Doctor Who | Episode 6: Extremis -Searching for Light in the Darkness

Light has often been used as a metaphor for a number of things: knowledge, sight, goodness, clarity, and numerous other things. In Extremis, Doctor Who pits light against dark, knowledge against lack of understanding, truth against deception. Not only does the script mention light and darkness consistently throughout, but showcases visuals to go along with those codes. All of this is furthered even more by the Doctor’s continued blindness after the events of the previous episode, Oxygen. Through these metaphors, both obvious and subtle, Doctor Who questions the nature of truth, morality, and reality.

The book that starts off the plot of the episode is fittingly called Veritas, Truth in Latin. Upon reading the book, the readers are understood to know the truth of the universe and subsequently kill themselves. But Veritas, like many things on Doctor Who may not be exactly what it seems. The book leads the readers and by extension, the television audience to question the reality presented to us in true Cartesian fashion. The episode plot starts out with them looking for this book and then attempting to understand what is going on in their world and who to trust. For an episode with a number of glaring historical problems, the characters really are on a search for truth (a phrase that has added meaning for me because it is the name of one of my father’s philosophy courses that he has been teaching since I was a child). Engaging in the search for truth indeed leads to the answer to the Doctor’s question: “Particle physicists and priests: what could scare them both?” This follows in the same vein of the season starting off with the Doctor’s assertion in the Pilot that poetry and physics are the same thing. Of course, when I think about the obvious mistakes of a historical or religious nature, I have to wonder if they are intentional, a clue from Moffat into this reality. Most of my brain has resigned itself to chalking these up to further disregard for historians seen in the occasional historical episode; the disappointments of particular scenes and characterizations in episodes such as Dinosaurs on a Spaceship or Mummy on the Orient express readily come to mind. The part of my brain that is very much aware that this is merely the first installment of a continued story cannot lay to rest any clue that might be unturned in the production of the episode. That whole reality was a simulation and many parts of it felt unrealistic. From the sudden irrational behaviour of otherwise rational characters so far, to the responses of every single reader of Veritas, to the obvious inconsistencies, much of this episode feels forcibly unrealistic. At least, that interpretation is preferable to me as the alternative means a backslide into old narrative habits that plagued many recent seasons but have thankfully been avoided until now in season 10. Bill has for the most part been a very reasonable and logical companion, quickly becoming one of my favourites. She has not always made the best decisions, but for the most part she has shown to give her actions a respectable amount of thought. She is genre savvy and approaches the world as a student, eager to learn, which is why when she has been shown to gleefully throw caution to the wind and ignore those rational, genre savvy impulses I can’t help but feel mildly disappointed.

Of course, when I think about the obvious mistakes of a historical or religious nature, I have to wonder if they are intentional, a clue from Moffat into this reality. Most of my brain has resigned itself to chalking these up to further disregard for historians seen in the occasional historical episode; the disappointments of particular scenes and characterizations in episodes such as Dinosaurs on a Spaceship or Mummy on the Orient express readily come to mind. The part of my brain that is very much aware that this is merely the first installment of a continued story cannot lay to rest any clue that might be unturned in the production of the episode. That whole reality was a simulation and many parts of it felt unrealistic. From the sudden irrational behaviour of otherwise rational characters so far, to the responses of every single reader of Veritas, to the obvious inconsistencies, much of this episode feels forcibly unrealistic. At least, that interpretation is preferable to me as the alternative means a backslide into old narrative habits that plagued many recent seasons but have thankfully been avoided until now in season 10. Bill has for the most part been a very reasonable and logical companion, quickly becoming one of my favourites. She has not always made the best decisions, but for the most part she has shown to give her actions a respectable amount of thought. She is genre savvy and approaches the world as a student, eager to learn, which is why when she has been shown to gleefully throw caution to the wind and ignore those rational, genre savvy impulses I can’t help but feel mildly disappointed.

Her first grievous case was in Knock Knock, when she repeatedly chooses to ignore the obvious dangers in her situation and goes so far as to attempt to keep the Doctor from interacting with her new friends, even when the Doctor, her housemates, and Bill herself notice something unusual is going on. Having travelled with the Doctor and being familiar with science fiction and mysteries, Bill choosing to ignore the signs and distance herself from the Doctor seems to present her as willingly moving into trouble. In Oxygen she goes back to thinking before acting, such as with her trepidation regarding the smart suits. I was rather pleased by what I thought was this tendency disappearing as quickly as it had arisen. In Extremis however, Bill once again willfully walks into something she suspects is dangerous and she knows will separate her and Nardole from the Doctor. You almost want to shout at the screen, never split the party! So, is Bill’s unfortunate decision making really reflective of her character at this point in the season or is it yet another clue to the simulation’s faults. The creators of this world seem especially interested in the actions and reactions of the Doctor, who is almost always accompanied by a companion or two. Bill is a relatively new traveler in the TARDIS and her usual rationality is a breath of fresh air as too many of the Doctor’s companions are unaware of their situations and lack an appropriate amount of forethought for the situations they find themselves in. It is possible that the simulations are all good enough to seem real and convince themselves that they are, but inaccurate enough to result in slightly different personalities from their originals. Bill is not alone in her acting a bit differently from what we’ve seen so far. Nardole can be sullen and insistant, but for the most part his monotone observances and over the top scoldings function as comical relief. He’s been rude before, but in a detached from society sort of way, whereas in Extremis he is condescending, dismissive, and obnoxiously rude in multiple scenes while Bill plays the more obvious comic role.

