Thursday, June 01, 2017

10.6 Extremis

So, it is Missy in the Vault. Well, of course it is. It had been heavily trailed (everything is heavily trailed) that she was appearing in this season. Who else was it going to be?

Do you remember the one with the Sea Devils, where Missy is in prison on an island fort (with crossed dueling swords over the fireplace, just in case) and the Doctor visits her, because she is his best friend, and remarks “there were a lot of people who thought you should be executed.” The Doctor intercedes on his enemy’s behalf, but she gets out, and does terrible things. So by all means lets take that one tiny little line amplify it into a huge set piece with a cast of thousands. Taking small lines and amplifying them is very much what New Who is for.

We’re not quite half way through the season, and it feels like we have already reached the end-of-season cliffhanger. We’re consuming our plot-biscuits faster than we can bake them. In Season 8, it was obvious to most of us who “Missy” had to be; but we still went through the motions of pretending to be surprised when she said “I couldn’t very well carry on calling myself the Master” at the end of episode 11. This time, we’re told before episode 6 is quite over that, yes, the least imaginative fan theory is right and, yes, it really is Missy in the vault. Which means that either Moffat has something very big indeed lined up for episode 12, or else he is is doing something very peculiar with this season’s structure.

Or, of course, that it’s a huge red herring — a gigantic magic haddock — and when the Doctor opens the door in episode 12 it won’t be Michelle Gomez at all but John Simm.

Or Matt Smith.

Or which ever lady the Doctor is going to regenerate into at Christmas. 

“Or John Hurt” is sadly no longer an option.

*

I wish I had been present at the original meeting; when someone looked up from his paper and said “I have it, Doctor Who does the Da Vinci Code” at the exact same moment when someone else looked up from his notes and said “I have it, Doctor Who does the Matrix” and Moffat looked up from his dark throne and said “Both together.”

Doctor Who does the Da Vinci Code is probably an historical inevitability. Robert Holmes destroyed Doctor Who so comprehensively in the winter of ‘76 that most of us don’t remember anything before that. He consciously re-imagined Gallifrey as the Vatican, full of scrolls and parchments and ornate robes and forbidden documents and forgotten heresies. (I am sure the Vatican isn’t a bit like that in real life. I imagine it's more like the common room of a rather exclusive boys school, or the dusty vestibule of a very old parish church.) The Da Vinci Code always had a whiff of the Deadly Assassin about it, whether Dan Brown had heard of Doctor Who or not. One of Doctor Who’s most renowned supporting characters first appeared in a Patrick Troughton story called The Web of Fear which also featured the iconic Yeti taking over the iconic London Underground. It was written by Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln. The crackpot conspiracy theory novel The Da Vinci Code was based on a crackpot conspiracy book called The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, although not sufficiently closely for a claim of plagiarism to stand up in court. And the Holy Blood and the Holy Grail was written by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln. It follows that Brigadier Alistair Gordan Lethbridge Stewart shares one sixth of his cultural DNA with Robert Landon.

The Web of Fear was suppressed by the BBC, and the story of the rediscovery of the lost text would be worthy of Dan Brown, or at any rate Indiana Jones.

The Deadly Assassin was based on the conspiracy theory thriller The Manchurian Candidate, which was based on I Claudius, and so on. It includes one of the most infamous episodes in the entire history of Doctor Who. It seems that when a Time Lord dies, an electrical scan is made of his “brain pattern” and these “millions of impulses” are stored on “electrochemical cells”. The Doctor projects his living mind into the system, to try to find out who has infiltrated it. People trying to summarize the story say that the Doctor interacts with “brain storage system” via virtual reality — but the term “virtual reality” didn’t exist in 1976. They also describe it as a kind of “cyberspace”, but the term cyberspace certainly didn’t exist in 1976. The weird landscape through which Missy and her agents pursue the Doctor is referred to, simply, as the Matrix.

If you are maybe between the age of about 30 and about 35 you probably think that The Matrix is the greatest film ever made. If you are significantly older you probably think that it is pretty good and stylish but that the bullet time thing has been done to death now and you aren’t quite sure what all the fuss was about. Which isn’t really to say anything against The Matrix. We all have to encounter the Cartesian paradox for the first time. Maybe everything, including me, is a dream, or a simulation, or an illusion; and if that were true, how could we possibly tell? And the first time we encounter it, it blows our mind, even if the dusty old Philosophy Prof thinks it’s a silly question. If you bumped into it for the first time in the Matrix, then the Matrix rightly blew your mind; us older dudes came across it first in Ubik, or the Republic, or, if we aren’t lying, Tharg’s Future Shocks.

