Doctor Who: “The Doctor Falls”

There’s so much happening here, and so little. We could talk about the eerie use of proto-Cyberman corpses as scarecrows. We could talk about how fast those lifts are, and whether the Doctor’s claim that the Cybermen would be able to work out how to stop them before they made it to the TARDIS really holds water. We could talk about the apple as humanity’s original weapon. We could talk about the oblique reference to a Doctor Who Magazine comic written by Grant Morrison that presented the Voord, villains of the 1964 adventure “The Keys of Marinus,” to be evolving into Cybermen. We could, and probably should, finally give Nardole his due, that never-quite-explained somewhat-Cyberized-himself Frankenstein’s-monster of a non-human con man turned quiet hero, Matt Lucas nailing the role as he has all season even when he’s just hilariously deadpan muttering “shuttle craft.”

But in the end this boils down to three people. So let’s talk about them.

1. Missy
“I loved being you….And I will always miss it.”

Was Missy “reformed”? No more and no less than you would expect. Something changed in her, that much was clear, but up until the very end her past self maintained a grip on her present, and probably every instant the two of them were together and most of the instants when they weren’t, she was conflicted. Gomez plays all this with excellent subtlety, just looks and line readings you’ll miss if you blink. It’s probable Missy doesn’t know until the moment she sticks her (sonic? really?) umbrella in the ground and beckons the Master over for a hug that she’s going to stab him in the back. And it’s probable that the Master doesn’t know until she declares her intent to betray everything he’s chosen to be that he’s going to shoot her in the back. After all, Missy’s mere existence is the proof he survives the stabbing, so why would he cut short his own future…unless it means he stops being himself?

It’s remarkable that we get what sounds like a credible explanation of the Master’s escape from “The End of Time” — this hasn’t always been a courtesy we’ve received. He’s often escaped from what seem like certain death traps without accounting in any way for his survival. So no matter what he says about the “full blast” of the laser screwdriver, and regardless of the fact this really is the “perfect ending” for the character, it’s more than likely that the admonition to carry a spare dematerialization circuit isn’t the only precaution Missy retained from her previous death. I’d put the odds we’ll see her again, in one incarnation or another, at about 98%.

2. The Doctor
“I can’t keep on being somebody else.”

I’ve never been in the camp that enjoys criticizing the behavior of a 2000-year-old effective immortal who spends most of his time saving short-lived humans from apocalyptic situations. It’s become a cliché to complain about the Doctor’s arrogance, or his hubris, or his alien sensibilities, or his habit of putting his best friends in mortal danger. But it’s hard to deny that the Twelfth Doctor has, even compared to his more self-castigating prior selves, given this camp a lot of ammunition.

He promises to save Bill, but he can’t. At least he admits it. He pushes down whatever grief and guilt he’s feeling over her condition because there’s a pressing crisis: first the Missy/Master situation, then the Cybermen preparing to invade level 507. And maybe it’s better this way — maybe no scene where he looks her in the blank Cyberman eyes and apologizes for ignoring her reluctance to participate in Missy’s test, apologizes for thinking his braggadocio could talk the janitor out of shooting her, apologizes for leaving her downstairs for ten years while he taught the room about black hole physics, or for taking the lift when he could have taken the TARDIS, or even just for leaving her alone in the barn, would ever be enough. But Moffat’s a good writer, Capaldi’s a good actor — they might have pulled it off.

What we get instead is the final culmination of a death wish that’s been building all season, manifesting in his attempted self-sacrifices in (e.g.) “Extremis,” “Pyramid at the End of the World,” and “The Eaters of Light.” The Doctor’s decision to stay on 507 and burn along with it is about doing what’s right and decent and kind, yes, but it’s also his inability to live with himself. This is the second companion in a row (that we know of) who’s effectively died on his watch, performing a small act of heroism she didn’t realize would be fatal, and while he doesn’t consciously remember Clara, there must be a level on which he does. This is not out of character for him — it’s basically the same doomed last stand in a bucolic little town he took in “The Time of the Doctor” — but it is, in some ways, as selfish a move as any, this unsung final charge intended to be the last help he gives anyone, ever.

