There are a number of cool and promising ideas in this episode. It’s about the Doctor on a mission from the Pope for god’s sake, and so it definitely has its share of good moments. However as a whole, it doesn’t really come together sadly.
I was surprised when after only five episodes, we get the reveal of what’s inside the vault: it’s Missy, whom the Doctor’s committed to guarding for a thousand years. In the present however, the Doctor gets a message from the Pope who has called on him to help uncover the secret of an ancient text called the Veritas, kept in the secret Vatican library. Everyone who’s attempted to read it has committed suicide. The Doctor brings along Bill and Nardole to find out what’s so fatal about this book while also discovering other secrets in the process.
Oh yeah, and every so often the episode cuts back to the Doctor with Missy (and Nardole) on the day of her appointed execution, and what led to his vow to guard her body. And this is largely irrelevant and a mite distracting. To be honest, these storylines needed to be separated into individual episodes because they really don’t match. There’s an effort at transitions with the Doctor repeating lines he remembers from the earlier event, but Missy plays no role in the Veritas adventure. It’s clear the only reason that subplot was added to this episode is because it either couldn’t be fitted elsewhere or there may be a pay-off in the follow-up. To be honest, I’d have been fine with just an episode devoted to that Missy plot, as it could have built more thoroughly on the Doctor’s and Missy’s relationship (and not in purely the flirtatious way that Steven Moffat’s so fond of).
Moffat wrote this episode, as you can tell fairly early on, with a conversation of cringe-worthy innuendo between Bill and her roommate about her evening guest, a girl called Penny who she’s on a date with. It’s great that Bill is gay, but her sexuality can be integrated more organically than with this kind of embarrassing writing (the “Library of Blasphemy” I’m pretty sure is another poor Moffat joke). The script after that is also at times pretty convoluted, as really needless plot points and exposition keeps getting added. I was confused at one point whether Cardinal Angelo had become one of the alien monks or not; it’s still unclear and an example of poor plotting. There are developments that would be interesting if not for the fact that each one has been done better before in other stronger stories. The Doctor and his companions look through the Vatican library which has pretty much the same aesthetic as the one from Doctor Strange (this episode not only steals its’ wifi joke, but also has portals). Then, at one point, Bill and Nardole go off and enter one of these portals coming out in a room where many other portals meet, operating on the same logic as the Iconian Gateways from Star Trek or the Wood Between the Worlds from The Magician’s Nephew. They lead to numerous parts of the world such as the Pentagon, CERN, etc. And the episode twist though decently unexpected, doesn’t have the punch it really should. After discovering at CERN (where everybody’s about to kill themselves) that Bill and Nardole are somehow able to guess the exact same series of numbers synchronously several times, Nardole theorizes that it’s all a projection, and when he steps behind a projector in the room, his body disintegrates into code revealing he, Bill, the Doctor and everyone are not even real. This kind of twist, where the protagonist finds out all along they aren’t the real person they thought they were, has just about shown up in all long-running sci-fi serials. It’s a neat way to play with character and I think was probably best done in a little Deep Space Nine episode called “Whispers”. “Extremis” however doesn’t really do anything interesting with it apart from the reveal itself and in doing so opens itself up to a few logical fallacies, the biggest one being the mcguffin of how the Doctor’s sunglasses could still send information to the real Earth. The Doctor telling the alien monks that their simulation is “too good” is not sufficient enough. The whole thing is in fact a simulation, a computer program run by these alien monks to test an invasion of Earth; so among everything else, this episode is ripping off The Matrix.
