Sunday, 21 May 2017

The Matrix Repeated

Doctor Who
Series Ten, Episode Six

All right, Series Ten – you’ve had your fun, with your one-off episodes about robots and bugs and zombies (oh my), now it’s time to get your arc in gear.  Steven Moffat’s back on pen duties and everything.  So, what have we got?

Well, it’s a very Steven Moffaty episode in lots of ways.  Missy’s in it.  River is mentioned, and has an (arguable) impact on the plot.  There are some sassy, clever-old-me jokes.  The answer to a big mystery is revealed and, oh, it’s the first thing we all guessed, isn’t it?  There’s a clever twist at the end (with perhaps a few holes in it).  But possibly the most Moffaty thing here is that despite being nearly an hour long, and driving snazzily towards a grand revelation, there’s a miniscule amount of actual forward-moving story on offer.  It’s a well-dressed single piece of information.  Here’s a plot summary:

Who's inside?  Answers this week.
Probably.  Unless they're fibbing.  Which they might be.
The Monks are coming!

Or a longer one:

The Doctor receives an e-mail telling him the Monks are coming!

Or the deluxe, director’s cut spoiler version:

The Monks are running a simulation of Earth to test humanity’s responses to the threat of invasion.  The simulated Doctor finds out and e-mails the real one.

I mean yes, the revelation that the sim world is false is clever, but consider: what do we find out that we didn’t know last week, besides the Monks are coming, and they’re wizards at computer code?  This episode is about a simulation, not the Monks’ actual plan for Earth, which we still don’t know.  (It’s not even a simulation of them invading Earth, which seems strangely unhelpful.)  And the simulation was likely scrubbed when the credits rolled.  It probably hasn’t been part of our Series Ten so far or they’d have dropped hints, and it probably won’t figure into the Monks’ plan again later because they’ve presumably got what they needed, so all in all, the time we spend with the simulants (including finding out that they are simulants) is a bit of a wash.

(Still, the Doctor tries to tie this into the real world with a spooky, throwaway pronouncement that all video game characters think they’re real.  That’s a standard “Change how you look at everyday things” Moffat bit, except it’s a bloody big stretch.  There’d be no reason for the Monks to make video game characters that way, since they’re testing humanity and not Donkey Kong, and the Monks don’t make our video games, so what the heck is he on about?)

Okay, all that grumpy dismissiveness is slightly unfair.  Extremis does serve to make a point about the Doctor’s character and what he is really like, er, in extremis.  That’s what it’s really about, and it’s a valid point to make: even if it’s not the “real” Doctor, it’s still going to be someone who doesn’t give up, and then finds a way to meaningfully dent the bad guys’ plan.  The Doctor is the Doctor, no matter what.  (Although said dent doesn’t make much sense.  “There’s always one thing you can do from inside a computer… you can always e-mail!”  Yeah, but this isn’t the internet, it’s a simulation somewhere.  The Doctor isn’t “online” with it, so why would he get that information?)  Even so, this is not exactly a revelation.  The Doctor Is A Hero was the “Tada” of Series Eight, and Series Nine told us that’s specifically why he looks like Peter Capaldi.  We know this stuff.

Even more obviousness: the whole point of the simulation was to recreate humanity (and chums) and test their responses.  A good copy of the Doctor probably will act like the Doctor, won’t it?  And knowing that, his subsequently throwing a spanner in the works seems such a likely / potentially damaging outcome to them that I wondered why the Monk just stood there and let him witter on (and send e-mails), since not doing that is practically Lesson #1 in battling the Doctor.  Maybe it’s deliberate?  (Stay tuned.)  Come to think of it, if they’ve run lots of simulations before – which they have, they’ve killed him before – why is this the first sim Doctor to send that e-mail?

