Viewers with keener eyes than mine have already observed that Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor wears a ring on the third finger of his left hand. (I confess, I only noticed it this week, but it has been there ever since his costume was revealed in promo pics back in 2014.)
Because there is no detail of Doctor Who that does not invite—nay, demand—obsessive speculation, this ring has been the subject of some discussion on the part of fans, and of various explanations on the part of the show’s creators. It has been suggested that the ring is a nod to the First Doctor’s signet ring, which makes a certain sense: the Twelfth Doctor is, after all, more like William Hartnell’s Doctor—in countenance and temperament—than perhaps any of his predecessors. The ring’s designers have said that the Doctor’s ring “reminds him of all the wars he has won, but also all the lives he has taken.” Peter Capaldi himself has provided the pragmatic (but awfully sweet) explanation that this ring was specially designed to sit over his real wedding ring, so he doesn’t have to remove it during filming.
I’m not an obsessive, conspiracy-minded sort of fan myself, so I’m willing to accept any and all of these explanations without worrying about it too much. (Really, not everything has to mean something.) But I found myself focusing on the ring this week because it reminded me that the Doctor is, after all, a married man.
Steven Moffat first introduced River Song (Alex Kingston) in Season Four’s “Silence in the Library”—a year before he took over Doctor Who—and the character has been one of the most consistent elements of the Moffat era. The Doctor has regenerated twice since then, and several companions have come and gone, but River Song has endured. She drove the resolution of Season Five’s overarching plot, was herself the central mystery of Season Six, and turned up to cap the story of Amy and Rory—her parents—in Season Seven. It seemed as if Moffat was saying goodbye to River once and for all in Season Seven’s finale, “The Name of the Doctor,” but there she was again singing yet another swan song in the 2015 Christmas Special, “The Husbands of River Song.” Surely this was her last appearance, bringing us—finally—full-circle back to her definitive death in “The Forest of the Dead?”
But I wonder now if Moffat will ever be finished with River Song, until he himself is finished with Doctor Who. Alex Kingston does not appear in Moffat’s “Extremis,” but River Song’s ghost is all over this episode, and we now realize her fingerprints are all over Season Ten, Moffat’s own swan song. Part of my not being an obsessive conspiracy theorist is that I don’t waste a lot of time trying to predict where Moffat’s plots are going in any given season—I’m hardly ever right when I do—but I’ll recklessly go on the record here: with a handful of episodes left in Moffat’s reign, it will not surprise me if we have not seen the last of River Song.
“Virtue is only virtue in extremis. This is what he believes. And this is the reason, above all, I love him.”
It was in “The Husbands of River Song” that Matt Lucas’s Nardole first appeared, as a lackey working for River Song. He was decapitated in that story—and incorporated into a giant robot body—but no matter: in “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” we learned that the Doctor had “reassembled” him. The Doctor claimed he did this for information, but Nardole expressed another viewpoint. “No, sir, that’s not the reason, is it?” he said. “You were worried you’d be lonely. And we both know why, don’t we?”
The Doctor spent a night lasting 24 years with River—and Nardole—living (as Missy says here) “in domestic bliss on Darillium.” He couldn’t keep River at his side, but he could keep Nardole around. “He’s the Doctor,” Nardole said, at the end of “Mysterio.” “He’s very brave, and he’s very silly, and I think, for a time, he’s going to be very sad. But I promise, in the end, he’ll be all right. I’ll make sure of it.”
It’s a little unclear to me how the timeline of “Mysterio” fits in with Nardole’s reappearance in the flashbacks of “Extremis,” but it doesn’t really matter: both stories take place after the Doctor said his final goodbye to River Song on Darillium, and Nardole is part of, and the bearer of, River’s legacy. He turns up at Missy’s “execution” to be both companion and conscience to the Doctor, and reads from River’s diary:
“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. This is what he believes. And this is the reason, above all, I love him. My husband, my madman in a box, my Doctor.”
