October 5, 2014

Doctor Who: "Kill the Moon"

The Doctor, Clara and Courtney arrive on the moon in the mid-21st century. Their arrival coincides with that of a last-ditch human mission to detonate a pile of nuclear weapons on the moon's surface and destroy it completely. When the crisis develops and the stakes rise, Clara turns to the Doctor for the help he's always provided - only this time that help isn't there.

The yoyo-like trajectory of Doctor Who's eighth season continues. Just to get up to speed the first six weeks of this season have basically been thus: mediocre, good, awful, great, good, mediocre. It's like a strange quality roller coaster. The ride's not over yet either because after the last episode made me feel as if the season was going to be a bit of a write-off overall, along comes "Kill the Moon" with arguably the best episode of Doctor Who in about three years.

Of course that's my take on it. Opinions differ and the bottom line is that once you move past the objective qualities - did they point the camera in the right direction, can you hear the dialogue - it's really up to the individual as to whether an individual episode is good or bad. For this individual, "Kill the Moon" wasn't simply good; it was remarkable.

The very idea that the moon is, and always has been, an enormous alien egg is one that I suspect may break the suspension of belief for some viewers. I found it hilarious and delightful: what other science fiction series could get away with such a ridiculous concept? This is the debut Doctor Who script for writer Peter Harness and I applaud him for thinking so big from the get-go. It's not just a wacky idea either, since it also gives the episode its dramatic purpose: the moon is going to hatch, and humanity can either kill what's inside and save themselves, or take a chance that whatever comes out won't be a threat and that losing the moon won't mean the end of life on Earth.

You could be fooled into thinking it was an abortion issue, except that's just applying human values in a fairly misguided way. There's no mother involved choosing to terminate her pregnancy - just a 100 million year-old egg about to hatch and humans choosing whether or not to kill it before it kills them.

And what humans! I was struck during this episode's climax at Harness' choice to have three women make that decision. The Doctor refuses to take sides: humanity can make its own choices as far as he's concerned. Instead we've got twenty-something teacher Clara, 15 year-old student Courtney and middle-aged astronaut Lundvik (Hermione Norris) arguing over whether or not to murder an alien baby. I don't remember the last time I saw that before - three intelligent, opinionated women having a conversation over the fate of the human race. It's not just unusual for Doctor Who, it's unusual for television drama in general. I am particularly liking Courtney (Ellis George), and hope she sticks around for a while. She makes a great contrast to Clara - who's oddly getting better and better this season - and works really well opposite Peter Capaldi's Doctor.

The whole episode felt so strikingly different to the rest of the season that it honestly felt like a different series. It was often relentlessly dark, with early scenes dominated by rising tension and evil alien spiders. The second half transformed the whole episode into a morality play. Even Murray Gold's music, which last week was deeply irritating with its over-blown telegraphic bombast, was reserved and beautifully sparse. If this is a sign of the Capaldi era going forward, I for one will be very, very happy.

And of course there's Capaldi's Doctor himself. I still can't quite decide whether Moffat and his team are being incredibly bold or wilfilly stupid. He's visibly the same character as the one played by Smith, Tennant and their predecessors, but he's had the superficial veneer ripped off. He's an impossible old, smart and deeply arrogant bastard: tired of simply treating human beings as quaint little monkeys, he's now decided to start honestly telling them he thinks of them in that way. He's essentially become a more honest person, but an appalling one as a result. The episode's concluding scenes, in which Clara takes him to task and basically tells him he's broken a friendship so that he can feel clever, is the best thing Jenna Coleman has done. I'm sure Clara will be back for the season's remaining five episodes, but had she walked out on him forever this week it would have stood as one of the best-motivated companion exits of all time.

This is a Doctor Who I can get behind wholeheartedly, and when cynics ask me why I continue watching a TV series that seems so tired and overblown in recent years I can honestly tell them why: it's because of this. Episodes like these, that demonstrate originality, drama and wonderful creativity. This wasn't just good Doctor Who, it was bold and imaginative television drama - even if no one on the production team seems to understand how the moon orbits the Earth.

This was episode seven, and it was the fifth one I liked - and I liked it so much. It leaves Season 8 with a quality ratio, by my reckoning, of 71 per cent.


  1. This episode demonstrates what science fiction, and Doctor Who in particular, does so very well when it's determined to be a grown-up genre of intellectual interrogation-- pose an impossibly huge question, and provide a human-- and humane answer. When Doctor Who hits that double apex successfully, it results in its greatest moments: "Genesis of the Daleks" is its best example, but "The Silurians" is, to my mind, even more powerful in that regard. This episode doesn't reach those heights, but that's down to the science being just soo silly and hand-wavery to be ignored, not the essential moral dilemma, which is brilliant.

    And yes, Jenna Coleman is fantastic, especially in the final five minutes. I just wish she could have been that good earlier, so I could care.

    1. Thanks for posting this, Grant. If you hadn't enthused about the show on Facebook, I probably couldn't have gotten past the incredibly idiotic science and watched through to the real point of the story, letting three women (not quite maiden, mother and crone, but close enough) decide the fate of the Earth and one alien being, in defiance of overwhelming public opinion. I agree with Lee that it's not up to the standard of 'Genesis of the Daleks' or 'The Silurians', but despite the appalling pseudoscience (which I'm sure could have been handled much more plausibly with very little effort), I would say it's the best episode since 'Day of the Moon' - and of all the episodes which seemed intended to made us think, "Ah, so that's goodbye to Clara", this is the first that made me think I might actually miss her.

  2. It's nice to read this simply to remind myself of the many good things I noticed watching the episode - and the things I almost didn't notice, like that it's three women deciding the fate of the human race (it's only now that you've pointed it out that I remember that this is unusual, I found it quite normal :-) ). I'm one of the people who really struggled with the pseudoscience being so awful. Not the idea of the moon being an egg - that's kind of par for the course for Doctor Who and what makes the series fun - but so many other ways of the way the science was implemented. It was like there were moments that the writer wanted to see, and just kind of strung them together with a magic wand. Plus having been pregnant, the idea that a new egg of the same size and mass gets laid less than a minute later is.... um, also a bit problematic and more so than screen pregnancies usually are. I found my suspension of belief was broken so often and so frequently during the episode that it was hard to focus on the really interesting drama of the Doctor leaving humans to make the choice and how the way he did it affected the friendship and trust (after all, a few episodes this season have hinged on Clara trusting the Doctor to have her back). I'd have liked them to deal with the pseudoscience a little better just so it didn't get in the way of the drama.


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