Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Doctor Who Season 10, Episode 6: Extremis

This week on Doctor Who, our favorite Time Lord gets a visit from the Pope himself, there's another sect of evil monks, a trip to a virtual world and even a prelude to an invasion by someone.

The biggest news though is that the mystery of Who's Inside The Vault was finally resolved this week. And as most fans suspected all along, it's Missy! The most obvious and absolute least interesting occupant possible. It figures.

I was hoping the writers would surprise us and reveal it was someone totally unexpected, like Susan Foreman or even the First Doctor himself. There've been numerous little shoutouts to Susan all season, which made me think it might somehow be her inside the Vault. Since it's not, now I'm wondering why the writers keep referencing her?

So far the first five episodes of this season have felt very much like classic old school Doctor Who. Smile and Knock Knock in particular could have been episodes starring the Fourth Doctor.

As a result of this, I've been very surprised by showrunner Steven Moffat the past few weeks. His stripped-down, back to basics approach has made this the strongest season in years. Gone are all his typical trappings— the companion who's The Most Important Girl In The Universe, the baffling, nonsensical storylines and the tons of impenetrable continuity.

Alas, that streak couldn't last forever, as this week we get the most Steven Moffatiest episode so far. In fact I didn't even have to look at the credits to know he'd written it. It's not the worst episode I've ever seen, and as Moffat scripts go it's actually pretty decent. It's just not quite as good as the previous five episodes.

Part of the problem may be that this is the first entry in a three-part story arc, so it consists largely of setup. So it's hard to judge this one on its own merits, and may actually improve once we see the next two episodes.

Funny that this episode prominently features the Doctor and Co. stuck inside a virtual, computer simulated world. Over on Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. they just concluded their multi-part Framework storyline, which tacked the exact same subject! Great minds and all that, I guess.

SPOILERS!


The Plot:
We begin "a long time ago" on an alien planet, where the Doctor's being escorted by a group of Monks. The head Monk excitedly explains that his planet specializes in executions, and he's honored to have the privilege of killing a Time Lord. He breathlessly shows the Doctor their version of a Time Lord electric chair, saying it'll stop both hearts, destroy all three brain stems and prevent regeneration. The Doctor hisses that he knows how it works.

The Monk continues, saying that after a Time Lord's death, the body is placed in a Quantum Fold chamber, where it's required to be under constant guard for a thousand years. The last stipulation is that a Time Lord can only be executed by another of his kind.

The Monks then bring out Missy, aka the Master, the Doctor's arch enemy. She makes snarky small talk with the Doctor for a bit, and then the Monks tell the prisoner to kneel. Missy lowers herself to her knees, and we realize that it's not the Doctor being executed, but her! GASP! Plot Twist!

Cut to the present, as the Doctor (who's still blind, after the events of Oxygen) sits outside the Vault he's been guarding under the University for the past fifty years or so, as he mumbles to Missy. Welp, I guess now we know who's inside the Vault— the most obvious person possible! 


The Doctor's wearing his sonic sunglasses, which give him a crude form of electronic vision. Suddenly he gets a mysterious email through his glasses, titled "Extremis."

The Doctor then gets a visit from none other than the Pope himself, who says he needs his help. There's an ancient text called the Veritas, (which means "The Truth") that's older than the Church itself. It's written in a forgotten language, but recently a group re-translated it. Problem is, anyone who reads it immediately kills themselves. The Pope wants the Doctor to read the Veritas and find out why. This might be a problem for him, since he can't see.

Meanwhile, Bill brings a date home to her flat. The woman, named Penny, is feeling guilty about having a one night stand or being gay or maybe both, it's not clear. Suddenly they hear the TARDIS materialize, and the Pope emerges from Bill's bedroom. Penny flees in terror. Bill angrily enters the TARDIS and tears the Doctor a new one for ruining her date.