So it is River Song who gives this episode its title, reminding the Doctor (and us) that heroism is what reveals itself after all hope has been lost. Character, as the old line says, is what you are in the dark, and fear is just a superpower. It is a reminder of the Doctor’s own creed: to never be cruel or cowardly, to never give up, to never give in.
In “Husbands,” River expressed this same faith in the Doctor’s infallible optimism, even when he himself was protesting that it doesn’t always work:
River: Because I want you to know that if this is the last night, I expect you to find a way round it.
Doctor: Not everything can be avoided. Not forever.
River: But you’re you. There’s always a loophole. You wait until the last minute and then you spring it on me.
Doctor: Every night is the last night for something. Every Christmas is the last Christmas.
River: But you will. You’ll wait until I’ve given up hope. All will be lost, and you’ll do that smug little smile and then you’ll save the day. You always do.
Doctor: No, I don’t. Not always. Times end, River, because they have to. Because there’s no such thing as happy ever after. It’s just a lie we tell ourselves because the truth is so hard.
River: No, Doctor, you’re wrong. Happy ever after doesn’t mean forever. It just means time. A little time. But that’s not the sort of thing you could ever understand, is it?
In one sense, River was right: the Doctor—unbeknownst to her—had already found a loophole around her death, when—a few moments earlier—he gave her the sonic screwdriver that would let her preserve her consciousness in the Library computer in “The Forest of the Dead.” To her, the Doctor is someone who always finds the loophole. “He just can’t do it, can he?” she said, when she discovered he’d “saved” her. “That man, that impossible man. He just can’t give in.” As River narrated at the end of that episode:
“Everybody knows that everybody dies. But not every day. Not today. Some days are special. Some days are so, so blessed. Some days, nobody dies at all. Now and then, every once in a very long while, every day in a million days, when the wind stands fair, and the Doctor comes to call, everybody lives.”
This vision of what a perfect day looks like for the Doctor dates back to Moffat’s first televised story in “The Doctor Dances.” (“Everybody lives, Rose!” the Doctor boomed at the end of that story. “Everybody lives! I need more days like this!”) But the Doctor’s indefatigable optimism has been balanced, throughout Capaldi’s run, by the Doctor’s sometimes callous attitude towards the minor characters who tend to die around him. As we discussed just a few episodes ago, on most days, he can’t save everyone, so he just saves the ones he can and gets on with the task at hand. (“I’ve moved on,” the Doctor tells Bill in “Thin Ice.” “You know what happens if I don’t move on? More people die.”)
This unsentimental approach has been one of the defining (and refreshing) characteristics of the Twelfth Doctor, and its philosophy is the answer to the riddle posed in Capaldi’s first story, “Deep Breath“: why did he choose this face when he regenerated? It’s the face of Caecilius, the character Capaldi played in Season Four’s “The Fires of Pompeii”: there were 11,000 people the Doctor couldn’t save on Volcano Day, but Donna convinced him to save four, and Caecilius was one of them. The Twelfth Doctor’s face is a reminder of the constant struggle to balance the noble goal of saving everyone with the practical reality that it isn’t always possible. (Moffat is fairly obsessed with the question of what “acceptable losses” means within Doctor Who: he clearly couldn’t live, for example, with Russell T Davies’ idea that the Doctor had justified killing billions of people to end the Time War, and so he elaborately retconned this genocide out of existence in “The Day of the Doctor.”)
I am dwelling on all of this now because it’s becoming clear that the Doctor’s relationship with death is a theme of Capaldi and Moffat’s final season. “Death is an increasing problem,” says Rafando (Ivanno Jeremiah), the lead executioner, in the words that open this episode. “Listen, all we’ve got left is a good death,” the Doctor said last week, in what sounded like a very uncharacteristic speech. “This is the moment you’ve been waiting for since the day you were born..Die well! It’s the finish line! It’s winning!” Now, as the Doctor is seriously injured (blind) for perhaps the first time in his existence, and approaching his own “death” (regeneration), the question of death looms large. It is the final adversary, the ultimate moment of extremis, the final test of virtue. What, with death approaching, does winning look like?
