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After last week’s excellent episode left viewers with a chilling cliffhanger, the tenth season of Doctor Who delivers another knockout punch with “Extremis.” It would be very difficult to discuss “Extremis” without addressing major spoilers about it and the events of the previous episode, so consider yourselves warned. Spoilers abound from this point onward.
An ancient text, called the Veritas, makes everyone who has ever read it kill themselves shortly after. When a new translation of it emerges, representatives from the Vatican, including The Pope himself, go for The Doctor for help. The Doctor, newly blind and determined to keep it a secret – even from Bill – agrees to read the Veritas himself.
‘Extremis’ opens with the return of Michelle Gomez’s Missy, who is revealed to be the one contained in the mysterious Vault the Doctor has been guarding. The episode has several flashback sequences that go over the events that lead to Missy ending up in the Vault, and reveal how and why Nardole became a companion.
The Missy reveal itself was a bit obvious, so opening with it was a smart play, since it allowed the flashbacks to focus on character instead of exposition. The fact that the pretty obvious answer to the Vault mystery comes right after the completely unexpected curveball of The Doctor’s blindness was also a very solid move. The Vault was the tantalizing carrot the show dangled in front of our faces for a few episodes, but it’s clear that the season’s real main story is just now getting off the ground.
There’s a lot to digest when it comes to the story and what it’s setting up for the rest of the season, which is good. As a standalone, “Extremis” would have been far too bleak and the bigger picture keeps it from being irredeemably depressing. It’s a story that deals with blindness, mass suicide, the death penalty and a pretty heavy existential crisis to boot.
It’s a Moffat-penned episode, so there are still a few really good laughs (one scene with the Pope in particular is a knockout), but for the most part, “Extremis” is quite the downer. That being said, at least one one moment that was meant to be fairly serious is actually unintentionally hilarious due to the presence of a truly unreasonable and unnecessary amount of dynamite.
Not all of ‘Extremis’ adds up. The content of the Veritas is fairly harrowing, but it’s highly debatable if the only response everyone would have to reading it would be suicide. As for The Doctor, he may be deep in unhealthy denial about his blindness, but some of the lengths he goes to are so extreme that they’re just stupid. Given the deadly nature of the Veritas, it’s understandable why he wouldn’t ask anyone else to read it for him, but there are other ways that don’t involve putting your life in terrible, uncertain risk – by the end, even the episode concedes this point.
This is an issue that stems from Moffat’s penchant for exaggeration and his love of extremities, which adds extra meaning to the title of the episode. It’s what makes him a really engaging, yet simultaneously highly frustrating writer.
Nardole once again shines, showing off a more defiant, commanding side that manages to work really well with his bumbling comedic antics. Bill has less to do this time around though – after her short-lived date, she mostly just tags along, furthering other characters’ development but not her own. Previous episodes focused enough on Bill to make this a non-issue for now, but hopefully future episodes will have more for her, especially if this is to be her one and only season as a companion.
As mentioned, the saving grace of the episode is the bigger picture. ‘Extremis’ succeeds at building anticipation for the rest of the season and answers a few lingering questions – and despite some fairly significant shortcomings, it knows how to hold your attention throughout.