Doctor Who exclusive: Steven Moffat reveals the secrets of Extremis
Brave the Veritas! The showrunner talks us through episode six, discussing Missy’s return, the Doctor's blindness, River’s diary, the Pope and the US president… SPOILERS!
Extremis, the sixth episode of Doctor Who series ten, has just aired on BBC1. Radio Times reviewer Patrick Mulkern calls it "ingenious, breath-taking television" and has asked its writer, the showrunner Steven Moffat, to talk about the episode in detail. SPOILERS follow...
RT’s Patrick Mulkern: Cardinal Moffat, apologies if it seems I’m blowing incense up your cassock, but Extremis is a remarkable piece of television. Unusual storytelling in that it is largely two interwoven stories: one set “A Long Time Ago” dealing with Missy’s execution; the other happening in an alien simulation of the now.
You told me that you were worried by the “sheer head-f***ery” of this one. It’s mind-bending in a rewarding way – because everything should fall into place for viewers by the end. Extremis answers some mysteries and sets up more for the rest of the series. Perhaps you could expand on what you wanted to achieve with this episode…
Steven Moffat: Oh, I don’t know. Once a year – sometimes more than once – I try to push things a little bit. I started this season with a very solidly traditional approach, and a huge focus on just the Doctor and Bill.
Which is harder than you think.
The story of the week tends to overwhelm in this show, and that can be a killer when you’re trying to spotlight a new character. So the big note for me, and Frank [Cottrell-Boyce] and Sarah [Dollard], as we wrote our scripts, was to shove everything aside and make it about the two of them, come what may.
Frank opted to make his a two-hander for much of his episode’s run – which I worried about when he suggested it, but later adored – and Sarah took the bold and brilliant decision to not even explain what the monster was! That seems to break every rule, but did you even notice? Two advantages: one, we are spared lines like “It’s a Fanganoid for the planet Bing” and two, we learn a huge thing about the Doctor and Bill: for both of them, it doesn’t matter what it is; it matters only that it’s in chains. Loved that – very Sarah!
Also, I’ve always wondered why people keep travelling with the Doctor, when they encounter so much death and fear. He promises them wonders, and gives them tunnels and screaming death! Why don’t they go straight home? If your first experience of the wider universe was a Jamie Mathieson horror fest, you’d probably never come out your bedroom again.
So I wanted Bill, for the first few weeks, to encounter the gentlest, kindest sort of Doctor Who. The Doctor is the wise old man of the universe, fixing things when they go wrong – throwing back the curtains, letting in the sunshine, showing everyone that the universe isn’t evil, you just need to understand it better.
So, by the time we get to Oxygen, Bill is properly bonded with the Doctor and his lifestyle, and is ready to learn more: the Doctor can be a reckless thrill-seeker and those are real monsters slouching towards you! If that had been her first experience, she’d have left after episode one. I so wanted Bill to be one of us – which meant we had to give her a reason to stick around with the madman in the box.
Sorry, I’m rambling. But the point is, by the time we get to episode six, I thought it might be time to go darker and stranger. Time to get odd, even experimental. Now and then, we mess about with the format: Heaven Sent, Listen – Russell [T Davies]’s entirely brilliant Midnight is probably the best example. From the classic series there’s The Mind Robber, Warriors’ Gate, Kinda, Ghost Light.
If you don’t like any of those shows (and fair enough, some people don’t) I think you’d probably agree that Doctor Who is richer for attempting them. Now, I’m worried I’ve drawn some very big comparisons there, and as I type, Extremis hasn’t even aired – maybe everyone will hate it. Certainly some people will, and I’m properly, sensibly nervous. But it’s an attempt at pushing the envelope. Bending the show, trying not to break it. Crossing my fingers. While typing. Explains a lot, really, doesn’t it?
There are theories – taken semi-seriously by clever people – that what we are living in is a simulation (which would certainly explain why my coffee cup is never where I left it). Now for me, the most interesting thing about that is the idea that a simulation could be smart enough to figure out that it’s a simulation. Weird, kind of tragic.
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Imagine feeling real, and discovering that you aren’t? I did that with the kids in Forest of the Dead. But if you put clever old Doctor Who inside a simulation, I bet he’d not only figure it out, he’d fight back, and send a message to the real world, warning them they’re being simulated.
That was the idea. Hope you enjoyed. If you didn’t, there’s a space pyramid on the way. And Ice Warriors. And Mondasian Cybermen, and more Missy, and John Simm’s Master. Damn it, we’ve even got Aberdeen.
Mulkern: You’ve shown how the Doctor and Nardole were reunited and took charge of the mysterious vault. Why did you decide to reveal, at the midpoint of the series, that it is Missy (Michelle Gomez) in the vault? I noticed you don’t actually show her inside it – is there a twist to come?
Moffat: Well, it’s definitely Missy in there, we’re not fooling you about that. The story now is what’s going on between them. That dangerous friendship, burning away – who else will be lost to the flames? “Show me how to be good,” she asks him. Will the number one liberal do-gooder of the universe be able to resist?
