21 May 2017

Doctor Who Extremis review

2017 Series Episode 6 - tx 20/05/17. Written by Steven Moffat. Directed by Daniel Nettheim. Episode reviewed by John Connors.
“Particle physicists and priests… what could scare them both?”
After five weeks of banter, action and pacy plots, some viewers may find this episode’s change of tone disconcerting. Consisting of lengthy dialogue heavy scenes and an undercurrent of impending doom it has the heft of a prestigious drama and the ambition of a big screen movie. There is plenty going on, it’s just that it is not all going on at top speed. This is Doctor Who at its high concept best.

It is a risk on a Saturday evening having an episode that consists largely of either talk or exposition around a downbeat subject of an ancient book whose recently translated text causes anyone who reads it to commit suicide. It is the sort of mystery that younger viewers may find dull. Perhaps to compensate there are some comparatively lighter flashbacks to the Doctor and Missy on a planet that carries out executions for others. While these too share the same downbeat feel they do fill in the gaps regarding how Nardole came to be around and also ultimately who is in the Vault. It is indeed Missy though for some reason we have heard her playing the piano but not speaking. Perhaps she can’t speak just as the Doctor can’t see?
I’m not sure how well the two scenarios knit together and there’s an odd edit at one point with a fade out and momentary black screen. The whole execution scenario seems rather too old school despite Ivanno Jeremiah playing matters with a light tone. Nonetheless it’s a strong performance from Michelle Gomez, toned down to fit the episode but not without some humour especially when the Doctor pulls his trick and the soldiers run away!
The real heart of the story though lies with the Veritas book which the Doctor is implored to read by none other than the Pope. Keeping his sight loss a secret from Bill – cue some great moments for Matt Lucas- the Doctor’s use of some sort of Time Lord tech to temporarily allow him to see is bound to be of significance during the upcoming regeneration. It is indeed odd to see the normally confident Doctor acting so oddly.
While the scenario is bleak, Moffatt pulls some dark humour out of the bag including a tart observation about religion from the Doctor. Interesting too that what he seems to have learned during a visit to CERN last year was that facing any apocalyptic scenario the world’s finest particle physicists would open the bar! Having the Pope in the episode is not strictly necessary though the Pontiff’s presence does both underline the seriousness of the situation and provide the episodes’ most frivolous moments when His Holiness interrupts Bill’s date! 
Of course long term fans will recognise `The Android Invasion` here though by comparison the Kraals’ scheme was small fry. No wonder Styggron looked so grumpy, he probably wished he’d got the money to pull off this scale of pretend Earth! His budget just ran to a village. On the other hand you have to ask – if the Monks are this good, this powerful, do they really need to bother with a simulation first? And why make it quite so intricate? On a wider scale we’re nodding to The Matrix of course though I bet the sequels (this is the first of a three part story) are better!
New villains the Monks (well they’re called that in the cast list but the episode doesn’t say exactly who they are) have the tenor of the Silents about them, even the creepy way they move and gesticulate as if listening to some trance music on their headphones but let’s hope their threat is not reduced the way their predecessors were. They do look like they’re wearing Gran’s old curtains though and their powers seem variable depending on what is going on.
With a carefully calibrated plot and low key music the threat is built with care and it’s a strong episode for Matt Lucas who’s almost like a second Doctor as he and Bill explore their strange surroundings. Loved their exchange where Bill tells her who’s boss then the next minute is flinching when they find the body! Throughout the series Lucas has hit exactly the right note but here he excels. I’m not quite sure I buy Bill not realising the Doctor’s visual plight though; she’s sharp enough to find her way through many more challenging things. Nonetheless Pearl Mackie continues her excellent performance, here Moffat pens a less giddy, more experienced girl who is adapting to her odd life and the actor evolves to suit. The script brings a subtlety to the Doctor’s worries about himself and the fact he soldiers on. The nuance of Peter Capaldi’s performance yet again impresses with his performance conveying both the Doctor’s usual unravelling of the mystery yet also the hidden concern over his own condition.
Obviously someone sending an email is not the usual sort of climax to a story and it is at this point that we realise this is really just a third of the story. I’m not sure how this episode will play in future; a story like this works best when you’re still trying to work out the mystery and by its conclusion it seems like the series’ most elaborate lengthy pre titles sequence.

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