Previously on Doctor Who, “Oxygen”
“Greetings, sinner, only in darkness are we revealed.”
When last season’s exploration of multi-part episodes were replaced by this season’s seemingly self-contained episode descriptions, you might have thought those classic arc days were over, but the surprise cliffhanger ending of “Extremis” was a bucket-list fulfillment for exiting showrunner and episode writer Steven Moffat. Introducing a still-unnamed race of aliens bent on conquering earth, the majority of the plot proves to be a simulation, a massive holodeck exploiting earth’s history as a training ground for an infallible alien incursion, the ultimate long game. Inspired by the words of River Song and the Master, the Doctor characteristically outwits the program’s failsafe, but the battle is yet to come. After the last few bottle episodes, I enjoyed this melancholy horror tale of a new formidable foe and the Doctor’s tired desperation, leaning on the faith of his late wife and absent friend to find his way through the darkness.
What’s in the Box: No Shocker
At last, the backstory of the vault and, peripherally, of Nardole joining Team TARDIS. At some point after Darillium, Missy was sentenced to death for unspoken reasons, but is it any wonder? It’s not even the first time the Master was executed–the Daleks killed him in the 1996 TV movie. This time it requires executioners devoted to keeping the Fatality Index to get the job done. Or not. The trouble with the machine designed to shut down her two hearts and three brain stems, followed by a millennia of custody in a Quantum Fold chamber just to be sure, is the requirement that a fellow Time Lord pull the lever.
Missy promises to change, if only the Doctor will teach her; after all, she is “without hope, without witness, without reward” still his friend. Armed with River’s diary and a mandate to protect and/or kick the Doctor’s ass in her name, Nardole appears, quoting from the blue book like the Bible:
Good is good in the final hour, in the deepest pit without hope, without witness, without reward. Virtue is only virtue in extremis. This is what he believes, and this is the reason, above all, I love him.
My madman in a box.
With scriptures like that, River Songism is a religion I can get behind if the Kevinth Day Adventists don’t work out. After the “execution” and oath to guard her body for 1000 years, Missy’s back to wisecracking.
“I’ve just been executed! Have some respect!”
After all, the Doctor only vowed to protect her body. Referring to the Fatality Index to verify his endless entries under “Cause of Death,” the executioner order scatters, and the Doctor, along with Missy secured in the Vault, retires to earth, where he whispers into the door that he might need her help. Although the reveal wasn’t surprising, I appreciated the dramatic planet dedicated to executions, the abbreviated Star Wars-like scroll of A Long Time Ago, and the humor of the Fatality Index allowing 5 minutes for Divine Intervention, and the “Have a nice day!” as they scattered. As for why everyone studiously avoided mentioning Missy’s name before, it was really Nardole who superstitiously refused to say it while the Doctor is now compromised and needs backup.
The Doctor’s continuing blindness is the perfect opportunity to bust out the Sonic Sunglasses again, allowing him to read the room in basic signatures, which proves problematic when the Pope turns up in person. The Vatican’s Haereticum, or library of blasphemy, has lost control of a book named Veritas (truth) with The Ring-like powers: the reader invariably commits suicide. Wielding a recommendation from Pope Benedict IX, 1045 AD, the college of cardinals beseeches him to read it.
“Pope Benedict, lovely girl, what a night. I knew she was trouble, but she wove a spell with her castanets.”
Oh, you. Speaking of the truth, Bill curiously hasn’t told her foster mom that she’s dating a woman, Penny, but their “nothing to feel guilty about” date is hilariously interrupted by the Pope striding out of her bedroom and literally pontificating in Italian. Along with Nardole, they visit the Vatican library, discovering a crazed, gun-wielding priest who emailed the file to major power centers throughout the world. The Doctor attempts to read the Veritas by borrowing a bit of eyesight from his future selves, producing a blurry effect that prevents him from noticing when alien monks enter through a portal and invade the cell. Finally getting the picture, the Doctor is left scrambling through the hallways with his impaired vision on the fritz, until he leaps through a portal in the walls.
Secretly a Badass
In a defining moment for Nardole, the Doctor sends him and Bill chasing after the errant priest despite knowing he’d shot himself. When Nardole questions the wisdom of them seeking an armed, insane man, the Doctor suggests he walk in front of Bill then. Obviously taking it as a joke and again questioning the Doctor’s ultimate trustworthiness, Bill catches up to Nardole, but, recalling superhero tales like season opener “The Return of Doctor Mysterio,” he whips off his glasses to lay down the law.
