Doctor Who: Extremis

The story begins with the Doctor at an execution for Missy, a long time ago, at which he is supposed to pull the lever, but apparently finds a way to save her. And so we find that she is the one in the vault. It is a planet and order of people dedicated to ending life, serving as executioners for all people.

We also learn that the Doctor is able to check his email despite his blindness using his sunglasses.

A representative from the Vatican arrives in the Doctor’s classroom. Pope Benedict IX left a document for him. And the current Pope shows up, referring to “Extremis.” The cardinal says that a text exists from before the founding of the church with the title Veritas but in an otherwise unknown language, which drives all who translate it to kill themselves. The cardinal says that these people chose hell willingly after reading the text, and the Pope asks the Doctor if he will read it.

IMG_0569The cardinal also offers the Doctor absolution, saying that Pope Benedict had offered to hear the Doctor’s confession, but the Doctor had told him it would take too long. Then we get a flashback to the execution, where Nardole shows up pretending to be a priest, sent by his late wife River Song. Missy asks the Doctor to teach him how to be good, and insists that she is his friend. The Doctor promises to guard her body for a thousand years. But he never promised that she would be dead, and so he tampered with the wiring on the execution device.

The Doctor is taken in to the Hereticum, a library of texts judged to contain false teachings. The cardinal says the layout is designed to confuse the uninitiated, and the Doctor quips that it is thus kind of like religion then. It turns out that last surviving translator sent the translation of the Veritas text to CERN, and their reply was to ask for prayer. The question is thus raised what would terrify priests and scientists equally.

The Doctor borrows from his future regenerations to regain his eyesight temporarily so as to be able to read Veritas. But aliens show up trying to stop him and take it. The Doctor says he does not know how this will affect him – maybe all his future regenerations will be blind, or perhaps he won’t regenerate at all.

At CERN (to which there is a portal from the Vatican, and to which the third floor of the Pentagon is also connected) they have realized that these places are holographic projections. Nardole discovers that he too is part of the simulation, and vanishes. Bill then goes to the White House, where the President has read the Veritas and killed himself, and the Doctor says he listened to it. Bill asks what is real. The Doctor says that a demon – an alien of immense power – wants to conquer the Earth, and so makes a simulation of all of its history. The proof that they are simulations is that they all pick numbers at random and yet they are all the same. The Doctor says that characters in computer games believe they are real.

The Doctor says that he does not believe much, he may not believe anything. But belief is all he has. The simulation of the Doctor emails the real Doctor with the information he has gathered. And so he talks to Missy in the vault, indicating that he is going to need her help.

The trailer for next time shows that the aliens who made the simulation and are planning to invade are connected with Egyptian-style pyramids.

In many ways, this is a classic Doctor Who approach to religion – sacred texts and heretics can in fact know profound insights into important mysteries. But aliens and technology will be at the heart of it.

Yet on the other hand, we can ask whether and to what extent religious texts in our real world offer what the Veritas text (subtitled “A Test of Shadows”) offers in this episode: a claim about the nature of reality that can be empirically or at least experientially verified. Some would say that it is the power of their insights that gives Gnostic texts their ability to be unearthed and read and resume their impact on human beings across the centuries – April De Conick‘s recent book, The Gnostic New Age, includes a treatment of this topic, as well as a chapter on The Matrix and its use of Gnostic themes. On that subject see also the recent article about The Matrix in Omni.

What did you make of “Extremis,” and in particular its exploration of religious themes?


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  • My big question is – who wrote the Veritas to begin with? Is this just someones conjecture that they “proved” using maths? How long has the simulation been running? Also – Does the Vatican really have a library of heretical books? I figured that they would just destroy them.

    • Just saw on a Radio Times interview that the simulation starts at when human history begins but it is running faster than real time.

    • Mark McGyver

      They’re more valuable to keep than destroy. If you want to amplify a belief you have then you want it to have opposing beliefs to struggle with. It’s like lifting weights.

    • I think that most libraries historically have included works that one might wish to consult in order to know and combat your enemy. The question of whether the various works that have come to light in the possessions of monks and monasteries were works the contents of which they cherished and appreciated has long been debated.

      In this case, however, there is an issue inasmuch as the Veritas book’s presentation of the evidence for their world being a simulation seems to require knowledge of how computers work and that they won’t generate truly random numbers, and so there is a plot issue at that point.

      • Gary

        “The question of whether the various works that have come to light in the possessions of monks and monasteries were works the contents of which they cherished and appreciated has long been debated.”

        Gospel of Peter being buried with a monk seems to support the monk’s respect for the text. Unless an enemy of the monk tossed it into his tomb just to be mean.

        “The simulation of the Doctor emails the real Doctor with the information he has gathered”…

        The script writers must have read the Gospel of Peter. The walking, talking cross leaving the tomb must have been a simulation, or ancient hologram 🙂

        I still believe that the respect and love of Gnostic texts by monks in monasteries has parallels with our love of Science Fiction texts. With nothing to do in the monastery but pray and work, reading escapist texts has great appeal. Doctrine has little to do with it.

  • Ursula L

    I loved the juxtaposition of Bill and the pope. Bill is both the arbiter of morality (assuring her date that they are doing nothing wrong) and the one who binds on Earth and Heaven (“you’re all going to hell” to the Pope and his Cardinals, for invading her bedroom.)

    It is a powerful statement, to give such authority to a young, Black, lesbian woman. You can’t put the Pope in an episode without making it about religion and power – and Moffat took that power, and gave it to Bill.