The alien monks aren’t a particularly original or frightening foe and in fact their plan doesn’t make a whole lot of sense as by the end of the simulation, all of their holographic humans essentially died out by reading the Veritas, something which doesn’t exist on Earth. Peter Capaldi once again rises above lesser material and actually manages to make some of it work. I’m glad to see the blindness to his character actually affecting him. The only downside is it means the return of those stupid sonic sunglasses, but at least now they serve a practical purpose of giving him some basic sensory awareness. When he’s not wearing the glasses he keeps his eyelids lowered and even though he doesn’t have the clouded pupils anymore he never looks at other characters directly. It’s a touch that really strengthens the believability of Capaldi’s performance. I admire that the Doctor is clearly nervous and unused to this kind of vulnerability, to the point he puts neural transceivers to his head to gain back temporal partial sight. It works, but there was a chance it could’ve killed him. He’s keeping his blindness from Bill as well and I am glad there weren’t a ton of corny jokes to this end that I expected (like him trying to brush off running into things or something). Nardole is convinced the Doctor’s keeping it from her because once she knows “it becomes real”, which yeah is a statement that doesn’t mean anything, but the breaching of trust between the Doctor and Bill is promising. While Pearl Mackie doesn’t do a whole lot to stand out, Matt Lucas actually gets some good moments as we see the really assertive side of his character and the relationship between Nardole and Bill is expanded a little more. It’s not all that interesting and consists of some fairly predictable banter, but it’s a start. I like the guy who played Cardinal Angelo and the Pope himself looked pretty accurately like any number of Popes.
But the most interesting part of the episode was the otherwise extraneous subplot involving Missy. We get the return of Michelle Gomez who’s quite good. She’s got her same sly remarks and dangerous air. Her past friendship with the Doctor is brought up and marks a crucial point in his decision to rig the execution device. The Doctor’s consideration of this is good, even though you know he’s going to save her, the mere fact he has to come to this conclusion reminds you he’s not as straight-laced as you expect. In fact overall, this storyline is good, bearing some strong inner and outer conflict, but isn’t allowed to develop enough with such little time.
Though the plot’s clumsily executed as I said, there are great moments.I love the opening, the introduction of this species of executioners, and the image of the Doctor in that boat is incredible. I like the transient shooting of the scene where the Doctor is pursued by the aliens while losing his sight again. It’s like when someone’s wearing the ring in Lord of the Rings. Given the fact he’s not the real Doctor, his speculation on the risks to his life and regenerations posed by the neural device is fascinatingly existential. There are a couple other interesting directorial choices, and none of the performances are really bad. As cliché as it is by now, I like the Doctor standing up against the aliens as the protector of Earth and the “virtue is only virtue in extremis” line is a good one in the context of Missy’s execution (not so much when forced into the main story). The mystery of the Veritas is well established, and it legitimately makes you curious. There’s a decent joke or two from Nardole and the bit where the Pope shows up in Bill’s flat speaking Latin is a little funny. And I have to admit, while I didn’t like that the Veritas was on a laptop, emailed to the world, it does make more sense in a modern setting. But I would have preferred the old-fashioned ancient book of power, than ancient word document.
But with multiple plot holes, some poor writing, recycled sci-fi developments that aren’t presented in a unique way, and an awkward pairing of parallel storylines, “Extremis” doesn’t live up to its great title. It’s certainly got more likeable elements than “Smile” or “Knock Knock”, and is almost good due to the Missy subplot and Capaldi's performance, but it doesn’t work overall. The lead-in to the next episode isn’t even that interesting. The fake Doctor foils the aliens by transmitting the Veritas and the details of this world to the real Doctor through his sunglasses somehow. It’s just anticipation for the alien invasion that’ll take place next week as the Doctor talks through the vault to Missy saying he’ll need her help and that being blind, he’s “lost in the dark”. Why he’d trust her for her help in spite of their whole history together is another facet that could’ve been explored in an episode dedicated to her fate. Also though some might have predicted it was Missy behind the vault, it is a bit of an underwhelming revelation and now that that secret’s out, there’s less intrigue. Now perhaps being in the vault for a thousand years changed Missy in an interesting way but we’ll have to see. In next week’s episode a pyramid shows up in the U.S., the Doctor reveals his blindness to Bill, and the aliens are coming. It is honestly the first teaser this series that hasn’t gotten me at least a little interested. But we’ll see if it’s more than meets the eye.