And we gave it away early because I know Doctor Who fans – they’ll have had it figured out by the end of episode four!
Mulkern: I’m hungry for some more Missy now – and that's not her done with until the finale...
Moffat: Plenty more Missy to come. Hopefully, when you least expect her. But she’s back in play so trust nothing and no one.
Patrick Mulkern: You have certain key elements running over several episodes. How did the idea of the Doctor’s blindness arise? Was it solely something in Jamie Mathieson’s Oxygen script that you decided to run with?
Steven Moffat: I was looking for something in the middle of the run – a big twist, a shock. For a while we sat around wondering if we could blow up the whole planet Earth, but that seemed a bit drastic, and we’d have to reverse it pretty quickly anyway. It’s the kind of idea that’s too big for anyone to relate to, and you know it can’t hold.
But the Doctor blinded? When I read that in Jamie’s script, I was horrified and gripped and amazed – as I hope you all were when you watched it. Such a brutal demonstration that, yes, space is dangerous. Then, of course, he gets cured a few pages later, and somehow that weakened it. So I bit the bullet. He stays blind. For once, the Doctor takes a hit! What the hell does he do now?
Mulkern: The Haereticum/Veritas storyline (with its Catholic priests, creepy Monks and a library with a deadly text) reminds me of The Name of the Rose. Was that at the back of your mind or were there other influences?
Moffat: Name of the Rose, I loved. The Da Vinci Code was great fun. And it’s just a world Doctor Who hasn’t played much in. But there are catacombs and frocks and sinister choirs, so it’s all very him.
Mulkern: The Pope walking in on Bill’s date with Penny is one of the funniest moments in Doctor Who. It’s equally bizarre seeing him and his cardinals inside the Tardis. What qualms did you have about bringing the Catholic Church and the Pope into the Doctor Who world?
Moffat: Well, I’m not religious myself, in any way, but I’m mindful that many people in our audience are, so I tried to walk the line with care. The Doctor is always irreverent in the face of an authority figure, and the Pope could not be exempt – but on the other hand he takes his holiness seriously when he realises there’s danger in the Vatican.
Like the Doctor, we treat the whole matter with respect, but not with reverence. Offending or hurting people is never clever – but being funny is always fine. Well, I hope so, anyway.
Mulkern: At certain moments His Holiness is exempt from the Time Lord gift of translation and heard speaking only in Italian. Why is that?
Moffat: Well, the scenes just worked better with the Pope speaking Italian and being translated. I did write in the Doctor saying he didn’t really need the translation, and Nardole suggesting that he play along out of courtesy – but it glitched the scene, so I lost it in the edit. In fairness, the Doctor’s translation ability has wobbled before, so it’s just having another off moment. I tell myself it’s because of the blindness, and the concentration involved in interpreting the world through his sonic sunglasses. (Hooray, they’re back – a nation cheers!)
Mulkern: You also have a bit of fun with a bygone Pope – Benedict IX, who had a scandalous reputation in the 1100s. You’ve turned him into a sort of Wicked Lady and past amour of the Doctor…
Moffat: Yep, and it’s all true. The night, and the music, and those castanets…
Mulkern: When was Extremis filmed – before the US presidential election? How did you resist the temptation to depict the president who’s just committed suicide as either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton?
Moffat: It was written before the election, and shot after. I noted in the script that the gender of the president was yet undetermined, but we’d know by the time we were in the studio. It’s not every day you get to choose which president to kill…
Mulkern: The “simulant” Doctor says the Monks have created “a holographic simulation of all of Earth’s history”. But I suppose they haven’t been running it for all of Earth’s history – and this “game” is something they’ve set up relatively recently…
Moffat: It was set up fairly recently, but the software simulates all of human history from the beginning. It runs much faster than real time, of course.
Mulkern: Confession time. One point in Extremis still puzzles me. Nardole says he’s followed the Doctor from Darillium on the express orders of his late wife River Song – but how has Nardole come by her diary? After River died in the 2008 two-parter Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, David Tennant’s Doctor left her diary behind in the Library.
Moffat: Short answer: you can always get a book out of a library.
Slightly longer answer: the Tenth Doctor had no choice but leave it there – it was full of incendiary information about his future. But once that future was lived, he’d have to get it back some time. He couldn’t leave all that confidential stuff lying around in a Vashta Nerada-infested library, could he? So one day Nardole got it for him. (Actually, there’s a whole story in my head about this, but not one I’ll ever get to write now. The last time he sees River – it’s terribly sad.)
Mulkern: I don’t wish to sound rude but what is it with you and libraries that connect with virtual-reality environments?
Moffat: Books ARE virtual reality.
Mulkern: One final question: why did you call it Extremis?
Moffat: For me the whole point of the story is the Doctor is still the Doctor, even in extremis. Even when he’s not real, even when he’s a simulant on a hard drive and there is no possibility of escape or reward, he holds true to the man he wants to be. Never cruel, never cowardly – and never giving up till he wins.
RT's review of Extremis ★★★★★