Friday, 2 June 2017

Extremis written by Steven Moffat and directed by Daniel Nettheim

This story in a nutshell: Who would have ever thought that The Android Invasion would be the inspiration for a story many decades later? 

Indefinable: There was a rumour that the Doctor was enjoying domestic bliss on Darilium. Or at least that was the gossip amongst the Daleks. I didn’t believe for a second that the Doctor would pull that lever and kill Missy…or that Steven Moffat would write her out so casually. His specs that give him partial sight are a neat visual and nice way to excuse the ‘Dr Disco’ shades making another appearance. He’s never going to be cool, Moffat, face it. This is another fantastic story for the Doctor, Bill and Nardole with the three of them making an effective investigative team. Moffat takes time to have them all engaging in scenes together but breaks them down into twosomes (I think the Bill & Nardole scenes were my favourites) and all of the combinations work really well. I think we are in good shape for the rest of the season as far as the regulars are concerned. The idea of the Doctor stealing abilities from his future self to cure his disability for a while doesn’t sit well with me. Just what would the Kris Marshall Doctor have to say about that (hehe). Good thing it was all an illusion then. The whole notion of borrowing from your future is implausible. Gasp in the scenes where the Doctor looks like he is going to go the same way as the President in the sheer impossible nature of his situation. And then revel in his victorious actions despite all the odds of the nature of the universe around him because no matter how he was created he is still the Doctor. It’s a glorious victory. 

Groovy Chick: Glorious, Doctor Who includes scenes of the female companion bringing home another girl and makes very sweet, very tentative and ultimately very funny. Look how far we have come. Big Finish Productions introduced a gay male companion into the first Doctor’s life for a trilogy of stories as a ‘wouldn’t it be nice’ idea that would never happen at the time. Nowadays the show doesn’t batter an eyelid at being so bold. And Bill, so awkward in love, just feels so real. Both Bill and Nardole trust the Doctor enough to head into danger on his behest, but are still wary enough to doubt whether it is a good idea. Pearl Mackie’s performance when Bill comes to terms with the reality of her situation is quite extraordinary. It is quite an ask of an actress to play a person who realises that they aren’t real and instead of going down the obvious route of being angry she plays it very quietly. It is unnerving acceptance of a nightmare. 

Faithful Sidekick: When did Nardole become such a vital part of the show’s success? His appearance in Husbands was far too slapstick for my tastes but with each subsequent appearance he has been wearing me down. It’s almost as though the showrunner knew how resistant people would be with a ‘comedy performer’ (I hate that term but even I have to face the fact that Lucas is mostly known for making people laugh) taking a dominant role and so has worked overtime to give him a tasty role in the series. In Extremis he is the Doctor’s eyes and ears, by his side and spelling out as subtly as he can what is in front of him. Lucas plays these scenes with real charm and I laughed a lot. Watch Lucas as he effortlessly bounces from righteous importance with Bill to sassy friend in a heartbeat, in one of his best scenes yet he bares his teeth and proves that he will protect her no matter what she says. 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘They read the Veritas and chose Hell.’
‘Those pretend people you shoot at in computer games. Now you know. They think they’re real. They feel it.’