“Turn me off. I have nothing, not even hope.”
“Extremis” is very much an end-of-life sort of episode, with existential and metaphysical questions on its mind. The Doctor doesn’t truck with religion much—unless it’s to blow someone else’s up—but here Moffat is wading at least ankle-deep into those waters. Have we ever heard discussion of the Doctor’s immortal soul before? Here we get it twice: at the execution, Rafando mistakes Nardole for a priest, and allows the Doctor five minutes to consult with him about “his immortal soul and any peril thereunto.” Then, later, Cardinal Angelo (Corrado Invernizzi) offers the Doctor the services of the Catholic Church, calling him “a man with regret on his mind,” and saying he is “more in need of confession than any man breathing.”
In Catholicism, “extremis” is used to describe the condition a person is in at the point of death, “when all positive ecclesiastical laws are subordinated to the primary responsibility of preparing the one dying for entrance into eternity.” It’s the moment of last-rites, an emergency condition in which nothing else the dying person has done in their life matters: it’s a last chance to scrub your conscience, stick the landing, and get your soul right with God. It’s the finish line. Do it correctly, and it’s winning death.
But inherent in this episode is another question: are there some forms of existence that are worse than death? “Extremis,” after all, is an episode about mass suicide: a dark and troubling topic for a tea-time children’s show, to be sure. “Doctor, those translators were devout, believers,” Cardinal Angelo says. “They took their own lives in the knowledge that suicide is a mortal sin. They read the Veritas, and they chose Hell.” The mysterious text at the center of this episode contains a truth so troubling that it drives believers and skeptics alike to voluntarily annihilate themselves. “Particle physicists and priests,” the Doctor wonders aloud. “What could scare them both?”
What scares them both is the revelation that everything is just a computer simulation designed by a scary alien race—I guess we’re calling them “the Monks”—to better understand the Earth in preparation for invasion. Nothing is real. No one is real. “Those deaths, they weren’t suicide,” the Doctor says. “Those were people escaping.” After learning this truth, these people—like the crew of the Chasm Forge last week—had nothing left to hope for but a good death.
Faced with this knowledge, even the Doctor momentarily succumbs to total despair, and the temptation of an easy escape. “Turn me off,” he begs the Monk, towards the end. “I have nothing, not even hope.” But then he flashes back to River Song’s words, and pulls her diary from his pocket. “‘Without hope, without witness, without reward,'” he quotes. “Funny. I don’t believe much. I’m not sure I believe anything. But right now, belief is all I am. Virtue is only virtue in extremis.” If the Doctor has a belief system, it’s that you never stop fighting, even—or especially—when all hope is lost. So what if he’s not real? “You don’t have to be real to be the Doctor, as long as you never give up.”
There’s a metafictional element to all of this, of course. After all, the situation described in this episode is the situation: the universe of Doctor Who is not real. The “real” Doctor watches all of this play out on a recording, like he’s watching an episode of Doctor Who. Everything we have been watching for 50-plus years, after all, is just an electronically-generated simulation. What else is fiction, really, but a simulation designed to test, explore, and learn about human reactions? But that’s exactly why it matters: Doctor Who is a simulation that tells us how to behave, how to be strong, how to be better. You don’t have to be real to be the Doctor: you can always send a message, even from within the fiction. (“We’re all stories in the end,” the Doctor said once. “Just make it a good one, eh?”)
“I need to know what’s real, and what isn’t real.”
This is all good stuff, and it’s Moffat working near the top of his game.
But here’s the thing, and the real reason I began this post talking about River Song: doesn’t all of this—the spooky library, the creeping awareness that the world isn’t real, the discovery that everything is a computer simulation—sound familiar?
