort of ending that’s one step from an “it was all a dream” ending, so most of it never happened. There is also the issue that it keeps flashing between the execution scenes with Missy and the simulation, which led to some confusion from viewers. The execution planet did happen, but it being mixed with stuff that was all simulated was bound to lead to headscratching afterwards.
This is an introduction to new villains The Monks, who were similar to The Silence with their hissing voices and both being bizarre alien religious cults. It did make me wonder a couple of things. Firstly, why they didn’t just use The Silence? Perhaps the show couldn’t get the costumes anymore so it was easier just to create a new monster? Secondly, it made me wonder if there is any connection between the Silence and the Monks, in the same way that the Silurians and the Sea Devils are related.
The Monk’s corpse-like appearance made me think of Jasmine in Angel in her true, maggot-eaten form. Her plan to take over the Earth also saw her have a “trial run”, although this was on a real planet that was more primitive than Earth rather than a computer simulation.
Talking of computer simulations, this was similar to Black Mirror, in particular the ‘White Christmas’ episode which took place mainly inside a computer simulation. In ‘White Christmas’ there were digital copies of real people, and the copies thought themselves were real. The Doctor mentions that characters in video games probably feel the same, and in ‘White Christmas’ it is mentioned that some of the digital copies end up in video games as characters who are killed constantly. The Doctor compares the suicides to Super Mario realising what is happening, getting sick of it and deleting himself out of existence. When you think about it, it sounds a bit like a form of Hell, which fits in with the religious themes.
The sonic sunglasses give the Doctor a sort of night vision which allows him to see details of figures, such as their gender, age, height, weight and heart rate. It made me think of video games such as Metal Gear series oddly enough, which is apt considering the twist in the episode.
There is a part in the episode where Bill’s adoptive mother says she’s strict about her bringing men home, but when she sees Bill has bought Penny home she assumes Penny is just a friend and doesn’t take issue. This reminded me of part of a Victoria Wood stand-up, which I only vaguely remember, but it was about strict, conservative parents who didn’t want their young adult children sleeping with their partners in the house. Victoria Wood said that gay couples could get round that, as those sort of parents would simply assume the couple were “just jolly good pals” and allow them to share a room.
Nardole comes to the Doctor with a message from the late River Song. It is a philosophical statement. “Virtue is only virtue in extremis”, “without hope, without witness, without reward”, a suggestion that good is only shown in the most extreme circumstances, when the person has nothing to gain from it.
‘Extremis’ is clever and rather grand in a way. There is some brilliant acting from Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie in the White House scenes, when they see the reality of their situation that they aren’t even real. They get across what a traumatic and unsettling revelation that would be. But the episode might be one that can only be watched once, despite the fact there is a lot in there and plenty of stuff that might pass you by before, as whichever way you look at it, the twist means most of it didn’t even happen, so it leaves you feeling a little disappointed. It’s not quite the same as a timeline which got reset or an alternative universe, as in this it was all a simulation. It’s a bit like in the Family Guy two-part episode ‘Stewie Kills Lois/Lois Kills Stewie’ where at the end the joke is “wouldn’t viewers be annoyed, it didn’t really matter”.