Much like the Doctor, I have a confession to make. Due to good but distracting life circumstances, such as my recently completed M.A. thesis chat (which you can watch here) and my impending trip to Signum University’s Mythmoot conference I’ve fallen a bit behind on my reviews, and consequently we’re going to have to double up this week in order to get back on track. While this isn’t ideal, the two episodes do actually have a fair bit of continuity with the Doctor’s [spoiler alert] blindness constituting a kind of mid-season mini-arc, so hopefully this will flow nicely enough. To be perfectly honest, these are two rather dense and difficult episodes and so part of my tardiness may also result from the fact that I’m still processing them. It may not be until the end of this arc or even the end of the season that I’m able to fully appreciate what Moffat & co. are doing here. But like the virtue brought about by extreme conditions, so blog posts must sometimes be written under a tight schedule. Proceed we must.
Jamie Mathieson has yet to write a weak episode of Doctor Who. From the exciting “Mummy on the Orient Express” to the hilarious and clever “Flatline” to the poignant “The Girl Who Died,” he is proving himself to be one of the great recent discoveries. What might stand out given my choice of adjectives is the variety he’s managed to demonstrate: of setting, tone, and premise. I keep saying this, but here’s another writer who I would be happy to see helm the show someday. He gets the range of what Doctor Who can do. “Oxygen,” whatever else it does, certainly adds to the sense of Mathieson’s impressive repertoire. The grungy spaceship setting marks a departure for Mathieson’s episodes, though not for the show, obviously. What’s exciting about this particular grimy future is seeing the toughness and bleakness of this stock setting collide with Mathieson’s generally more fun and playful style. The jokes still fly thick and fast, but here they’re given a kind of desperate weight to the point that Bill’s begging the Doctor for a joke as he abandons her to the suit-zombies (and his refusal to oblige) becomes perverse and horrifying.
And “Oxygen” is definitely horrifying, perhaps one of the scariest episodes New Who has yet done. Like all the scariest episodes there is some unique psychological fear underpinning the monsters, which are fairly standard zombies lumbering slowly after our heroes. No, the real fear is generated from all the restrictions around the heroes and the zombies, the gradual loss of freedoms and options which impede their escape. The scarce and expensive oxygen. The claustrophobia of Bill’s malfunctioning space-suit. The cold indifference of the corporation controlling the station. And yes — the great twist of the episode — the Doctor’s blindness. Though the presence of the Doctor’s companions keeps “Oxygen” from getting quite as terrifyingly hopeless as “Midnight” the two episodes feature a similar series of escalating losses. To borrow from the next episode, the Doctor and Bill are “in extremis” here, pushed to the farthest point where virtue and courage become inevitable if they are to be shown at all.
Bill, to my slight frustration, has yet to really “find her courage” in that Tolkien/hobbit way. We’ve had moments of cleverness, bravery, and inspiration but she has yet to have one of those truly great and defining “companion saves the day” episodes. It better be a doozy when it comes. Instead, the Doctor shows virtue and self-sacrifice out the wazoo here. By far the most stunning moment comes after he’s already given his sight to save Bill when, with Bill trapped by her damn suit again, he immediately comes out with, “Give her mine.” The absolute reflexivity of his protectiveness is wonderful, and a truly special moment for Capaldi’s Doctor. Of course he abandons her later, but by then you know he’s worked out a plan. When it counts he lays his life down for hers without hesitation. The vulnerability shown by the Doctor in this episode more than justifies the notion of blinding the Doctor. I’m sure there will be complaints that blinding the Doctor carries no stakes because he will inevitably regenerate and regain his sight, but I think that argument has it the long way around. It’s only because we know the Doctor will get a clean slate and a new body that allows Moffat and Mathieson to truly explore consequences as drastic as this. The fact that they get to disable the Doctor for several episodes makes it an experiment worth trying.
And yes, there is the anti-capitalist stuff but if one thing reading critical histories of Doctor Who teaches you is that that’s hardly anything new. It may all be worth it for the “we’re fighting the suits” pun at the end. While I think political readings are important they’re not exactly my forte, so I look forward to reading other more qualified takes on this angle. “That about wraps it for capitalism” seems like far too easy an ending, but no episode of Doctor Who could ever hope to solve the worlds complicated economic and social ills anyway. Instead, Mathieson delivers a tough episode that sets up and causes more problems than it solves which, again, plays into the scariness of the whole endeavor. Nardole’s freaked-out lecture to the Doctor at the end serves as a perfect coda to an episode that genuinely manages to feel like a close shave for all involved.
Steven Moffat’s “Extremis” manages to be even stranger which is quite an achievement for an episode preceded by the Doctor losing his sight. Once viewed together there is a rightness to the sequence. Like blind Tiresias or one-eyed Odin, the Doctor’s blindness affords him a kind of privileged wisdom or second sight. He alone can read Veritas — the Truth — without going mad, or giving in to existential despair. Moffat’s inclusion of Roman Catholic signifiers here alerts one to the fact that we’re in the territory of metaphor. So what is “Extremis” saying about faith and religion? On the one hand, all of the Shadow People (which is the entire cast of the episode, pretty much) come to realize that they are in a simulated computer game, suggesting the despair one might feel at the notion that the world is purely material, consisting of nothing beyond the physical. There is even a kind of a kind of noble pride in this fact, with Moffat (via River Song) trotting out a line of reasoning I’ve heard many times about how virtue means more without religion, “without hope, without witness, without reward.” Heaven, in other words, cheapens the whole thing.
On the other hand, we know that this world is not purely material. It’s just the simulated world that is “fake.” (And even in the Shadow World we are shown the poignant self-awareness of its inhabitants). There is a real Doctor and a real world, just not the one that we’re presented with in “Extremis.” The very use of the term “Shadow People” evokes Plato’s allegory of the cave in which we are merely shadows of the ideal world of forms, pointing towards a higher, deeper, and more permanent reality beyond the one that we can see, hear, and touch. While Plato was no Christian his philosophy has certainly been adapted by Western Christianity; or perhaps more accurately the two world-views have been recognized by many to share fundamental similarities. The Doctor is the only character in the simulation not to succumb to despair and suicide like the scientists of CERN or to be annihilated like Nardole and Bill because he has direct access to the “real” world, to the Doctor himself. Like a prayer this Shadow Person emails his truth to the Doctor, begging him for salvation. The Doctor is “in extremis,” sure, but he’s hardly without hope and we are his witness. Tolkien, one of the great Roman Catholic artists, wrote that his stories were concerned with “hope without guarantees” (Letter #181) which I think describes much more accurately the faith of the believer. This Shadow Doctor may be assured of the existence of the Real Doctor but the result of his supplication is far from certain. This Shadow Person sends his message to the Doctor and the simulation ends without him reaping any reward or even knowing how his actions might save the world.
So the episode ends with things only getting worse and the proverbial shit still to hit the fan. The Doctor is still blind. Missy (naturally) waits in the vault. An uncertain threat which has been methodically testing Earth-invasion scenarios for weaknesses looms on the horizon. We know of certain villains who will be making returns at the end of this season, but I’m also interested in the next episode. “The Pyramid at the End of the World” (a play on William Morris’ Well at the World’s End?) is written by Peter Harness, yet another great writer who has been known to explore the types of political and religious themes played with in “Oxygen” and “Extremis”. He seems well-poised to conclude, or merely continue, this arc of stories exploring the Doctor being pushed to increasingly desperate extremes.
Oh, and having the Pope burst in on Bill’s date (from the bedroom, no less) was a stroke of brilliance. We can rely on Moffat to keep that stream of absurdist humor going until the very end.