A good word to describe “Extremis,” the latest episode of Doctor Who, would be cryptic. As the first instalment of multi-episode arc, there is much that is left deliberately vague and mysterious in the episode. Breaking the pattern set by the previous episodes of this series, “Extremis” isn’t a standalone adventure with a refreshingly classic vibe. Written by show runner Steven Moffat, the episode is far more evocative of his most recent efforts on the past couple of series; it’s a dense, experimental, challenging episode. And on a purely visceral level, as a single episode of television, it has its problems. But as a part of the whole of this series, and as the first instalment of what looks to be a momentous and complex larger story, it’s a rewarding experience.
The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), still blind following the events of the previous episode, is relying on Nardole (Matt Lucas) to keep his new disability a secret from everyone, including Bill (Pearl Mackie). This becomes an ever greater challenge as the Pope comes calling, pleading with the Doctor to translate an ancient text that seems to spell death for anyone who reads it. As the Doctor dives into the mystery, he doesn’t know that this adventure will shatter both his world and the world of every he knows, even as it reveals a greater threat than he has faced before. Intertwined though this story is a flashback that reveals two things, the fate of the Doctor’s friend/mortal enemy Missy (Michelle Gomez) and just what exactly is inside the vault the Doctor has pledged to guard.
Right off the bat, it’s important to say that “Extremis” is very well directed by Daniel Nettheim. The entire episode looks terrific, with a tightly controlled pace that is never rushed and scenes that all land exactly the way they are intended. In many ways, the series overall looks as gorgeous and cinematic and confident as Doctor Who has since its return in 2005 and Nettheim’s work here exemplifies that.
Similarly, Capaldi continues to deliver absolutely fantastic work throughout the episode. There are wonderful moments of subtlety, moments of big emotion and revelation that Capaldi knows how to underplay so perfectly. You always feel and are affected by every second of his performance, but he’s just brilliant at playing the moments just enough to resonate without being broad, obvious or too heightened. It’s that restraint which grounds the bigger moments in a reality and a truth. He’s matched by some great work by Lucas and Mackie, who get teamed together for most of the episode and are a surprisingly fun and effective team. Mackie and Capaldi get an absolutely wonderful scene together at the episode’s climax as well.
Moffat’s script returns to much of his typical motifs, which have been largely absent this series. The story of the episode hinges on a big, mind-bending reveal that asks big questions about the nature of existence and about reality, even as other elements focus on the value of virtue and how the quality of virtue is only tested at the darkest, most existential of moments, hence the title “Extremis.” All of these elements make re-watching the episode interesting and rewarding. These elements are without a doubt the strongest and most compelling parts of the episode, and Moffat continues to prove that he’s at his best when he’s reaching for great heights from a thematic or conceptual point of view.
But, as “Extremis” is the first part of a trilogy of inter-connected episodes dealing with a singular threat, there’s no getting away from the rather odd shape of the script, as well. Yes, it all hinges on a pretty solid twist that is definitely interesting and well-examined, but much of the story feels more like setup than an actual single plot designed to have a beginning, middle and end. It’s more like a stretched-out version of the first act of an episode. This isn’t a bad thing, given that it’s part of a larger story, but it does mean that “Extremis” moves a little oddly. The fact that it doesn’t wind up feeling boring has to do with its execution. Given its bold twist and superb work by the director and actors, there are comparisons to be made to last season’s “Heaven Sent.” But where “Extremis” loses out to that episode (which I think is maybe the single greatest episode of Doctor Who since the 2005 reboot) is that “Heaven Sent” manages to be both perfectly entwined with the ongoing storyline but is also an incredible story on its own with a brilalintyl constructed beginning, middle and end.
I’m not saying that every episode of Doctor Who has to be “Heaven Sent”, and nor am I saying that “Extremis” is even trying to accomplish the same aims. But, this is an episode that, without its reveal, is actually pretty darn short on incident and plot. As the first act of a larger story, that’s an okay thing, but looking at it as a single episode it means that the plot itself winds up being its weak point, big twist aside. Luckily, all of the other aspects of “Extremis”; its direction, the performances, the big questions it asks and its ambitions, are all so brilliantly executed that it makes for an intriguing and effective opener to a longer, more epic adventure. 8/10