Contains spoilers for the episode.
If in the future anyone ever insists on describing Doctor Who as just a children’s show, sit them down to watch the first half of “Kill The Moon” and then stop the DVD, turn to them, peel the cushion off their face that they’ve been hiding behind, and ask them if they still think that.
Because blimey, Charlie – that first 20 minutes on the moon was quite something. Fans (myself included) who’ve wanted the show to return to the darker, grimmer, horror-inflected days of Philip Hinchcliffe-produced 1970s Who not only got what what we asked for but had even us saying ‘Whoa, wait a minute, let’s back it down a few notches here!’ It’s a good job that the show aired so late (8.30pm) – as it is, if it had had even longer to establish the incredibly creepy and threatening setting any further than it did, even the watershed mightn’t have been enough to stave off a flood of angry letters from viewers worried why their children turned out all traumatised on Sunday morning.
It’s not the first time that giant spiders have turned up on Doctor Who of course – I still have fond (if that’s the right word) memories of the antagonists of “Planet of the Spiders” who did for Jon Pertwee’s Doctor in 1974. But back then we knew that the spiders weren’t real because the FX were ever so slightly crap, which was a relief. Not the case in “Kill The Moon” however, where – thanks to some incredibly sharp and precise direction from Paul Wilmshurst – everything appeared terrifyingly real, enhanced by some of Murray Gold’s best incidental music for the show in many a long year. Also to be highly commended is the way that the show reproduced the surface of the Moon via a combination of location shooting in Lanzarote and some digital decolourisation and grading to make it suitably lunar-hued. I would honestly say I’ve never seen the Moon look better on screen in any TV show or film, even 2001. It certainly knocked that studio set they used to mock up the Apollo 11 landings into a cocked hat. (Kidding!)
It turned out that the spiders were not the main threat here, being the symptoms rather than the underlying cause of what was threatening to destroy the Moon and wreak havoc back on Earth’s surface, and which had led to astronaut Captain Lundvik and her team being dispatched to investigate in an antique space shuttle in 2049AD. The episode consequently develops into a game of two halves as a result, since the discovery of the true nature of the threat meant that the latter 20 minutes of the episode are an altogether different affair from the Alien-inflected first half, becoming much more of a talk-based drama based on a huge moral and ethical dilemma. The join and transition in tone isn’t entirely smooth or successful, but it nonetheless shows an ambition and vision far beyond most TV dramas walking the earth these days.
Perhaps as a result of its split nature, the episode has produced some matching extraordinarily split opinions from viewers, many of whom think it’s one of the best things that Doctor Who have ever done with others equally fervently asserting that it’s the worst thing they’ve ever seen. I guess that with such violent and passionate extreme responses as these, the show must be doing something right.
A key complaint seems to be that this time the Doctor doesn’t actually solve the problem but rather walks away and leaves Clara to decide what to do instead, with people seeing this as another example of how alien and unlikeable the title character is becoming in season 8 in Peter Capaldi’s hands. Clara certainly reacts badly to the perceived betrayal, and a final scene sees all the doubts and fears and resentments that have built up in Clara since she lost ‘her’ Doctor at Trenzalore came pouring out as she lays into the Time Lord in a fury we’ve never seen before from a companion. Jenna Coleman is outstanding in this scene (and indeed through the entire episode), as of course was Capaldi who is commanding in his silent, still reaction to the flood of anger and barely-restrained tears in what seems a fairly terminal breakdown in relations between the pair.
The tragedy is that both the Doctor and Clara were right to do as they did and even how they subsequently reacted, just for very different reasons. The Doctor intimated early on that this was not an event he should be interfering with (much as he found in “The Waters of Mars”, although in that case the hubris of the Time Lord Victorious caused him to overstep his bounds with disastrous consequences.) Here, he knew that the event was crucial to how humankind would develop and go forward into the future – that the decision would be the making or breaking of us as a species. If he made that decision for us then it would be to rob us of our free will, to infantilise and sideline humans to his own greater will. There is a time to help and to lead by example, and another when even the most conscientious parent has to step aside and leave their child to make its own decisions and to stand and fall on the basis of them, and the Doctor knew this was one such moment; hence he has to step out and leave the matter to the humans to decide.
