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Elizabeth Sandifer

Elizabeth Sandifer created Eruditorum Press. She’s not really sure why she did that, and she apologizes for the inconvenience. She currently writes Last War in Albion, a history of the magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. She used to write TARDIS Eruditorum, a history of Britain told through the lens of a ropey sci-fi series. She also wrote Neoreaction a Basilisk, writes comics these days, and has ADHD so will probably just randomly write some other shit sooner or later. Support Elizabeth on Patreon.


  1. David Anderson
    May 27, 2019 @ 9:16 am

    On UK television this was going out at the same time as the Agents of SHIELD simulationist arc. Which, after three seasons of not being sure what it was there for, managed to have something interesting to say using the idea. It didn’t stick the landing quite, but the monks arc in Doctor Who isn’t in a position to feel superior there.


  2. FezofRassilon
    May 27, 2019 @ 10:00 am

    this is an excellent analysis, but I think you’ve focused too much on the tech billionaire side (although wow, DW really hasn’t covered that since 2008?) rather than on CERN, who are more explicitly linked to Catholicism in that they both want to understand the birth of the universe. Both are authorities of different sorts, as is the Oval Office of act three. you’re right that it is a whistle stop tour and doesn’t delve into them enough- but my understanding is that the world Moffat is trying to paint is that this is a world that is inherently doomed and flawed and it seems like everyone in a position of authority has given up on it.

    I think Moffat probably knows he doesn’t have the right tools to write a programme that fixes our world, so this is his solution. He writes an episode that knows the Doctor is fictional and acknowledges that all a fictional character can do to affect the real world is to inspire the audience to change. Hence the fictional Doctor, from behind the screen, inspires the real Doctor to action by making him watch an episode of Doctor Who. it’s quite a shallow hope, but I’m not sure what else a writer can do other than hope what you write helps people.


    • TomeDeaf
      May 27, 2019 @ 11:49 am

      I agree with all of this.


    • FezofRassilon
      May 27, 2019 @ 12:02 pm

      In retrospect I may have nicked a lot of this analysis from your review of Extremis from two years ago. sorry.


  3. FezofRassilon
    May 27, 2019 @ 10:07 am

    As for why tech billionaires are so preoccupied with simulationism, I imagine it’s because it’s a crisis that positions themselves as the people most capable of combatting it, making them the most important people in the world and. Alidating their choices. It also allows them to feel like an underdog despite being obscenely rich, and, if this world isn’t real, all the damage they’ve done to it is null and void and their guilt is assuaged.


    • Cat Mara
      May 27, 2019 @ 11:53 am

      Plus, if we are in a simulation, there’s a chance we can break out of it and in that way conquer death. Immortality without all that pesky selflessness required by religious faith– what’s not to like? 🙄


    • taiey
      May 28, 2019 @ 1:57 am

      I think tech people think about simulationism because they spend a lot of time thinking about computers and what they can do.


      • David B
        May 31, 2019 @ 1:47 am

        Are you suggesting that tech billionaires are trapped in a simulation of the real world? 😉


  4. Vadron
    May 27, 2019 @ 10:55 am

    If one wants to steelman the pronouncement that the Shadow People aren’t “real,” my take would be that it’s not their computeryness per se that makes them “unreal”, but the fact that they are slightly sketchy copies of already-existing people.


    • Przemek
      May 31, 2019 @ 10:38 am

      Are they slightly sketchy? The copy of the Doctor seemed Doctor-ish enough.


      • Vadron
        May 31, 2019 @ 1:01 pm

        No matter how you slice it, the “cannot think of random numbers on their own without referring to a simulation-wide subroutine shared by all the Shadow-People” bit means that the Shadow-People’s mental processes aren’t quite the same as real-world people’s.

        (If one tries to make sense of it, then combined with the Shadow Doctor’s description of his kind as “video game people”, the only reasonable conclusion is that they are indeed more like video game characters, programmed individually with behavior matching their originals, rather than the “simulated down to the quarks making up their neurons” you’d expect in the sort of simulation that simulation-theorists have cause to think plausible.)


  5. FezofRassilon
    May 27, 2019 @ 12:13 pm

    Here’s a hot take: Extremis is the Steven Moffat version of Inferno.