Under other circumstances, we might be tempted to write off this story’s similarities to “Silence in the Library”/”Forest of the Dead” as nothing more than Moffat recycling some of his old ideas. But the heavy emphasis on River Song, and the reminder that the Doctor just left her with the sonic-screwdriver she needed to “survive” that story—leads us to consider whether there’s a deeper meaning to all of this, or at least a hint of what’s to come.
The ending of “Forest of the Dead”—and River’s ultimate fate—always troubled me. Donna (Catherine Tate), after all, ended up living in a simulation of reality on the Library’s central computer: she was married to a man she loved, she was the mother of two adorable children, and she was happy. But the illusion fell apart: she gradually became aware that nothing was real, and that knowledge nearly drove her mad. (The growing realization that her children weren’t real—and their growing realization that they weren’t real—remains one of the most haunting scenarios in all of new Who.)
But at the end of “Forest,” the Doctor arranges for River Song to be uploaded into that same simulation, where she will presumably exist—for all of eternity—in a virtual world. “The Doctor fixed the data core: this is a good place now,” CAL tells her, and delivers her some friends in the form of her other crewmates killed by the Vashta Narada. This, we are to presume, is a happy ending: the Doctor had given River Song a perfect digital afterlife—a computerized Heaven—where she can be happy forever.
But isn’t this troubling? (It’s an idea, after all, that Moffat himself recycled to sinister effect in the wretched “Death in Heaven” finale of Season Eight.) Could River really be happy living for all eternity in a digital simulacrum, presumably without adventure, and with people—let’s face it—that she barely knows? The simulation the Monks create in “Extremis” is, apparently, infinitely more detailed and convincing than the one River Song is condemned to—all but indistinguishable from the real world—and it still drove everyone who learned about it to kill themselves and go to “Hell.” Doesn’t that recognition—coming immediately after the Doctor fulfilled the plan to install River on a hard-drive—demand a revisiting of River Song’s fate now? Isn’t she—far from being in a digital “Heaven”—actually in a form of Hell?
In “The Name of the Doctor,” an echo of River Song reached out from the Library computer to communicate with Clara. (As the Doctor points out, you can always communicate from inside a computer.) At that time, she sounded sad about her fate. “I died saving him,” she said. “In return, he saved me to a database in the biggest library in the universe. Left me like a book on a shelf. Didn’t even say goodbye. He doesn’t like endings.”
He doesn’t like endings. This, then, is where the conundrum of River coalesces with the dilemma of death, here in Capaldi and Moffat’s final season. After all, River is the person closest to the Doctor in many ways, and she’s the only one of his close companions he was unable to truly save. (Amy and Rory died, yes, but only after living to a ripe old age. Clara died, but then the Doctor cheated and snatched her out of her own timeline: now she has her own TARDIS, and can roam the universe having as many adventures as she likes before she meets her demise.)
Steven Moffat doesn’t like endings either. One of the frequent criticisms of his writing, in fact, is that he uses phony deaths for dramatic purposes, but is unwilling to really kill anyone. (Rory, Clara, and the Doctor himself have all had multiple death scenes during the Moffat era, only to stage miraculous resurrections. Missy “died,” Nardole “died,” Bill “died” just last week, while minor recurring characters like Dorian, Jenny, Strax, and Osgood seem freakishly phoenix-like as well. With Moffat—as with the Doctor himself—there’s always a loophole.)
So what, I find myself wondering this week, will the ending of the Moffat era look like? What will the resolution of the River Song story look like, and what will the Doctor’s final confrontation with the enigma of death—his own, and everyone else’s—look like? What will be Moffat’s final statement about the nature of the Doctor—his favorite subject—when his interpretation of the character is at the moment of extremis?