If he’d given in and regenerated, he could have helped the “Waltons” for many more years than Nardole will be able to. He might even have worked out a way to get to his TARDIS. He could have saved many more people on more worlds. But he’s had enough. He’s lived too long, failed one too many of his friends, this time a young woman who wanted nothing more than to learn and to love and be loved, and who got her heart burned out of her chest for doing nothing more than being human. He knows, as we know, that if he changes now, he’ll become a different man (or woman), remember these things as if they happened to someone else, start fresh and maybe never stop.

We know that has to happen. But he doesn’t want to face it. And right now, I don’t want to either.

3. Bill
“I don’t want to live if I can’t be me anymore.”

Last week I left the similarities between “Dark Water” and “World Enough and Time” as an exercise to the reader. Did you do the exercise? We won’t check all your answers now, but the most obvious one has to be “one of the few black companions we’ve had receives a fatal trauma and is held captive by the Master until they can be converted into a Cyberman.”

I’ll admit, I expected this to be undone. It seemed cruel, and not nearly as unusual as it should be, for this to happen again. Mickey and Martha fared relatively well, but the Moffat era has been less kind to companions of color; even Mels, Amy and Rory’s childhood friend who turns out to be their daughter, is shot dead by Hitler a short time after she first appears (to regenerate into Alex Kingston, but still). I’m not sure it’s my place to say that this is an objectively troubling trend, but I’m troubled by it personally, and hoping (though not expecting) Chris Chibnall to be the showrunner who finally remembers that companions used to choose to leave the TARDIS like mature adults and don’t have to be killed off.

It’s all the more dismaying to see this happen to a companion as thoroughly appealing as Bill. If there’s any division among fans between those who love Bill and those who hate her, I’ve apparently only heard from the first faction. Making a character everyone loves, on purpose, is almost impossible. If the intent was to make her so likeable that her fate is a total gut-punch, they’ve succeeded, and it’s a testimony to excellent scripts, certainly, but also and perhaps first and foremost to Pearl Mackie.

Thank goodness Moffat has Bill under the illusion that she’s still human, or we might have lost out on a terrific last performance by Mackie. Her anguish as she slowly realizes she’s been turned into a literal monster is all the more heartbreaking as we imagine each of her lines as everyone around her hears it, in the Cybervoice. I said last week that her situation was sad, and it gets worse the more you think about it: she has the one act of heroism (pointing out she’s the only human in the room so she’s the only one who gets shot), and that’s it — she doesn’t even get all the credit for sticking it out ten years in the nightmare hospital, since we don’t know to how much she’s acting under the Doctor’s “wait for me” mental suggestion. That’s something I could have done without — it’s his biggest mistake, pacifying her when she could have taken action of some kind, and it robs her of any credit we might have given her for having faith in him. Then she gets to be taunted by the Master, kept in the barn like a horrible secret, shot at by Ma Walton.

And yet — I said last week she was resilient, and we keep seeing it here. She doesn’t succumb to the Doctor’s death wish and make a suicide run at a bunch of Cybermen, zapping as many as possible before they overwhelm her (even though arguably that would have been pretty spectacular; and since all the Cybermen are connected, and Nardole is a computer expert, was there never any thought of sending some kind of signal from her brain back through the net to infect them? Maybe the same image of her mom that defeated the omnipotent Monks in almost exactly that same way? Oh well). She sticks with the Doctor and Nardole, until she’s able finally at the end to find him on the battlefield and, with a little help, save his life. He doesn’t deserve her. He never has. He’s lucky to have her.

