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.
The 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 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?