Everyone who has ever read the Veritas has been found dead. In a library at the heart of the Vatican, the Pope urges the Doctor to read the ancient text.
That’ll end well.
Ah, Moffat’s back at the writing helm this week, so it was time for some timey-wimey weirdness. Structurally, this danced all over the place; explaining the oath, who’s in the vault, playing out a new storyline then re-setting the story in an elaborate set-up for next week. The reading cage at the Vatican had a seatbelt; I rather thought that the sofa needed one too. Could have got whiplash from all those flashbacks and cross-cuts.
There is no possible way to talk about this episode without spoilers, but they are massive ones, so if you haven’t seen it yet, turn back now!
There were a few strands to the story: the execution (flashback), talking to the vault (real present), and investigating the Veritas text (simulation that sort of happened except it didn’t really but it was real enough for the people in it and now I’ve gone a bit cross-eyed). It was Dan Brown meets The Matrix, with this series’ now trademark humour. Most of it felt pretty bleak.
“The destruction of a Time Lord is a particular honour.”
There is a planet dedicated to execution! And they have ways of killing any life form in the universe — even Time Lords. But there are rules — only another Time Lord can administer the punishment. And with that, MISSY KLAXON! Hurrah. Her conversation reveals a few details — she has been chatting with the Daleks, and she has heard that he had retired to a life of domestic bliss on Darillium. This gives us our time-stamp for the flashbacks; this takes place shortly after his extended ‘date’ with River. Missy takes one hard look at him and offers condolences. Missy has always been an interesting combination of friend and foe, and this was the first reference to a more subdued Missy, who isn’t chewing the scenery, and instead behaves in a sympathetic way. “Please. I’ll do anything. Just let me live.”
Names are important for the Doctor. He chose his for a reason. Being called Executioner is a problem, whether he admits it to himself or not. He looks pained, but still like he intends to carry out the sentence, until some divine intervention appears in the shape of Nardole, clutching River’s diary. (He worked for her first, remember.)
“‘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.’ Your missus wouldn’t approve. I have full permission to kick your arse.”
It takes Nardole (and River) to remind the Doctor of who he is. His identity is based on a promise he made to himself, after all. That’s not to say he won’t do things that clash with this identity; but he can dissassociate himself from those actions, as he did with John Hurt’s incarnation. An Executioner is the opposite of a Doctor. It is the antothesis of his promise, and therefore this becomes an impossible job for him.
And Missy wants to be good, apparently. “Teach me how”, she pleads. “I am your friend.” He zaps her anyway, swearing “On my oath, I will guard this body for a thousand years.” But he has used slippery lawyer language. He will imprison her for a thousand years, but not kill her. Jailer is not exactly aligned with ‘Doctor’ either, but it’s better than Executioner. As a nice extra touch, he scares off all of the locals by essentially getting them to Google how many times he has killed people in their Fatality Index, on their iWatches. The hits come in, and they leg it. It’s not part of his identity, but he’ll use it to make a point when necessary.
So, hooray - it was Missy in the vault, and the Doctor’s oath to guard the vault is explained. And for all the snark the Doctor throws at Nardole, he keeps him around — because he connects him to River? Or because it’s useful to have someone around who is prepared (and authorised) to kick his arse?
When the show ‘does funny’, it does it well. The bit with the Pope suddenly bursting out of Bill’s bedroom just as she’s assuring Penny that there is nothing to feel guilty about was genius. Bill’s observation that at least one person had read the Veritas document and survived, followed by a gunshot, was also darkly hilarious. It was such a bleak episode that these little moments were really needed.
I said above that there were shades of Dan Brown in this strand of the story: we have a mysterious text from a Christian sect, and a hidden message or code that will totally change the world, hidden in the depths of the Vatican’s most secret library: The Hereticum. The text reveals such a powerful secret that it causes mass suicide. Only one man can decode it and possibly save the day! Tonight, the role of Robert Langdon will be played by Peter Capaldi. Was the reference to Cern a deliberate reference to Angels and Demons? Because when the question arose of what connects a secret text at the Vatican and physics, my first thoughts were Galileo! The Illuminati! “Particle physicists and priests. What could scare them both?” Dark matter! No, pipe down.
Nardole does his usual job of undermining the faux-grandiosity of the Doctor and the Cardinal, but he also has another important job: cover for the Doctor when people might notice that he’s blind, with wholly unconvincing, high-pitched ‘Oh look!’ comments, naturally. He gets to scold both the Doctor and Bill this week as well. “Are you secretly a badass?” “Nothing secret about it, babydoll.” Whimpers aside, hell yes. He also shows how smart he is, figuring out what’s going on in the Projection Room — which felt like the woods in C. S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew, but with egg-shaped portals in the walls, rather than little pools of water.
“I need to know what’s real and what isn’t real.”
The truth presented in the aptly-named Veritas book was just that: what you think is real is just a projection. Those who read and understand, using the Shadow Test to prove it, are not just killing themselves out of despair, they are escaping. They are rebelling. It is a darker truth than in The Matrix, as they don’t wake up elsewhere and live a ‘true’ life; instead, that simulated version ceases to exist. It was a really depressing truth. “Those pretend people you shoot at in computer games. Now you know. They feel it. We feel it.”
It is a trial run, for a wider conquest. The monsters of the week (finally not human — hooray!) were creepy and corpse-like, and you’d think that with such powers over simulated reality, they’d have given themselves really aspirational avatars rather than such grotesque appearances. For a moment, with Bill and Nardole gone, in the White House, next to the presumably still-warm body of the President, the Doctor loses hope. But then he remembers Missy’s last words, and he starts to believe again. All can be saved, via email.
Talking to the Vault
It’s interesting to know that he’s happy for Missy to know that he is blind, but not Bill. Yes, this is partly about protection — he’s protecting himself from admitting it’s true, and protecting Bill from guilt — but it also suggests that in some ways, he trusts Missy more than Bill.
And now, having received the email from his simulated self, he needs her help. Let her out! Let her out! What could possibly go wrong?
A few final thoughts:
Pope Benedict IX being female was a nice joke, making reference to the story of Pope Joan, but it also played into the reference to Ganymede Systems from last week. Are these references hinting that the next Doctor will be a woman? Or are the writers just trolling us with clues to make us think that?
Bill’s sexuality is something she keeps secret from her scary foster-mother. Once again, she strikes an interesting balance between confidence and vulnerability.
The Doctor’s sunglasses were basically like Geordi’s visor from Star Trek, right? And the reference to the Holodeck just solidified that… Lots of little treats for the sci-fi lovers.
His special gadget borrows from his future to grant him sight now; it’s a fairly short-term solution, to be honest. It will be interesting to see if the repercussions of this moment are ever played out.
The Doctor’s guilt is almost tangible, so much so that he has a standing offer from the Vatican for confession. For much of the episode, it seems like this is related to the Execution thread of the story. But that is not so convincing once we know that Missy survived. Is his guilt related to imprisoning her? Or is it just the cumulative effect of a long life that has seen so much loss? It’s not the first time we have been reminded of the state of the Doctor’s soul, after all.
The poor guy might need some absolution.
Next time. The Corpsey Cardinal Monk things are attacking, for realsies this time. Unless the show goes full Inception on us.