What is real and what is an illusion? The is a BIG idea. It is one that tends to get used sparingly in drama because it can be damaging if done wrong, and should never be used as an excuse for a reset button (e.g. Bobby waking up in the shower in Dallas!). It runs the risk of giving the viewer a feeling of “does anything I am watching really matter?” or it can be a nagging fourth-wall break distraction from being truly immersed in the viewing experience. But done right, and it is mind-blowingly exciting.
It is high stakes stuff. Buffy the Vampire Slayer went deeply into it with “Normal Again”, possibly the bravest episode of any sci-fi drama ever, as it left the viewer with two interpretations, one of which being that everything we had watched up to that point was simply the figment of the imagination of a troubled girl in an asylum. As the Buffyverse is so fantastical that was troublingly the more logical interpretation, but not the one we wanted to take away from the episode! Star Trek DS9 did a very similar thing with “Far Beyond the Stars”, which was similarly troubling for the viewer and also utterly brilliant.
Extremis never quite goes that far. It never challenges the truth of the whole fictional world of Doctor Who. This is not an “everything after Trial takes place in the matrix and I never regenerated” moment, which Colin Baker always liked to tease fans with at conventions before he reluctantly agreed to make a regeneration story for Big Finish. But it is a big hitter of an episode because it shows us a lot of drama and then pulls the rug from under our feet. And it does that astonishingly well. Yes, it is possible to work out what’s going on part way through, but that’s not a problem. If it wasn’t then the plot would have felt like too much of a cheat.
So a lot of ideas in this episode are familiar – apart from the television examples mentioned above, there is a big film influence here with The Da Vinci Code, and also of course The Matrix. Last week we had more than a hint of Alien, so at the moment Doctor Who is borrowing heavily from the blockbusters, but then Doctor Who has always taken inspiration from elsewhere and spun things into a Whoey shape. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that. In fact, when Doctor Who became a Hammer Horror series in the mid 70s everyone loved it. Because it is all about taking familiar ideas and putting them together in imaginative, inventive, unexpected ways, and that is exactly what Extremis does.
The scenes set at CERN are the standout ones dramatically. I have to admit to finding the idea of what is done there a little troubling anyway and I think there are a lot of people who share that view, so showing us things going wrong there is an area ripe for drama.
In common with a lot of this series, this is an enormously enjoyable episode, but it doesn’t pay to think too deeply about it afterwards, because once again logic has been sacrificed at the altar of exciting drama. Any race with the extraordinary level of technology capable of creating a simulation like this is powerful enough not to need it at all. That’s a lesson not learnt from The Android Invasion. More importantly, the random number thing is total nonsense. Yes, computers (at present – bear in mind the episode is showing us a super-advanced race) cannot generate random numbers without using an algorithm. But the calculation is started with a seed that is something like the time in milliseconds. So yes, it might not be truly random in the strictest sense of the word, but would everybody choose the same number? Of course not. You know when you play a computer game and there are random characters doing random things from a pre-set database of choices. They don’t all do the same thing at the same time, do they? Without the ability to generate random numbers, that is exactly what would happen. So it’s a nice, convenient idea in story terms, but it’s very silly when you think about it, and a difficult thing to expect us to accept: a race so advanced that they can create such a remarkable simulation, but they can’t manage one of the most basic aspects of programming.
I also need to mention here briefly the vault. It has not really been worth talking about because so far because although it was a very interesting source of speculation at the time it all turned out to be the most obvious thing it could have been, with no twist to our expectations at all. Which is.. a bit odd. But never mind.
Once again I find myself ending a review by acknowledging there are fundamental problems with the episode, but they really don’t bother me too much, because it is just such an exciting, fun story, brilliantly acted again. That’s happening a lot lately. RP
The view from across the pond:
Yesterday, upon the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there…
First, background. Setting: College of Staten Island in New York. Year: 1990. My best friend and I are taking a philosophy class together. We’re sitting next to one another, excited to talk about new concepts when the teacher starts counting while pointing at each class member. “1, 2, 3, 4, 5. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.” Excellent, we were in the same batch. “Everyone in group 1, pair up; everyone in group 2 pair up…” To quote Nardole, “Less good now!” We were being separated! But Fate knew what it was doing. My old pal ended up examining the concept of Aesthetics; we’d come back to this many times over the years. I ended up studying Ontology, or the nature of being – in essence, how can one prove one exists? We would come back to this concept many times over the years as well.
Back in 1966, Star Trek’s pilot episode, The Cage, attempted to introduce viewers to the idea of ontology but it was deemed too “cerebral”, too hard for the average viewer to understand. Which is a shame, because I think people typically like being given concepts through a fun medium like TV; it beats sitting in class and being graded! So the fact that it took Doctor Who more than 50 years to try such a concept is a little disappointing. Luckily, Doctor Who delivers!
Extremis shows us a dire scenario that the Doctor cannot beat. But he can outwit… by calling on help from the Doctor! This episode offers an array of things to be impressed with. The enemy is terrifying to behold (see below) and extremely powerful. There’s some religious commentary that I’d love to get into but I suspect should wait for another day. There’s the fantastic trio of Nardole, Bill and the Doctor. And there’s the ontological aspect of the story; the real “punch in the gut” moment when the realization hits. The Monks created a world where the inhabitants didn’t know they were not real. When they eventually find out that nothing is real, through the work entitled Extremis, people choose death. It is horribly unnerving. The scene at CERN is disturbing. The scenes in the Vatican archive is even more so and the idea that such an archive could exist is worrisome on its own. It’s a wonderfully intelligent story. And there’s even some humor as Bill’s date goes awry.
As Roger points out, there are also a number of flaws if looked at closely. If The Monks are so good with creating simulations, why can the TARDIS not translate Italian for Bill? It was just a room away, and has always been able to translate languages! By contrast, they created this simulation and somehow knew the Doctor was blind, but that just happened in the last episode. And the sonic glasses, already well past their prime, can allow the Doctor to see to some extent so why would the Monks actually allow that into the simulation? For that matter, how would they have known these glasses could even do that? And Roger already covered random number generator.
Plus there’s the letdown about the Vault holding exactly what we all suspected since episode 1; there was no real surprise. But these are all minor when the subject matter is so brilliant and thought provoking.
But when we can view a story that makes us wonder and has us talking about the ideas for days, the writer has done his job and told a good story. We can cut him some slack. It’s a story designed to entertain and it does that very well and leaves us with an incredible cliffhanger. Extremis is extremisly brilliant.
(Don’t say you didn’t see that coming!)
I had the good fortune to meet a couple of the Monks while visiting the utterly brilliant Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff. It’s worth making the trip before it closes!
So the big question is, did you actually read this review, or did you think you read the review? I think I wrote it, but can I be sure?
Perhaps I don’t exist at all…
He wasn’t there again today. I wish, I wish, he’d go away!
Read next in the Junkyard… The Pyramid at the End of the World