Hey ho: as well as finding out the horrible truth about this world, which has been causing clerics to kill themselves as soon as they read about it, the episode illustrates its point about the Doctor by cutting back to the “real” Doctor’s past, when he was assigned to execute Missy for reasons unknown.  (We all know she has an extensive rap sheet, but hopefully there is a reason coming.  I know, don’t bank on it…)  There’s a neat switcheroo at the start over which one is really for the block, and that’s followed by some incredible underplaying by Capaldi and Michelle Gomez.  This is easily my favourite appearance from Missy, as she appears to be somewhat sincere for once and isn’t more like the Mask on a caffeine bender.  The Doctor won’t, of course, execute her; he’s jiggery-poked the special Time Lord snuffing device so it’ll only make her sleepy, and then as promised he’ll watch over her body in the Vault for 1000 years.  Won’t that be fun for both of them.  (Kind of dampens Nardole’s “Don’t let them know you’re blind!” protestations to know this all started with him rescuing her.  Then again, so did opening the Vault to share his dinner.)

Intoducing Strappy, the chair with safety straps!
Guaranteed to make Moby Dick an easier read!
(Friend who turns the pages: not included.)
Two observations to make about the flashback scenes.  Firstly, oh for pete’s sake, it’s Missy in there?  What kind of satisfying answer is that?  Zipping back in time to last week, I asked any vaguely interested viewer who they thought was in the Vault, and got precisely two answers: the Master and the Doctor.  (Or a Doctor.)  Those are by far the most obvious answers, and after Knock Knock the case for “anyone but the Master” more or less disappeared, since the Doctor wouldn’t play “Pop Goes The Weasel” at the thought of kids dying.  (Well, perhaps in Series Eight.)  What a jip for that to be it, the most obvious thing, yet again.  (Be calm, nerd rage: despite effectively telling us it’s Missy several times, we never see her in the Vault.  That seems like an egregious thing to omit, so maybe all is not what it seems?  We all know John Simm will turn up eventually.  Tada?)

Observation #2: Nardole turns up to offer a scathing reminder of the Doctor’s personality (and what he should and shouldn’t do), courtesy of an evidently not-too-dead-to-meddle River Song.  This is a bit clumsy, even for the increasingly re-tooled and less slapsticky Nardole.  He announces here, and again later that he’s allowed to “kick the Doctor’s arse”, which to put it mildly is not totally convincing.  But it’s also completely pointless.  The Doctor already made his alterations to the machine, because of course he isn’t going to execute Missy even if she is the worst.  He doesn’t need Nardole or River bloody Song to explain his own personality back to him.  But that’s River, innit?  And it’s Moffat, imagining this basement-level Doctor stuff needed highlighting.  Maybe it’s more of that Series Ten “explain Doctor Who to new viewers” stuff; it would also explain yet another appearance by our old friend, “The Doctor frightens off an aggressor by saying ‘look me up.’”  Ah, The Entire Universe: where everybody knows your name.

Despite it all being a bit obvious (character-wise) and a bit showy-yet-pointless (plot-wise), Extremis does pack a punch.  It’s terrifying to see Bill wink out of existence, pleading as she goes, just as it’s harrowing to realise the characters you’ve been following for an hour are not getting a happy ending.  The Monks seem like a force to be reckoned with, although what they actually want (besides somewhere to hang their robes) remains a mystery.  And… well, the problem with episodes like this is that apart from the (usually singular) job they’re doing, which in this case does ultimately work, all you’ve got are random good bits and crap bits.  So I guess I’ll list them.