This can be contrasted even with his interactions outside of the simulation in a memory from the very same episode. When he comes to the Doctor with River’s diary, he gives advice and a firm yet jovial warning in the style of Nardole we’ve come to expect. All of this could be simply that the characters are evolving and we’ve yet to see every side to them yet. The most damning piece of evidence that this simulation of the world is not entirely like our own (or supposedly that of the Doctor) lies in Pope Benedict IX. A cardinal tells the Doctor that the personal recommendation came from “the highest level.” As the recommendation came specifically from 1045, the year of that Pope’s second term, it could be argued that at the time this would have been an apt description of the recommendation. But as Benedict IX was eventually excommunicated, it seems unlikely that the cardinal would refer to the recommendation in this way. It could be that this version of history is simply one of the many ways that the Whoniverse differs from our own and that Pope Benedict IX was in fact a woman and never excommunicated. The simulated Doctor has memories of her and so the gender of the pope is probably the same both within the simulation and without, but it would be very interesting to learn more about the history of this pope in the primary universe of the show, namely if she was eventually excommunicated. If the excommunication holds in Doctor Who, it would be especially interesting as the high regard of the Vatican for her personal recommendation would be yet one more sign of the false nature of this world. Furthermore, the current Pope is played by the same man who was Donna’s neighbor in Turn Left, which also dealt with the world being not as it should be. The pope also speaks consistently in Italian, which begs the question: why is the translation circuit not working? This is one more aspect of the world that is slightly off from how it should be, a sign that the world is not right.

Nardole can be sullen and insistant, but for the most part his monotone observances and over the top scoldings function as comical relief. He’s been rude before, but in a detached from society sort of way, whereas in Extremis he is condescending, dismissive, and obnoxiously rude in multiple scenes while Bill plays the more obvious comic role. This can be contrasted even with his interactions outside of the simulation in a memory from the very same episode. When he comes to the Doctor with River’s diary, he gives advice and a firm yet jovial warning in the style of Nardole we’ve come to expect. All of this could be simply that the characters are evolving and we’ve yet to see every side to them yet. The most damning piece of evidence that this simulation of the world is not entirely like our own (or supposedly that of the Doctor) lies in Pope Benedict IX. A cardinal tells the Doctor that the personal recommendation came from “the highest level.” As the recommendation came specifically from 1045, the year of that Pope’s second term, it could be argued that at the time this would have been an apt description of the recommendation. But as Benedict IX was eventually excommunicated, it seems unlikely that the cardinal would refer to the recommendation in this way. It could be that this version of history is simply one of the many ways that the Whoniverse differs from our own and that Pope Benedict IX was in fact a woman and never excommunicated. The simulated Doctor has memories of her and so the gender of the pope is probably the same both within the simulation and without, but it would be very interesting to learn more about the history of this pope in the primary universe of the show, namely if she was eventually excommunicated. If the excommunication holds in Doctor Who, it would be especially interesting as the high regard of the Vatican for her personal recommendation would be yet one more sign of the false nature of this world. Furthermore, the current Pope is played by the same man who was Donna’s neighbor in Turn Left, which also dealt with the world being not as it should be. The pope also speaks consistently in Italian, which begs the question: why is the translation circuit not working? This is one more aspect of the world that is slightly off from how it should be, a sign that the world is not right.

The simulated Doctor has memories of her and so the gender of the pope is probably the same both within the simulation and without, but it would be very interesting to learn more about the history of this pope in the primary universe of the show, namely if she was eventually excommunicated. If the excommunication holds in Doctor Who, it would be especially interesting as the high regard of the Vatican for her personal recommendation would be yet one more sign of the false nature of this world. Furthermore, the current Pope is played by the same man who was Donna’s neighbor in Turn Left, which also dealt with the world being not as it should be. The pope also speaks consistently in Italian, which begs the question: why is the translation circuit not working? This is one more aspect of the world that is slightly off from how it should be, a sign that the world is not right.

