How do you fit the pope into a TARDIS? Take off his hat.
Following his mild case of blindness, the Doctor seeks counsel from the vault. Or, more accurately, the one inside the vault – his frenemy, Missy! We learn how she came to be in the vault and why the Doctor must guard it. Or at least parts of it. My spidey-sense tells me there’s still more to discover about the vault’s inhabitant(s).
Scenes of the Doctor on solo missions that expand the Whoniverse are always fun. We usually see the Doctor with a human companion to impress and/or protect. When he’s alone, it’s interesting to see the difference in how he carries himself. Missy is a little more subdued than usual, understandably what with the whole execution thing. But Gomez still gets some good lines and we’re bound to see her back on her barmy streak before long.
The scene between Missy and the Doctor feels like the natural outcome of their relationship. We’ve seen the Doctor offering to take on the burden of looking after the Master before. The Missy incarnation, in particular, has been so good at stringing the Twelfth Doctor along that convincing him to save her was inevitable. Though I hate it when the Doctor escapes by essentially citing his CV.
Suddenly, the Doctor’s reminiscing is interrupted by an email. Outside of office hours too, bloody students! Bill, Nardole and the Doctor have been recruited by the Pope to investigate a forbidden text in the Vatican library. The Veritas is a recently-translated heretical work that drives anyone who reads it to suicide. Which, of course, means we’re going to encounter some grizzly deaths. Strap yourselves in, kids. This gon’ get dark.
Exploring the Vatican library makes up the bulk of the episode with Bill and Nardole forced to fend for themselves. Their interactions are surprisingly fun even if the two couldn’t exactly be called friends. Nardole seems to tolerate Bill, defending her willingly but unenthusiastically. It’s new to see TARDIS cohabitants act like mere colleagues. Their mini-adventures through the portals were fun and I wish we had time for a few more. We’ll ignore the fact that the Virtual-Doctor didn’t witness these events so shouldn’t have been able to e-mail them out.
Let’s Talk About Sects!
Meanwhile, the Doctor is trying to wrap his bouffant’d noodle around the Veritas, using eyesight borrowed from his future (sorry, Kris Marshall (maybe)). Before he can get to work, however, he’s set upon by the murderous monks. They steal the Veritas but the Doctor absconds with a laptop used to e-mail the translation out. Which still has a copy.
Using the Vatican as a setting was a great way to harken back to River Song’s introduction. While no Alex Kingston cameo is forthcoming, her presence is felt throughout. My love for Italian accents notwithstanding, Cardinal Angelo was killed off far too early. It would have been nice to see him try to reconcile the unreality of the simulation with his faith. I liked the Pope’s appearance but mainly because of the perfectly-executed gag where he shows up in Bill’s bedroom while she’s trying to pull.
The Monks are decent enough monsters. But they come from the same school of tall, long-fingered aliens as the Silence, Whisper Men and Veil. Not a bad look, by any means, and the rotting face really sells it. It just seems like they could have been given more personality. Luckily, the next two stories will give them plenty of time for sofa-hiding-behind chills.
As I said before, this premise invites a lot of dark moments. The translator shooting himself offscreen wasn’t gory but the comic timing put a grim twist on it. Ditto for the suicidally-depressed CERN scientists somehow having access to the Acme Corporation’s dynamite backstock. And then there’s the definitely-not-blonde US President, dead in his office…moving swiftly on…
In almost any other context, the “and it was all a dream” ending would be a cop-out. But I think the show just about gets away with it thanks to the way it’s revealed. I can understand why some might find it disappointing, especially since it undoes a lot of the things I liked in this episode. But once I saw the Monks show up in the trailer for next week’s episode, I appreciated the ending more.
Taken on its own, this is a spooky runaround with a shadowy monster, a big ol’ mystery and a somewhat rushed resolution. But taken as the opening gambit to a three-part epic, it’s a clever way to pull off the dreaded “part one”. The digi-Doctor may have lost this week but he’s primed his real-world counterpart for the coming battle. While Missy’s appearance wasn’t as directly integrated into the plot, it keeps the vault mystery fresh for the future.