The Doctor shouts “I deny this reality!”; Neo is given a choice between a red pill and blue pill. We sort of take it for granted that if we found out we were in the Matrix, we’d want to get out of it.

The idea that reality is an illusion, created by a malevolent force, and that knowing that it’s an illusion is the first step to escaping from it is very much the kind of thing that the breakaway Christian sects known as gnostics believed in. The Gnostic Gospels are very much the sorts of things you might find in forbidden corners of forbidden shelves of forbidden sections of the Vatican. Or failing that in a nice one volume Penguin Paperback translation in the R.E section of Waterstones. Every single person who has ever tried to read it falls asleep.

*

Last time we talked about the kinds of things we wanted from a moderately good Doctor Who episode. This episode is fully of them. The central motif is a library in the form of a maze with a mad man and some zombie monks hiding in it: a house that is actually haunted and properly frightening, containing a secret worth the effort of revealing. I like the idea that the Catholic Church, being even older and even more significant than Torchwood, automatically knows who the Doctor is. Sort of like Winston Churchill having a direct line toe the TARDIS and the Doctor being mates with Father Christmas. I like the idea that the Pope has to ask for an audience with the Doctor. I like it that the Pope and the Cardinals are played entirely straight and completely sincere and not at all corrupt and even (shades of Godfather III) offer to hear the Doctor’s confession. I like it that the episode still embraces the absurdity of the situation, with Bill finding her first date with Penny being gatecrashed by the Pontiff. I like the broadness of it; that a secret library in the Vatican is not sufficiently cool, and we also have to have scenes in the Pentagon and CERN and that the final scene takes place in the Oval Office because it can. 

I like it that Bill is familiar, but not very familiar with science fiction ideas. Familiar enough to understand the idea of simulated reality when Nardole tells her it is like the holodeck on Star Trek; not familiar enough to say “Oh, what, you mean like Valis by Philip K Dick” when things get really strange. After all, the audience is divided pretty evenly into those who already know and those who don’t want to know, so either way long expositions are a waste of time. Doctor Who is (and has probably always been) a collection of science fiction tropes -- spaceships and ray-guns and robots and virtual realities -- which work in the way everyone expects them to work. So I don’t know in what way the projectors in the big white room were meant to projecting a simulated universe on the walls; and I don’t know in what way Nardole putting his hand behind the projector makes him dissolve into computer artwork, or in what sense blowing yourself up with dynamite frees you from the simulation. (Would Super-Mario kill himself is he suddenly became sentient? Wouldn’t he be just as likely to become obsessed with preventing you from turning the game off?) But it sort of fits into a science fictional consensus of how virtual reality and cyberspace ought to function. We don't ask too many questions. We are really just running headlong to the denouement in the Oval Office where Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie get to do a lot of acting.

H.P Lovecraft once remarked that if we knew what we really were we would all do as someone called Sir Arthur Jermyn did and goes on to explain that Arthur Jermyn soaked himself in oil and set fire to his clothing one night. (His family apparently do not even admit that Sir Arthur ever existed.) Which is certainly a jolly good opening paragraph; but when we read on it turns out that Arthur Jermyn had discovered that one of his ancestors was married to a black person alien ape goddess. Which, you know, must have been a bit of blow to him, but still feels like a bit of a let down for the reader. The punchline of the Da Vinci code is a real shock if you are a cultural Christian and haven’t read Holy Blood and Holy Grail. The idea that everyone who has read a certain document commits suicide is bit creepy and a bit silly and certainly had me breathless to know what the big secret was, so it couldn't afford to be a let-down or a cop-out. I think I was expecting a big big revelation about the Doctor Who universe: the Doctor was half human on his mother’s side; the Daleks are descendants of the human race; Curse of Fatal Death is canon. The actual twist is really clever: it really is the biggest secret in the universe, but it’s only the biggest secret in the universe in which the story is happening, which isn’t our universe. Role credits.

*

Is Doctor Who a series of relatively sensible adventures about ghosts and robots and Roman emperors which could have happened to practically anybody, but all of which happen to have happened to one guy during his infinite wanderings? Or is there something about the format which permits and indeed requires you to tell completely mad stories that couldn’t possibly have happened to anyone else? Moffat’s Who has been at its best when being completely mad: the Wedding of River Song and a Good Man Goes to War and The Big Bang are what we’ll remember his era for. Extremis is certainly one of his "mad" offerings.