  6. Andrew
    May 27, 2019 @ 1:26 pm

    The bit where the book has all the random numbers you’d think of written down was a weird oversight- the translators would have already seen the numbers before knowing what they meant!!- and they should have just had the Veritas describe the random number test we already saw at CERN. The email thing would probably have landed better if the Doctor had described the program as an “app” or something, we’re well used to every program on our phones being hooked into every other program by this point. The Doctor intimidating the executioner by revealing how many people he’s killed was also something I could have done without

    It’s interesting how borderline-nihilist it’s willing to get. At least in the Matrix the reveal that your everyday work life is a facade comes packaged with the idea that there is room out there for you to escape the facade and become a hero. In this (kids’ show!!) YOU are the facade, this is what you get, so you’d better do what good you can within those confines. That’s pretty gloomy, and feels kind of conservative, compared to something like The Beast Below. Moffat starting his era by saying “your world is built on pain but a better life for everyone is possible” and ending it by saying “the only escape from neoliberal capitalism is death” is maybe another sign that he’s done all he can with the show.


    • TheWrittenTevs
      May 28, 2019 @ 11:49 am

      Tbf to Moffat, the movement from “The world is painful but we can still fix it by sticking together” to “The future is either fascism or death” sounds more to me like Moffat successfully moved with the times from 2010 to 2017 than it does that his original ideology ran out of steam.


      • Brian B.
        May 28, 2019 @ 10:20 pm

        I thought he was intimidating the executioner by how spectacularly often he has died — as hundreds of deaths he hasn’t experienced yet would likely still be in their records.


        • Daniel Tessier
          May 30, 2019 @ 8:04 am

          That’s certainly how I understood it, although I haven’t watched it since broadcast.


        • Przemek
          May 31, 2019 @ 7:21 am

          From the transcript:

          DOCTOR: Do me a favour. The Fatality Index. Look up The Doctor.
          RAFANDO: You have an entry, just like any other sentient being.
          DOCTOR: Under Cause Of Death.
          (Rafando works his wrist computer. It ticks rapidly as it runs through all matching entries.)
          RAFANDO: You do seem to have an impressive record of fatalities credited to you.
          (The ticking keeps going, and speeds up.)
          RAFANDO: A truly remarkable record.
          (The guards retreat.)
          RAFANDO: Where are you going? He’s unarmed! You are unarmed?
          DOCTOR: Always.
          (The wrist computer still hasn’t stopped scrolling through.)

          I think it’s clearly meant to be about all the people the Doctor has killed. Especially given the comment about him being unarmed. “First thing you notice about the Doctor of War, is he’s unarmed. For many it’s also the last”.


          • Sleepyscholar
            May 31, 2019 @ 7:53 am

            I agree, but then why does Rafaldo say ‘You have an entry, just like any other sentient being.’? (Are all sentient beings murderers? And why does the Doctor say ‘Under Cause of Death’?

            It’s a bit of a puzzler. For me, at least.

          • mx_mond
            May 31, 2019 @ 9:24 am

            I assume every sentient being is there because every sentient being dies; and if that being was a cause of death for another being*, they have a “cause of death” section so it’s possible to cross-reference things.

              • which might not necessarily mean that they themselves personally killed that being; in my headcanon, the Doctor’s section also lists all those whom the Doctor led to battle for instance, and who died for the Doctor.

          • Przemek
            May 31, 2019 @ 10:36 am

            That was my reading as well. Nice headcanon!

          • Sleepyscholar
            June 1, 2019 @ 11:45 am

            Yes. Thanks for an explanation which does seem to cover it. I’m still scratching my head a bit, though.

  7. Joel
    May 27, 2019 @ 2:19 pm

    May as well recycle my comment from the Patreon:
    It’s perhaps notable that the “virtue in extremis” speech isn’t just a counterpoint to the fash tendencies of Land and his ilk, but to Roko’s Basilisk itself. While the Basilisk concept – and the simulation in the story itself – are predicated on the idea that you are constantly being watched and should act accordingly or face the consequences, the Virtue In Extremis concept is that you should always act as if you are NOT being watched, and then do what you think is right anyway, regardless of the consequences or lack thereof.


    • Przemek
      May 31, 2019 @ 10:40 am

      Or, alternatively, that you should always act as if you are always being watched by the best possible version of yourself, even when nobody else is watching. Which is basically the same thing.


      • Beatrix Traven
        April 8, 2023 @ 12:47 am

        That’s the Great Commandment of my private religion as of the ’20s (major inlfuences of which include: twelve years of Catholic school, six years living and working in Silicon Valley, a graduate physics degree and the grounding in the fundamental materialist nature of the universe that implies, Iain M. Banks, Kurt Vonnegut, Person of Interest, The Good Place, Jack Graham’s “The Beast of the Epiphany”, El’s conception of the Doctor’s basic morality, numerous beloved people in meat space but my little brother and little sister in particular, and—to be fair—possibly this very comment I’m replying to without any recollection of whether or not I read it before).


