Real, or not real? Peeta and Katniss aren’t the only ones asking that question as this week’s Doctor Who found a way to step into the Matrix, only it was someone else’s simulation. And just like that, we not only meet what’s probably this season’s Big Bad, but also get the “Veritas” (a.k.a. truth) about who’s in the vault. Non-spoiler alert, as I’ve been discussing for a few weeks now, it’s Missy. (Sigh.) But let’s take a minute from my disappointment that it’s not Jenny, or Bill’s mum, and dive into this complete mind-bender of an episode. Allonsy!
The Doctor is still blind, and so he’s back to the sonic sunglasses! But our Gallifreyan Matt Murdock is still not 100 percent up to full strength as evidenced by the fact that he doesn’t realize the Pope is standing right in front of him as he stands in front of his pretty dark lecture hall (not that he’d notice). Luckily, Nardole is a wingman for the ages and helps narrate many things the Doctor might miss otherwise.
The Vatican entourage is here because there’s a text called the “Veritas” and it’s resulted in multiple deaths — the people who’ve read it have gone mad and killed themselves. Before things get extra Dan Brown-y, the Doctor and Nardole, and the Pope and his cadre of Catholic priests, take a pit stop at Bill’s foster mum’s place and interrupt her date with Penny, who promptly runs off. (Bill deserves better, and not just because of this.) The Doctor instructs Nardole to fill in his latest companion on the situation, except for the fact that he’s blind, because it would make her worry about him, and she should be worrying about herself on their adventures. Aww.
At the Vatican, Cardinal Angelo takes them into a library of forbidden and heretical texts, which is guarded by a painting of Pope Benedict IX, who the Doctor jokes was a woman. If he’s not thinking of Pope Joan, then this would make her the second female Pope, but I digress. Inside, the layout is as confusing as the Dewey Decimal System, made only more confusing by a white portal that appears on a wall. Angelo goes to investigate and is pulled in by an alien hand. Not that the Doctor, Bill, and Nardole realize he’s missing. They’ve made their way to a cage containing the translation of the Veritas. Only one of the last surviving translators is there. He jumps out, carrying a gun, and runs off into the darkness… and kills himself.
But that doesn’t stop the Doctor from sending Bill and Nardole after him. They figure he’s trying to get rid of them, but go anyway, giving them a good chance to bond as Nardole insists on Bill walking behind him so he can protect her. He tells her he’s the only one officially allowed to kick the Doctor’s “arse” if needed, and he’ll do the same to her if she endangers her safety. (Aww.) We also get this gem of an exchange:
BILL: “Are you secretly a badass?”
NARDOLE: “Nothing secret about it, Babydoll.”
The white portal appears, and both of them walk toward it. Once inside, they’re in a chamber with multiple portals, each of which leads to a different place, like the Pentagon, or CERN. (Coincidentally, where one of Dan Brown’s books is briefly set.) Here they meet a bunch of physicists who’ve read the Veritas (it was emailed to them via a laptop in the cage) and are now going to blow themselves up. They make Nardole and Bill guess random numbers, they keep saying the same ones… along with everyone else in the room.
Both companions beat a hasty getaway before they can die, returning to that white chamber. Only now there are blood drops on the floor leading to one specific portal. Instead of following it, Bill and Nardole figure out that each of the worlds in the portals is a holographic projection. But what Nardole can’t work out is how they got into this video game-esque simulation. He’s the one who set the controls on the TARDIS. Hence he decides to go to the center of this circular room, where it’s all dark. Only upon doing so, he realizes he’s part of the simulation as well! (Told you it was a mind bender.)
Distraught upon Nardole’s apparent “demise,” Bill enters the portal where the blood drops lead, suspecting it’s where the Doctor is. She’s right. She steps into the White House to find that the president has killed himself. Presumably, because he too read Veritas. The Doctor informs her that the text that has led to all this destruction tells the story of an evil demon that wanted to conquer the world, and so runs simulations to practice doing it. If you fail the shadow test (reciting a string of random numbers), you are part of the simulation. The people who realize it tend to rebel, killing themselves to escape it. Bill realizes both she and Nardole failed… As she begs him to help her, she is deleted from the game. Only the Doctor can’t see it…
Speaking of the Time Lord, while both Nardole and Bill were away, the Doctor hooked himself up to a Gallifreyan device that takes some energy from a future regeneration and gives him the ability to temporarily see. Only that plan gets ruined when dead versions of the dead translators, and Angelo himself, appear and try to take the Veritas away from him. The Doctor distracts them and runs away with the laptop the translation is on. But as he reads the words, “A Test of Shadows.” Just then, his eyesight starts to fade…
Back in the “present” with Bill having gone, the Doctor is left to face the alien, who is currently disguised as dead Angelo, running the simulation himself. It points out he’s not real. He argues otherwise. “You don’t have to be real to be the Doctor. You just have to try.” He also points out something the alien didn’t realize: the Doctor is hooked up to his sonic sunglasses, so his memories are stored on it. And just like that, he emails himself the files, proving just what a game changer that invention continues to be.
