Another from DWM #513.
‘The water evaporates. The black water evaporates The fast river evaporates. The crack is dead.’
In 1982, that message aggravated the imagination of a handful of participants tackling The Hobbit video game – an adventure told and played in text – on the ZX Spectrum home computer. As they had inadvertently discovered, that quixotic word-jumble would appear on screen if you tried abbreviating the command ‘OPEN DOOR’ to ‘OP DO’. For some reason, those four letters input in that order resonated deep within this 40KB rendering of the Shire. A programming bug that tore Middle Earth asunder, to witness it was to get a glimpse of something escaping from the game, and a torrid sensation that there are more things in heaven and Earth, Hungry Horace, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Broadly speaking, this is how Extremis by Steven Moffat wended its way across Saturday night. At the halfway point in this, Moffat’s last series of Doctor Who, it felt like a distinctive turn back towards a more ambitious, high concept story-telling style. Did you spot it? The screen-glitch as we came out of the titles that indicated we were now inside the simulation? As ever, the clues were there, props to an audacious revelation that most of what we’d been watching wasn’t real. Essentially, it was all a dream, fiction’s worst get-out clause – except in this singular instance. In part, that’s because, even after switching it off, the events in this adventure will continue to have purchase on the overall story Doctor Who is telling us right now. “Something is coming,” the Time Lord cautions Bill at the story’s close, and for once that well-worn device in foreshadowing has substance.
Moreover – and here’s where it really sparks up – the tale engages with the idea from the inside out. We’re privy to the perspective of what it might be like to be a simulacrum that’s so successful it’s achieved self-awareness (discussions of sentience are a bit of thing this year). In doing so, Moffat taps into the Event One of all existential thinking, the child’s first philosophical question: What if none of this is real? What if I’m actually Thorin in the Hobbit? (‘Thorin sits down and starts singing about gold.’)
In Extremis, the characters in the know take the ‘OP DO’ route, which, until we’re fully aware of what the game is, means discussion about the Catholic ‘sin’ of suicide – “They read the Veritas and chose Hell” – and mass euthanasia at CERN. As foolhardy as it might appear, to introduce such things to a Saturday night, it seemed to me to be done with some tact. That we don’t hang on for the resolution of the countdown clock in Switzerland is very much the right move. As for the theological sensitivities of the former, I’m a complete chump about such things, and in no place to judge. There might be letters, but I liked the Doctor butting up against organised religion in a way that wasn’t necessarily antagonistic, with Cardinal Angelo offering him an opportunity for Confession. Although the gag about Pope Benedict IX being 1) a woman and 2) apparently ‘up for it’ might prove one little desecration too many. And what to make of the fact the Doctor is forming an allegiance with the Vatican against baddies who, coincidentally, have also shown up in vestments?
But I’ve been pontificating (oh my cleverness!) without saying if I enjoyed the story. I did. Not only is this smart Doctor Who, but as referenced in last month’s DWM preview, it’s something of a global thriller, giving Murray Gold reason to bring in an echo of John Barry’s Thunderball refrain.
I also liked where it moved the characters to. Finally, we begin to understand Nardole’s remit, and it’s telling how much he’s become a confidante for the Doctor and at times an emissary between he and Bill – it’s Nardole who briefs her on the situation when she comes on board the TARDIS. With this in mind, the ongoing blindness storyline, and specifically the Doctor’s attempts to keep it a secret from her, didn’t feel so spurious. “I don’t like being worried about,” he explains. “Around me people, should be worried for themselves.” Hmm, okay. I’ll buy that.
Better still: Missy! While she arrives in fine sarcastic form – “Oh Doctor, I didn’t expect you” – it was fascinating to see her in reduced circumstances. One can never be sure, but her pleas for clemency seemed genuine, peeling back her relationship with our hero. “I am your friend,” she says. There’s a hint of that 1,000 years on, when he is outside the vault: “They can’t know I’m blind, Missy, no one can know,” he whispers. Here she is, also his Father Confessor.
Yet, is it truly her who waits inside? I’m not sure. Dramatically, there’s a clear gap between saying she’s there and actually showing it. It means there’s plenty of scope for our understanding to change once more. For the game to break again.
‘You wait. Time passes…’