But she’s luckier to have someone else. The one remaining fear I had from last week — that Bill, our first lesbian companion, would also be the first companion of the new series denied a happy romance in the end — was fortunately premature. This ending makes me wish even more that “The Pilot” had taken just a little more screen time to flesh out that relationship between Bill and the girl with the star in her eye, but better late than never. Like Clara and Me, Bill and Heather are now effectively immortal, traveling the universe without the Doctor for as long and as far as they want to. They could be human again — according to Heather, “it’s just atoms” — but given what they’re apparently capable of now, human seems such a small thing to try and be.

This is a strong contender for the saddest ending for a companion we’ve had since the new series began. But an equally strong contender for the happiest.

“Is the future going to be all girl?”

“We can only hope.”

Doctor Who: “World Enough and Time”

Let’s cut to the chase: this is the best episode of Doctor Who since at least “Dark Water,” whose plot it resembles in numerous ways best left as an exercise for the reader. I’m not complaining in the least. To grapple with all the terrific moments here, let’s turn to a structure I’ve used in the past to tame more hyperactive event stories, and which I’ll use this time to allow us to linger and stretch time at the very edge of the Capaldi era and indeed the Moffat era. Everything we’ll miss is here, and it’s glorious.

0:00 – 5:00
Well, now we know why the word was Capaldi had already filmed the regeneration. Stating the obvious: his hair’s much longer (perhaps more Pertwee-esque than ever before) or at least less styled, and there’s no context whatsoever apart from the snow, so this could be happening pretty much anytime and anywhere. The only immediately apparent reason for it to happen right now is to tease the possibility (for around 3 minutes) that he’s regenerated into Michelle Gomez. It looks like this is going to be another reluctant regeneration, too. Eccleston and Smith were sanguine, but Tennant and Capaldi are choleric in death.

The ship and the black hole are pretty spectacular, but we’re so used to this sort of thing in movies we might not notice how great it is in a show with this budget.

“Time Lords are friends with each other, dear. Everything else is cradle-snatching.” Well, she would want to be his only friend. But it helps reinforce why he’s going to such lengths to reform her. Capaldi is perfect with his feet up eating crisps while she goes through a test only somewhat reminiscent of (again) the most recent episode of Sherlock.

“You’re probably handsome, aren’t you?” echoes the Fourth Doctor in “City of Death” telling the Countess Scarlioni “you’re a beautiful woman, probably.”

5: 01 – 10: 00
This banter about the Doctor’s name is also perfect. They tease it back and forth until the Doctor finally confirms that it’s absolutely the name he goes by because he likes it. So not his real name, but still pretty much his real name, with the “Who.” When I miss Moffat, it’s going to be for cheeky moves like this. Just like that, it’s canon, everybody!

It’s not entirely clear why the blue janitor is so afraid of the proto-Cybermen coming up in the lifts, since all they do is take Bill away. Perhaps he’s just trying not to add to their numbers.

Oh, sorry, so yeah, that’s the first spoiler. But obviously we’ve known they were coming since the start of the season, and if you missed them then, you saw them in the Next Time trailer. So yes: Cybermen.

10 : 01 – 15 : 00
It’s simple, but it works: Missy is, as she was originally conceived in 1971, the Doctor’s dark mirror, his evil twin, but his mirror and his twin nonetheless, hence he’s soft on her and wants nothing more than to give her one more chance. So many human nightmares get undeserved leeway for exactly the same reason. Love enables monsters. It’s awful, but it’s our nature.

Bill has clearly been given a lot more background on Missy offscreen. Back in “The Lie of the Land” Missy was a woman the Doctor was inexplicably keeping imprisoned, but now she’s someone Bill wouldn’t trust with a cupcake.

More canon-rattling: the Doctor implying he might not have been a man in his Academy days, suggesting that either William Hartnell wasn’t the first Doctor (doubtful for too many reasons to list) or that the Doctor’s memory is getting seriously fuzzy in his advanced age. Bill’s “Time Lords” zinger is the perfect capper.