The Good:
· The opening scenes with Missy that we keep cutting back to throughout the episode are indicative of the story as a whole, initially frustrating because you cannot tell how they are relevant but ultimately rewarding once the piece has played out. It’s lovely to see Michelle Gomez back and we had better lap her up given her imminent retirement from the series. How they fit into the Extremis plot is baffling purely because they aren’t supposed to. These are the only ‘real’ scenes in the entire episode and the only ones that are truly relevant. I like how they fill in the blanks too, showing us how Nardole became the Doctor’s associate after Husbands and explaining who has been hiding in the vault all season. They might play out in an irreverent fashion but these scenes are actually extremely important if you want to understand series 10 as a narrative. There’s no explanation as to how Missy escaped her fate in The Witches Familiar so let’s chalk it down to another ‘I’m indestructible the whole universe knows that!’ explanation.
· I love stories that slot into place with the advent of a massive twist. Bruce Willis has been dead the entire film. Kevin Spacey is the titular villain. Everybody in the motel is a different aspect of a psychotics personality. Twists which take a struggling narrative and snap everything into sharp focus and suddenly everything makes sense. It really isn’t the style of Doctor Who to play with these kinds of shock plot hinges and it is one of the reasons that Extremis stands out so vividly. Even the twists like River being Amy’s daughter and Amy being the Flesh didn’t have this kind of impact. One was obvious and the other had barely been hinted at (whilst both were performed and written exquisitely). Extremis is a proper Doctor Who mini movie with a terrific sting in its tale. If you find the surprise dulls the episode for you (because it basically leaves the episode as a non-entity) then I wouldn’t blame you, but as a chance to do something completely different and pull it off with such style I really applaud Steven Moffat for having a go. I especially love the way the titles judders through static into the main bulk of the episode to make the link that this is a simulation. Very nicely done. What’s clever is how Moffat plays around with expectation. There are enough clues for you to suspect that the Doctor, Bill and Nardole are in some kind of mock-up environment but the real kick in the gut is when you realise that they themselves aren’t real. My boyfriend suspected the former and said so but had no idea about the latter. How this then loops back to the start of the episode to the (real) Doctor receiving the data and making sense of the pre-credits, is sublime. For once timey winey pays off in spades.
· The Pope visits the Doctor on campus. Let me say that again just so you can take it in. The Pope takes a trip from the Vatican to England to visit the Doctor and give him a mission. Either Moffat has gone completely insane (no, actually that was Terrance Dicks when he had the Doctor on a mission for Margaret Thatcher) or he’s pushes the shows boundaries to their limits. The Catholic Church is respectfully presented (I dread to think how Davies would have handled this) and I really appreciated the moment where the Doctor is offered the chance to absolve his sins. The idea of the Veritas, a document that people have read all around the world and it has driven them to suicide, is like something from a movie starring Tom Hanks and written by Dan Brown. I think that is the tone Moffat was aiming for and it is certainly an impressive hook.
· The Pope interrupting Bill’s date is simply the funniest gag to have stepped out of the Moffat era. I just couldn’t stop. It’s outrageously funny and utterly implausible they get away with it too because none of it was ever real. Bill’s reaction is a scream (‘I am about to have a truly awesome word with someone…’).
· We’ve come to take the production values on this show for granted in recent years. I think since the advent of The Day of the Doctor and its cinematic visuals, I have found that the show has been catching up with, if not matching its American counterparts. But I have to say something about the sheer visual splendour of Extremis which juggles countless locations as though the show has a budget ten times its size. The Monks are suitably grotesque, promising much for the next episode.
· There is a palpable sense of tension in the scenes at SERN from the second Bill and Nardole meet the anxious scientist. The sudden reveal of the explosives made me draw breath and the numbers game left me truly perplexed and intrigued at the same time. The twist is around the corner but at this point I was truly baffled but it was all so brilliantly directed and performed I just went with it. Re-watching has made me appreciate these scenes all the more. · Nobody has had the gall to write a Doctor Who story where the Doctor and his companions are not real before and hats off to Steven Moffat for giving it such an engaging spin. The reason he gets away with it is because they believe they are real (and why wouldn’t they?) and so we go along on the ride like your everyday Doctor Who episode until it is revealed otherwise. I got chills when Nardole stepped out of the projection. Partly because it is so chillingly directed and partly because my brain started playing out so much of the rest of the episode with this fresh information and it all started to make sense. It makes perfect sense of the Veritas and the suicidal actions at SERN too…if you found out you weren’t real but the product of an alien civilisation to practice an invasion of Earth wouldn’t you think about ending it all too? It looks like the Monks have been watching The Android Invasion for inspiration of how to conquer the Earth. I never thought I would write that sentence. It’s not a wholly original idea then, but handled far more dramatically here.
· Just to justify my clever clever remarks about Steven Moffat’s writing over the past six season (in particular during the Matt Smith era). This is a genuinely clever piece of writing. It has been crafted intricately. It leads to climactic moment that is earned. If this had been the level of sophistication in the plotting during the Eleventh Doctor’s era as opposed to stories that kept celebrating in a very self-satisfied way that they are clever just by hopping about in a non-linear fashion then I would have been a very happy bunny indeed. The difference between a genuinely clever story and a clever clever story (that’s a story that thinks it’s smart) is that one earns its big moments by paying off everything else around it and the other just keeps throwing random surprises at you and hoping you will relent and declare it shrewd. Extremis is the sort of episode Moffat wrote under Russell T Davies and completely lacked the ability to write in his first three years as showrunner.

Result: ‘I’m calling the Doctor…’ One of Steven Moffat’s tightest scripts, that pretends it is a scattering of ideas and random scenes for its first half and that coalesces beautifully around its big twist. I was frustrated, then I was shocked, then I was impressed and now after subsequent re-watches I’m ready to declare this one of the strongest of the season to date. How the clues are staggered throughout the episode (the static in the titles, the absurdity of the Pope visiting the Doctor, the nature of the Veritas and its suicidal effect of people, the first window of light in the vault, the apparently random skip to the Pentagon and SERN, the room of projections, the zombie Monks…) is expertly done with each step taking us closer to the truth. It’s an episode the rewards subsequent viewings in that respect. But along the way there are great lines, an intriguing plot, some real belly laughs, further examination of the Doctor’s blindness, some gorgeous moments between Bill and Nardole and terrific production values. It is the last ten minutes that astounded me; Nardole confronting the truth of reality, Bill struggling to come to terms with her situation and the Doctor proving that he is the hero no matter how he has been constructed. These are some of the most shocking, disquieting and triumphant scenes since Moffat returned to the show. If the series had been this on form for the past six seasons I would be hailing it the Golden Age of Doctor Who. Is this really the same writer who gave us The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe and Time of the Doctor? Astonishing. The icing on the cake is the return of Missy and the knowledge that she has been in the vault all this time, hardly a surprise but it means that we can finally move on with the arc plot as well. Moffat couldn’t be cheekier…fandom has often accused him (rightly or wrongly) of taking liberties with the series and now he has written a script where he is able to get away with any damn thing he wants. And instead of taking the piss to give the game away, he writes the regulars and the episode at large as efficiently as possible to disguise his twist. As a prelude for the next episode, I couldn’t be more excited. Bring on the Monks!: 9/10


Richard S. said...

Just finished watching it....

The idea of the universe being a simulation has been kicking around sci-fi (and philosophy, for that matter!) ever since computers became powerful enough for us to start contemplating the idea. So we shouldn't be surprised to find Doctor Who playing with it.

Can we agree that Nardole is a full-fledged Companion at this point? I know the idea is that it's supposed to be Bill, because for some reason you can't have more than one audience identification figure at a time..... But the way I'm seeing it now after this episode, is that Bill is the Companion that we would probably end up being, while Nardole *is the Companion we would want to be*. An assistant who doesn't need things to be explained, can figure things out on his own, and is capable of leadership when the situation demands it.

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David Pirtle said...

How ironic that by far the best of the three-part Monks story, or the three story Monk arc, or however the series technically frames them, never actually happened.