When a Legendary Fear Is True, Doctor Who: Extremis, Reviews, 22/05/2017

As a story, “Extremis” is kind of old hat for Steven Moffat, as my senior colleague in Doctor Who criticism Phil Sandifer has said. Yes, there’s metafiction piled on deep in this episode. But that’s not what I want to talk about right now.

I want to talk about a demon. I want to talk about the most famous demon in the history of Western philosophy. That demon inspired “Extremis.” So

The Doctor decides that he will not give up in the face of his unreality,
his existence as a simulation of whatever the real thing would be. The
most accurate simulation would never give up anyway. That's what
"extremis" means in this story. That your virtue only shows itself in
moments of genuine extremity, in times of great risk and danger.
The refusal to meet your illusory nature with despair is, from an
existential perspective, the bravest thing you can do.

naturally. The most philosophically intriguing part of this story is its central conceit. The evil demon is true. It’s usually one of the first problems that incoming university philosophy students learn. It consumes you when you first hear it – its imagery and implications are so powerful.

The power of that question – What if our entire reality is unreal? An illusion? – is immense. It can be a cornerstone of madness.

The moments of doubt that your existence matters at all can manifest as a dissociation, an all-too-common feeling of emptiness. What does it even mean to say that your existence is unreal?

Live the Revolution

In pop-cultural terms, it’s about living in a simulation. The Matrix is the obvious touchstone. Even when I was first studying René Descartes’ Meditations in my first ever philosophy class, my teacher Jim Bradley compared his evil demon problem to The Matrix. The two scenarios aren’t quite the same, though. But “Extremis” blends them both with a powerful ethical lesson.

The Matrix is a simulation of reality. So is the projected world we uncover in “Extremis.” The difference is that the world of The Matrix is a simulation for the people in it, but the people are real. The people of The Matrix are real people – organisms trapped in a simulated reality.

To realize this prompts revolution. You break out of the machine, build yourself a new life in this messy reality, and prepare to dive back in. Though there’s really no reason why you should dive back in, especially given how poorly the sequels went.

But this isn’t what “Extremis” presents us. Keanu still has one thing to fall back on – his physical body. That remains real, even if its nature is hidden from him in the simulated world. No, Steven Moffat is presenting us with something very different here.

A Prestigious Heritage

“Extremis” is based around the meditation on the evil demon. When you read Descartes, this is probably the most affecting thing he ever wrote. It goes something like this.

Philosophy, as a discipline and as a tradition, tends to make a fetish of
the truth. It's unfortunate, because truth is too important a matter to
demand fidelity to it or its apparent implications. Veritas in this story
is supposed to be the proof that your life is meaningless.
Descartes structures his Meditations on First Philosophy as an attempt to isolate some certain truth about existence. His first two (of six) chapters aim to break down our supposed certainties about reality, what we take for granted.

So he brings up the possibility that what we experience may be an illusion. All our perceptions could be based on mistakes or falsify the real nature of the world. So far, so Matrix. But Descartes goes further.

He goes for a world-shattering image. He asks you to imagine that your entire physical body – everything you know even through your proprioception, your material selfhood itself – is an illusion.

As well, imagine that the fundamental rules of your entire universe are illusions too. I’m not just asking you to imagine that 2 + 2 = 5 or 763. I mean, imagine that even number itself makes no actual sense in the true nature of reality.

So if you can imagine it, then it’s possible. It may not be true, and in fact, it probably isn’t true. But it’s possible.

Cleaving Reality

Possible, but not true. We’re still in a realm of imagination here. It’s a powerful imagination that can revolutionize your way of thinking. Yet that’s always what the meditative tradition was for.

I didn’t always know about Descartes’ influences as a writer and a thinker. I had always been taught a story of Descartes that saw him as a transitional figure between medieval and modern ways of thinking. But that transition was in the form of a radical break.

Descartes was most remarkable for uniting mysticism and the new
discipline of scientific investigation, as it was developing in its
infancy. Mystic science didn't really take, unless that's what you
want to call philosophy.
I learned about Descartes as the inventor of modernity, as much as modernity can be said to have been invented by one man. His thought experiment in The Meditations was, according to the philosophy curriculum I experienced as a young man, the beginning of a distinctly modern idea – the separation of human rationality from nature.

We could call the reality of nature into doubt – even to the fundamental level of mathematical truths. But what we’re never able to doubt is the ongoing action of our own self-conscious minds. Whenever we’re thinking about ourselves, our own act of thinking, we know that this thinking is real.

So reality becomes separate from our minds. Our minds are always certain, are able to justify their own existence. Nature and material reality, on the other hand, is always subject to doubt. Potentially so, anyway. So human thought becomes more real than the world that produces it. At least, that’s how you understand it. Humanity develops one more sophisticated reason to tear our planet indiscriminately to pieces.

How you think that reality is unreal depends on a chilling proposition. What if some omnipowerful evil demon is creating the entire field of reality in which you exist as an illusion, including your body and history?

When Thought Meets Mysticism

But reality’s unreality, and the evil demon that causes it, isn’t supposed to be a terrifying proposition. It was originally, and in Descartes’ hands, supposed to be a foundation for justifying the existence of the divine.

You see, Descartes wasn’t the first one to develop the thought experiment of the evil demon and the unreality of reality. Descartes was the first to develop it in a scientific context, since he was a scientists first and foremost – a mathematician, geometer, and theorist of optics, as well as a philosopher.

