Wednesday, 7 June 2017
Doctor Who: Extremis (Episode Review)
So you might have noticed that things have been sliding here for a while. Put it down to extra workload and several deadlines bunching up at once, along with completely losing one of those all-important weekends where I do the bulk of my work. Doctor Who was unfortunately on the top of this list, and as a result we're going to be pushing to get through as many of them ASAP to get back on track, along with trying to finish another book, several video games and a new Warhammer 40,000 Edition.
Really, what is it about June which just screws you over?
Well, with that brief tangent/rant (rangent?) out of the way, let's get down to business. Thus far, Doctor Who has been relatively low key given its focus, by which I mean it massively scaled back on its usual strengths. Thus far there was no mind-bending, reality altering stuff, no mass paradox built upon another paradox, or trying to turn the doctor's life into a soap opera. It seems as if they stepped back and tried to rethink how to approach the series while the baton was handed from Steven Moffat to Chris Chibnall. Yet, this is where some of it starts to creep back in, and for anyone using it as a jumping on point, it's where some of the series' famous mania is better cemented.
The story is set on modern day Earth this time, with the Catholic Church turning up in force to request the Doctor's assistance. Something has gone horribly, horribly wrong in the Vatican, and an old flame of the Doctor's (a previous Pope no less) asked that he be contacted should something like this happen. A book has been recovered and written, copied down and translated by a dozen men. Each of them is now dead, along with anyone and everything which has come into contact with it. Why? Because the secret it holds is more terrifying than anyone could possibly expect to understand, even for a show like Doctor Who.
To start off with major props, the subject of the Doctor's blindness was handled far better than expected. People tend to do to one of two extremes with this, either cracking non-stop jokes at the character's expense, or treating it like the single worst thing which can befall a person. You be the judge of which is more insulting. Yet, while the actual situation and nature of his blindness is extremely hindering and troubling, that doesn't mean that the show is unwilling to poke jabs at the Doctor over it time and time again. It sets up the idea that what he faces is extremely incontinent, and hinders many of his natural abilities, but it hardly cripples him. This allows it to have considerable impact and bearing upon the tale without it overshadowing events, and allows him to still be the Doctor even despite this hindrance. He just needs to rely upon another person far more than he used to.
The story is also heavy on atmosphere despite the copious levels of snark present in the tale, and it does help to heighten the tension. The events from arriving in the Vatican onward are enough to build up interest in the typical horror way, where you are waiting to see just what will end up going wrong. The visuals of this moment in particular manage to be surprisingly striking, and the tight editing about the corridors proves to be very effective in emphasizing the threat posed by our new big enemy. While we see very little of them, the fact that they can so easily keep pace with the Doctor in his weakened state and the sheer level of control they hold over the environment is an interesting quality. It only hints at what they're capable of rather than fully cementing it, so it leaves future episodes open to better build upon what we have seen here. Plus, it has to be said, their design is generic but certainly very strong. You'll see what this means once you watch the story for yourself, but little can be said besides that to avoid spoilers.
Another major point in the tale's favour is how it handled Bill's personal life. A major point which stuck out as a massive negative in Moffat's run was the cringe humour mixed in with social family life, to the point where it overrode certain tales. If anything it seemed to actually veer away from major events to focus upon this at times, which made certain key events infinitely less enjoyable as a result sadly (see Matt Smith's last episode for the worst effects of this). With Bill though, it's present but it serves more of a general purpose in the long run. It consists mostly of a few brief gags, a note of how intrusive and insane the Doctor's involvement in domestic events can be, but also to emphasise the fact that this is life. A point which will seem far harsher in retrospect once the story is over, given Bill's fate. While we sadly see little of her more than this, it's enough of a new thing to show that the writers are going back to some previous failures to tweak things and try to make them work this time.
Surprisingly, Nardole is given more of a chance to shine here at many points. He is the one more familiar with the Doctor, and quite a few of his personal comments, gags and even some surprisingly strong character moments help to make him stand out. As he has sadly been struggling to be more than a simple addition to the big two here, any event which helps him to stand out is definitely a welcome one, and it even ties into a moment of the Doctor's history. A very personal one which, while nodding towards older tales, avoids simply resurrecting something which should quite literally be dead and buried by this point.
As a final note, the mystery behind the episode and its impact is presented in a very interesting light. There's so little there that it keeps you guessing despite being something of an old sci-fi trope, and the response is surprisingly human. It's manic to be sure, even exaggerated in some ways, but there's always the sense that the truth has driven them to the point of insanity. If anything, it fits in perfectly with the actual answer without ever fully tipping the audience off on just what that actually is.
Unfortunately, there are a few major problems to be cited with this story, several of which tie directly into that last point cited.
The big secret behind the book is - as mentioned above - an old trope. That's not the problem here, and the story does a good job of hiding it until the last minute. Even after it's revealed there are still more than a few good moments which helps to place further emphasis upon just how well handled it is. The problem, however, is that there are a number of borderline plot holes which surround it. A few of these you could ignore if you were feeling generous, but the big one focuses upon just what tips everyone off. It's something people can do together, so easily and so readily, that it seems as if it would break down the whole system. The whole mystery and hidden truth would be out there in a flash, and while there is the brief implication of a Groundhog Day effect going on, it's not quite enough to really make you overlook it. This is even if you're willing to just accept a few very questionable ideas when it comes to computers as well.
The Master (or Missy) makes her return once again, and there is an interesting quality to her story this time. As many have already guessed from the start, yes she's in the Vault, but part of the tale looks into the how and why behind it. The scenes are well handed, well presented and woven into the story with remarkable effectiveness, but they never quite click. The big problem behind that is we never learn any details, motivations or even the circumstances which brought the two to this event. It's bereft of context, and even a major twist present there just doesn't work as it contradicts something set up directly before hand, but never offers a clever answer. If anything, it just seems to be there to help pad out the story or introduce Missy for what will follow.
Perhaps what hurts this tale the most though is that it seems not to fully know what to do with its own clever ideas at times. Many points, thoughts and even philosophical angles are all introduced, but they never go anywhere. They're not cut off or even forgotten, but just left hanging as if following episodes are simply intended to carry them on. Given the fact the series up to this point has been improving with its episodic structure and getting back to more isolated tales, this seems like it could be falling back on bad habits before it has even fully kicked them.
Finally, and most importantly though, the story once again seems to forget just what the TARDIS is fully capable of. Several major situations arise where its abilities would have been extremely helpful, from going further into the future to fix the Doctor's damaged eyesight to dancing about a few major threats, but it's never really brought up after the first act. This wouldn't be so bad, if most of the show didn't revolve around the damn thing.
To be completely fair to Extremis, it does leave you wanting to know more. There are obvious answers awaiting us, and the enemy itself looks like potentially fascinating new foe for the Doctor to combat. The problem is that, once you get rid of that and a lot of the stylistic choices, it's just a cold open for a following tale. A good one, but still just an introduction bereft of the strengths a true two-parter tends to benefit from. This could be well worth watching again, but so much of its effectiveness will hinge upon the quality of following stories, so keep that in mind for the moment.