Back in the flashback, the Doctor's about to pull the lever and execute Missy. Suddenly a hooded priest shows up, demanding an audience with the Doctor. The priest turns out to be Nardole! He has a message for the Doctor from the late River Song, who "gave him full permission to kick his arse." The Monks insist that the Doctor carry out the execution. Missy begs the Doctor to spare her life, promising she'll be good.

The Doctor, Bill, Nardole, the Pope and his entourage of cardinals then travel to the Vatican in the TARDIS. Cardinal Angelo takes them to a deep underground library called the Haereticum, which is filled with forbidden and heretical books. The Doctor's wearing his sonic sunglasses, which help him see vague shapes and images. Bill comments on the fact that he's wearing them. Nardole asks the Doctor why he's keeping his blindness a secret from Bill.

They reach the center of the library, where the Veritas is kept in a protective cage. A light appears around a corner, and they see a shadowy figure standing there. As they approach the figure it walks into the light and disappears. Suddenly a Priest runs out of the cage, shouting, "I sent it! I sent it!"

Bill examines a laptop in the cage, and says the Priest emailed the Veritas to CERN, the world's largest particle accelerator lab. The CERN scientists reply, "Pray for us." The Doctor wonders what would scare both particle physicists and priests. 


He sends Bill and Nardole off to find the Priest, while he uses a device that "borrows" sight from his future incarnations so he can read the Veritas. As he starts to read the book, a group of mummified Monks appear and surround the Doctor. He takes the laptop and runs. He sees another light portal and jumps through it.

Back on the Executioner Planet, Missy's still begging the Doctor to spare her life. He pulls the lever and electrocutes her. He vows to guard her body for a thousand years. Missy then wakes up and brushes herself off. The Head Executioner protests, saying the Doctor lied. The Doctor says he promised to watch over her body, but no one said it had to be dead.

Bill and Nardole find the Priest, who's shot himself. They then see another bright portal, and enter it. They find themselves in a circular room with a ring of obelisks in the center, and a dozen or so portals along the walls. They walk through one of the portals and come out inside the Pentagon. When a woman asks for their ID, they quickly return to the portal room. They go through another portal and come out inside CERN.

A scientist walks by and welcomes them, and they follow him to a large cafeteria inside the lab. The scientists all drink champagne as a large clock counts down to zero. Nardole notices there are huge bundles of TNT under each table and tells Bill they need to leave now. Bill asks the scientist why they're killing themselves. He tells her to think of a random number, and she and Nardole come up with the same one, over and over. Eventually everyone in the room is able to chant the same "random" numbers they are, which I have to admit is kind of creepy.

Bill and Nardole run out of CERN just before it explodes and re-enter the portal room. Nardole says he doesn't think the portals on the wall are really doorways, but holographic projections. He sticks his arm into the middle of the ring of obelisks, and he derezzes like a TRON character and vanishes!


Bill freaks the hell out and runs through another portal. She finds herself in the Oval Office of the White House. She sees the Doctor sitting at the desk, while the President is slumped over dead in a chair by the window. The Doctor explains that he read (well, listened to) the Veritas , which says they're living inside a simulation, designed as a "practice run" for an alien invasion of Earth. He says as proof, the Veritas invites you to write down a series of random numbers, then turn the page. Your digits will be the same as the ones listed in the Veritas every time, since computers have trouble generating truly random numbers.

Bill realizes this means she's not real either. One of the Monks sneaks up from behind and touches her, causing her to derezz like Nardole did. The Doctor tells the Monk the invasion will never succeed in the real world. The Monk says there's nothing the Doctor can do about it, as he's not even real. The Doctor reveals he used his sonic sunglasses to email his real world counterpart and tell him everything that's going on.


Cut to the Doctor in the real world, slumped in front of the Vault as he's just received the email from his simulation. He talks to Missy in the Vault, telling her he needs her help to stop the coming invasion.

Thoughts:
• At the beginning of the episode, the Executioner explains to the Doctor how the Time Lord electric chair (or whatever it's called) functions. Among its features— it requires another Time Lord to operate it.