In many ways, the monks are an embodiment of living death, the
emptiness of simulated existence. Even their appearance is as the
living dead.
In that sense, Descartes is the beginning of Western modernity. When you’re taught Descartes, he’s presented as the progenitor of modern philosophy. That’s a bit of a stretch when you know the real history. Medieval history.

Descartes didn’t exist in a vacuum. He grew up in a medieval cultural milieu. It’s a world that, in many ways, is very different from our own, obviously. Foremost among medieval European thought was the primacy of religion.

Investigating the world was seen as reading God’s writing and nature in reality itself. The early scientific innovators like Roger Bacon thought they were up to the same thing, developing experimental methods to find different ways of investigating reality, because to know nature is to know the mind of God.

Meditation was one technique to bring a person closer to God as well, to bring them into contact with divinity. The solution to Descartes’ problem was that God – the only source of our concepts of infinity and divinity themselves – guaranteed the reality of reality.

Because we could conceive of God, we couldn’t do it under our own power. Descartes argues this by relying on a medieval rule of metaphysical logic that nothing more perfect – like the concepts of perfection in divinity – could be developed by a less-than-perfect being. They had to come from God, because human being isn’t adequate to generating them.

The thought experiment of the evil demon leading to a communion with God in thought didn’t come from Descartes, though. It was developed by Teresa of Avila, a Jesuit nun who wrote meditative texts.

Because as far as even obvious simulations like Super Mario are
concerned, from their own perspectives, they're as real as Bob Hoskins.
Meditations were popular guides for ordinary people to explore mystical elements of their worlds, and their own minds, through inward contemplation. Being such a heavily Christian culture, the meditative text was a guide to uncovering God in your own thoughts and existence.

Descartes unified that mysticism with a scientific mind-set. That’s why we call him a modern thinker. But we could also call him a medieval man equally accurately.

The Demons Are Real

But I’m not thinking only about Descartes, Teresa, and the Wachowski Sisters. I’m talking about Doctor Who. Particularly the chilling scenario of “Extremis.” Literally, it’s the most extreme place you could take the evil demon problem.

It’s simple, really. The demon is real. He does control your entire reality, having created it as a simulation. Not only are your surroundings illusory, a program running in a massively powerful computer – you are too.

Teresa and Descartes could always rely on the act of meditation itself as the place from which the existence of reality could be justified as a mystic experience. Whether through communion or argument, it didn’t matter. The point was that the evil demon’s trickery could be overcome.

Not so for the Doctor, Bill, and Nardole in this episode. They themselves are also simulations. The horror of their existence is in realizing it. For them, the revolution against the terror of their situations seems to justify the mass suicides we see throughout the episode.

As the Doctor says, if Super Mario realized that he was a character in a video game, he’d delete himself from the whole program so he wouldn’t have to die anymore.

I suppose I should say something about the Master, seeing as "Extremis"
finally reveals that she really is the mysterious creature in the vault.
In a way, this is a return to one of the most sentimental lines in
Russell T Davies' Doctor Who, when the Doctor offers to keep the
Master a prisoner and take care of him, raise him to be a better
person. Faced with this imposition on his life, John Simm's
Master apparently shot himself to escape. Here, Michelle Gomez
answers that quandary: She embraces the possibility of that
change in character as a chance to save her life. The Doctor doesn't
impose that choice, as Tennant's did. He asks, and she says yes.
The Doctor’s solution is brilliant, in its way. Because there is still a material reality that exists. The reality of the actual Earth that the evil alien monks are simulating to aid their invasion. The Doctor of “Extremis” may not be real. But he has a better idea for revolution than simply opting out of the program.

It’s an act of outreach to himself. To speak to himself not by turning inward, as in a meditation, but by turning outward. He communicates to the material Doctor on Earth, as the simulated Doctor from inside the monks’ simulators. A mysticism of materiality.

The Doctor's conclusion about the illusory nature of his own existence in "Extremis" is different than pretty much everyone else in the story. Everyone who reads the Veritas dies by their own hand, having understood that their existence is merely simulated. The Doctor sees the crime and the terror of this idea and fights against that resignation.

To resign is to admit your powerlessness. To admit powerlessness is to forgo power. Not only is his existence illusory, but even the illusion is based on a crime – a simulation as an intelligence exercise before conquest and destruction. The Doctor knows that the response to evil is never to give in to it, but to fight in whatever way you can.

In the battle for justice and good, life is justified. Even a life that was never real.
• • •
My reviews so far of Peter Capaldi's last full season of Doctor Who.
Knock Knock
Thin Ice
The Pilot / The Girl With the Star in Her Eye


  1. This presumes that a simulated mind can't be a real person. It's not at all obvious to me that we should think of a simulated mind as unreal.

  2. I like your conclusions, although I struggle a little to reconcile them with the episode itself, because in the simulation as presented in the episode, suicide is an act of resistance, as it spoils the simulation, depriving the evil demon of the information that was the entire point of creating the simulation in the first place. If violence is the last resort of those who have been denied other kinds of power (social, political), violence against the self is the last resort of those, who cannot direct it against the oppressor. Which the people in the simulation cannot do. The Doctor is privileged in that situation, because he possesses superior technology, which allows him to not only deny the oppressors the information they’re after, but to transmit useful information to someone who can stand up to them.

    So the challenge for me is to find a way to read the Doctor’s actions that would provide us with a better message than “have a really good smartphone”. I suppose, if we de-emphasized suicide, it could have something to do with reaching out to others, transmitting and sharing information. That’s what the Doctor does and that’s what Veritas does as well, which leads the people to undertake collective action.