A particular word of the dialogue that really sticks out in Extremis is confession. Confession in the context of Doctor Who immediately brings to mind the Confession Dial and the episode Heaven Sent. Early in the episode, Cardinal Angelo tells the Doctor, “Pope Benedict said that you were more in need of confession than any man breathing. But when the offer was made, you replied it would take too much time.” Laying aside the theological and practical implications about both the Doctor and Pope Benedict, this sentiment from around 1045 holds true as the Doctor spent many thousands of years working through the confession dial in Heaven Sent and still maintained some secrets in the end. Confession automatically leads us to question just what the Doctor would confess. We know he’s racked up an impressive toll of fatalities from the executioners records and that his failures to save people weigh heavy on his soul, but what would the Doctor’s actual sins be? It’s a common theme in conceptual works of science fiction to explore the nature of one’s true self. In the Firefly episode War Stories, the crime boss Niska fancies himself a philosopher and has a morbid fascination with torturing those under his control in order to reveal their true selves. Quoting a “psychotic dictator” when musing on another subject of torture in that same episode, Shepherd Book says, “Live with a man forty years. Share his house, his meals, speak on every subject. Then tie him up and hold him over the volcano’s edge and on that day, you will finally meet the man.”  The Doctor echoes these sentiments in a much more peaceful manner in this episode: “Only in darkness are we revealed… Goodness is not goodness that seeks advantage. Good is good in the final hour, in the deepest pit without hope, without witness, without reward. Virtue is only virtue in extremis.” Nardole first reads these words to the Doctor from River’s diary, relating the Doctor’s own views, which are then echoed repeatedly by the Doctor throughout the episode. The Doctor’s eyesight is incredibly important thematically. In terms of the plot, he finds a work around as he always does, but blindness functions as another form of darkness. In Roman literature and poetry, lumen, literally meaning light, is frequently used as a stand in for eye and light is frequently thus used as a metaphor for sight. Early on in Extremis, the Doctor says, “memories are so much worse in the dark.” I believe that he is referring here both to the literal dark of his blindness as well as to the metaphorical darkness of being alone, a constant state for the Doctor, even when surrounded by friends. Nardole rightly questions why the Doctor feels the need to keep his blindness a secret from Bill. Chiding him about this choice, Nardole says, “the moment you tell Bill, it becomes real. And then you might actually have to deal with it.” This scene occurs directly after the Doctor seeks the consultation of the “priest” Nardole who reads to him from River’s diary, which in turn occurs directly after Cardinal Angelo speaks to the Doctor about confession. Telling Bill would be a confession on the part of the Doctor, which would build greater understanding between them. Confession here would help them to see each other metaphorically; their greater understanding both of each other and the situation would be a symbolic light in which to act. Directly after these scenes, the pope leaves the Doctor and his companions with the cardinal, saying, “may God light your path,” to which the Doctor replies in a jovial tone, “well, he could certainly give it a go.” The Doctor responds with an inside joke to himself about the seemingly innocuous phrase, but the pope may be more aware of his predicament than he seems at first glance. They proceed to walk into the Haereticum, “the library of forbidden and heretical texts.” Darkness represents a lack of understanding, not just between people but of knowledge and of truth. The whole notion of forbidden texts or forbidden knowledge is a dark blot on the light of understanding. There is very little light throughout the Haereticum, the cardinal’s lantern is out when he investigates the first portal, and inside the cage there is an unlit candle accompanying Veritas. The only lights actively lit in the whole library are those dimmed by their shades. When the portals open, leaving the simulation behind, revealing the apparent truth of the matter, the light they reveal is almost blinding in the dark of the library. The broken translation circuit, in addition to being a clue that the world is not right also continues the trend of lacking understanding. The Doctor cannot read and while he would be able to understand the Italian being spoken during the episode, Bill quite possibly does not. The lack of translation would have her left in the dark. Mid-episode, the Doctor hides his plan to read Veritas from Nardole and Bill, at which point Nardole points out, “you’re sending us into the dark.” He means here the literal dark as he and Bill walk away from the Doctor but it also conveys that he is actively keeping knowledge from them. At the end of the episode, the news reports a, “total communications blackout.” Once again, darkness is presented as the absence of understanding and knowledge. At the very end of the episode, the Doctor finally confesses his blindness to Missy in a moment of helpless humility: “How can I save them when I’m lost in the dark?”