15 : 0 1 – 20 : 0 0
The pair of clocks is too much information to take in without pausing, but it sets up the time differential between the two ends of the ship. And here we have the first appearance of Mr. Razor, who appears to be cut from the same shambling idiot cloth as that one in Babylon 5.

Hospitals are always scary (see also “The Empty Child”). They’re even scarier when the patients are so wrecked that they can’t say they’re in pain, they can only type it.

2 0 : 0 1 – 2 5 : 0 0
This is why I love two-parters. 45 minutes forces a breakneck pace. 90 minutes gives you enough time to build mood, and suspense, and let Bill discover slowly and with utter dread that the only reason she can no longer hear the patients typing “pain” is that the nurse has turned down the volume.

At this point I still hadn’t recognized the actor playing Mr. Razor.

2 5 : 01 – 3 0 : 00
It’s profoundly sad, what’s happening to Bill. It’s not just that she’s had a hole blown through her chest and had it filled with a Cyberman chest unit. It’s also that she’s spending months, years, mopping the floors of a hospital where the patients eye an open window with naked desire to escape (one way or another), and where her only company is perhaps the most evil person on the entire ship. She doesn’t know about this last bit yet, but otherwise she’s holding up extremely well under the circumstances. She may well be the most resilient companion we’ve ever seen.

30 : 01 – 35 : 00
The Big Finish audio play “Spare Parts” was, until now, the closest thing we had to a Genesis of the Cybermen. The world it suggested was much like what we see here: a drab underworld of the poor and destitute, shuffling in rags for scraps.

35 :01 – 40 :00
I’m pretty sure it was right around the time Mr. Razor puts on the burgling mask that I realized who he was. It should have been much sooner, though, since the presence of John Simm was of course the other thing we’ve been spoiled about well before now. His goatee is a throwback to Masters of old (Delgado in the Seventies, Ainley in the Eighties), as is his penchant for disguise. It wasn’t uncommon for him to use a name that either meant “Master” (e.g. “Magister”) or was an anagram of “Master” (e.g. “Estram”). And of course, an anagram of “Mister Razor” is, er, “Master Rizor.” “Masterizer”? “Master Ziror”? Well, nobody’s perfect.

Missy knows too. She’s nervous. Only one person could make her this nervous: herself.

40:01 – 45:00
So: Mondas. The tenth planet in our solar system, out beyond Pluto, and for some reason Earth’s exact twin, only inverted: another dark mirror. (If Missy is the Doctor’s dark mirror, Razor, in a sense, for a moment, in her semi-reformed state, is hers.) Mondas and its bizarre cloth-faced Cybermen appeared before once and only once, in 1966’s “The Tenth Planet,” at the end of which story the First Doctor regenerated.

And so we learn that not only did the Master help create the Cybermen (after escaping from the events of “The End of Time,” before regenerating into Missy), but that he also converted Bill into one of them long before the Doctor ever met her, ever decided to take her on as her tutor, ever reluctantly decided to bring her along on the TARDIS, ever promised not to get her killed.

I mean, next week looks like it’s going to be at least as manic as “Death in Heaven,” with a whole bunch of Cybermen blowing up in gratuitous ways, but for the moment, we’re left on a cliffhanger that’s as harrowing as we’ve ever had. There’s a very real chance that Bill will be the only new series companion to date who will die and stay dead.

I’m utterly dismayed. And I can’t wait till Saturday. This is how Doctor Who should be.

Doctor Who: series 10 penultimate rankings

Per tradition, it’s the end-of-series rankings, minus the finale.

10. The Pyramid at the End of the World
I’m sympathetic: this episode had to clarify the nature of the Monks, provide a credible way for them to hold the Earth to ransom, and maneuver Bill into a corner where she’d have to agree to their demands. On paper it does one and a half out of three, while on screen it substitutes action figures for characters and doesn’t seem to have any idea how bacteria work.

