Story No. 293 Call the Doctor!
Production Code Series 10, episode 6
Dates May 20, 2017

With Peter Capaldi
Written by Steven Moffat Directed by Daniel Nettheim
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin.

Synopsis: The Vatican has a manuscript too dangerous to read. And CERN has made a fatal discovery.


Veritas by Niall Jones 18/4/23

The Da Vinci Code meets The Matrix: it's an easy way to summarise Extremis. It is, after all, a story involving the Catholic Church, set partly in a secret library, that reveals that reality is in fact an illusion created by powerful aliens. As X meets Y formulae go, this one seems fairly accurate. And yet, to describe Extremis in this way is to miss what makes it so interesting.

What makes Extremis stand apart from the episodes that precede it isn't its setting, the revelations of its plot, or even that it is the first part of a loose trilogy written by three different writers, but the fact that it's all about the Doctor.

The Doctor has a mythic presence in Extremis. When he enters the story, he does so standing impassively at the prow of a wooden rowing boat, heading towards an imposing castle, like something out of Arthurian legend. He is being taken to the Fatality Index, an organisation that acts as executioners to the universe. A Time Lord is about to die. While the opening scene seems to point to the Doctor being the victim, in typical Moffat fashion, a reverse takes place and it is revealed that it is Missy who is to be executed, the Doctor her executioner.

These scenes are, quite literally, at the centre of Series 10, revealing the mystery of the vault and setting up Missy's redemption arc. It's also worth noting that these scenes are set before the Doctor's first encounter with Bill in The Pilot. That the story has its roots before her character enters it is indicative of her supporting role in the story, in contrast to previous episodes, where she is the main character. While the Fatality Index's link to the main plot of Extremis may seem obscure, these scenes connect to the rest of the story through the character of Nardole.

While Nardole's role in Series 10 is largely a comedic one, his presence in these scenes is much more serious. Acting as a priest to the Doctor, he reads these words to him: 'Good is not goodness that seeks advantage. Good is good in the final hour, in the deepest pit: without hope, without witness, without reward. Only in darkness are we revealed. Virtue is only virtue in extremis'. While these words sound biblical, echoing St Paul's famous description of the qualities of love in 1 Corinthians, they come not from the Bible, but from the Diary of River Song. The Doctor's relationship with her may have ended at the Singing Towers of Darillium, but her presence remains powerful. Her words act as a reminder to the Doctor and as a challenge to Missy. They carry weight, especially after her death, because of how uniquely intimate her relationship with the Doctor was. In this regard, it is notable that the Doctor is visibly wearing a wedding ring throughout the episode.

The serious moral tone of these scenes, with their focus on both judgement and redemption, means that they mesh well with the Vatican-set parts of the episode, which focus on the Doctor's attempts to read the Veritas, an ancient manuscript that leads all who read it to commit suicide. These similarities suggest that the story isn't really about the Catholic Church, but about faith and hope in a broader sense. The image that is presented of the Vatican is one that is often reflected in popular culture: ornate, secretive, morally serious, perhaps even a little bit sinister. The Church officials who appear are not quite stereotypes, but they are archetypes, with the Pope being played as a generic elderly Italian cardinal. Despite its irreverent humour, the episode does not voice a strong opinion on the Catholic Church, suggesting that its importance lies not in its theology or its social role, but in its status as the world's most prominent and recognisable religious denomination, which allows it to represent religion as a whole.

Contrast the Vatican with CERN; cardinals in red robes with scientists in white lab coats; ancient passages in Rome with sterile corridors beneath Geneva. On the face of it, they seem worlds apart, representing fundamentally different ways of looking at reality. And yet, when the text of the Veritas is emailed to them, they ask for prayer.

Bill and Nardole's arrival at CERN, via an ominous portal, sees them enter a place where all faith has been lost. The scientists have become like members of a doomsday cult, preparing to blow themselves out of existence. The scene that follows is the most compelling in the whole episode. The flaw that proves that reality is an illusion is simple and its demonstration dramatic. The sight of numerous people all unwittingly saying the same random number is unnerving, while the scientist Nicolas's habit of slapping his hand on the table to call for a new number ratchets up the intensity of the scene.

Despite its strength as a piece of drama, however, there is a problem with the logic underpinning this scene. The idea that everyone would react identically to discovering that reality is an illusion feels contrived. It also risks trivialising suicide by presenting it as a philosophically reasonable exit point. While this makes sense in context, it's a deeply questionable message to broadcast otherwise and it lends the episode a fairly downbeat tone. The sight of the US president slumped in his chair, a bottle of pills on the floor, is an especially bleak and real-world image.

Despite this bleakness, the episode ends on a hopeful note, with the Doctor asserting his own existence against the failure of reality and the threat posed by the mysterious Monks. Quoting River's words from earlier in the episode, the Doctor declares that 'belief is all I am'. It's only the second time in the episode that the word 'extremis' is used, linking it closely to the Doctor. It binds him like a promise, telling him to never give up, regardless of how dark the darkness gets.

In this scene, Moffat returns to one of his favourite themes: the power of narrative. In telling a story that moves through the worlds of religion, science and politics, Moffat highlights the extent to which our sense of reality is held together by the stories we tell about it. By adding the Doctor's own myth into the equation, he presents it as another set of stories that help us to understand the world. In the absence of reality, it turns out that we really are all stories in the end.