The Doctor responds with an inside joke to himself about the seemingly innocuous phrase, but the pope may be more aware of his predicament than he seems at first glance. They proceed to walk into the Haereticum, “the library of forbidden and heretical texts.” Darkness represents a lack of understanding, not just between people but of knowledge and of truth. The whole notion of forbidden texts or forbidden knowledge is a dark blot on the light of understanding. There is very little light throughout the Haereticum, the cardinal’s lantern is out when he investigates the first portal, and inside the cage there is an unlit candle accompanying Veritas. The only lights actively lit in the whole library are those dimmed by their shades. When the portals open, leaving the simulation behind, revealing the apparent truth of the matter, the light they reveal is almost blinding in the dark of the library. The broken translation circuit, in addition to being a clue that the world is not right also continues the trend of lacking understanding. The Doctor cannot read and while he would be able to understand the Italian being spoken during the episode, Bill quite possibly does not. The lack of translation would have her left in the dark. Mid-episode, the Doctor hides his plan to read Veritas from Nardole and Bill, at which point Nardole points out, “you’re sending us into the dark.” He means here the literal dark as he and Bill walk away from the Doctor but it also conveys that he is actively keeping knowledge from them. At the end of the episode, the news reports a, “total communications blackout.” Once again, darkness is presented as the absence of understanding and knowledge. At the very end of the episode, the Doctor finally confesses his blindness to Missy in a moment of helpless humility: “How can I save them when I’m lost in the dark?”

The Doctor echoes these sentiments in a much more peaceful manner in this episode: “Only in darkness are we revealed… Goodness is not goodness that seeks advantage. Good is good in the final hour, in the deepest pit without hope, without witness, without reward. Virtue is only virtue in extremis.” Nardole first reads these words to the Doctor from River’s diary, relating the Doctor’s own views, which are then echoed repeatedly by the Doctor throughout the episode. The Doctor’s eyesight is incredibly important thematically. In terms of the plot, he finds a work around as he always does, but blindness functions as another form of darkness. In Roman literature and poetry, lumen, literally meaning light, is frequently used as a stand in for eye and light is frequently thus used as a metaphor for sight. Early on in Extremis, the Doctor says, “memories are so much worse in the dark.” I believe that he is referring here both to the literal dark of his blindness as well as to the metaphorical darkness of being alone, a constant state for the Doctor, even when surrounded by friends. Nardole rightly questions why the Doctor feels the need to keep his blindness a secret from Bill. Chiding him about this choice, Nardole says, “the moment you tell Bill, it becomes real. And then you might actually have to deal with it.” This scene occurs directly after the Doctor seeks the consultation of the “priest” Nardole who reads to him from River’s diary, which in turn occurs directly after Cardinal Angelo speaks to the Doctor about confession. Telling Bill would be a confession on the part of the Doctor, which would build greater understanding between them. Confession here would help them to see each other metaphorically; their greater understanding both of each other and the situation would be a symbolic light in which to act. Directly after these scenes, the pope leaves the Doctor and his companions with the cardinal, saying, “may God light your path,” to which the Doctor replies in a jovial tone, “well, he could certainly give it a go.” The Doctor responds with an inside joke to himself about the seemingly innocuous phrase, but the pope may be more aware of his predicament than he seems at first glance. They proceed to walk into the Haereticum, “the library of forbidden and heretical texts.” Darkness represents a lack of understanding, not just between people but of knowledge and of truth. The whole notion of forbidden texts or forbidden knowledge is a dark blot on the light of understanding. There is very little light throughout the Haereticum, the cardinal’s lantern is out when he investigates the first portal, and inside the cage there is an unlit candle accompanying Veritas. The only lights actively lit in the whole library are those dimmed by their shades. When the portals open, leaving the simulation behind, revealing the apparent truth of the matter, the light they reveal is almost blinding in the dark of the library. The broken translation circuit, in addition to being a clue that the world is not right also continues the trend of lacking understanding. The Doctor cannot read and while he would be able to understand the Italian being spoken during the episode, Bill quite possibly does not. The lack of translation would have her left in the dark. Mid-episode, the Doctor hides his plan to read Veritas from Nardole and Bill, at which point Nardole points out, “you’re sending us into the dark.” He means here the literal dark as he and Bill walk away from the Doctor but it also conveys that he is actively keeping knowledge from them. At the end of the episode, the news reports a, “total communications blackout.” Once again, darkness is presented as the absence of understanding and knowledge. At the very end of the episode, the Doctor finally confesses his blindness to Missy in a moment of helpless humility: “How can I save them when I’m lost in the dark?”