That seems like a pretty big design flaw. A fatal one, even (heh). Up until just a few years ago, the Doctor was the Last Of The Time Lords. What would have happened it he'd done something worthy of the death penalty back then? There'd be no one to pull the switch and execute him!


• This week we learn that in addition to having two hearts, Time Lords also have 3, count 'em three brain stems. That doesn't make the least bit of sense, but let's just move on.


• The Doctor's still blind this week (and next as well, according to the preview), but he's getting around by using his sonic sunglasses as sort of a crude Geordi LaForge VISOR.


I'm OK with this! Last year I blasted the thrice-damned sonic sunglasses as the stupidest thing Steven Moffat ever came up with (which is really saying something!), but he's finally found a good use for them here. Makes perfect sense that the Doctor would program them to function as his eyes.


• Nardole was a lot of fun this week, as he tried to nonchalantly serve as the Doctor's eyes. "Oh, look, it's a mysterious light, shining round a corner, approximately ten feet away!"


• It looks like after the events of Knock Knock, Bill apparently gave up on the idea of sharing a flat with her college pals. This week she's back living with her snooty roommate from The Pilot.


• At one point we get a brief shot of the TARDIS flying toward the Vatican. Note that it doesn't just materialize in the Pope's office, it actually flies through the air.

This highlights one of the bigger inconsistencies on the show— just how the hell does the TARDIS actually work?


Ninety nine percent of the time there appears to be no physical motion involved, as it simply dematerializes from one spot and reappears in another (accompanied by its characteristic wheezing sound).


On very rare occasions, we actually see it flying through the air (check out The Runaway Bride for a prime example). Every now and then we'll also see it slowly spinning along in outer space.

The flying vs. dematerialization thing has never been consistently depicted in the series or explained (imagine that!) as it seems to switch back and forth as the script demands. 

Maybe it dematerializes when its traveling in time, and flies when it moves through space?


• During his visit from the Church, one of the Bishops mentions Pope Benedict IX, who endorsed the Doctor back in 1045. The Doctor reminisces briefly, saying, "Pope Benedict. Lovely girl. What a night! I knew she was trouble, but she wove a spell with her castanets!"


OK, I don't know about Pope Benedict, but there are rumors and legends of Pope Joan, a female pontiff who reigned for a few brief years in the Middle Ages. Supposedly she was a learned woman who disguised herself as a man, and rose through the ranks of the Church until she was eventually elected Pope. 


The jig was up when she allegedly gave birth during a holy procession, and she died shortly afterwards. The Church supposedly removed her name from the records after that. 


The story was widely believed for centuries, but most modern scholars dismiss Pope Joan as fictional.


By the way, the entrance to the Haereticum is guarded by a large portrait on the wall, much like in the Harry Potter books. This particular portrait s of the aforementioned Pope Benedict, who for some reason looks a LOT like Angelina Jolie in the Whoniverse!

• Kudos to the makeup department for their work on the Monks in this episode. They were very effective, as they looked less like masks and more like REAL desiccated corpses or mummified bodies. Very disturbing and creepy!

Whenever the head Monk speaks, his mouth gapes open and a whispery voice emanates from it. Note that his lips don't move in sync with his speech (possibly because he no longer has lips!).

You know what other Doctor Who villain spoke like this? The original Cybermen from the planet Mondas, who first appeared in The Tenth Planet way back in 1966. 

I wonder... a few months back the BBC announced that the Mondasian Cybermen would be making an appearance on the show this season. Is it possible that the Monks are somehow these Cybermen in disguise? Creating a virtual world so they can practice invading would definitely be in the Cybermen's wheelhouse.

I'm probably way off base here, as it would be tough for the Cybermen to hide their bulky headgear under those hood. Still, I thought it was worth noting that both species do the "gaping mouth" thing.

• Evil Monks seem to be a very popular adversary in the Whoniverse. You can't swing a sonic screwdriver around without hitting some sort of sinister sect.

There were the Ninja Monks way back in Season 2's Tooth And Claw.

And of course the Headless Monks from Season 6's A Good Man Goes To War.