   ·       There’s so much sonic sunglasses action in this, especially now he’s using them to get around without eyesight, I don’t think I have the strength left to complain.  It’s like immersion therapy.  Peter does look cool in shades.
   ·       The device he uses to briefly restore his eyesight is a lot of bother for no payoff: there’s talk of how he’ll lose something (like any future regenerations), which might be dramatic and interesting if this Doctor didn’t wink out of existence anyway at the end.
   ·       Actually, if he’s got the sunglasses for most eventualities, does the blind thing even add anything?  Bugger.
   ·       Bill’s date scene is a cringey mess.  Hooray, gay representation – except Bill’s foster mum is a shrill caricature from the 50s who doesn’t know about it, and Bill’s date is newly out, so much so that Bill has to say “there’s nothing to feel guilty about.”  Yes, this is setup for the Pope walking in on them and comically freaking Penny out, but since you wouldn’t have a joke if they weren’t gay, it actually makes a song and dance of that fact and so isn’t doing anybody a favour with representation.  I much preferred The Pilot, where – apart from doing slightly too much work to point it out – Bill happened to fancy a particular gender and that was it.
   ·       As if Nardole’s “kick the Doctor’s arse” line wasn’t already trying too hard, it’s wheeled out a second time, and the ensuing back-and-forth with Bill (“Are you a secret badass?”  “Nothing secret about it, babydoll”) bears little-if-any relation to actual speech.  I think my toes actually curled.
   ·       All the stuff about simulated people not being able to generate random numbers is probably accurate, and it’s a neat way to hint at what’s really going on, but it begs a couple of questions.  What else can’t they do?  If they don’t think like us, isn’t it a bit of a crap simulation?  Also, why do Bill and Nardole stand around playing Guess My Number at all when they’re surrounded by dynamite that’s about to go off?  (Also, this is CERN, and it’s 2017.  Why the hell are they using dynamite?)
   ·       The Monks open portals to the sim world, and portals open in front of the Doctor and co. allowing them to get about in an instant.  Except… who’s opening those ones?  (Again, maybe this is all planned by the Monks.  Remain tuned.)

I sort of like Extremis, believe it or not.  It’s a little more challenging than Series Ten so far, and it’s been a while since Moffat flexed his brain.  (And attempted to explode ours.)  The Doctor and Missy are compelling together – well, they’re very good actors, it’s usually just the writing that drops the stink-bombs.  Capaldi is wonderful throughout, and Pearl Mackie gets to test her relationship with the Doctor, yelling at him for ruining her date and pleading – failing – to get him to save her.  As for the story, I’ve seen the “Nothing is real” twist before, thanks to The Matrix and Star Trek and Steven Moffat’s episodes and oh just Google it already, but it’s well executed here.

The trouble is that it’s one of those episodes that’s a long upwards crawl on a roller-coaster that eventually stops at the top.  Perhaps it’ll be a revelation when you revisit it later; in the meantime, let’s see where it’s going.


  1. Yeah, really nice review. We'll do ours at the end of the three-parter, as we want to see how it stands with the rest. We admit we were surprised when you said earlier that you were intrigued by the vault story, as when is it ever not the most obvious thing with Moffat? (And even if the vault spits out John Simm it's still an obvious variant on the obvious thing). We admire your dauntless optimism, however. Couldn't agree more about Bill's date scene, and in fact we felt it was even worse than you outline here. It was clearly all engineered just so he could get his joke in about the pope in Bill's bedroom, but to make that gag work he had to make Penny unsure in a moral sense about the whole thing, which both cast gayness as a moral crime and made Bill, who was encouraging her, come off as a predatory lesbian. Ugh! Just awful.

    1. Yes, it's the return of Aren't Lesbians Weird!!!, a favourite Moffat thesis.

      Probably a good call re leaving it until the end of Part 3 - I may feel a bit silly later! But I think this one's more or less self-contained. The entire plot is about the simulation; the Doctor and the Monks effectively Fire their starting pistols all over again at the end. As above though, we'll see.

      I'd love a proper two or three parter, it'd convince me to take a weekend off!

      Looking forward to yours. :)

    2. As for being intrigued by the Vault, admittedly I should know better. I think what I like though is it's a nice soluble mystery, there's a reason they can drag their feet with it, and you can justifiably stick it in the background. I think I like the general approach as an arc plot more than the actual plot.

  2. i enjoyed the episode but this is one of those 'step back and look at the flaws you missed first time round' (well, that *i* missed!) reviews that are a LOT of fun to read :)