The Doctor echoes these sentiments in a much more peaceful manner in this episode: “Only in darkness are we revealed… Goodness is not goodness that seeks advantage. Good is good in the final hour, in the deepest pit without hope, without witness, without reward. Virtue is only virtue in extremis.” Nardole first reads these words to the Doctor from River’s diary, relating the Doctor’s own views, which are then echoed repeatedly by the Doctor throughout the episode. The Doctor’s eyesight is incredibly important thematically. In terms of the plot, he finds a work around as he always does, but blindness functions as another form of darkness. In Roman literature and poetry, lumen, literally meaning light, is frequently used as a stand in for eye and light is frequently thus used as a metaphor for sight. Early on in Extremis, the Doctor says, “memories are so much worse in the dark.” I believe that he is referring here both to the literal dark of his blindness as well as to the metaphorical darkness of being alone, a constant state for the Doctor, even when surrounded by friends. Nardole rightly questions why the Doctor feels the need to keep his blindness a secret from Bill. Chiding him about this choice, Nardole says, “the moment you tell Bill, it becomes real. And then you might actually have to deal with it.” This scene occurs directly after the Doctor seeks the consultation of the “priest” Nardole who reads to him from River’s diary, which in turn occurs directly after Cardinal Angelo speaks to the Doctor about confession. Telling Bill would be a confession on the part of the Doctor, which would build greater understanding between them. Confession here would help them to see each other metaphorically; their greater understanding both of each other and the situation would be a symbolic light in which to act. Directly after these scenes, the pope leaves the Doctor and his companions with the cardinal, saying, “may God light your path,” to which the Doctor replies in a jovial tone, “well, he could certainly give it a go.” The Doctor responds with an inside joke to himself about the seemingly innocuous phrase, but the pope may be more aware of his predicament than he seems at first glance. They proceed to walk into the Haereticum, “the library of forbidden and heretical texts.” Darkness represents a lack of understanding, not just between people but of knowledge and of truth. The whole notion of forbidden texts or forbidden knowledge is a dark blot on the light of understanding. There is very little light throughout the Haereticum, the cardinal’s lantern is out when he investigates the first portal, and inside the cage there is an unlit candle accompanying Veritas. The only lights actively lit in the whole library are those dimmed by their shades. When the portals open, leaving the simulation behind, revealing the apparent truth of the matter, the light they reveal is almost blinding in the dark of the library. The broken translation circuit, in addition to being a clue that the world is not right also continues the trend of lacking understanding. The Doctor cannot read and while he would be able to understand the Italian being spoken during the episode, Bill quite possibly does not. The lack of translation would have her left in the dark. Mid-episode, the Doctor hides his plan to read Veritas from Nardole and Bill, at which point Nardole points out, “you’re sending us into the dark.” He means here the literal dark as he and Bill walk away from the Doctor but it also conveys that he is actively keeping knowledge from them. At the end of the episode, the news reports a, “total communications blackout.” Once again, darkness is presented as the absence of understanding and knowledge. At the very end of the episode, the Doctor finally confesses his blindness to Missy in a moment of helpless humility: “How can I save them when I’m lost in the dark?”

