Is there anything that is a genuinely selfless act? If you teach a child to read, you benefit from a more educated population. If you make the world a better place, you get to live in a better place. Even if you’re doing something good in private, the feeling of reward you get is still providing you a benefit. So, when is something truly good, if goodness requires seeking no advantage? This episode came up with one of the most creative answers in television.
Quick Recap of the show:
The premise of the show is that there is a being called the Doctor that travels through time and space with various companions to fight evil. He’s an alien from a race called the Time Lords who lives and journeys in a 60s British Police Box called the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimensions In Space). Sometimes he fights aliens, sometimes he eats hot dogs, sometimes he meets famous historical figures. Honestly, he just kind of travels, but the TARDIS tends to take him where he needs to be. Sometimes he changes history, sometimes he can’t, depending on the writing. At the time of this episode, there had been 12 doctors, and the current one was played by Peter Capaldi. His companion at the time was a woman named Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) and a humanoid alien named Nardole (Matt Lucas). In the episode before this, the Doctor was rendered blind and uses sophisticated sunglasses to pretend to see to hide his condition.
At the beginning of the episode, the Doctor receives an e-mail titled “Extremis” and begins to read it through his sunglasses. It’s then shown that the Doctor is cleaning up his classroom (he’s temporarily teaching) and is surprised by a group of cardinals and the Pope himself. They’ve come concerning an ancient book found in the Vatican Library called Veritas (the Truth). It turns out that every person who reads the book commits suicide afterwards. They ask the Doctor to read it.
The Doctor picks up Bill (and humorously interrupts her date with a very attractive woman by showing her the clergy) and, together with Nardole, heads into the secret Vatican library which houses Veritas. They are led to the reading cage which houses the book and find the only translator of the book who hasn’t killed himself rambling about having “sent” it. The translator runs off and commits suicide, and Nardole and Bill see that he had e-mailed a copy of the translation to CERN. The Doctor uses a high-tech device to temporarily restore his sight so he can read the book, but the exertion knocks him out.
Nardole and Bill, going through the library, find a portal. They step through it to find themselves in a broom closet in the Pentagon. They head back through the portal and are suddenly in a hub room with a large number of portals projected to various important locations. They pick another and emerge in CERN, where the workers are all having a raucous party. It’s revealed that they’ve set up an explosion to destroy the entire facility and kill them all.
When the Doctor wakes up, a figure emerges that he can’t quite see yet. The figure steals the book and tells the Doctor that what they are doing is just “a game.” The Doctor responds: “Good, because I win” and escapes with the laptop containing the book’s translation. He finds a corner, opens the laptop to read it, but his eyes fail. The figures come for him until a bright light surrounds him.
Back at CERN, Bill and Nardole ask one of the heads what is going on. He explains that they are saving the world. They ask him how. He asks them to select a random number. As they answer, in sync, he says the same word, then challenges them to pick more. Every time they say the number, he says the same. He apologizes, then prepares to blow up CERN. Bill and Nardole escape into the hub, but discover that they aren’t truly portals: They’re projections. None of the places they’ve been are real, they’re just projections. Nardole, horrified, reaches past the projector and dissolves into pixels. Bill, shocked, follows a blood trail through another portal.
Bill finds herself in the Oval Office with the Doctor. The Doctor tells her that he read Veritas, and it’s a story of a Demon that wanted to take over the world. The Demon decided to create a Shadow World filled with Shadow People who think and act like regular people, and to observe this new world to figure out how to take over the real one. In other words, it’s a computer simulation. The random number test was to confirm whether the reader is in the real or fake world: If you’re in the real world, you can come up with a real random number, but in the fake world, everyone answers the same sequence. The Doctor and Bill both failed the test, so they’re both in the simulation. They aren’t real. This means the most noble thing for them to do is to kill themselves, because that will stop the simulation from matching the real world and hurt the Demon’s chances of taking over the real world.
After the Doctor finishes explaining, Bill dissolves, revealing the figure behind the simulation to be a desiccated alien dressed as a monk, one of many. The Doctor says that he’s going to stop them. The monk explains that they have run many simulations for centuries and that they have killed the Doctor many times, ensuring that he will not stop them. The Doctor counters that the problem with running a computer simulation this good is that it has allowed the Doctor to interfere. The monk counters that there is nothing he can do. The Doctor informs him that, in order to simulate the computer networks of Earth, the monks had tapped into the computer networks of Earth, allowing him to do exactly one thing: Send an e-mail. The simulation Doctor titles it “Extremis” and sends it to the Real Doctor who got it at the beginning of the episode.
Throughout the episode, there have been flashbacks to the Doctor attending the execution of his life-long nemesis The Master (currently “The Mistress” or Missy, played by Michelle Gomez). While the Doctor watches the executioners set up the proceeding, he is met by Nardole, who reads to him the last words of the Doctor’s Wife, River Song (Alex Kingston):
Goodness is not goodness that seeks advantage. 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 husband. My madman in a box. My Doctor.
The Doctor then prevents the execution of Missy, believing that she can change, and the Doctor agrees to watch over her. In the present, the Doctor asks Missy to help him stop the monks from invading.
So, this episode contains an answer for the question in the beginning: Virtue is only virtue when there is no possibility of reward. In other words, the only true good is sacrifice. In this episode, we see a number of people living up to that by killing themselves in order to disrupt the simulation and help stop the aliens from keeping up the simulation, but that’s only because those people realized that they weren’t real. Ultimately, it also didn’t make much of an impact because they have millions of simulations running. The Doctor, instead, goes a step further and, rather than kill himself, figures out a way to actually make a real difference, even though he himself is not real. Basically, the Doctor doesn’t just beat death to do something good, he beats reality.
Honestly, I love the fact the episode really recalls a running question during the Doctor’s Twelfth incarnation: Is the Doctor a good man? The Twelfth Doctor can be callous, can be rude, can be unkind even, and definitely can be judgmental, but this episode finally draws that question to a close. He is not just a good man, he is a man willing to do what is good without any reward being promised or even possible. The fact that the episode also features the Doctor saving one of his most hated enemies from death, knowing that she will likely try to kill him again in the future, just in case she can change, is equally significant. The end of the episode shows why it may have been the right decision: Because only Missy might be able to stop the monks.
The episode kind of invokes the simulated reality movies like The Matrix, eXistenZ, or even Dark City, but is really closest to The 13th Floor, because the main character is also not real in this story, but is a copy of someone in reality. The movie connections pretty much end there, though, since this is about overcoming the limitations of being stuck in a virtual world not by breaking it (as the CERN workers try), but instead by using it.
This is one of my favorite episodes of Capaldi’s run, though it didn’t really approach the beauty of “Heaven Sent.” Still, he’s in my top three Doctors, for now, and this episode really helped.
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