We’re officially eight episodes into Doctor Who’s tenth season since its revival in 2005. As I mentioned in an earlier article looking over the first three episodes of this season, the show has found itself creatively askew, as well as on the rocks from a ratings perspective. With four episodes remaining, the show has shed 1/3 of its first-run domestic viewership since the start of the season, decidedly failing to better the already lackluster ratings of the previous season.
I write at this time because the show has just committed to and delivered on this season’s first multi-part plot arc, a three-episode run beginning with the sixth episode, “Extremis.” Doctor Who doesn’t often commit to a three-parter in the modern era, so this arc represents a certain degree of investment and hope for audience buy-in.
And it doesn’t work.
This is going to be spoilery, so remain at your own peril.
Episode 6: Extremis
An episode with a bold and sinister premise, Extremis brings the Pope himself knocking on the Doctor’s door, hoping for help with a terrible tome whose translators turn to self-termination. What terrible and horrid secret could the Veritas manuscript conceal?
As horrid zombies in monastic robes make their presence known in the lower catacombs of a forbidden Vatican archive, the Doctor begins to probe at the secrets of the book, and Bill and Nardole chase down the most recent translator, who forwards the secret off to CERN and then kills himself. Entering a portal to CERN, the plucky companions find the particle accelerator rigged to go boom, and its staff “celebrating” with champagne.
The episode’s twist is quite devious and rather well-done: the secret of the Veritas is that the universe is not real, but simply a simulation. The text provides instructions to prove to oneself that one is nothing more than the creation of a computer, a mere fabrication. Nardole, then Bill and the Doctor himself make this discovery – they’re all fake. Ah, but they are being simulated for a reason – the corpse monks are using this and other simulations to analyze and devise a plan for the conquest of Earth. The data Doctor uses his existence as a data construct inside a computer to transmit a message to the real Doctor, and we end on a cliffhanger.
Episode 7: The Pyramid at the End of the World
To say this episode is less challenging and less interesting would be quite the understatement. The Secretary General hijacks Bill in this one, bringing her to a mysterious pyramid that has appeared in Notarealcountryistan. The Doctor and Nardole pop along to discover, surprise surprise, the monks from the previous episode, here to conquer humanity – with our permission, and indeed at our request. A different take on the usual formula, to be sure, but neither this nor the following episode will offer any reasonable indication of why the monks have such an arcane formula to follow.
The scheme involves the monks’ ability to predict and alter events; they have detected that a series of tiny errors throughout the course of this day in human history will result in a killer bacteria wiping out all life on Earth. Faced with this knowledge, humanity’s leaders – the Secretary General as well as the commanders of the three largest armed forces on the face of the Earth – offer to surrender to the monks. As their motives are not pure, however, the monks vaporize them and turn to Bill.
What’s the Doctor doing during all of this? Well, besides being blind (a hangover from two episodes prior), he’s determined not to give the monks what they want. He tracks down the bacteria laboratory and is set to purge it – but as he is unable to see the dials for the combination lock to escape, he’ll be trapped with a bomb and surely burn up along with the bacteria. He tells Bill not to make the deal, but against his counsel, she invokes his proxy and sells out humanity to save him.
Episode 8: The Lie of the Land
We arrive at six months later, with the monks having woven their way into the fabric of human history and culture, infiltrating our memories with the help of television personality The Doctor. Yes, our protagonist has been co-opted to serve as mouthpiece for the vast web of lies the monks have spread into the world’s memories, and those who can remember anything otherwise get hauled off by Memory Police.
Against this backdrop we have Bill, who still partially remembers life as it was and talks to her dead mother (as Bill pictures her to be, at least) to wrap her head around things. Nardole tracks her down and they make plans to free the Doctor from his slavery. Upon tracking him down, however, they find a cold and resigned Time Lord who has thrown his lot in with the monks in order to force humanity to begin advancing past its problems again – even if it has to be accomplished with violence reminiscent of ancient Rome, he says, progress is progress and you’ll all be better off. Furious at his betrayal of the principles of free will, Bill shoots the Doctor.
Of course, it was all merely a test of her loyalty, and the Doctor is fine – he plans to contact Missy, his guest in the vault below the university, and use her knowledge to solve the problem of the monks. She’s got the answer, straight out of Quentin Tarantino. Yes, you need to kill Bill. Why? She made the deal with the monks, a deal that linked her brainwaves of acceptance to the greater human consciousness around the globe.
Logically, the Doctor refuses to go for the simple solution, chastising Missy for even suggesting it, and instead proposes to tamper with whatever is hijacking and projecting Bill’s brainwave. The Doctor proves insufficient for this task, but Bill steps up and overloads the machine’s stream of fake news (yes, this is invoked verbatim) with the imaginary projection of her dead mother. Somehow this makes everything alright and the monks run off.
Let’s do some breakdown here:
• The monks (this is actually all they’re called by the show) are an abysmally lame monster. We have no understanding of their motives and their methods, such as they are, have to be fed to us with verbal exposition.
• Invoking Trump is not really the milieu of Doctor Who. How many times must this show take jabs at the memetic nuisance du jour? As a 12-episode series that might put out one whole run a year when times are good, it’s nowhere near agile enough to pull this kind of thing.
• Everything in episodes 7 and 8 feels like a watered-down retread of much better attempts at the same motif. Turn Left and Last of the Time Lords both did the dystopian alternate present much better than episode 8 does here, and the false dilemma about the Doctor and his bomb feels like a tremendously cheap ploy to force a third episode, one in which characters essentially do not engage with the monks at all.
• Lastly, as of this arc in particular, Doctor Who has gotten quite frankly morbid, nihilistic and obsessed with death to a degree that suggests Steven Moffat might have come down with a serious illness. Whether it’s the mass suicides and existential dread of Extremis or the mention by the monks that they took on the appearance of corpses because that’s what humanity appears as to them, the show is kind of nosediving into the kind of thousand-yard stare fatalist ponderings that suck engagement and enjoyment out of any experience.
The worst by far is the start of episode 7, which is a long rumination about the inevitability of death. I feel that, if I were a parent, I would not want my younger children watching this at all, not for scare factor but purely because nobody needs to have their soul get kicked in on a Saturday evening. Frankly, as an adult, I was still vastly turned off by my oft-campy science fiction show lecturing me about the entropy of human experience with a voice-over monologue.
The long and the short of it is that I no longer understand who it is that Who is supposed to be trying to entertain. I am challenged to find for myself a rationale that explains how this incredibly dismal and poorly-assembled mess featuring one of the most lackluster villains of the new Who era was ever approved for a three-episode arc. It’s no wonder Brits are tuning out – most everyone has something better to be doing with their time than this.
It has to be said, again, that none of this is on the three actors gamely working to try and salvage the material. This is a fault of the writing, which is doing a disservice to all Who fans. Whether you’re a youngster inheriting the “hide behind the couch” tradition or an older fan who loves memorizing a riveting and impassioned Doctor speech, whether it’s banter you like or Dahlian flights of whimsy or being confronted with oddball science fiction ideas as explained by a madman with a box, this season of Doctor Who has devoted seemingly all of its efforts to pulling the rug out from under you.
I’m disappointed, and I’m not holding out much hope for the final four.