Our first episode of the three part installment at the heart of this season of Doctor Who is a bizarre fake out.
This week is the first of three episodes which Moffat and co are informally calling “The Monks Trilogy”. Several outlets have referred to this and the next two episodes as a “loose three parter” but as far as I could judge, this episode sure wasn’t a stand alone.
Bill: I want to know what’s real and what isn’t real.
The Doctor: Don’t we all?
Let’s get the first thing out of the way. It’s Missy in the vault. No cute tricks, no sudden twists, and no fake outs, unless you could the fact that they released the clip on Friday from the prologue to make it seem as if Missy was turning up somewhere that wasn’t the Vault. (The fact that the Doctor clearly had his eyesight in the clip was confusing–until we learn this is actually a scene set “a long time ago” aka 75 years ago.)
We cut back and forth between tonight’s adventure and the events of “long ago”, but in the end it boils down to what we all guessed: Missy is in the Vault. The Doctor was asked to execute her and then guard her body for 1000 years. But between being too tender hearted to kill his best friend, and the disapproval communicated from the late River Song via Nardole, it was all too much for him. So he futzed with the device so it would only stun, and then pointed out the treaty said he agreed to guard her body for 1000 years–nothing about it being alive or dead. In one fell swoop, the entire vault puzzle, including how Nardole got into the Doctor’s service, cleared up. He even brought River Song’s diary!
Bill: Are you secretly a badass?
Nardole: Nothing secret about it, babydoll.
Now that our first mystery’s solved, let’s get to the one that’s ostensibly this week’s plot. There are two sets of monks involved–one from the Vatican and one from Someplace Else, and both are involved with this Veritas text that’s making everyone who reads it commit suicide. (I was sorry they didn’t namecheck The Name Of The Rose.) The first set of monks–human–arrives, rather inconveniently along with their Pope, in Bill’s bedroom while she’s in the middle of her first date with a nice girl called Penny. (Point of order: is Moira supposed to be thick, or is Bill supposed to be closeted to her foster mum? Discuss.) The second set of monks–blue and decrepit–arrives through a series of doors, that turn out to lead to many places around the world–the Vatican, the Pentagon, The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), the Oval Office, etc.
So what is the Veritas text that the first Monk Set is asking him to read, and how is the Doctor going to do this while blind? The sonic sunglasses are now back, and are functioning like a low rent Star Trek VISOR. (It’s ok, Nardole name checks Star Trek this week too.) But they’re not actually useful for the Doctor to know what’s happening in front of him–just enough that he can fake it around the Pope and Bill–as long as Nardole continues to state the things happening right in front of them. There’s a whole bizarre rigamarole where he tries to borrow a cup of eyesight from his future self, but it doesn’t really work. (Besides it feels like a cheat.) Meanwhile, someone downloaded a translation and stuck it on a laptop to email out to people, causing my watching companion, Miss Isobel, to inquire why the Doctor didn’t just use the accessibility features and have the laptop read it to him. Seriously though.
Bill: Do NOT put the Pope in my bedroom.
Thankfully, the Doctor is not a complete moron, and by hour’s end, he has hit upon just that solution with a pair of headphones. But while he was discovering 21st century modern conveniences that make the lives of those with disability remarkably easier, Bill and Nardole have seen the whole of CERN commit suicide over the contents of the Veritas. The president of the United States (who has moved back to being a white guy without being recognizably Trump) has offed himself as well. Even Nardole has committed suicide–but unlike everyone else, he did not do so with guns or pills, but by discovering the monks are not traveling through a series of doors–each of those spaces is a projection. All he does is put his hand on the wrong side of the projector to see what happens–and in doing so, discovers he is merely a computer program, and vanishes in a cloud of pixels.
Speaking of computer simulations! You don’t even have to take the red pill to have put this all together–Bill, the Doctor, the Pope, the President, CERN–they’re all in the Matrix. But not as their own consciousnesses beamed into avatars. This entire reality is a simulated computer program. The blue decrepit monks are running it in preparation for their coming invasion of Earth (conveniently in next week’s episode), in order to account for all variables. Somewhere outside of it, the real Doctor is still blind, Nardole is still butlering, Missy is in her Vault and Bill hasn’t gone on that date with Penny yet. What the monks did not foresee is that inside their program, someone got wise, and wrote the Veritas as a warning.
Missy: “Knock yourself out. Actually, do that. Knock yourself right out.”
Those people aren’t committing suicide–they’re escaping the program. Before the Matrix Doctor escapes, he emails from the sonic sunglasses in the program to the ones the real Doctor is wearing, as a warning. Not that the real world Doctor knows what the blue monks are, or how they plan to attack. He just knows something very bad is coming soon, and here he is, blind as a bat, with Missy trapped in the Vault, and no idea what will need to be done.
If you want to talk about “episode extremis”, this is certainly one of the most reality bending episodes the show has ever attempted. As a stand alone, it does not work. In fact, I can see many viewers hating this episode (which will be a first for this season), since it’s all one long set up, with no payout…except maybe the Doctor calling Bill and telling her to go on that date with Penny. But I’m not sure if Moffat wanted it to work as a single hour or not. Perhaps he did. If so, he failed. Personally, like with all the “first part” episodes on Doctor Who, I’m withholding judgement until I see more.
Next Week: The Pyramid At The End of The world begins the Blue Monks’ invasion.