OK, Bill, Miss Potts, I am the only person you have ever met, or ever will meet, who is officially licensed to kick the Doctor’s arse. I will happily do the same to you, in the event that you do not align yourself with any instructions I have issued which I personally judge to be in the best interests of your safety and survival.
They follow a portal to CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, to find a cafeteria full of scientists swilling wine, 5 minutes from blowing themselves up. The lead scientist asks Bill and Nardole to guess a number and keep guessing. Time after time, the scientists chant the numbers along with them Their deaths, the man declares, will service humanity, and the room explodes as Bill and Nardole escape into the main portal hub. With horror, Nardole realizes each portal is no more than a complex projection, as is he, and dissolves into pixels. This entire section was done particularly well and reminded me of bleak scifi shorts like Outer Limits or Metal Hurlant, which incidentally was written by last week’s writer Jamie Mathieson.
The Test of Shadows
Bill quite literally holds herself together to follow drops of blood through a portal to the Oval Office, where the current President has killed himself and the Doctor, sitting in the big chair for the first time since “The Impossible Astronaut,” breaks the news gently.
The Veritas tells of a demon who wanted to conquer a world so badly, he created a duplicate shadow world containing all the world’s history to study it. To see if you’re a part of this shadow world, the book invites you to pick a number and turn the page. Computer simulations can’t pick numbers at random–there is always a pattern–so the results will always be the same. These deaths result when the simulants become too smart for the program. At this realization, Bill dissolves, crying yet again for him to save her.
Pulling out River’s diary, the Doctor reminds the taunting alien monk that he always traps the bad guys into their own traps. Despite being only a little subroutine in the simulation, that’s enough for him to email a file of the entire episode out to himself in the real world, where he’s still leaning against the vault from the episode opener, along with a second message:
He calls Bill to encourage her to ask the real Penny out, because they’re about to get extremely busy. The majestic Save The Day theme strikes up, and I’ve got chills.
But… Why Did All Those People Kill Themselves, Again?
One of the primary complaints of this episode is the lack of clarity/logic on why the reading of the Veritas consistently led to suicide, given the variety in readers’ backgrounds, from religious zealots to scientific minds to political leaders. In my interpretation, there are just as many reasons. On the top layer of the equation, living life as a simulation is too much for them. Having rationalized that, if one’s identity was based solely on faith, finding that said faith is only programming could be crushing. Failing that, the decision might take a more altruistic bent, like that of the scientists and the President; upon discovering they were being observed by the aliens for the purpose of defeating humanity in real life, they terminated themselves to avoid providing more information. The only one to make it past all three levels was the Doctor’s doppelganger, for the short moment that it had a flicker of purpose; then it was Game Over.
Quotes, Thoughts, & Easter Eggs
- The Doctor proclaims his oath as a member of the Prydonian Chapter, which was led by Rassilon prior to the advent of the Time Lords and produced most of Gallifrey’s Lord Presidents.
- Pope Benedict IX was a scandalous pope from the Middle Ages, rumored to be homosexual, who bounced in and out of the role three times before being driven out permanently. There are, from the same era, also rumors of a highly debated Dark Ages woman pope named Joan.
- Joseph Long (the Pope) previously appeared as Rocco Colasanto from the epic Donna episode “Turn Left.”
- I loved that the Pope himself was never translated by the TARDIS.
- The Doctor has reportedly refused confession to the Catholic church because “it would take too long.” Considering he spent 4.5 billion years in the Confession Dial…
- Bill’s foster mom: “I have very strict rules about men.”
Bill: “Probably not as strict as mine.”
- The script was written before the Presidential election with the gender of the President left undetermined. Of course the effect of the Veritas depends on one’s ability to read…
- “Harry Potter!” Bill says. “Language!” the Doctor replies.
- Howard is a popular name to date for companion mothers. Both Peri and Rose’s mothers were with men named Howard.
- Penny was the name of a planned Davies-era companion, but Donna replaced her.
- On the priest’s laptop, several recipients of the Veritas file are Doctor Who-niverse alumni: Bill Pullman, Phil Bond, Christina Tom, Daryn McLaughlan, Peter Dukes, and Rob Hull.
- Previous monk-related stories: “The Time Meddler,” “The Daleks’ Master Plan,” “The Abominable Snowmen,” “Tooth and Claw,” “A Good Man Goes to War,” and “The Husbands of River Song.”
- The countdown clock starts at 5:15, the original airing time of the first episode of Doctor Who.
Doctor Who S10E6
Starring: Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie, Matt Lucas, Michelle Gomez, Corrado Invernizzi, Francesco Martino, Ronke Adekoluejo, Jennifer Hennessy, Ivanno Jeremiah, Joseph Long, Alana Maria, Laurent Maurel