  8. Iain Mew
    May 27, 2019 @ 4:57 pm

    Between the scientists killing themselves in this and certain aspects of World Enough and Time I wondered if Moffat had just read the Three Body Problem trilogy before writing for this series


  9. David Anderson
    May 27, 2019 @ 6:54 pm

    A propos of a theme from two weeks ago, while I am sceptical about punching Nazis except in desperation in extremis, milkshakes seem to me an entirely proper form of political expression.


    • Przemek
      May 31, 2019 @ 10:37 am

      What about punching them with a milkshake? Seems like a good compromise.


      • (Not That) Jack
        May 31, 2019 @ 5:27 pm

        Punch them, then drink the milkshake yourself. Don’t waste a damn milkshake.


  10. Przemek
    May 28, 2019 @ 8:17 am

    Excellent essay, as always. One small thing – forgive my confusion, but where was AI mentioned in this episode? Unless you consider simulated people to be AIs, which is fair I guess but I’ve never seen simulated minds described as such in sci-fi.

    I have a soft spot for this episode, if only because after the uneven first half of S10 it felt nice to dive into a Moffat episode with its tight story structure and interesting ideas, even if they don’t quite form a coheren whole. But it’s definitely nowhere near “Listen” or “Heaven Sent” in terms of quality (did they really advertise it as such? Good God…). Its understanding of computers and simulations is slightly off in an embarassing way, like an aging uncle trying to discuss computer games with his 7-year-old nephew, and I’ve never found the idea that our world might be simulated particularly scary – as one of my favourite authors once wrote, “If you’re not sure whether it’s real or just a game, always act as if it’s real”. And yet “Extremis” tries to persuade me that every single person who reads “Veritas” immediately kills themselves. Surely most people would just dismiss the “random numbers” thing as a trick or as a strange but harmless phenomenon?

    It almost feels as if, story-wise, the terrible secret contained inside the book should be something else entirely. Perhaps it should be more akin to the “The Silence have already taken over the world” reveal in S6: the world of “Extremis” is real and it’s run by powerful, malevolent beings who are just using us to further their goals. Because our world actually is like that. Such a reveal would also establish a stronger connection between the tech industry, authoritarianism and horror. But I guess its impact would be lessened because DW has done the “evil aliens secretly influence the world” plot to death.

    I agree about the ugliness of the use of blindness in this episode, which is only exaggerated by the fact that the Doctor is barely affected by it. It feels like a wasted potential… and then “Pyramid” comes along and wastes it even harder. The most interesting thing Moffat does with it is the scene where he uses a gizmo to steal eyesight from his future incarnation. The implications of such a theft are fascinating, especially if he stole from the Thirteenth Doctor (is this why she’s so “blind” to some evils of the world?). It also ties this episode to the anticapitalism of “Oxygen”: the Doctor basically goes into debt here, imposing a huge cost on his future self in return for a small immediate gain. But then of course it turns out none of it was real.

    “it’s a setup that keeps the show from engaging in anything of substance with the Catholic Church, stripping it down to an institution of vague and portentous mystery as opposed to one with a major authoritarian streak that promotes the oppression of women and sexual minorities”

    The authoritarian side of the Catholic Church is alluded to in the form of the Pope ruining Bill’s lesbian date (and the hilarious but also, when taken out of context, pretty creepy image of priests and cardinals gathered around a lesbian’s bed). This gets reinforced in “Pyramid” where the same scene plays out again, only this time with armed soldiers. There’s also the fact that the Vatican is grouped with the Pentagon and CERN as places of power the monks spy on. Granted, it’s not much, but it’s there.


    • Przemek
      May 28, 2019 @ 1:47 pm

      Hm, I guess “Super Mario becoming self-aware” does indeed describe an AI. I don’t think “Extremis” explores the topic of AIs further than that.


    • Dan L
      May 28, 2019 @ 3:24 pm

      “But it’s definitely nowhere near “Listen” or “Heaven Sent” in terms of quality (did they really advertise it as such? Good God…)”

      I think the three stories are connected in Moffat’s head because they are the ones for which he gave himself a storytelling constraint to stretch himself as a writer. “The monster doesn’t exist”, “there’s only the Doctor in it” and now “nobody in the story is real”.

      “And yet “Extremis” tries to persuade me that every single person who reads “Veritas” immediately kills themselves.

      My headcanon is that they don’t independently come to the decision to kill themselves, but that the Veritas contained an explicit call for people to kill themselves so as to ruin the simulation and thwart the evil plans of its creators.