We’ve examined truth in this episode, both in terms of the plot related to Veritas and the true personalities of characters, but how do we know Veritas is veritas. It is told to us that this is the truth, but the rest of the world is presented as true at first as well. The title is not translated as Truth, but instead remains Veritas. I’ve already discussed how the lack of a functioning TARDIS translation circuit could have been one of the early clues that this reality was not quite right (of course, it could also be that it’s connected to the Doctor’s lack of sight as we’ve seen evidence for such connections between the Doctor and the TARDIS in the past, but that would rely on the characters of Oxygen all speaking English already and would need to continue beyond this episode for as long as the Doctor is devoid of his sight). Veritas starts the plot, an embassy from the Vatican itself starting the Doctor off on a moral and deadly quest. Our supposed hosts tell the Doctor directly that, “this is a game.” It certainly reads as one. But if all of this reality is a fabrication and one specifically designed by a malevolent race, then why should we believe any of the details given to us? Everyone who reads Veritas takes it as Truth, but many do not even know of its origins. The shadow test proves effective, but why would it not? Veritas reveals the truth of this world as a projection, but it is often times easier to hide a lie within a bundle of truth. After Nardole’s disintegration, Bill comes to speak to the Doctor about Veritas.
Bill: I need to know what’s real and what isn’t real.
Doctor: Don’t we all?
Bill: Don’t play games. Tell me.
Doctor: The Veritas tells of an evil demon who wants to conquer the world. But to do it, he needs to learn about it first, so he creates a shadow world, a world for him to practice conquering, full of shadow people who think they’re real.
Bill: There was a thing. The shadow test?
Doctor: If you’re in doubt whether you’re real or not, the Veritas invites you to write down as many numbers as you like, of any size, in any order, and then turn the page.
Bill: All the same numbers in the same order.
Doctor: Yes. Let’s bring the story up to date, Bill. Imagine an alien life form of immense power and sophistication. And it wants to conquer the Earth, so it runs a simulation: a holographic simulation of all of Earth’s history and every person alive on the surface, a practice Earth, to assess the abilities of the resident population, especially the ones smart enough to realize that they are just stimulants inside a great big computer game.
Bill: But this is, this is real. I feel it.
Doctor: Computers aren’t good with random numbers. If you ask a computer simulated person to generate a random string of numbers, it won’t truly be random. And if all the simulated people are part of the same computer program, then they’ll all generate the same string, the exact same numbers.
Bill: The numbers: I said them too.
Doctor: I know. So did I. The trouble is, when stimulants develop enough independent intelligence to realize what they are, there’s a risk they’ll rebel. Those deaths, they weren’t suicide; those were people escaping. It’s like Super Mario figuring out what’s going on, deleting himself from the game because he’s sick of dying.
Bill: No, I’m real. I feel real!
Doctor: Those pretend people you shoot at in computer games… now you know.
Bill: Know what?
Doctor: They think they’re real. They feel it. We feel it.
Bill *starting to disintegrate*: Please, help me!
Doctor: Bill, what’s happening to you?!
Bill: Save me!
I’ve included the length of their conversation, because so much of it is important to analyzing this world. The Doctor answers Bill’s questions about what’s in the book but never tells her it as a fact; his answers are always couched in the form of a story being related until he gets to the point of his own observation and analysis. He may be a simulant, but he’s still the Doctor and he’s able to piece together his own interpretation for the mass suicides. But what if he only came to that conclusion because he is also part of the simulation? Every single person repeats the exact same numbers, just as every single person who reads Veritas kills themselves, with exception of the Doctor. He does however ask to be turned off, a less active version of the repeated behaviour. Veritas and the story it conveys was placed within this world. It is a simulation like everything else, whether the information it conveys is entirely truthful or not. It can accurately predict the numbers a person would generate because either the original author experienced this test as it would have you believe or because it was the original generation of those numbers as part of “the game,” a planted item of extreme value that our heroes are sent in search of. But let’s analyze the Doctor’s theory. The suicides are people rebelling, not allowing the program to use them any longer. These individuals are either hoping to return to a life of reality or simply cease to exist as a theoretical cog in this particular machine. This is established to be a game, which generally have various levels that you can access by accomplishing certain feats. Games and the characters in them are established to exist in this simulation and the Doctor posits that they can feel and believe they are real because he as a character in a game can now relate to them personally. He compares this to Mario deleting himself from the game in a bid to end his realized suffering. The Doctor specifically mentions Super Mario, but Mario first appeared in Donkey Kong and Mario Bros. before the introduction of the Super Mario series. Whether the Doctor merely used the most familiar title, Moffat is simply unaware of the character’s history, or the Doctor has a specific meaning in his choice of title is up for debate. The first two options are obvious and rather uninspired, which leads me to prefer the final option. In his conversation with Bill, the Doctor was careful not to state the contents of Veritas as fact, either in their original telling or his updated format. If Super Mario specifically deleted himself after realizing the fact of his existence, it would not solve anything for the suffering of Mario. If one individual Mario in a specific entertainment system deleted himself, that would not delete all the other copies of Mario in all the other systems operating in the world. If this Mario was indeed Super in every respect and found a way to delete specifically Super Mario from all the games in all the systems, he could theoretically delete himself from all Super Mario franchise games, in all Super Mario Bros. games and all that came after, such as Mario Kart. But if it was specifically a Mario from the Super Mario series of games, how would it be able to delete the Marios that came before it? Even if Super Mario was somehow aware of previous Mario, how could he destroy himself before he gained the knowledge that made him seek that path in the first place? Furthermore, would Mario do this? In Super Mario, our hero takes it upon himself in an oftentimes solo mission to save Mushroom Kingdom by rescuing Princess Peach (or Toadstool if you prefer). Spurred on by the suffering of an entire kingdom and its monarch, would a newly self aware Mario simply delete himself, leaving the rest to suffer and be used unwittingly? It doesn’t seem to fit with the character. The fact that every single person chooses the exact same response to reading Veritas shows that this world is a simulation as much as the numbers do. By committing suicide, these characters are not rebelling but merely playing into the programming. It could be that the Doctor chose to select Super Mario specifically rather than simply calling the character Mario in order to hedge his bets. He doesn’t know if he is even the original version of this copy or what will, if anything, happen to those who commit suicide in game. Perhaps they go back to an earlier level or simply cease to be as the creators undoubtedly have a multitude of simulations running. The doctor comes to the conclusion about the suicides and asked to be turned off because he is also a simulation, but he does not actively kill himself. He feels that need but resists, instead our simulated Doctor behaves as the Doctor would, by trying with all his might to save the world, even when faced with certain death. He thinks outside the simulation and attempts to make contact with the original version of himself. But what if that version is also in a simulation? We see the Doctor call Bill to try and determine the truth of their reality, but what if that email only sent successfully because what has been presented to us as the original Doctor is only a simulation as well? What if all these other characters died on this particular level of the simulation but the Doctor beat Simulation World 1-1 by sending that email? What if the next episode, Pyramid at the End of the World is merely Simulation World 1-2? Or maybe it represents the next game in the franchise? The portals that appear in Extremis functionally resemble the Warp Pipes in Super Mario Bros. Antagonists use them to travel, but characters such as Bill, Nardole, and the Doctor can utilize them for this purpose as well. If this episode is Super Mario Bros, then maybe there was a previous incarnation of the simulations created with fewer abilities available to the playable characters. The creators of this simulation have nearly perfected their world. To digitize and program and entire species to such a degree of accuracy to pass as reality for such a significant period of time, these programmers must have started out with less complex versions of their game. Perhaps the next episode will not be the next level or next world but the next game in the series or another iteration of this same world. Bill’s final simulated words are “Save me,” which not only is a fairly typical thing for someone dying to say, but also, given the circumstances, strongly evokes the Tenth Doctor two part episode, Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead. The Doctor uncovers what happened to those “saved” by the library by analyzing the word choice of saved over safe to describe the individuals who escaped the calamity. In the second part of the episode we see exactly what happened to them; they are saved in a digital format and inhabit a simulated world meant to keep them safe until they could be restored to physical form. The story obviously shares a number of features with the current plot, but with a benevolent being controlling and creating these worlds. The fact remains however that the individuals are unaware of their existence being fake and grieve their lost, fictional lives when they are eventually returned to physical form by the Doctor and River. This story arc is also directly related to this episode in terms of plot as well as thematic elements. When Nardole comes to the Doctor at what was intended to be the execution of Missy, he states that he followed the Doctor there from Darillium on River’s orders. He carries with him River’s diary, meaning that he must have worked out where the Doctor was headed and arrived later, rather than following him the whole way as he tells the Doctor. The Doctor and Donna left River’s diary and her sonic screwdriver at the Library at the end of Forest of the Dead, so Nardole must have travelled to the Library to retrieve it. One wonders if he took the sonic as well, as we last saw it resting atop the diary. As these two episode arcs are so related, one wonders what will become of those individuals in the simulated world. The Doctor implies that their deaths are an act of rebellion, but that seems to be the simulation talking more than the Doctor himself and even if it were true, the Doctor choosing to delete entire worlds from existence on a theory would not be rebellion, it would be genocide. The characters in this world do not want to die. To them, this world is real and through the Doctor choosing a path of behaviour other than suicide at the end of the episode, it shows that these simulations can gain sentience –a topic that has been explored heavily throughout this season. Neither Nardole nor Bill wants to die in the simulation. They appear to be simulated, they disintegrate, they repeat the same numbers, and yet they do not wish to commit suicide; they scream as they die. They have their own thoughts that are dissimilar to those of the other simulations, they may be simulated but they are real in their own way. In a supremely Cartesian episode, it is only fitting to quote Descartes: cogito ergo sum. These versions of them seem to have been deleted, but it seems apparent that the creators of this simulation are running multiple like it. While not an exact copy, perhaps the Doctor, whether simulated or not, will be able to save Bill, Nardole, and himself. They exist as copies and approximations and so could not assume physical form in the primary universe, replacing the original versions of themselves, but perhaps the Doctor could create a safe world for them to live out their digital lives in comfort like River, even constantly exploring the digital universe, like Moriarty in the Star Trek episode Ship in a Bottle.

