Doctor Who – Series 10, Episode 6: Extremis – Reviewed

Reading in a cage - the ultimate way to prevent spoilers.
Holy crap. That's basically what I have to say about Extremis. I had mixed thoughts on the first four episodes of this season. I felt that, while all those episodes were quite good, they didn't feel as tonally cohesive as series nine, and they softened the dark and uncompromising nature of Peter Capaldi's Twelfth Doctor a bit too much. I liked all of them, but I wasn't sure of the direction that Steven Moffat seemed to be taking things in for his last year as showrunner, and I wasn't sure that this felt like it was worth a full year's wait. That started to change with last week's excellent, politically-charged Oxygen, and now the change has completed, with a vengeance. Extremis is not only the best episode of this season so far, by a wide margin, but also one of the very best episodes of the entire Peter Capaldi era; even more than that, it is probably one of the best episodes of Doctor Who that Steven Moffat has ever written. And considering that this is the guy who gave us Blink and Silence in the Library, that is really saying something. Series ten just took the gloves off: things just got dark, and unexpected, and very intense. If this is a sign of how the rest of this season is likely to play out, then yes – it was absolutely worth a full year's wait.

In keeping with one of the darkest and most uncompromising Doctors that the long-running series has ever seen, this era has caused more than a bit of controversy by repeatedly bringing a show that has always been regarded as family-friendly to some really grim places. Dark Water/Death in Heaven and Heaven Sent/Hell Bent have so far been the biggest perpetrators of the Dark-Doctor Who controversy, with their genuinely grim and existentially frightening portrayals of death. I have no doubt that Extremis just shot to the top of that list. The premise is creepy enough: in a vault of heretical texts beneath the Vatican, there is a document dating back to the beginning of written history, penned in a dead language, which supposedly reveals the true meaning of existence. Now it has been translated – and every single person who either worked on or read the translation has immediately committed suicide after learning its secret. That naturally leaves The Doctor to unravel the mystery... if he can do so without succumbing to its horrors.

These are not the hackneyed pop-culture references you're looking for...

But it isn't just the creepiness of the underlying concept: the execution of the story is brilliantly unnerving. It starts with a richly atmospheric Gothic gloom, full of deep shadows and spooky art design which very much recalls one of the early Moffat favorites, Silence in the Library. This is very much a horror episode, but not in a jump-scare, creature-focused way (though the creatures present are very creepy indeed), but a sneakily menacing slow-burn. Then, the episode adds on some deeply unnerving, mind-bending philosophical elements which finish the job of really getting under the viewer's skin. This may be the closest that Doctor Who has ever gotten to some really creepy, Black Mirror-type stuff, and it is kind of mind-blowing; not least of all because this is not the show where you expect things like that to happen.

One really can't say anything more specific than that and still remain spoiler-free – and even more so than most, this is an episode that deserves to be seen un-spoiled – so I'll have to leave things that vague. But I can confidently say that this is one very effective and very surprising episode, and that it immediately tied last season's Under the Lake/Before the Flood and Heaven Sent as my favorite Capaldi-era story so far. If this sets the tone for the rest of series ten, we could be up for a very intense few weeks that take the Twelfth Doctor and Bill into some pretty unusual territory. Here's hoping that this is the start of exactly the sort of spectacular last act that this Doctor deserves.


- Christopher S. Jordan

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