“Particle physicists and priests. What could scare them both?”
We’re at the halfway point of the series, and who should drift back over the horizon but showrunner Steven Moffat, with his first episode since the season opener. Moffat’s kept a lower profile this year than the last, though presumably he’s been a guiding hand where plot arc threads are concerned. This week, however, was a definite return for his usual style – as usual, it screwed with your head.
Not in the usual way, however. No twisty, turny time paradoxes to be seen here (though the memory of River Song hung heavy over the episode. Rather, this cerebral but enjoyable ep repeated a few in his run, in the sense that, near the end, a plot revelation completely pulls the rug from under what you’ve just watched and makes you see all of it in another light. The story examined an old philosophical plotline seen in science fiction – what if the whole of reality itself isn’t what you thought it was, and you yourself are just a fiction?
It’s a familiar concept, which we’ve seen before in stories as varied as The Matrix, Harlan Ellison and several episodes of Star Trek. But this did it well, and as with its antecedents, very much rewards a second watching with the knowledge of what’s really going on.
What appeared to be going on, at first, was The Da Vinci Code. All right, that’s a trifle unfair; stories of the mythical Black Library of the Vatican must go back, at least, to the 19th century. But let’s face it, in the wake of Dan Brown’s disturbing popularity, to most people, secretive Catholic sects, forbidden texts and coverups in the Vatican say ‘Da Vinci Code’.
The Black Library, here memorably called ‘the Haereticum’, was, apparently, designed to be confusing – “just like religion, really”. The inclusion of the highest levels of Catholicism was an interesting example of the Who’s approach to religion generally. Given the option of inventing a fake religion in the future, the show’s writers will usually have it revealed as a fake, run by a conman or a mad computer.
Where it comes to real religions, the show has usually taken a respectful, but fair line. It’s a rationalist show, at the end of the day, and I even think even religion’s adherents would acknowledge that faith isn’t rational. But Doctor Who has never taken the didactic, lecturing Dawkins approach to atheism; nor, in fact, has its outlook ever been confirmed to be atheist. It’s a question best left unanswered, to treat viewers of every religious stripe with respect. However, you wouldn’t expect this most mocking of Doctors to let the Catholic Church off at least a mild ribbing.
Which they got, in the persons of the least vocal priests since Father Jack Hackett. Still Cardinal Angelo and even the Pope himself were shown as wise and sympathetic; slightly easier to believe with the current Pope than the previous one. Generally though, the script was even-handed enough for the Doctor not to rubbish religion as a concept, which in my view is the best approach.
Speaking of the Pope, he noticeably wasn’t the current incumbent, Neither, obviously, was the dark-haired, male President of the US. According to Moffat, the show was written before the US elections, although produced after; perhaps he considered the idea of ‘President Trump’ to be too farfetched at that point. Oh well…
That partly conforms to Who’s normal style of showing contemporary Earth as not quite the same as ours. But it also served as a useful clue to the ep’s big twist – this wasn’t the real Earth. Not the real Pope, not the real President. Nor, as we were slowly led to realise, the real Bill Potts or the real Doctor.
It may have been done before, but that reveal has seldom happened to the main characters in an ongoing show (a few times, certainly). It led to some interesting philosophical questions; had the mysterious Monks recreated the whole world for their simulation, or just the interconnected environments we saw? The Doctor certainly implied that; but if so, had they really been running the simulation in real time for all of Earth history?
The Doctor’s remark that he’d been “waiting two thousand years” to read the Veritas seemed to imply that (as well as being amusingly messianic, given his location). But how much more devastating to learn that everything you think you’ve experienced, all the memories of your long, long life, were just a fiction – and in fact you’d only existed for a week?
Naturally, Peter Capaldi played this brilliantly, his Doctor clearly weighed down with the knowledge of his unreality; but still, as he pointed out, probably a better replica than his mysterious creators really wanted. Given the choice, his method of ‘escaping from the program’ was more altruism than suicide. As a perfect replica of the Doctor, he behaved exactly as the Doctor would – he sacrificed himself to save everybody. Only this time, for this Doctor, it was real. After last year’s Hell Bent, it feels like Capaldi has had plenty of practice at going out in a blaze of glory.
Not the real Bill, either, though again the replica was too perfect and it was she (and Nardole) who uncovered the real truth without needing to read the Veritas at all. Pearl Mackie showed her growing horror at the realisation that she wasn’t real extremely well, but she also got to display a deft comic talent. That must be the most awkward first date in the history of first dates – let’s face it, if your prospective partner is feeling a bit guilty about her sexuality, what could be worse than the sudden appearance of the Pope? Not to mention the solemn gang of priests lined up by the bed as if they were appearing in The Exorcist!
Woven through this complexity was a framing story that, surprisingly, gave the answers to everything we wondered about the story arc so far. The Vault does indeed contain Missy (or the Master if you prefer), and the Doctor has indeed taken an oath to guard it “as a Time Lord of the Prydonian Chapter”. Though he never promised to guard her body if it was dead.
The back story of Missy’s ‘execution’ was cleverly revealed point by point in scenes that interspersed the rest of the story. The guild of interplanetary executioners was a typically imaginative Moffat idea – that with so many species in the universe, somebody would have to specialise in knowing how exactly to kill every one of them. It was no surprise that the Doctor refused to kill Missy, and sent the executioners packing with his badass reputation. It did, however, bring to mind Clara’s admonition regarding Missy a couple of years ago – “if you’ve ever let this creature live, every one of the deaths she’s caused is on you”.
This was a complex, typically Moffat episode, exploring some lofty philosophical subjects. In execution (if you’ll forgive the pun), it reminded me very much of the similarly head scratch-inducing Heaven Sent, and like that episode, I enjoyed it very much.
Also like that episode, though, this doesn’t have a proper ending – because it’s only part one, and the end is yet to come. In that sense, some good work here rather depends on equally good work later to make it really good. It’s hard to say how good I think it is until I’ve seen the rest of the story.
So we’ve got the Doctor still blind, Missy being asked for help, and the “mysterious, sophisticated and powerful” alien race manifested as red-cowled Monks in the simulation presumably proceeding with their conquest of the real Earth. Who could they be? Well, what alien race do we know that might look like desiccated, reanimated corpses, and speak by holding their jaws open without moving their lips? I’m not sure, but if I had a face like that, I’d consider wearing some sort of balaclava…