We cannot know for certain until the story arc finishes, but what might happen in the following episode or episodes? These creatures that seem to run the simulation have a very distinctive look. Their red robes and skin like charred or decomposing flesh first brought to mind the Pyrovile race from Fires of Pompeii. They were a race of fire and these creatures seem to be able to manipulate the flames in the lanterns (although that could be due to them controlling the simulation as these are simulated flames). The creatures are studying humanity and making copies of individuals in a bid to take over the Earth. The Pyroviles also sought to take Earth for themselves as they needed a new planet and had begun transforming the human race into members of their own. If this race exists solely as digital incarnations, they could also be said to be transforming humanity into creatures like them. Another race seen frequently wearing red robes is the Time Lords themselves. During the Time War, the plan of the Time Lords was to give up physical existence entirely, rupturing the Time Vortex to end time and existence. In the End of Time Part II, Rassilon explains their plan:
Rassilon: We will initiate the Final Sanction. The end of time will come at my hand. The rupture will continue until it rips the Time Vortex apart.
Master: That’s suicide.
Rassilon: We will ascend to become creatures of consciousness alone. Free of these bodies, free of time, and cause and effect, while creation itself ceases to be.
Their plan seems very similar to the program in Extremis, glorifying mass suicide as a victory, as an ascension to a new state of being. This theory seems even more compelling when paired with a scene from the very start of that same episode.
Visionary: Ending, burning, falling. All of it falling. The black and pitch and screaming fire so burning.