9. Empress of Mars
A better-than-average Gatiss episode, with an interesting role to play in Ice Warrior history, but still hamstrung by the performances, the posturing, the thin plot, and the fact that the Doctor and Bill are spectators and little else.

8. The Lie of the Land
Not really all that good in its own right, but satisfying as a middle finger to the dreadful setup. Nothing could have paid off the absurdity of the Monks, so why not spend 35 minutes or so watching the season’s best actors play off one another?

7. Smile
Gorgeous visually, and it’s wonderful to watch the Doctor and Bill getting to know each other. In hindsight, though, it’s hard to shake the awareness that it relies on the humans and the robots being pathetically stupid, and I can’t get the shot of the robot with pound signs in its eyes out of my head.

6. Extremis
The beginning of the season’s biggest waste of time: three episodes of a thoroughly nonsensical monster. This one is a mess, but it almost works.

5. The Pilot
I had to take off points for the “fattened” bit, the having-it-both-ways threat, and the underdeveloped relationship, but otherwise this gets a respectable passing grade as one of the loveliest season openers in quite some time.

4. Knock Knock
The most purely entertaining story of the season in my book. It has its flaws, including yet another unlikely reset button ending, but on the whole this is an underrated diversion.

3. Oxygen
A rock-solid idea, maybe only one character-focused revision away from being a match for “Thin Ice.” The “end of capitalism” promise might have been a bit too on-the-nose (and entirely at odds with even recent continuity), but the “suits are trying to kill us” joke is so real it’s almost not funny.

2. The Eaters of Light
An almost retro adventure that seems a little at odds with the tone and structure of new Who, yet fits right in thematically. There are more sophisticated and better-structured stories this season, but the texture of this one appeals to me so much that only a perfect grand slam could knock it out of the top spot.

1. Thin Ice
An all-too-rare Doctor Who story that manages to mix sociopolitical commentary, entertaining spectacle, a historical setting, and character development for both the Doctor and his companion without breaking a sweat.

Doctor Who: “The Eaters of Light”

Given the harmonious relationship between classic Who and new Who — a distinction with less and less meaning every year — it seems unbelievable that Rona Munro is the only writer to have written for both phases of the show. Her last effort was in fact the last classic episode ever aired. “Survival” was a solidly enjoyable Seventh Doctor story featuring a mysterious link between worlds, a proud race of female warriors (who happened to be bipedal cheetahs), and a theme about overcoming one’s baser, warlike instincts so that enemies could come together to do better things. It also featured the Master, his nature being altered (in this case toward savagery rather than away from evil) by the planet of the Cheetah People. It’s remarkable and strangely comforting to see such strong links between 1989 and 2017, especially as we draw toward the end of another era.

“The Eaters of Light” has plenty of rough spots. The titular creatures are refreshingly old-school in nature, hungry monsters to be fought rather than overliteral technology, Oedipal weirdoes, or the violence of capitalism, but like so many new Who antagonists, they raise so many questions there’s no time in 42 short minutes to answer. The locusts manifest as tentacled dragon/lions, running on four feet like any Earth animal, so how do they get to the sun, much less the rest of the stars? Perhaps the one we see is too wounded and weakened to fly like its siblings in the portal, and must absorb light to recover its full powers and give it strength to roam out of the immediate area, but why is it feeding only off the absorbed light of humans? Why not tuck into the trees and grass, which are surely as full of light as we are? Why not just wait till morning (of which there are at least two in the course of the story) and soak up some rays directly? And just how much longer are a handful of Romans and Celts going to be able to postpone the inevitable, if the tradition is all but forgotten in the modern age of children playing among the stones? I haven’t done the math, but this is surely a finite solution, as the Doctor points out.

Then there’s the Doctor himself, in a curiously prickly mood. He’s not quite his Season 8 self, but he’s far ruder to Kar than seems appropriate, even before he learns what she’s done to put the universe in danger. Her home may be a “muddy little hill” but it’s difficult to see how she’s in the wrong for taking a risk to defend it from invaders, “indoor toilets” or no. And though Bill ought to know better than to challenge a Time Lord on his history based on a single book, it’s a little gauche for him to brag about having lived in it.

