Up to this point, series 10 of Doctor Who has been largely focused on gently sketching out the burgeoning relationship between the Doctor and his new companion Bill. Minds have been blown, bonds formed and relationships tested as the new TARDIS duo embarked on a whistle-stop tour of the Time Lord’s favourite adventure spots – present day England, period-era London, the distant future and deep space. Extremis marks the moment series 10 steps up a notch, boldly unveiling some of the mysteries that have been teased throughout previous episodes and posing plenty of new ones to chew over for the remaining four episodes.
The action picks up in the aftermath of Oxygen, with the Doctor still blind and somehow concealing the fact from an incomprehensibly oblivious Bill. There’s little time for the Doctor to adjust to his new situation, though, as a surprise visit from the Pope himself pulls him into an ancient mystery. The Vatican has long been the protector of an age-old book, the Veritas, which, as the title suggests, promises to reveal the ultimate truth to anyone who reads it. The only problem is, once someone has learned its secrets they’re immediately driven to kill themselves. With Tom Hanks seemingly unavailable to tackle this particular Catholic conspiracy, it’s left to the Doctor, Bill and Nardole to unravel the truth before anyone else loses their life.
Extremis certainly feels more epic in scope and feel than any previous episode this series. From the opening scenes, which see Capaldi’s Doctor sailing towards a Hogwarts-esque castle, to a trip to the hauntingly surreal Vatican library, it’s clear director Daniel Nettheim has been given plenty of license to create the most bold, cinematic visuals possible. We’re even treated to a fantastically sinister monster in the form of the Monks. The sinewy, vampiricly decrepit sect of ancient beings are absolutely terrifying, especially during one nightmarish sequence in which a discombobulated Doctor is pursued through the Vatican. Crucially, they’re not some misunderstood alien with a forgivable motive for their actions – they simply want to takeover the world and have a frightening plan to do it.
That’s not to say that writer Stephen Moffat completely abandons the more unhurried, contemplative approach to storytelling that has defined series 10. Despite the dramatic stakes, there’s very little of the hurtling down corridors, fiery confrontations or zippy special effects you might expect from the Doctor when the freedom of the world is on the line. Instead, Moffat is more than happy to let the mysteries unfold at their own pace, gradually raising the tension as the Doctor and his companions slowly piece together the secrets of the Veritas and uncover the Monks’ sinister plot. And it still leaves plenty of new mysteries for next week’s follow-up episode to explore.
Still, he can’t resist a little bit of timey-wimey narrative play, cutting between the action in the Vatican and those earlier scene of the Doctor paying a visit to an alien civilisation, led by Ivanno Jeremiah’s (Humans) Rafando, tasked with maintaining population levels throughout the universe. These scenes feel largely like an unwanted diversion from the main plot, often sapping momentum and tension away from the Doctor’s immediate plight, but they come with a delightful payoff when we discover the castle is essentially a rather swanky death row prison for Michelle Gomez’s Missy.
Yes, the unhinged Time Lady is back, but in a much more different form than we’ve seen her before. She might still be cheekily defiant at times, but Missy’s appearance is dishevelled and she’s clearly in a much more vulnerable state as she awaits execution by the Doctor himself. Gomez, of course, plays this broken crackpot persona beautifully. While the revelation that Missy is indeed the person hidden in vault, the Doctor having agreed to stand guard over her body for 1000 years, is perhaps underwhelming, the scenes between the two are powerfully and emotionally charged as Missy begs the Doctor for help, reminding him that of their long, enduring ‘friendship’. Of course he would help her. Whether Missy actually appreciates being locked in a box is another matter entirely…
Missy isn’t the only weakened Time Lord, of course, with the Doctor still suffering the effects of the blindness caused in last week’s episode. It’s fascinating to see Capaldi playing a damaged Doctor. He’s less sure of himself, and more reliant on the support of others than we’re used to seeing from him – even if he refuses to let his disability slow him down in the face of a deadly enemy. Capaldi sells every step of this struggle spectacularly, and he even gets to deliver a couple of defiant speeches as he outsmarts both the Monks and Rafando. Not bad for an old bloke with dodgy eyesight.
With the Doctor spending most of the episode isolated by his own problems, Bill and Nardole are left to form their own unexpected double act as they uncover the Monks’ Earth invasion simulation before anyone else. While their scenes end up feeling superfluous to the plot and their relationship never quite gels as well as we’d hope, it at least gives Matt Lucas the opportunity to explore a different side of his character. It turns out that, far from the comedy butler he appears to be, Nardole is actually a bit of a badass and it’s fun to see him take the lead this week, keeping both the Doctor and Bill in check as he delves deeper in the series overarching conspiracy. We also finally learn how Nardole ended up becoming the Doctor’s chaperone – he was sent by an ailing River Song shortly before her death. The betting for a surprise River cameo in the series finale start here.
As the first of what’s being called the Monk trilogy, the episode understandably feels incomplete. Nevertheless, Extremis is a promising and intriguing start, gently unravelling the mysteries at the heart of the series while expertly ratcheting up the tension in a way that leaves things perfectly poised for next week’s instalment. Saturday evening can’t come soon enough.