There’s a certain familiarity to it; the vault is more than a little bit like the Pandorica, the space monks have a touch of the Silence about them. And the resolution, that a simulation of the Doctor inside the Matrix is still the Doctor because what makes the Doctor the Doctor is the idea of the Doctor, is another take on the one single idea which he has been hammering away at since 2010. The Doctor is kind of like an imaginary friend come to life. The Doctor can’t die because he’s a story. The Doctor will have to think of a new name for himself because if he does a bad thing he won’t really be the Doctor any more. The War Doctor isn’t the Doctor because he betrayed the idea of the Doctor. I'll be a story in your head. But that's OK: we're all stories, in the end. Just make it a good one. Maybe the universe itself can’t bear to be without the Doctor.

But I think back to mediocre space cities and risible haunted houses and think "Why on earth doesn't Moffat let rip and be a complete lunatic every week?"

*

If Extremis is a stand alone episode, we can lie back and enjoy the Pope and the zombie monks and the library and the drunk particle physicists blowing themselves up. We can even say that “the whole universe is a computer game” is a decent punchline and carry on as normal next week. But if we think of it as a component in a longer story then all the suicidal gnostic platonism is just there to signal that next week's alien invasion is a much bigger and more important alien invasion than all the other alien invasions there have been over the years. (Telling us how big and bad it is; not showing us it being large and awful.)  And maybe next weeks story will be big enough and grand enough to have been worth the curtain raiser. Because if it isn’t, we are all going to feel very shortchanged. Stories like this run the risk of writing cheques that the rest of the series can't cash.   


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7 comments:

SK said...

After three weeks of retro Davies-era episodes, we get a retro Davies-era Moffat episode. Specifically, we get Silence in the Library, compete with virtual reality and, um, a library.

And, we get a return to Moffat doing what he used to be known for: decent twists. Specifically, in this case, what were always his best: the twist that he literally told you right at the start and then, through misdirection, made you forget about.

Mike Taylor said...

Remind me, SK, how does he tell us right at the start?

SK said...

The Doctor, outside the vault, puts on the glasses, and the viewers sees the screen announce 'New Email, title: Extremis.' He selects to play the attached video file, the screen fuzzes, and goes into the credits. It fuzzes again on the way out of the credits, too, I think.

Next shot is the Doctor in the lecture theatre. The audience assumes that he is there because he watched the video clip and it was from the Pope asking for the meeting, and forgets about it.

Then at the end, when the simulated Doctor sends the e-mail, the screen fuzzes again: and the next shot is the Doctor sitting against the vault, and it turns out that everything the audience has seen was the video clip… the video clip that we were told was playing, right at the start.

I don't know how much clearer it could be. It's excellent misdirection. Good enough even to forgive the rather linear plot of the episode.

Mike Taylor said...

I just watched the opening again. You are right: what a very neat trick.

It's a little spoiled, though, by the fuzzing when we come out of the title music -- which suggests returning from the video to reality. It should really go straight from the music into the episode, with no more fuzzing until the end when we come out of the virtual world.

SK said...

I mean, it doesn't quite make sense, if you think about it: how did the sections where the Doctor isn't present get recorded? And the cut-aways to the past muddy the issue. But still, I think it counts as one of Moffat's cleverest structural tricks (in a good way) and indeed one I can't ever remember him using before (though I'm sure somebody will point out it was done in the second series of Joking Apart or in Chalk or something).

Nick Mazonowicz said...

So I loved this episode...and the one after.
Unfortunately, the climax of the one after 'the Doctor nearly manages to save the day by using his intelligence and using a solution that is clever and surprising" has to be overwritten by the final episode in this arc with 'The Doctor's companion saves the day with the power of lurve.
Again
Sigh

Tynam said...

I did rather like this idea, in all its simplicity (despite the baroque complexity of Vaticans and CERN with which it was embellished.)

Yes, Super Mario - if conscious - would be obsessed with stopping you from turning the game off. (And maybe not making him jump on turtles all day.)

But that's because Super Mario isn't a simulation of anything in particular.

The Doctor wants to die, not because he's not real (I can't imagine the Doctor caring about the difference between a simulated entity and a physical one, except in as much as one is easier to help than the other), but because he's deduced that he's being used to *attack* the real world.

He's being simulated as a weapon.

And the Doctor refuses to be anyone else's weapon.

I hope I'd do the same, although I know I wouldn't.