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The question of what’s real has long been a sci-fi standard. Are we all really here? Is this world as it seems, something our mind interprets or something far more nefarious? In “Extremis,” Doctor Who puts its own spin on these reality-bending questions.

Could you pick a better writer to take this on than Steven Moffat? If there’s something the showrunner loves more than making ordinary objects terrifying, it’s creating a plot full of fake-outs. “Extremis” is a masterful effort where you don’t see the twist until the moment it hits.

The episode starts with the return of Missy, who’s the occupant inside the vault. It’s an obvious reveal, but it wasn’t dragged out all season, so that’s fine. Instead, we see how The Doctor reconnected with both her and Nardole, as he’s been assigned to execute her. Back in the present, the still-blind Doctor receives a visit from the Vatican. The Pope asks for his help with the Veritas. This forbidden text causes everyone who reads it to commit suicide.

After picking up Bill and ruining her date (the Pope in your kitchen would do that), the team heads to the Vatican. The Doctor keeps his blindness a secret from Bill, but his sonic sunglasses give him some feedback on his surroundings. While they find the book, they also discover that a priest has emailed it to several vital organizations around the world. Not only that, but a random portal opens in the Vatican, with alien monks pouring out.

As The Doctor tries to temporarily restore his vision long enough to read the text, Bill and Nardole go through the portal. They find themselves in an advanced projector room. It takes a visit to CERN for them to realize they are all in a virtual world. In fact, they are all simulations themselves, even The Doctor. The whole episode after the opening tease takes place in a simulation the aliens put together to figure out how to best invade and conquer Earth.

It’s only in this desperate moment that the virtual Doctor remembers what Nardole told him at the beginning. “Good is good in the final hour, in the deepest pit – without hope, without witness, without reward. Virtue is only virtue in extremis.” The message came from the journal of River Song. With those lines guiding him, The Doctor uses his sonic sunglasses to send a subroutine warning about the upcoming invasion to the real Doctor’s sonic sunglasses.

“Extremis” is all about what’s real from different perspectives. It appears that The Doctor kills Missy, only for her to be in the vault. The Doctor’s own perspective on reality is altered due to his blindness. Then, of course, most of the episode isn’t real for either the characters or the audience. The episode may lose staying power after you watch it a couple of times. But it’s certainly one of the more successful twists Moffat has pulled off in recent years. Next week though, the real invasion begins.

Assorted Thoughts:

– Initially, I was going to complain about the TARDIS’ universal translator failing to translate the Pope’s Italian. But now I see that’s the first hint that this world wasn’t the real one. Clever move Moffat!

– It’s wonderful to have Michelle Gomez back as Missy. While she’s the most fun when she’s full-on crazy, the thought dying at the hands of her friend find some fear and emotion behind the madness.

– At the end, those same lines from River Song motivate The Doctor in the past to save Missy’s life. While her captors try to force The Doctor to kill her, all he does is ask them to look up those who have perished at his hand. The list is so long, it causes the captors to run for the hills. It’s a very funny moment.

– The Doctor is not a fan of Moby Dick. “Honestly, shut up and get to the whale.”

– Another classic Doctor line: “Assumption makes an ass out of you and umption.”

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