Still, it’s a lively little story with a good heart to it and plenty of fun moments. I enjoyed the Chekhov’s popcorn, even though it was easy to see it coming. I liked the bit about what the crows say, and why they say it. While I don’t think we needed yet another situation where Bill has to rebuff a crush by letting him know she’s gay (would it have killed them to give us one more episode where a cute alien girl falls for her instead?), I loved the ensuing conversation about how liking both boys and girls was an ordinary thing for the Romans. And most importantly, there was Munro’s take on the role the Doctor plays in the lives of those he encounters: translating their words to one another, so that they can hear the childish limitations they place on themselves and learn to rise above them.

It’s remarkable that, even though both the Romans and the Celts are subject to Historical Figure Formality and tend to orate a bit more than they plainly speak, this episode seems more alive with actual characters than some of the flashier others this season. For better or worse, it also feels more resolved, not with the realignment of a status quo for an unseen next chapter, but with the creation of a legend. I’m glad new Who does a lot of things in new ways, but there’s nothing wrong with an old-fashioned ending once in a while.

Of course, while the end of the story is old-fashioned, the actual end of the episode is not. I have my suspicions about where this Missy thing is headed, but when the setup of this series arc gives us intense scenes like that Doctor/Missy tête-à-tête, I’m content just to indulge it and see where it goes.

Doctor Who: “The Lie of the Land”

At this point it really does feel as though the Monks have always been here, so I’m looking forward to something new next week, even if it’s the Mark Gatiss episode. Fortunately, I’m one of probably few people who felt they went out on a relatively high note.

“The Lie of the Land” needs us to believe in an entire world oppressed by thought police, where life is fine as long as one accepts the titular lie that the Monks have been at humanity’s side throughout time, helping us through our evolutionary path, our greatest inventions, and our biggest achievements. It does this through anecdote (fascist thugs kicking down the door) and montage (the Doctor’s voice over a series of Forrest-Gump-like insertions of the Monks into photos from human history). It’s a little brief, but in 2017 we’re not only watching The Man in the High Castle and The Handmaid’s Tale but we’ve seen examples of fascist alternate presents in Doctor Who already (notably “The Last of the Time Lords” and “Turn Left,” probably fresher in most people’s memories than “Inferno”), so maybe this is all that’s required. It’s interesting how “The Lie of the Land” does for the Monks and human history what “The Name of the Doctor” did for Clara and the Doctor’s history, making her seem a little more intrusive in hindsight, but I digress.

From the setup we move into the first big set piece of the episode: Bill and Nardole tracking down the Doctor. There’s a bit of a cheapness to the fact that the episode’s big hook — the Doctor appearing to side with the Monks — is an overly elaborate charade, but the case he makes is surprisingly, perhaps chillingly plausible. Less plausible is the fake regeneration — Bill has no idea what it is, because if she had, she would have worried less about rescuing him in the previous episode, and there hasn’t been time for the Doctor to explain it in the meantime. It happens purely for the sake of a dramatic trailer tease. But the rest of it is pretty terrific: Capaldi and Mackie are once again among the best actors this show’s ever seen, and the words are on par with all but the best of this Doctor’s speeches. On first viewing, everything happens quickly enough that it looks as though Bill pulls a gun and shoots the Doctor out of shock and betrayal, but a second viewing confirms that she expresses a practical reason: she realizes that if the Doctor’s on the side of the Monks then humanity really is doomed, and the only obvious moral course of action is to kill him and give the world a fighting chance. She’s also had six months of listening to him broadcast these same views, and though she presumably figures the broadcasts are a ruse, there must be part of her that’s thought about what she might have to do if they aren’t.

