Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Why "Extremis" by Steven Moffat (2017) is a masterpiece

I'm basically a bit suspicious whenever people say a certain story isn't "needed". Or "necessary" or other words to that effect. No story is needed or necessary in any way whatsoever. I know that's a bit unfair on people using those words because it's not quite what they mean, but I do think it's a helpful starting point for perhaps sharpening our senses on why we talk about stories in these terms, where "needed" or "necessary" become barometers of whether something is worth one's time or not. Boiling entertainment down to whether it's "necessary" or not does seem an awfully clinical way of looking at things. There are books or films which I don't want to waste my time on, sure, because they don't look like my cup of tea, but I don't think that makes them "unnecessary" per se. Is a story good? Does it entertain people? Then its existence is justified, surely.

I'm also suspicious of the way "needed" and "necessary" are bandied about because I think people are only use them on the prosaic plot level: is X episode of Doctor Who necessary for the plot of the next one? Is a wikipedia summary of Extremis needed to grasp the wikipedia summary of The Pyramid at the End of the World? Well, you know, maybe not. But that's plot, not story. Plots are accounts of what happened; stories are how those happenings feel. The former is something it makes sense to discuss in terms of "needed" and "necessary"; the latter less so.

Is Extremis needed to understand the following episodes, in the sense that they wouldn't make any sense if you hadn't seen the first part? Probably not. 

Is Pyramid *enriched* if you have seen Extremis? I would argue yes. For one thing, we know a little about the baddies before they arrive, and so does the Doctor; we've seen inside their computer games and now we get to see their invasion. That means there's a terrific air of foreboding hanging over the whole thing - a foreboding which permeates the whole of Pyramid, from that opening line after the titles, "the end of your life has already begun", to the way the entire plot revolves around predestination and huge cataclysmic consequences building out of tiny little things going awry; things that, if one does not have the omniscient view that the Monks - and to certain degree, the audience - have, one would think [as Erica no doubt did] are mere moments of random chance, but which in fact conspire together to topple domino after domino. As it were.

Then there's the fact that predestination, free will, and ontological questions are absolutely central to Extremis, a story about discovering that the world you live in is a lie. That you are a lie. That somebody made you up. Remember that Doctor Who is a story that has always lent itself beautifully to arch metafiction - from the Land of Fiction to someone dressing up as / cosplaying the Doctor in the Big Finish story The One Doctor, to the extra-diegetic meaning of calling a story The Next Doctor shortly after announcing David Tennant's departure, to the Doctor announcing "we're all stories in the end" to a mythical figure telling the Doctor that "I'm just as real as you are", to the way Last Christmas goes out of its way to highlight the fact that BOTH Santa Claus and the Doctor are impossible and ridiculous figures, and that they're made up, but that that doesn't matter ... Doctor Who has for a long time, but particularly in the last 7 years, embraced an awareness of its own fictionality. Not everyone will like that sort of thing, I know. But I adore it, and I think it's important.

Bertolt Brecht brought the innovation into the theatre world that the important thing was the audience want to get up and change things. Not just that they clap and whoop and laugh and have a jolly old time of it. Part of that was making the audience aware that the play they were seeing is made up ... that they're real, and that they have a chance to influence the real world. Extremis continues in that noble tradition. It presents a surreal world, a dream-world if you like in the sense that ALL of this show is a bit of a fever dream, mere shadows on the cave wall... and then it says to us "yeah this isn't real. BUT YOU ARE."

Let's just wind that back a second.

Extremis is the story in which the Doctor discovers beyond reasonable doubt that he's a fictional character. Yes, on a technical level, we duck the thorny ramifications of that for future stories - in that it's not "Our Doctor" that finds this out, but rather "Simulation Doctor", but the story absolutely makes it clear that it doesn't matter. "You don't have to be real to be the Doctor". And the Doctor isn't real. But since he isn't real, then the Unreal Doctor in the story is in extradiegetic terms as real or unreal as the Real Doctor in the story, isn't he? We spend the episode following the Simulation Doctor (with occasional flashbacks to Real Doctor, which brilliantly muddies the waters in that it makes the dividing line between real and unreal less certain), and at the end we find out that this is all a few pixels dancing in front of the real Doctor's eyes. But all Doctor Who EVER is ... is a few pixels dancing in front of our eyes. The Unreal Doctor and the Real Doctor are both immaterial, they're both tricks, they're both projections of light (borrowing from the words of filmmaker Werner Herzog).

Extremis cuts to the very core of what the show is: a projection of the incredible. A forewarning of the inevitable. A message to get up off our arses and do something. A message that however small we feel, however miniscule we are in the grand scheme of things, and however much we feel events are controlled from above (by zombie monks or otherwise)... we do possess some agency; we do possess some ability to be firm, concrete and fact, to live as if we are real even if we are not. And we can do something about the world in which we live. As the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke said, "hiersein ist herrlich". It sounds crap in English: "just to be here is magnificent". He meant this in the sense of "stop worrying about what's casting the shadows on the cave wall; stop worrying about why you exist. Get on with existing." No accident that this is the story in which science and religion are both deeply troubled by the ontological question of trying to explain why we're here ... and the Doctor, that mad magical storyteller, has a much better answer than either of them. No accident either that this comes right after the story that invited us all to fight the suits (Oxygen), because it actively strengthens that episode's message. It actively says Doctor Who is a thing that is made up but encourages us to make things better in reality.

That's why Extremis is so magnificent. 

And that's why it's not a dream. It's telling us "this story might be a dream. But all of Doctor Who is a dream. And heck, you might be a dream too. Who knows? But fuck it, life's too short to distinguish between dream and reality. Get the fuck on with it. Be a Doctor. Let the Doctor in your head make things better. So long as you never give up. So long as you never give in. Virtue is only virtue in extremis".

Tastes vary, but as far as I'm concerned?

That's 10/10 Doctor Who.

No comments:

Post a Comment