Part of me would love to see a mature acceptance of death as part of life, making peace with it as nothing more or less than the next great adventure. I’d like to see this Doctor go to his own “death” calmly, willingly. I’d like to see River Song released from her eternal prison and laid to rest. (“There is a time to live and a time to sleep,” the Doctor told her in “The Name of the Doctor.” “You are an echo, River. Like Clara. Like all of us, in the end. My fault, I know, but you should’ve faded by now.”) For that matter, I’d ideally like to see Clara stop running and decide to return to her own inevitable rendezvous with death. If Doctor Who is a simulation, an elaborate test to instruct us how to deal with the challenges of life, I’d love to see Moffat end his run by teaching us all how to deal with the reality that life—everything, and every person—ends.
But I don’t think that’s what’s going to happen. Death has never been anything but the adversary to Moffat’s Doctor—something to be resisted, no matter what—and perhaps that’s as it should be: never give up, never give in. “Everything ends,” the Doctor told Clara, in “The Time of the Doctor,” when he was all out of regenerations: he seemed then to have accepted his own death, but he never stopped fighting—”Every life I save is a victory”—and he ended up thwarting his own death anyway, starting over with a whole new set of regenerations. (“Never tell me the rules!” he told the Daleks, denying the very laws of mortality.) “Everything ends” may be the mature statement, but “Everybody lives” is more in the spirit of Moffat’s Doctor Who.
It’s a tricky thing, dealing with endings in a show like this—a show in which the laws of time can be broken, and in which any threat of death for the lead character is just the promise of a new rebirth. Doctor Who, as a whole, doesn’t like endings: no window is ever closed forever, and no story ever really concludes, and Doctors and companions long gone still have new stories in the expanded universe. So it will not surprise me if Clara is left, forever, roaming the universe having adventures. It will not surprise me if we see the Twelfth Doctor join River Song in a virtual afterlife—perhaps one improved by the Monks’ more elaborate program?—where they too can have new adventures together for all eternity.
After all, you don’t have to be real to be the Doctor. We’re all just stories in the end, and—in Moffat’s Doctor Who—the story never really ends at all.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- Apologies for both the lateness of this post, and for its slight squidginess: this one got away from me a bit. (These posts are mostly me thinking out-loud, and sometimes I follow the thoughts down unclear paths and end up in places I wasn’t really intending to go.) Part of the problem—I realized too late—is the difficulty of discussing themes that have been introduced but not really resolved yet: it’s a little hard to come to any conclusions. So, take this somewhat rambling post as thoughts and speculation, rather than any attempt at interpretation. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about all of this in a few short weeks, after Moffat has written his last word on Doctor Who.
- Bill didn’t get that much to do this week, but Pearl Mackie—as usual—did the hell out of it. “Do not, under any circumstances, put the Pope in my bedroom.”
- We get confirmation this week that—as most of us suspected—it was Missy the Doctor locked in the vault. Which means, of course—since we still haven’t seen her—that it almost certainly won’t be Missy who steps out of the vault. (At bare minimum, I suspect it will be John Simm’s Master. How nice it would be if the previews had not revealed his return.)
- “Funny,” the Doctor says. “I don’t believe much. I’m not sure I believe anything. But right now, belief is all I am.” Speaking of themes I haven’t really done justice to, at some point I suspect I’ll need to do some thinking-out-loud about Moffat’s treatment of faith and religion. It’s touched upon here, obviously, but it’s been a constant thread right from the very beginning, with little Amelia Pond “praying” to Santa Claus on Easter and getting the Doctor in response. Since then, we’ve had Soldier Priests, and Headless Monks, and Papal Mainframes, and The God Complex, and the Old God of Akhaten, and Death in Heaven, and a lot of other stuff. One of these days I’d like to sit down and figure out if I think it all adds up to anything coherent. (And I should include a shout-out here to a Tumblr page called The Gospel According to Doctor Who—run by one of my most loyal commenters—which consistently views the show through a spiritual lens.)
- Next week—OK, tomorrow, as I write this—it looks like we’re getting a continuation of this story by Moffat and Peter Harness (“Kill the Moon“), which should give me an opportunity to circle back to some of the plot elements I skipped over this week. See you at “The Pyramid at the End of the World.”