Partisan: Millions die every second, lost in bloodlust and insanity, with time itself resurrecting them to find new ways of dying over and over again. A travesty of life. Isn’t it better to end it at last?

Rassilon: I will not die! Do you hear me? A billion years of Time Lord history riding on our backs. I will not let this perish. I will not!

Chancellor: There is one part of the prophecy, my lord. … One word keeps being repeated, my lord. One constant word: Earth.

Rassilon: Maybe that’s where the answer lies: our salvation, on Earth.
Given that these creatures in Extremis appear like burned bodies, it could be that they are a sect of Time Lords, after the events of the Day of the Doctor and later Heaven Sent and Hell Bent, who tried to continue this plan once again. These creatures in Extremis seem particularly fixated on Earth as well as have a means of mimicking physical existence. It is extremely likely that this is all a coincidence and merely a shared motif of physical destruction shared between both the Davies and Moffat eras of Doctor Who. At the end of the episode, one of the creatures tells the Doctor, “we have killed you many times… You suffer. Pain is information. Information will be gathered.” They seem not only to be researching how to conquer Earth but pain itself, like an alien race founded by Count Rugen. It is possible that Veritas was a plant in this simulation that they hope to plant in the real world as well and then force the Test of Shadows with mass hypnosis, which would be extremely relevant with the Master’s current presence on Earth. In light of the trailer for the next episode, they could be a digital race who faced extinction and were granted salvation through becoming copies of themselves. Earth could face a similar destruction and they present themselves as saviours, saying the same thing happened to their planet. This would explain why they look corpse-like and why they would include Veritas in their simulation, as a means of gradually explaining their plan to the humans. But as they seem sinister, perhaps they wish to trade places in the end, losing their decaying digital presence, and the impending destruction is their own doing. If this were the case however, why would they program people to wish to die when they discovered they were fake? Does it reflect their own collective view on life? Maybe the Test of Shadows is so named for the Shadow Proclamation, a protective measure the creatures were forced to include to get their plan approved. This seems unlikely. With the focus on confession, the hooded robes, and the gliding movement, it would be fitting if this whole simulation were another iteration of the Confession Dial. That would have made more sense as a standalone episode however; the trailers for the next episode do not seem to hold with that interpretation. Heaven Sent definitely shares a number of thematic elements with this episode and as it concluded with the Doctor replacing himself with unaware copies until he could slowly punch his way through a wall harder than diamonds, I would not be surprised if this episode arc shares some of that plot. At the end, the Doctor has worked out the truth and sends all the information to a new and supposedly real version of himself. It’s not very far removed. In the following episode, Hell Bent, he leaves the Time Lords in their red robes, meets Me at the end of time, hears four knocks, and Me and Clara run off in a TARDIS in the form of a café, a literal Restaurant at the End of the Universe. We already know that Missy is involved and the next episode is titled Pyramid at the End of the World, which is not entirely dissimilar as a title. As the Restaurant at the End of the Universe includes the ruler of said universe, who is incredibly skeptical of basically everything, it would not be entirely out of the question given the nature of this episode. The episode after that and reported third in this arc is the Lie of the Land, which hints to Veritas not being as it seems. We know that John Simm will be returning this season and that the simulated versions of characters are not exactly accurate, perhaps even to the point of appearing as a previous regeneration. Perhaps the simulated Master would be Simm. Probably not though… it seems long way to go for a meta pun (for the show at least). Along the lines of insane theories that will probably not come to pass: the simulated world is referred to as a Shadow World and Veritas describes the Test of Shadows. All of the mentions of light, dark, and the power of shadows could set up for a crossover episode: Doctor Who is Dark and Full of Terrors. I would like to impress upon the readers the entirely farcical nature of that last suggestion, as well as a general ramp up of absurdity as this final paragraph went on. And so I would like to finish on a sincere note. As the episode closes, the darkness of the room is cut by a shaft of light, seeming to illuminate one specific paining. Given the importance of light and darkness in Extremis, I would be intrigued to get a clear view of that painting as it could very well have great importance to the coming plot.

Referenced Works

Discours de la methode: Rene Descartes (1637).

Doctor Who: Fires of Pompeii, Silence in the Library, Forest of the Dead, Turn Left (2008), End of Time Part 2 (2010), Dinosaurs on a Spaceship (2012), Mummy on the Orient Express (2014), Heaven Sent (2015), The Pilot, Knock Knock, Oxygen, Extremis (2017).

Firefly: War Stories (2002).

Game of Thrones (2011).

Nintendo: Donkey Kong (1981), Super Mario Bros (1985).

Restaurant at the End of the Universe: Douglas Adams (1980).

Star Trek: The Next Generation: Ship in a Bottle (1993).

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  1. Danny Bell May 24, 2017

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