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Monday, 22 May 2017

Doctor Who S36E6: Extremis

Doctor Who
Series 36, Episode 6

This is a very Moffat episode -- it's telling that this is the first one he's written since the first episode, because it involves him falling back on what Moffat always falls back on when he's struggling: Layers of unreality and other perception-bending shenanigans. Moffat is, as a rule, pretty good at ramping up tension and mystery by implying that some or all of the world is unreal somehow, or having the protagonists' realities compromised, but he doesn't half have a bad tendency towards overusing it.

If you think I'm exaggerating there, I want you to remember that of the last five series, four of them have had overarching plots that hinge on reality somehow not being as real as it appears. He uses this idea a lot.

Anyway, this is also the halfway point for the series -- or thereabouts, depending on if this is a twelve or a thirteen episode series -- and thus it's the natural point for the paradigm of the series' narrative to change. Which it does, somewhat, although the episodic plot about reality-not-being-real and the narrative shift for the series as a whole aren't really related -- in fact, the episode is pretty neatly split between the two of them.

When the Doctor is approached by the Pope, he, Nardole, and Bill set out to discover the truth of a book called the Veritas, which has induced all of its readers to suicide. Before long, however, Bill and Nardole end up lost in a series of portals, and the Doctor has resorted to dire measures to try to read the book, borrowing a few moments of sight from his future. Meanwhile, in flashbacks, the Doctor attends the execution of Missy, and takes an oath to keep guard over her for a thousand years.

Yes, very spooky.

So, the whole Veritas episodic plot is actually fairly bland. Leaving aside entirely the fact that Moffat keeps serving up this kind of plot and expecting us to be astonished each time, to the point where the moment they mentioned someone killing themselves, I had a 'oh, right, so it's not really the real world, everyone's a fake, sure, fine, sure, great, sure,' -- it's also just kind of rushed.

Since the episode has a decent amount of flashbacks taking up time in it as well, the actual story of the episode is over and done with in a surprisingly short amount of time -- short enough that the mystery doesn't even really get properly fleshed out. It's introduced, developed a tiny bit, and then immediately solved, just because there isn't time to do anything else.

Granted, there would be more time if the Doctor didn't take a few minutes to go on a weird anti-video game rant. It's a very odd rant, that one, since it essentially hinges on 'when you kill people in video games ... isn't that ... just like ... killing real people ...' and all of the faux deep philosophising that (admittedly new if nothing else) angle involves.

Still, the episode gains points for having some actually surprisingly creepy aliens. They're not hide-behind-the-sofa creepy, but the fact that they're concealed for so long, and the idea of an alien species that would create a simulation of an entire planet just to figure out how to conquer it, are engaging and sinister enough to make them worth watching.

Very ceremonial chic.

The main draw of the episode, however, has to be the flashbacks, depicting the Doctor attending Missy's execution, presided over by the Mortality Index. The Mortality Index is another one of those probably-not-brilliantly-thought-out Moffat ideas, like the Space Army Church of England, but unlike most of them, the Mortality Index are actually a pretty cool, interesting idea. The idea of an order that devotes itself to learning how to kill every species in the universe, not necessarily with the intent to do so but just because that's useful knowledge, is actually a pretty fascinating one. You could hang a whole series on that idea.

The flashbacks mostly focus on the Doctor's moral struggle, though, eventually culminating in him saving Missy's life and imprisoning her in the Vault instead, which actually seems less like a compromise and more like a moment of intense cruelty, as she'll be trapped there for a thousand years (at least).

Michelle Gomez and Peter Capaldi both put in excellent performances, but the surprise stand-out performance is Matt Lucas, who manages a few moments of some actually really sinister, gravitas-filled acting. Lucas has clearly been hiding his light under a bushel some.

Robes are good for any occasion.

Anyway, this was another middling episode, but a better kind of middling than the five which came before it. Unlike those, there were the kernels of good ideas in this, and even some pretty compelling moments.

Next week, it looks like we're continuing this storyline, as the red-robe-aliens start their invasion in earnest. That episode will be co-written by Steven Moffat and Peter Harness, who has previously written Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which I loved, and that one Zygon two-parter, which I hated.

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