‘Doctor Who’ recap: The Doctor’s moral courage is tested in the mind-bending, heart-rending ‘Extremis’

Whoever said, “There is nothing new under the sun,” never read a Steven Moffat script — actually that line is from the Old Testament, which is uniquely relevant to this week’s Biblical episode of “Doctor Who,” titled “Extremis.”

During his long tenure as a “Who” writer and now showrunner Moffat has invented several unique creatures and challenges for the title time traveler, including the Weeping Angels, who take the form of stone statues that can only move when no one is looking at them, and the Vashta Nerada, a swarm of microscopic, carnivorous creatures that camouflage themselves as shadows. In the 2011 episode “The Impossible Astronaut” he introduced the Silence, a race of beings that are forgotten as soon as you look away. And in the 2015 episode “Heaven Sent” he trapped the Doctor in a shape-shifting mansion for literally billions of years. This week’s episode, “Extremis,” is equally diabolical and, in its own metaphysical way, quite tragic.

Directed by Daniel Nettheim, “Extremis” premiered on May 20. Read our recap below for the top five takeaways from the new episode.

Missy in Action
The episode doesn’t leave us in suspense for long, at least not with regard to the mystery of what’s in the vault. Over the last five episodes “Doctor Who” has teased the audience with piecemeal information about a vault that the Doctor and his alien companion Nardole (Matt Lucas) have been protecting. It’s hidden underneath the university where the Doctor has been teaching classes on — whatever he damn well pleases, really. This week we got the answer, and it’s what many had already guessed: the Doctor is holding the Master, his fellow Time Lord, who is occasionally a friend and occasionally a mortal enemy hellbent on the destruction of Earth. Or rather, it’s the Master’s female incarnation Missy (Michelle Gomez).

The opening scene introduces us to an alien world that is worthy of its own episode in and of itself — it’s own series even. It’s a planet of executions. “With over a billion intelligent species active in this galaxy alone, it is an ever greater challenge to know how to kill all of them,” says executioner Rafando (Ivanno Jeremiah), and it takes a lot to kill a Time Lord. Missy has been sentenced to death — we’re not told what specific crime she has been convicted of, though if you’ve watched this show for any length of time you could take your pick. The Doctor must carry out her sentence as her fellow Time Lord, after which “the body will be placed in a quantum fold chamber under constant guard for no less than a thousand years” just in case the execution doesn’t take — killing a Time Lord is tricky that way.

As we can tell from earlier episodes, the being in the vault is very much alive, so something about the execution clearly went awry, but this episode moves backwards and forwards in time, so more on that later.

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In Libro Veritas
The episode’s main storyline involves the pope and a mystery at the Vatican. After reading a recently translated book called “Veritas,” meaning “The Truth,” a number of devout scholars have taken their own lives — every single person who has read it. Because suicide is a mortal sin under Catholic law, this means that whatever was learned in that book was worth choosing eternal damnation over. The text is older than the church itself, and now the pontiff himself is asking the Doctor to read it. Perhaps the millennia-old Doctor can withstand the text where mere humans have been driven to self-destruction. What is the truth, and how could it possibly be worse than hell?

The Doctor is still blind following his misadventure in last week’s episode, “Oxygen.” He hides that fact from His Holiness and even from Bill (Pearl Mackie). But he has help from Nardole and from his sonic sunglasses, which he has programmed to give him some rudimentary information: he can get a mental picture of the shapes of rooms and read vital signs, but details are difficult and reading words is impossible without extra help. But it may be for the best that it takes the Doctor a little longer to suss it out.

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There’s No There There
What’s worse than hell? The answer, we learn, is not existing at all. At one point Bill and Nardole leave the Doctor and enter what appears to be a series of portals. They connect the Vatican to a number of vital world locations including the Pentagon and the CERN research laboratory. Bill and Nardole find themselves at CERN, where the scientists are acting strangely. One of the Vatican scholars emailed CERN the translated text of “Veritas” before committing suicide, and now the scientists are also planning to destroy themselves. But why? One scientist, Nicolas (Laurent Maurel) gives Bill and Nardole a test: to speak a random number at the same time, but when they do they speak exactly the same number — over and over again. So does Nicolas, and so do the rest of the distraught scientists. That’s the “Test of Shadows” as laid out in “Veritas.”

This is where the episode becomes a metaphysical tragedy. Nardole is the first to recognize it: the portals they’ve been moving through aren’t portals at all, but projectors. They are projecting reality in all directions. The Earth itself is a simulation — the whole thing, from the highest seat of world power to Bill’s modest little kitchen, where she had been enjoying a first date. The reason for the test — trying to speak random numbers but always coming up with the same ones — is because computer programs struggle to generate randomness. There is always a pattern, which is why everyone’s numbers are the same and always will be.

The culprits are aliens that have been using the Earth simulation as a way to devise strategy for a real-life takeover of the Earth. But it’s not so sad, right? The real versions of Bill, Nardole and the Doctor are still out there in that real world. That’s true, but in important ways those simulations are really Bill, Nardole and the Doctor too. They have been programmed to be exactly who they are, to know what they know, to love who they love, to remember what they remember. And they are self-aware enough that learning the truth of existence has already driven many to suicide. They may only be pixels and algorithms, but that doesn’t make it any less disturbing when Nardole’s program is terminated, then Bill’s, then the Doctor’s. Those feel like real deaths because, for all intents and purposes, they are real beings who have lived.

This is a mind-bender and heart-breaker worthy of its own philosophy workshop — or maybe the next season of “Westworld.”

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In Extremis
That brings us back around to Missy and the vault. What connects that storyline to the alien simulation is not a plot detail, but a thematic one. The title of the episode comes from Nardole, who was sent to the planet of executions by the Doctor’s wife, River Song, to deliver a message: “Only in darkness are we revealed. Goodness is not goodness that seeks advantage. Good is good in the final hour, in the deepest pit. Without hope, without witness, without reward. Virtue is only virtue in extremis. This is what he believes, and this is the reason above all I love him — my husband, my madman in a box, my Doctor.”

This reminds me of a scene from “Angel,” in which the title character comes to accept that there is no greater meaning to life, no grand plan or destination beyond what there already is. “If nothing we do matters,” he says, “then all that matters is what we do.” In a similar way the message to the Doctor is a reminder to him that the true test of character is what we do when there is no more hope for salvation or reward. How we behave “in extremis” — on the edge, at the end — is what defines us.

At the gallows with Missy, that understanding is what prompts the Doctor to save her life rather than carry out her execution — and then guard her for 1,000 years all the same. And in the simulation, that understanding prompts the digital Doctor to try to save the day even though his own world is a fabrication. He deduces that the simulation is advanced enough for him to send a message to the real world, where the flesh-and-blood Doctor can still stop the alien invasion.

Fighting Back
“Something’s coming, Bill,” says the Doctor after receiving the message from the simulation, “something very big. And something possibly very, very bad. And I have the feeling that we’re going to be very busy.” The end of the episode is hardly the end of the story. The digital Doctor has sent a message into the real world, but the aliens are still out there somewhere, and they have devised an untold number of strategies for world domination through their simulations.

The world hasn’t really ended, but it might yet.

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