There're probably even more evil Monks from the Classic Series that I don't know about.


• There's a theory going around the internet lately (allegedly posited by actual scientists) that our universe is actually an elaborate Matrix-type simulation. There's supposedly some flimsy evidence (which I confess I don't understand) to back it up.

I am 99% percent sure that Steven Moffat read an article about this theory and was inspired to write these episodes.


• When Bill and Nardole visit CERN, they discover that all the scientists here have read the Veritas are prepared to kill themselves. In order to do it, the scientists have rigged all the tables in their cafeteria with huge bundles of dynamite.


Um... where the hell did the scientists get that? Do they really keep large quantities of TNT in the CERN supply closets?


• In order to read the Veritas without endangering anyone else, the Doctor uses a device that somehow borrows vision from his future incarnations. He wonders if this will damage them, or if he'll even be able to regenerate anymore.

Eh, I wouldn't worry about it, Doc. As we find out later, all that happened inside the simulated world, after all, so who cares?

• In the end, the Doctor doesn't read the Veritas, but rather listens to it, as he finally figures out the text-to-speech function on his stolen laptop (something I kept screaming at the screen). 


Note that he doesn't attempt to kill himself after listening to it. Is that because he possesses an ironclad alien willpower? Or is listening to it instead of reading it a form of cheating?

• At one point Bill goes through a portal that exits in the Oval Office. She sees the President slumped dead in a chair, an open bottle of pills spilled on the floor next to him. Note that this particular Commander-In-Chief is relatively fit and has black hair, so it's definitely not our current "President."

I'm jealous of the residents of the Whoniverse, who don't have to put up with a rotted orange pumpkin for a leader.

Now that I think about it, there's no way in hell Trump would ever bother to read the Veritas. It's been confirmed by White House staffers that he refuses to read anything more than a few paragraphs long. He'd get some poor aide to do it for him.

• The Doctor tells Bill that neither of them are real, and they're living inside The Framework, er, I mean a virtual world. He says the Veritas proves it, by challenging the reader to think of a string of random numbers and then revealing those exact digits on the next page. He says this proves the world is a simulation, because "computers aren't good at generating random numbers."


Believe it or not, this is a real thing. According to MIT Professor Steve Ward, computers are deterministic, which means if you ask the same question over and over, you get the same answer every time. They're specifically designed to eliminate randomness.


You can program a computer to generate random numbers, but because of the way they're built, they always start with a "seed" number and then follow a pattern. This results in "pseudo-random" numbers that appear arbitrary, but really aren't.


And that's one to grow on!


• So the virtual Doctor can use his sonic sunglasses to "email" the Doctor in the real world. Sure, why not? That's no more ridiculous than anything else that happens in the episode. But if I ever get an email from Franklin in Grand Theft Auto 5, I'm tossing my PS3 in the trash!


Yes, I still have a PS3.


• So just when did the episode switch from the real world to the simulated one happen? It's never quite clear, which I'm sure was Moffat's intention.

About two thirds into the episode, Nardole starts freaking out when he realizes they're in a computer simulation, saying, "I don't know. Maybe when we arrived at the Vatican? But I programmed the TARDIS myself, we were on target. We went to the Vatican, the real one, I'm sure of it." Based on that, it would seem they entered the simulation AFTER they got to the Vatican.


I don't think so though. At the very beginning of the episode, the Doctor sits in front of Missy's Vault, and gets an email titled "Extremis" on his sonic sunglasses. The very same email that the Virtual Doctor sends to him at the end of the episode (timey-whimey!).

So I'm thinking that EVERYTHING after that point happens in the virtual world!

The ONLY parts of the episode that happen in the real world are the flashbacks with Missy, the Doctor slumped against the Vault, and his phone call to Bill, in which they discuss Penny.

Remember that earlier in the episode Bill scolded the Doctor for ruining her date with Penny. But now he's asking her if she knows someone by that name. This implies that the Doctor screwed up Bill's date in the simulation, and she hasn't even asked Penny out in the real world.