And from the companion being obliged to kill the Doctor we move to the Doctor obliged to kill the companion: the second set piece, finally entering the Vault to see Missy imprisoned in a setup inevitably reminiscent of The Silence of the Lambs and the final episode of this last season of Sherlock. If putting Capaldi and Mackie in a room together and letting them play off one another is a brilliant move, adding Michelle Gomez is even better. The conversation is taut and layered, given that Missy is ostensibly in prison to be rehabilitated (having promised to “turn good”) and tensions run high between her and the Doctor…and Bill, who meets another of the Doctor’s kind for the first time and within moments discovers that she’s as blasé about murder as Bill isn’t. It’s a marvelous scene, right down to the way Missy says the word “volcano,” and it ends with the discovery we knew was coming: the easiest way to break the Monks’ hold is to kill Bill.

From here it’s on to the last and least effective set piece: the Doctor and company invading the pyramid in order to disrupt the Monks’ broadcast at its source. Whether you’re impressed by the solution, in which Bill is able to succeed where the Doctor fails because of her adoption of her mother as an imaginary friend, depends on whether you’re the sort of person who’s been impressed by all the other times in new Who when the power of love proves sufficient to dash the plans of even the most omnipotent villains. For me, at this point, it didn’t matter much since the Monks had never been a remotely believable threat to begin with. Had they stopped running simulations by this point, such that they couldn’t have guessed the Doctor and Bill would elude their influence? How is it that a race of beings who can teleport into a fighter jet or stop a missile in mid-air can’t defend the entrance to their pyramid from a handful of humans with machine guns? Why do they even need to post guards at all, if they have the power to heal the blind remotely and instantaneously and can presumably reverse the process anytime they like? What were they even getting out of the deal in the first place — just obedience? As antagonists, the monks never made any sense in any of their appearances, but “Extremis” and “Pyramid” were able to borrow against the promise that this would be the episode in which all would be explained. It’s not entirely this episode’s fault that it couldn’t pull the same trick, and that nothing was explained.

As a metaphor for forces we’re told have always been with us, helping us, demanding nothing but obedience, though, the Monks do stand in quite well for certain strains of religion, particularly the “fundamentalism” the Doctor refers to. The “fascism” part is obvious, and the two often go hand in hand, both demanding a big lie to keep the population in line. I have to wonder about the people who were horrified that Bill is driven to shoot the Doctor, and then is laughed at when it turns out to be a way of confirming her incorruptibility (fair enough, a short serious apology from the Doctor could have helped a lot to defuse that scene). Were they similarly horrified last week when she made the opposite move, saving the life of one man by dooming billions to tyranny? For six months, real people were really executed because she chose the well-being of her friend over the well-being of the entire planet. I’m not inclined to condemn either of Bill’s decisions, but putting the interests of our friends above the well-being of humanity is how fascism begins.

Doctor Who: “Extremis”

I was going to put a spoiler warning at the top of this, even though I usually don’t, because it seemed like an episode where much of the appeal would be undermined by knowing all the surprises from the outset. As it turns out, the opposite is true: it’s better the second time. Nevertheless, maybe don’t read this until you’ve seen the episode.

I’ll stall a little bit by noting some of the things that aren’t surprises. For instance, the sonic sunglasses finally have a purpose. The Doctor can use them as sonar, and for augmented reality features like identifying vital signs and characteristics of people around him. This explains how the Doctor can walk around without bumping into things, but he still needs Nardole to cover for him by describing things he ought to be able to see, with the side effect of making Nardole’s habit of stating the obvious into a tactical asset. What else? Well, we see more of Bill’s love life, which I’ve noticed seems to bother some people with how “in your face” it is, and I have to wonder if they had the same complaints about how “in your face” Clara and Danny’s love life was, or Amy’s and Rory’s. I think it’s exactly as in your face as it ought to be, and while the bit where Bill’s foster mum still doesn’t realize Bill’s gay probably strikes some people as being played for laughs, in fact as you know if you’ve ever been in that situation, it’s mainly just a depressing and difficult fact of life. I have no complaints about how Moffat’s handling this aspect of Bill, even if the shtick with the Pope in her kitchen is a bit of a reach.