Now in reality again we see the Doctor act on this information. He calls Bill and tells her Penny is not out of her league and that she should go on a date with her. What he doesn’t tell her is that things are going to get very busy. He then turns to Missy, who we discover is in the vault because “a long time ago” after his epically long night on Darillium with River Song, sniffle, the Doctor was unable to kill her. She’d been captured by this order of monks, who required another member of the same species to kill her. Unfortunately, they didn’t realize she was the Doctor’s friend. So instead, she was zapped to sleep, and the Doctor put her in the vault, having vowed to look after her for 1000 years. We also see how Nardole and the Doctor became time-and-space-travel companions as River sent him after the Doctor with her diary.
This episode brings up a few key things, first of which is whether the Doctor’s current blindness will trigger his regeneration—or if he’ll regenerate at all. (Though we know that’s not an option.) We see the Doctor using a device that might affect his future self. I wonder if we’ll see Chris Chibnall, who’ll be taking over next, factor this into his writing of the Doctor. Also, if we’ll have a future incarnation who might be blind thanks to the Doctor’s meddling. Knowing the show, probably not… [UPDATE: A commenter pointed out that the Doctor’s use of the device was actually during the simulation, so no harm would come to future Doctors, and his next regeneration will go on unimpeded. However, I think it’s something to note that this Doctor is willing to sacrifice an aspect of his future to save the day now. This could be something the alien might factor in, or might become something that happens for real later on this season.]
However, as we’ve been seeing so far, being blind doesn’t impede the Doctor as much as it could, though this would be a catastrophically terrible time for him to meet the Weeping Angels. (Side note: I’m a little surprised Moffat hasn’t brought his signature villain out to play for one last time before his tenure ends.)
We also see the Doctor and Bill’s bond continue to be more parental. I know a few people (me included) have been theorizing that Bill could be the Doctor’s daughter, or at the very least related, and seeing how he stressed that Penny is not out of her league (I would argue it’s the other way around) I’m hoping it’s true. There’s something heartwarming about seeing him encourage her while her foster mother hasn’t quite realized that her adopted daughter is a lesbian. There’s also the fact that he doesn’t want her to know he’s blind. And while I do think Nardole is right about him not admitting it because it would make the whole thing real, I do think a part of it is also the Doctor not wanting to make Bill worry. There’s a bit of an affection and consideration here that we haven’t seen as much with previous companions. Though the Doctor’s never been injured this severely.
Also a treat this episode was Nardole and Bill’s friendship, which is really coming along. I could have easily watched outtakes of them traveling to each of the portals and getting into shenanigans. It’s both a testament to the writing this season, and to Pearl Mackie’s ability to sell every relationship she forms on the show.
As for Missy being inside the vault, as disappointing as that reveal is, it will be interesting to see both Missy and the Doctor have to fight on the same side for once. Though I’m actually quite excited to see what Bill will make of her and vice versa. Especially since we haven’t seen Bill get to interact with a villain that can actually talk back and has a pre-existing relationship with the Doctor.
But then there’s the simulation itself, which is really the first time we’ve seen this kind of thing happen to the Doctor. Sure, there have been moments where he’s been impacted by sleep dust, but a lot of his adventures do tend to take place in the current reality. That’s what makes a villain like the one he’s up against such a fascinating foe. Can we trust what we’ll be seeing in future episodes? How will we know if it’s a simulation or not? Maybe it’s the alien testing out how the Doctor fares against different problems? This is the first of three parts, so we may actually get answers to these questions, while also getting a chance to see what the next step in this alien’s plan is. Next week takes us to a pyramid in the middle of a civil war, with the Doctor finally telling Bill about his recent visual impairment. Makes me wish it’s next week already.