If there is one thing that Steven Moffat appears to like doing more than anything it is successfully pulling the wool over our collective eyes. He seems incapable of resisting the urge to reveal a plot twist with the showmanship of an old school stage magician. The problem sometimes comes from the fact that the trick doesn’t always live up to flourishes around it. Sometimes he reveals a sword swallowing tiger on a unicycle but other times it is a dead pigeon falling from his sleeve.
With this in mind I was a little uncertain of Extremis going in. Variations of a text that causes the reader harm in some way have appeared in everything from The King in Yellow to Monty Python’s Flying Circus and most are careful to make sure the actual text is never revealed as it could only ever disappoint compared to the mystique built around it. Fortunately Extremis just about pulls it off.
One mystery that is, apparently, solved is who is in the vault. We get the return of Michelle Gomez as Missy in a relatively sedate mood, what with her being about to be executed and everything. The idea of a planet that has dedicated itself to execution is an interesting one though they seem to like their methods are rather over elaborate. If the Daleks needed to do all the things their machine does just to kill a Timelord I doubt the time war would have got off the ground. Capaldi and Gomez are as great together as ever with each one bringing something extra out in the other. We also get to see how Nardole managed to end up joining the Doctor and how he knows about the oath he took. He is acting under instruction from River Song and has been given permission by her to kick the Doctor’s arse.
The main story concerns the, still very blind, Doctor getting a personal visit from the Pope who wants him to investigate a text called the Veritas. Anyone who has managed to translate the text has gone on to commit suicide. It is very rare for Doctor Who to feature an actual religion as religious faith on the show has usually been represented by people in pagan robes making sacrifices, worshipping old space suits due to a misunderstanding or the Master disguising himself as a Vicar. If I have a criticism about using the catholic church here it’s that it feels less like the actual church and more like the exaggerated purveyors of mystical macGuffins from films like The Davinci Code. For a show that rarely deals with actual religion just using catholicism as a plot set up feels like a waste.
The reveal of what the Veritas is actually manages to match the build its been given which is a rare thing. The moment that Bill and Nardole have the implications of it demonstrated to them by the scientists at CERN is one of those masterfully creepy moments that is Moffat at his very best. Though the tension of the whole room being rigged to explode is, somewhat, reduced the moment you question where they found all that dynamite in the first place but that isn’t enough to undercut what is an effectively written, directed and performed scene. Expect it to turn up on lists of Moffat’s best moments when the retrospectives begin at the end of his tenure.
It’s almost redundant to say that Capaldi and Mackie are brilliant at this point. They have been so consistently good both separately and together that it’s pretty much a given. Highlights this episode are Bill’s reaction when she hears the TARDIS materialise during her date and her fear at the thought that she might not be real. The Doctor facing down the monks is wonderful as he realises that he may not be the Doctor but he’s Doctor enough to get a warning to the real McCoy.
It’s Matt Lucas who gets more moments to shine than he has previously. From the flashback to his meeting the Doctor again to the effortless way he switches from fiercely assertive to cheerfully affable while still absolutely remaining in character, Lucas gets to expand the on the role and I hope we get to see a lot more of him interacting with Bill. The two of them together are a lot of fun.
As ever with Moffat’s twistier stories there are niggles when you’re given time to think about it. How has nobody noticed the fact that they all think of the same ‘random’ numbers until now? Feels like something that would have been stumbled upon without ancient texts in dead languages. The room full of projected doorways seems to exist just to have Bill and Nardole discover it. If the monks have simulated human history from its very beginnings wouldn’t they have had to factor in every visit by the Doctor through history? How would the know things like what the inside of the TARDIS looks like?
These are the sort of little questions that inevitably spring up only because the episode is so effective in the moment. Like all well executed magic tricks you’re so captivated by the showmanship that it’s not until you’re on the way home that you start to put together how it was all done. That doesn’t diminish the achievement of executing the illusion and Extremis is one of Moffat’s best.