Reader Bonus: Extremis (Doctor Who)

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:

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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.

SUMMARY

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.

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He loves it when they call him el Papa. And do good works.

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.

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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.

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I challenged a Sicillian while death was on the line.

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.

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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.

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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.

END SUMMARY

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.

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With an e-mail, no less.

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.

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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.

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

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Author Bonus: Heaven Sent (Doctor Who)

This is an author add-on, but I don’t feel like figuring out what number it would be. When I saw this episode, I knew I loved it, but it took me re-watching it to realize something important about it. I’ll get into that in a minute.

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 Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman), who had been killed moments before this episode started, and he was forcibly teleported away.

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Yes, he plays the guitar.

SUMMARY

The episode begins with a wounded figure walking through a castle, as the Doctor’s voice-over talks about the fact that Death is always following. You run, it walks, but it’s always coming. Then, one day you sit still too long, and it catches you. The unidentified figure flips a switch, writes the word “Bird” in the dirt, expires, and disintegrates into a skull just as the Doctor is teleported into the same room.

The Doctor speaks, assuming that whoever brought him here can hear him, telling them that they should be very afraid right now, if they had any part in Clara’s death, and that he will never stop coming for them.

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The Doctor finds himself inside of a castle in the middle of an ocean which constantly reforms and shifts around him. He determines from the teleporter that he can only be within 1 light-year of the Earth, so he knows that, when the sun sets, he can use the stars to tell his location. However, he also finds out that he is not alone. There is a monstrous figure of a veiled old woman, covered in flies, which slowly comes after him. The Doctor quickly realizes that the figure is from his childhood, from a funeral of an old woman he knew, where the heat was so great that the flies attacked her veiled corpse. Someone is using his oldest fear against him.

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Trapped at the end of the hallway, the Doctor confesses that he is afraid to die, which causes the Veil to stop, allowing the Doctor to escape. He realizes that the figure will stop when he confesses a deep truth. It’s not trying to kill him, it’s interrogating him. The Veil shortly catches up to him again, but he escapes by jumping out of a window.

DoctorWhoTardisThen, the scene shifts to the Doctor inside of the TARDIS, talking to himself. It turns out that, due to the extremely advanced nature of his brain, whenever he has to make a quick decision, he goes into a mental version of the TARDIS where he can make calculations about the situation that would take hours outside in the span of seconds. Calculating the time of impact to the water, the Doctor avoids breaking his neck and the shock.

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As he awakens under the water, he sees that the ocean is filled with skulls. Mountains of skulls. He makes his way back to shore and begins investigating the castle. For days, the Doctor explores the castle, avoiding the Veil. He discovers a message to him: “I AM IN 12.” The Doctor escapes the Veil again by confessing another fact: He ran away when he was younger because he was scared. He realizes that the Veil walks so slowly that, if he lures the Veil to one end of the castle, then runs to the other, he has 82 minutes before it catches up.

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After more time passes while he works to find room 12 in 82 minute increments, the Doctor returns to the starting room, and sees the word “Bird” written in the dirt, as well as the skull of the figure from the beginning. A passage opens, leading upward. The Doctor stands on the roof of the castle, looking at the stars, and observes that, by their movement, he has traveled 7,000 years into the future. He then accidentally knocks the skull into the water, when avoiding the Veil again. The Doctor confesses one more fact to the Veil: He knows the identity of the greatest fear of the Time Lords – “The Hybrid.” He doesn’t disclose who the Hybrid is, however.

DoctorWhoAzbantium

This confession finally reconfigures the castle so that the Doctor can access Room 12, where he finds the TARDIS behind a wall of crystal. This crystal is Azbantium, a substance 400 times harder than Diamond, and the wall is 20 feet thick. Then, the Doctor thinks back to the word “Bird” and finally remembers everything. More on that in a second.

The Doctor realizes that “Bird” is a reference to the fable “The Shepherd’s Boy” by the Brothers Grimm. And this breaks him, causing him to beg to be allowed to lose. To quit. Not to be the hero this time. However, a memory of Clara makes him press on.

