While Oxygen wasn’t an absolute home run, it did two things extremely well: tension and the cliffhangar. Making the Doctor blind packed one hell of a whallop before the credits rolled, and left one as a viewer thinking, ‘What’s the Doctor going to do now, when even his advanced Gallifreyan tech can’t help him? How will he be able to save planets without his sight?’ It’s one of the ballsiest things the show has done in quite some time, and immediately offered dramatic possibilites.
Moffat returns, to answer that question, in the first of a three parter. The Vatican (yes, the one in Rome, complete with Pope) calls upon the Doctor’s aid. Turns out, there’s an ancient text called Veritas (latin for truth) that drives anyone mad who dares to read it. Recently, a team of translators, save one, have fallen victim too, and so the Holy See charges the Doctor to read it and figure out what’s going on. Only problem? He’s blind and doesn’t want anyone, not even Bill, to know.
As it’s the first of three, reviewing Extremis will be a little different, as I cannot judge it as a complete story unto itself. Instead, I will be looking at it in terms of setup and presenting its concept, and as far as that goes, it’s a bullseye. While the term ‘going back to your roots’ has been thrown around alot whenever Moffat does a ‘scary’ story, Extremis is very much that: this is Moffat straight from the RTD era, right down to having a library that contains some terrible secret within, and playing with an everyday element and making it frightening. Here, he’s tackling the very concept of ‘sight’, both physical (blindness) and philosophical (knowledge/truth of existence). It’s the most high concept Moffat has gone in years, even more than the much praised Heaven Sent from last series, and I’ll be damned if isn’t invigorating to see him be this daring again.
The fear of what we can’t see or know is every bit as terrifying as shadows, statues or being lost and calling for mummy, and Moffat exploits this for a thoroughly unsettling, even surprisingly morbid, episode. The Doctor’s own blindness creates some terrific tension, as you’re never sure how he’ll react to a given situation or how in control he’ll be when things go south, especially when Bill comes in. Moffat also does a great job with Veritas itself, evoking mystery and unease as the Doctor tries to seek its answers while also witnessing its effects upon other characters. While Knock Knock and Oxygen‘s thematic rationales came into the game much later, even feeling a touch tacked on, Extremis keeps them actively intertwined with the ongoing plot, and is all the better for it.
The performances support this ably, with Capaldi in top form as a weakened, even slightly insecure, Doctor, trying to maintain a brave face while being genuinely anxious. So used to being a big, imposing figure, Twelve here is a man in doubt about his abilities, and Capaldi sells this effortlessly through tone of voice and mannerisms. It’s actually quite heart rending. Mackie is good as always, and gets more of a chance to bounce off of Matt Lucas, who finally comes more into his own in this episode. We see a smarter, more forceful side of Nardole than the bumbler of past stories, and Lucas plays this to both great comic and dramatic effect.
The supporting cast are few but good, with props to Corrado Invernizzi as a benevolent and wise Cardinal, but the much touted return of Gomez is the bigger surprise: she plays a much more reined in, toned down Missy, showing a more vulnerable, even scared side. Seeing her taken down a peg, like the Doctor, is refreshing and helps give an otherwise bombastic character more dimension. Thanks to the actors’ chemistry, you do really buy them as having been very, very old friends.
The direction from Daniel Nettheim fits Moffat’s script like a glove: low lighting, plenty of shadows and amber luminence from old lamps evokes an eerie environment out of a good Gothic horror tale. The heretical library is a great set too, feeling like an ancient deposit of knowledge where, ideally, you would never be in. The monsters, simply refered to as ‘Monks’ are very simple but highly effective, thanks to Big Finish veteran Tim Bentinck’s raspy voice and the superb makeup job on the faces, making them look like decrepit, rotten things from a far off time and world.
While Extremis‘ ultimate worth will be judged by its two suceessors, Moffat has crafted a solid piece of setup. Capaldi and Gomez have some of their best material here, showcasing more human sides to their respective Time Lords, and the whole thing creates a fascinating and often unsettling atmosphere that has you genuinely concerned for the characters. Seeing Moffat go this big and bleak, akin to his glory days, has never been more welcome. Let’s hope Peter Harness doesn’t botch this next time when the Doctor and UNIT venture inside The Pyramid at the End of the World.
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