Sunday, May 21, 2017

In Which I Review Doctor Who (10x6)

If the season premiere episode was Steven Moffat at his most restrained, stripped down, and quiet then this week's episode "Extremis" is Moffat not quite at his most over the top, heightened, and bombastic but close enough. Both types of Moffat writing are good-Moffat, but there's no denying that one of those types--the latter--has been the predominate feature of Moffat's tenure as show runner on Doctor Who. This isn't a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination. After all, Doctor Who is a science-fiction program and that means that you are going to have a your fair share of over the top, loud, theatrical episodes. Probably with lots of lens flairs. So while this week's episode is decent enough and there's certainly nothing wrong with combining loud theatrics with experimental writing--it will likely not feature at the top of my list when we reach the end of this year. It also does quite a bit to remind me why I'm more okay with Moffat exiting the show than I was when former showrunner Russel T. Davies left. Get ready to question your own existence and let's go!

Have you ever wondered what it would be like if the Doctor watched his own show? That is, basically, the main narrative conceit of this week's escapade into time and space. The Doctor watches an episode of Doctor Who while he's contemplating his life and the choices he's made, including his decision to lock Missy up (yes, it's Missy) in a Vault for 1000 yeas. You take out the part about watching over a Time Lord living deep inside of a Quantum Fold Chamber and it's not like I haven't spent many Saturdays doing the exact same thing. This episode revolves around the idea of meta fiction--that there is a text and then there is a TEXT. The text is what is happening inside the Vatican, inside the simulation in which nothing is real. Bill isn't real; Nardole isn't real; the Doctor isn't even real. They are all a series of zeros and ones programmed to think, act, and respond like the real Bill, Nardole, and Doctor. This fake Doctor has all the hallmarks of our real Doctor; he's perfectly rendered, in other words. It's not until Nardole explains the simulation to Bill that we even put the pieces together that the Doctor--this Vatican based Doctor--doesn't exist. This is the story within the story and because none of it is real the show doesn't bother to linger long on the existential crisis that is cropping up in our three main characters. Doesn't mean we can't give it a go, though! How do you prove your own existence? This idea of real vs not real is becoming a theme throughout several of our TV shows, isn't it? Are robots programmed to mimic human kind down to the smallest detail real (Westworld)? Can simply believing in something strong enough make it literally real, make it manifest in the real world (American Gods)? And can you exist as a person inside a computer simulation when you are a series of inputs designed and uploaded by an outside force that you've never heard of nor encountered (Doctor Who)? It's a fairly common staple of science-fiction, especially post-Matrix trilogy, but I don't believe Doctor Who has ever tackled it this forcefully and twisted, which brings us back to the answer to the question of proving your existence. You have memories but those can be falsified; you have independent thought and agency but that can also be part of the computer program. No, the way to prove your own existence in this simulation is to end said existence. Inside this simulation there are consequences but they are pros over cons. If you kill yourself inside the simulation, then you've proven your own existence because, of course, you were never real to begin with. Even though this is text (as opposed to the TEXT) it's not an elegant solution to the problem and I'm worried about how it might be projected to anyone who's troubled or sees suicide as triggering. It's messy and weird and it takes us down several rabbit holes of what exactly constitutes being real but that's what Doctor Who is going for. It's quintessential Moffat who likes to take big messy complicated themes and ideas, shove them at the audience, and then sit back and watch us scratch our heads trying to figure out what the point of the last hour was. The season has been a fine return to tits more basic form; the episodes are slower, more relaxed which isn't to say boring or without themes and ideas. But contemplating something like institutional racism and white privilege doesn't quite belong in the same category as questioning the entirety of reality and whether or not you actually exist. Often times this heavy handed meta fiction can go terribly awry (look at last season's horrible "Sleep No More" that also had stories within stories). But this week's episode tried to correct some of those blunders by having a clear reveal that allows the audience to understand the meta-ness of this fiction. Could I have written this review as soundly as I am had the Doctor not pulled back the curtain and revealed that the real Doctor was watching his own episode? Probably not. I would have wondered what the point of this entire hour was--is the alien invasion real or just part of the simulatoin?--and probably done a fair bit of Moffat bashing.

Now, unlike past big-Moffat episodes, Extremis does have several salient narrative points. Missy is just the tip of the iceberg (provided that iceberg is real....just kidding; the iceberg is real. Probably). Turns out the Earth is about to be invaded. Cool? This sort of big multi-episode plot twist had to come sooner or later. It's fun to fly around the universe with the Doctor and Bill but at some point we've got to have a seasonal arc. The aliens who set up and run the simulation(s) are coming and they plan on using their collective research of these various simulations to their advantage when they take over Earth in the real. There's not really a whole lot to say about these guys either than I'm sure they'll fall flat on their (already flat?) faces because of course the Doctor will stop them. Keeping the Doctor blind is an interesting choice because it allows him to be metaphorically and literally in the dark, something I touched on last week. He makes that subtext rather textual when he declares that he doesn't know how to fight what's coming because he's in the dark (bit on the nose there, Moffat). But that's the other point of this week's episode--virtue is only virtue in extremis. It's only when it really matters, when the stakes are astronomical, when you're literally and figuratively in the dark that the person you are, at your core, at your center, is revealed. The 12th Doctor's tenure began with him questioning the kind of man he is--a good one or a bad one? The question may never be answered because people are never any one thing and they aren't one thing the whole time; the Doctor says he's an idiot with a box, flying around, helping out and that's about as close to self actualization that he's likely to get. But still that question of what kind of man is the twelfth Doctor has hung around the past three years and now it seems Moffat is going to give the answer another go. We've seen the 12th Doctor angry and disturbed and jovial and grandfatherly but when it matters most, when Earth is depending on the Doctor to really stick his landing, what sort of man is he? Really?

Miscellaneous Notes on Extremis 

--In a move that is shocking to almost no one, Missy is in the Vault. The Doctor has agreed to watch over her for 1000 years instead of taking the easy path out and killing her.

--Bill's face when the Pope entered her kitchen moments after comforting a skittish girl about them being together was hilarious and felt, if this is at all possible, like classic Bill.

--"You're an idiot." "Everyone knows that."

--I always suspected the Pope had a secret tunnel to get to and from the Pentagon. Didn't quite think it'd come out in a broom closet, however.

--"Are you trying to get rid of us?" "What makes you say that?" "Cause you're sending us into the dark after a man with a gun."

--Surely these aliens have an easier way to learn about Earth? This is not the first time it has been invaded.

--I know the aliens are monitoring everything but their attention to detail is almost a bit too much for a computer game. It was Simulation Nardole that spoke truths to a Simulation Doctor about why the latter won’t tell Simulation Bill about the blindness.

--"I am doing what everyone does when the world is in danger...I'm calling the Doctor."

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