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So, with the veil approaching him, the Doctor starts punching the wall until the Veil catches him, and mortally wounds him. Dying, the Doctor crawls back up the stairs to the teleporter room, and uses the re-setting of the room to create another version of himself as he expires. The new Doctor then begins to recite the speech from the beginning of the episode.

doctorwhocapaldidying-e1521148401528.jpgWhat follows is a montage of doctors re-living the same sequence we just watched, over, and over, and over again. For FOUR AND A HALF BILLION YEARS, as he slowly punches through the wall, a punch or 3 each lifetime. Then, he is mortally wounded again, and has to agonizingly limp back to start the whole cycle over with his last breath. However, we watch as the Doctor slowly tells the Veil the story of the “Shepherd’s Boy,” in one of my favorite sequences in the show’s history.

“There’s this emperor and he asks this shepherd’s boy, “How many seconds in eternity?” And the shepherd’s boy says, “There’s this mountain of pure diamond. It takes an hour to climb it and an hour to go around it! Every hundred years, a little bird comes and sharpens its beak on the diamond mountain. And when the entire mountain is chiseled away, the first second of eternity will have passed! You must think that’s a hell of a long time. Personally, I think that’s a hell of a bird.”

The Doctor finally breaks through the wall and escapes, revealing that he’s been inside of his confession dial, basically a Time Lord will and testament, the entire time. And he sees that he’s on Gallifrey, and that his own people, the Time Lords, were the ones that put him there. He tells a small boy “Tell them I’m back. Tell them I know what they did, and I’m on my way. And if they ask you who I am, tell them I came the long way around.”

END SUMMARY

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This scene of eating soup is amazing. Really.

Okay, so, this paragraph will probably kill me: Peter Capaldi is the best actor to portray the Doctor thus far. I’m sorry, but I genuinely believe that. I love David Tennant, and I think he is the best Doctor, and he is definitely My Doctor, but Tennant is behind Capaldi in terms of actual acting ability. This episode proved it. Capaldi explores every aspect of the Doctor in this episode, and he does it with such a level of subtlety and skill that he manages to get you to forget how relatively little actually happens in this episode. Tennant may have loved the role enough to bring it life that no other Doctor has (sorry Pertwee, Eccleston, Smith, and the Bakers), but dammit, this episode is up there with Martin Sheen in The West Wing or Elisabeth Moss in the Handmaid’s Tale. This is the sh*t people get awards for, and it’s an episode of DOCTOR WHO, a usually lighthearted sci-fi show. It’s the same reason why I love Captain Picard the most, because Patrick Stewart could bring you in with his performances when he was the focus. Capaldi just… f*cking nailed it.

The Groundhog Day-esque loops at the end are amazing, and it really does serve to show exactly how slow the Doctor’s progress is as he punches his way to freedom. Watching him die over and over again really makes us feel uncomfortable, because this is our protagonist undergoing agony dozens of times before our eyes, and billions more offscreen.

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Also, the final remembrance. That’s the part that I think sets this episode apart. See, he’s not just realizing what “Bird” means, he’s remembering all of the times he’s done this before. He’s realizing that he’s suffered this sequence thousands of times, and that he’s going to have to do it billions of times to get free. He wants to quit. He wants to give up. This is a torment that no mind should be able to bear, being chased, tortured, and killed for basically as long as the Earth has existed, but he just quickly resolves that he’ll do it, he’ll bear it, he’ll persevere and he’ll triumph, because that’s what he has to do. He even realizes that he could be free in an instant just by confessing who the Hybrid is: But he refuses to do it, because it’s an important secret that should be kept (it’s later revealed to be a friend of his). He’s willing to undergo hell to protect that secret. To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield, as a better author said.

This episode is one of the best hours of Doctor Who, and it is just watching the Doctor through triumph, agony, failure, regret, and overcoming the odds, all in short order. It explores levels of the character that we rarely touch upon, and it rests largely upon Capaldi’s performance combined with some excellent writing and cinematography. Truly, this was wonderful.

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews

If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.