• This Week's Best Lines:
Cardinal Angelo: "Good evening, Doctor. We have come here today direct from the Vatican."
The Doctor: "Oh, right. That's nice Well, if you've got a collecting tin, I'm sure I can find something. Leaky roof, is it?"

Cardinal Angelo: "On behalf of every human soul in this world, of any creed, of any faith with the utmost respect and in complete secrecy His Holiness, the Pope, the Bishop of Rome, requests, most urgently, a personal audience."

The Doctor: "Well, if he's so keen to talk to me, why doesn't he come here himself?"
Nardole: (whispering) "He IS here. He's standing right in front of us."
The Doctor: "Hello, ah, the Pope. I'm sorry that I didn't recognise you there."

The Doctor: "Assume nothing! Assumption makes an "ass" out of you, and 'umption."


Penny: "That was the Pope! Bill, that was the Pope!"

Bill: "Yeah, yeah, give me a minute, I am about to have a truly awesome word with someone."

Bill: "Here's a tip. When I am on a date, when that rare and special thing happens in my real life, do not do not under any circumstances, put the Pope in my bedroom!"

The Doctor: "OK. Now I know."

Cardinal Angelo: "Pope Benedict said that you were more in need of confession than any man breathing. But when the offer was made, you replied, 'It would take too much time."


Nardole: "OK, so you're blind and you don't want your enemies to know. I get it. But why does it have to be a secret from Bill?"

The Doctor: "Because I don't like being worried about. Around me, people should be worried about themselves."
Nardole: "Yeah, shall I tell you the real reason?"
The Doctor: "No."
Nardole: "Because the moment you tell Bill, it becomes real. And then you might actually have to deal with it."
The Doctor: "Good point. Well made. Definitely not telling her now."

Cardinal Angelo: (talking about the 
Haereticum) "The layout is designed to confuse the uninitiated." 

The Doctor: "Sort of like religion, really."

Cardinal Angelo: "The very center of the Haereticum. Home of the Veritas for over a thousand years."

The Doctor: "Truth in the heart of heresy."
Cardinal Angelo: "And death in the heart of truth."
Nardole: "You'd be wizard at writing Christmas crackers, you two!"

The Doctor: "Particle physicists and priests. What could scare them both?"


Nardole: "You're to walk behind me now, like the Doctor said."

Bill: "Yeah, totally not happening!"
Nardole: "OK, Bill, Miss Potts, I am the only person you have ever met, or ever will meet, who is officially licensed to kick the Doctor's arse. I will happily do the same to you, in the event that you do not align yourself with any instructions I have issued which I personally judge to be in the best interests of your safety and survival. OK, Bill?"
Bill: "OK."
Nardole: "Good-oh!"
Bill: "Nardole, are you secretly a badass?"
Nardole: "Nothing secret about it, babydoll."
(he shrieks as they spot the dead priest)

The Doctor: "Thing about the universe is, whatever you need, you can always borrow . . as long as you pay it back. I just borrowed from my future. I get a few minutes of proper eyesight, but I lose something. Maybe all my future regenerations will be blind. Maybe I won't regenerate ever again. Maybe I'll drop dead in 20 minutes. But I will be able to read this!"


The Doctor: "You know, I've read a lot of books that this chair would be quite useful for. Moby Dick! Honestly, shut up, and get to the whale!"

The Doctor: "I AM the Doctor. I am what stands between you and them."
Monk: "You are not the Doctor. You are not real."
The Doctor: "Oh, you don't have to be real to be the Doctor. Long as you never give up."

Monk: "What are you doing?" 

The Doctor: (who's realized he's a simulation) "I'm doing what everybody does, when the world's in danger. I'm calling the Doctor."

Missy: "Oi! Get Get off! I've just been executed! Show a little respect."

Executioner: "You are unarmed?"

The Doctor: "Always."
Executioner: "You stand alone?"
The Doctor: "Often."
Executioner: "You're the one who should be afraid.:
The Doctor: "Never."

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