Ah yes: the Pope. This is Doctor Who doing Dan Brown: ancient secrets in the Vatican, a heresy tied to mysterious deaths, a particle physics research center wired to explode, a sinister order of horribly scarred monks. On the first viewing it looks like gratuitous absurdity, wacky genre crossbreeding for the sake of appearing fresh, taken a step further with a “consulting the Doctor” scene straight out of Sherlock. The “Veritas” pitch, that of a secret untranslated truth that drove all who read it to commit suicide, seems impossible to pay off, and Monty Python fans may find themselves thinking of the sketch about the “funniest joke in the world,” a joke so hilarious that anyone who heard it died laughing (eventually translated one word at a time into German to be used as a weapon in World War Two). And yet the truth, when revealed, really does seem like it would have the advertised effect. And here we can avoid spoilers no longer: the revelation that proves beyond doubt that one is merely a tool aiding an alien invasion would indeed lead most brave souls to end their own complicity in the most final way possible. The wild, improbable, ridiculous plot actually kind of works.

It mostly works on paper, though, because in practice it leads to quite a lot of “ooh, that looks like a portal, doesn’t it?” and “these strange alien devices are simulating Earth” and so on — basically a metric ton of exposition, punctuated by perfunctory interjections like “it can’t be! this table feels real” and “you can do nothing to stop us!” and that sort of thing to break up the speeches. In a lesser season this wouldn’t show as much, but since the rest of Series 10 is so strong with dialogue and performance, this story’s seams show where it gets too excited about its cool Da Vinci Code / Angels and Demons setup to be dramatically convincing. I thought the aliens themselves looked reasonably creepy, but my girlfriend happened to be watching with me and found them ludicrous, so that might be another seam showing. Perhaps the pyramid from next week will be related to why the aliens look mummified.

And of course now we know who’s in the vault, and as everyone has been assuming, it’s Missy, or at least it’s supposed to be Missy. The fakeout at the beginning works rather well, where we think she’s going to be executing the Doctor, and he ends up executing her. She gets a few witticisms in there, but she’s not her usual sparkling self, clearly at the end of her rope, or wanting us to think she is. We also learn that Nardole was sent by River Song to follow the Doctor, and he has her diary, the significance of which I’m leaving as an exercise to a reader with a better memory for her convoluted timeline than I have.

Is all this runaround any good? I still can’t quite decide. The question almost seems irrelevant, given that the story’s primary role is to answer some important questions (what was the Doctor’s vow, what’s with the vault) and to set up the antagonists in the next episode; it’s glue, binding the season together and moving the arc along. In this it’s a lot like “A Good Man Goes to War,” which is similarly difficult to talk about as a standalone story. The central concept, artificial people trapped in a villain’s computer simulation, is of course reminiscent of The Matrix, right down to the allusions to gnosticism, but it’s also been done in Doctor Who, at least as far back as 1982’s “Castrovalva,” but also as recently as “Dark Water”/”Death in Heaven.” The alternate universe serving as a warning for what could happen in ours harks back to 1970’s “Inferno.” These are impressive relatives, next to which this story seems like a bit of a hyperactive nephew. So far it seems like the weakest story of the season, but we won’t know for sure until we see the payoff.

Incidentally, one of the first clues that we’re not dealing with “our” universe is the reference to Pope Benedict IX, about whom many surprising things were alleged (according to Wikipedia, repeating rumors that may or may not have been politically motivated slanders), but as far as my cursory research has so far determined, one of those things was not “he was a woman who had a way with castanets.” This might also be a clue that the aliens’ simulations are not a perfect match for actual Earth events, which might result in them being the first Doctor Who monsters defeated by subpar grades in history. Unless you count the Terileptils.