      “(and the hilarious but also, when taken out of context, pretty creepy image of priests and cardinals gathered around a lesbian's bed).”

      Even in context, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Penny thinks Bill has lured her back home to trap her and brainwash her into being straight. I find it hard to believe that was Moffat’s intention, but also hard to believe anyone could write that scene and not realise the implication.


      • Brian B.
        May 28, 2019 @ 10:32 pm

        “You’re in a simulation” isn’t a reason to kill yourself. “You are a simulation being used as a weapon to kill the real you and everyone you love” is, though. That plus social pressure = enough for me to buy the suicides.

        Bill was blatantly horrified to see the pope. Of course Penny wouldn’t think Bill planned it.


        • Przemek
          May 29, 2019 @ 9:02 am

          Your argument about the suicides is good… but I still don’t buy it. This episode seriously underestimates (or rather, ignores for plot reasons) the power of denial. Just look at flat-earthers.


          • Vadron
            May 31, 2019 @ 1:11 pm

            Counter: the Shadow-People’s psychology doesn’t have to be quite as complex and varied as real-world people’s. Indeed, we know it’s not. Or they wouldn’t find themselves all parroting the same numbers when told to think of random numbers.

      • Przemek
        May 29, 2019 @ 9:07 am

        I like that headcanon. Although it reminds me how little about the monks’ simulation makes any semblance of sense. Starting with the fact that if they’re capable of simulating the ENTIRE WORLD in such detail, they shouldn’t need to ask for consent to take over – they must be incredibly powerful already…


    • Elizabeth Sandifer
      May 28, 2019 @ 3:54 pm

      I am inclined to think that simulations of people (as distinct from some sort of direct brain-to-computer transfer) are AIs.


      • Vadron
        May 31, 2019 @ 1:04 pm

        As someone who has thought about these issues more than could possibly be healthy, I agree. Especially as the “Extremis” simulations clearly aren’t a physics simulator with the Shadow-People being simulated from their atoms up, or they wouldn’t have the weird “cannot generate random numbers” traits.


        • Przemek
          June 4, 2019 @ 7:30 am

          You seem very convinced that the single design shortcut we see in Shadow People proves they’re not simulated “from the atoms up”. I don’t see any evidence of that. The simulation seems extremely accurate apart from the random numbers thing.

          I mean, I agree that from a hard sci-fi point of view your argument works. But this is “Doctor Who”. The whole story hinges on the simulated people being as real and as complex as us – it loses a lot of power if the monks are outwitted by a shoddily constructed program instead of by a copy of the Doctor so perfect that it defeats the baddies from inside their own story.


          • Aylwin
            June 8, 2019 @ 4:27 pm

            I think what matters there is just that the simulation is too Doctor-like for the Monks’ own good, Doctor-like enough to do what the Doctor would do, in the essentials, not necessarily in every detail. The “you don’t have to be real to be the Doctor” speech is partly about the Doctor’s actual fictionality, of course, but also about Moffat’s in-universe notion of “the Doctor” as an ideal, a model of behaviour, rather than the concrete person of this bod from Gallifrey who chose that name. An inspirational myth, even to themself.

            From that point of view, I think it actually makes the point better if the simulated Doctor is significantly different from the real one – despite the differences, he can still be the Doctor in the things that count. It’s a notion that’s also implicit in the idea of Clara being kind of another Doctor. And of course, the “real” Doctor is never entirely “the same person as themself” in detail (even to the degree that any of us are, being ever-changing), because of regeneration, but is always in touch with the same essentials – same software, different casing.

            And that flexibility, that view that “being the Doctor” is not specific to the peculiarities of the individual, gives force to that idea of the Doctor as an inspiration to real people which is very much key to what the story is saying – if “being the Doctor” is untethered from the identity of an individual, maybe sometimes, on a good day, if you try very hard, you can “be the Doctor” too.

  11. AG
    May 29, 2019 @ 5:52 pm

    An issue with the widespread approach DW takes is that things taken for granted previously (because they weren’t relevant to the theme being discussed) suddenly become moot in newer episodes.

    In this case, the implications of simulationism were basically dismissed as “yeah they’re also real people” the minute that Ten uploaded River into the Library.

    As for a trend for DW to miss actually engaging with the substance of an idea, it could be linked to DW insisting on embracing the horror genre. By its very nature, horror is style over substance, leveraging aesthetic by any means necessary to invoke the most basic feelings in the audience. The issue with this, of course, is that feelings are rarely sufficient to deal with complex issues, and complex issues rarely evoke sufficient feelings. So episode after episode opts for “rule of funny/cool/horror” sequences that provide striking aesthetic moments, over any true thematic deep dive. There simply isn’t enough time to illustrate a complex structure, and even less possible when narrative collapse/substitution is in play.


    • Vadron
      May 31, 2019 @ 1:06 pm

      “In this case, the implications of simulationism were basically dismissed as “yeah they’re also real people” the minute that Ten uploaded River into the Library.”

      Oh, no it didn’t. A full upload of a once-living mind and a simulation that clearly isn’t just running a physics-simulator on virtual brains but doing something much sketchier (or we wouldn’t get the random-numbers effect) are two very different things. I’m inclined to think both are people, but there’s definitely a way to argue that the ones can be without the others being too.


      • AG
        May 31, 2019 @ 10:40 pm

        I just don’t see the difference between upload and simulation, I’m afraid. There is no difference on the “what is happening with the hardware + software” level, except for how much processing power you devote to any particular instance. A 240p and 4K resolution of the same source footage are still both videos run on a digital computer. Any sense that the Library folks were “one-time” upload/download is a misconception of streaming, which is just adding a step of erasing the data after copying it. But, fundamentally, the data is being copied, not “moved” in a real sense, a la the teleport clones in Heaven Sent. If they had chosen so, the Library could have kept “downloading” copies of the same people over and over from their saved upload data.

        Remember, just a few weeks ago the Doctor validated the Vardi as a real species. Do they instantly lose their rights if someone replaces their RNG with a less complex function? Would the monks need more or less processing power to simulate the Vardi, compared to humans?


        • Vadron
          May 31, 2019 @ 11:19 pm

          The difference is simple: being brain-uploads (no matter how many times said uploads can be copied; that’s besides the point), the Library people are of a very different nature from the simulated Shadow World people. The brain-uploads are, well, just that. A brain is scanned to a molecular level and then made to run on a physics simulator. It’s guaranteed that its mental processes are exactly the same as when that brain was made of flesh.

          Whereas the Shadow-People are clearly programs, not directly copied from the real people’s brains but imitating them. ‘Video game people’. Or else they would be just as able to think of ‘random’ numbers as people in the real world. The only way to parse that numbers thing is that each Shadow-Person is an individual computer program inside a virtual world, hooked to subroutines such as the random numbers generator.

          Now, as long as those simulations are self-aware, then they are certainly as “real” as brain-uploads; certainly they’re as deserving of moral weight as the Vardi. But the Shadow Bill is not “really” Bill in the same way that Library River is “really” River. She is a Bill-shaped robot programmed with an approximation of Bill’s personality and made to think it’s the original.


          • AG
            June 3, 2019 @ 4:26 pm

            I wasn’t making an authenticity argument of whether simu-people are the same as the people they are simulating, though. I was simply saying that simu-people are people.

            However, I still don’t find a difference between a brain-upload and a sufficiently advanced simulation. Unless the library is re-creating the brain on the molecular level (a la a teleport clone), they are simulating the brain patterns on a different substrate.

            As for Heaven Sent, that’s hand-waved by the dial having absolute control over the environment, including whether or not to add more memories to the newly constructed body. Usually the Doctor doesn’t regain their memory until they reach the wall again. However, the comparison to data copy is still valid, because that’s just a data sync step. The same file can be downloaded to multiple locations, and receive update patches.

        • Vadron
          May 31, 2019 @ 11:22 pm

          Oh, and for the record, I wouldn’t use “Heaven Sent” as an example; the story otherwise proceeds as though it worked in the sane, hard-sci-fi way you’re thinking of, but it’s very firmly established that somehow, the Doctor retains the memories of each individual clone.

          I’ve noticed a lot of people seem to gloss over that bit, but it couldn’t be clearer. He says it right in the episode. “I can remember it all… every time.” And, of course the whole ‘How long?’ scene in “Hell Bent” only has any dramatic weight if the Doctor has concretely been trapped for 4.5 billion years, rather than having only personally experienced a few days in the Dial.

          (The latter point, of course, is probably why Moffat allowed himself this illogical detail, of course.)


  12. Rodolfo Piskorski
    June 5, 2019 @ 8:55 pm

    I actually love Extremis. That and World Enough and Time cement Season 10 as A Season Worth Watching.

    And The Beast Below is better than anything in Season 11, even It Takes You Away.

    PS. Very creepy that I had to refresh the page because the captcha couldn’t decide if I was a robot or not…


  13. Roderick T. Long
    June 7, 2019 @ 4:50 pm

    “Bitcoin certainly deserves mention as the single stupidest thing anyone has ever helped destroy a planet for”




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