There was a lot of socio-political subtext to this story, although not I think the abortion/pro-life theme that a number of people have misidentified and leapt upon: abortions aren’t decided by a global vote as the foetus is literally being delivered, after all. Instead it’s more of a commentary on where we are as a society on a bigger and more general, abstract level, with the script firmly believing that humans are currently still very much prone to ruthless self-interest when we need to be listening instead to the angels of our better nature, hence the Earth voting by turning off its electric lights to turn its back on an innocent creature in order to save their own selves. Add to that the background set-up of the story in which it’s made clear that the Earth no longer aspires to the stars but has shut down and turned in on itself and away from wonder, and it’s hard not to see the script making a pretty accurate statement of where we are now as a mean-spirited society and people. Hence, part of the Doctor’s motivation in what he does in this story is to allow the human race to prove that it is actually better than that and is indeed ready to move onwards and upwards, and that only by doing so will we finally become an truly advanced civilisation rather than a backwards-looking, selfish and insular one. It’s not a choice that the Doctor can impose upon us, as even he can’t decide or dictate our fundamental nature as a species – only we ourselves can.
The thing is that the humans back on Earth actually fail the test, but fortunately the Doctor has already cheated (doesn’t he always?) and stacked the deck through his complete faith that Clara would make the right call in the end. And she does, just as he had always known that she would – it’s just that he had failed to communicate this faith in her to Clara herself and as a result she is understandably furious at seemingly being abandoned at the crucial moment, left to make a literally world-changing decision by herself and racked by the realisation that she had so nearly got it wrong. It seems that the Doctor in many ways has more confidence and a deeper knowledge of Clara’s nature than she does herself, but at the same time Clara’s anger and resulting profound sense of mistrust toward the Doctor is entirely understandable and justified. It’s only Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson, back in a one-scene cameo) who has the life experience to understand the situation from the Doctor’s point of view while at the same time having the emotional accessibility to empathise with Clara, indicating that his character might be the essential bridge between Time Lord and companion that might help repair the rift that has erupted between them.
As well as the Doctor and Clara, the other main character in “Kill the Moon” is a third outing for young Ellis George as disruptive Coal Hill School pupil Courtney Woods. Normally a school-age character in a series like this can be a show-stopping embarrassment, but here not only is George very good as a performer, the character itself is sharply drawn and has a genuine purpose in the episode. Courtney is exactly the sort of person who would make a terrible companion for the Doctor: stubborn, selfish, thoughtless and capricious, she goes from insisting on a joyride in the Tardis, to getting bored, then wanting to go home the minute things get scary, then sulking because there are no games to keep her occupied, to then feeling left out and insisting on the adults involving her again. In other words: she’s a typical human teenager. It’s just that we don’t usually get to see one of those in Doctor Who, where the young companions are all extraordinary people deemed worthy of riding along with the Doctor. Courtney is annoying and frustrating and she winds us up, and yet she also has flashes of brilliance such as finding a clever way to save her own life when locked in with a spider, and her sudden growing up when she realises the huge stakes involved. In many ways, we look at Courtney’s flaws and failings and occasional inspiring successes much as the Doctor must look at those of the human race as a whole, and it throws light on why he’s so devoted to those very few people he finds that meet his entrance requirements for joining him on board the Tardis.
The only other significant character in the show is that of Lundvik and frankly it’s a pretty one-dimensional role as written, present only to deliver plot exposition and key background details. Fortunately the show has the wisdom to cast ex-Spooks star Hermione Norris which gives her instantly more presence than the role itself warrants. Truly, Norris is one of a very small number of actors that I’ll seek out and watch in practically anything, and she somehow manages to elevate Lundvik into something very real and memorable in the course of the 45 minutes despite very little screen time. Alas her two team members barely get a chance to open their mouths before they exit the proceedings, which is really no way at all to treat an actor of Tony Osoba’s standing and talent.
Since we’ve drifted into quibble country, I’ll mention that despite some generally excellent FX work there are a still a couple of dodgy sequences (the shuttle landing; the break-up of the lunar surface) that look like old video game footage from two generations of console ago; and a couple of the interiors are a little barebones in terms of effort, especially when put up against the aforementioned astonishing external lunar surface sequences. But these are minor details which don’t really affect the show in any meaningful way so let’s press quickly on to something that does.
Because let’s be honest, the science in the second half of the episode is something of a train wreck. I’m all for a good, hardcore science fiction high-concept, but this is anything but – it’s more a throwback to Steven Moffat’s penchant for fairytales, being essentially an updating of the old children’s favourite story of ‘the man in the moon.’ It’s as though having had this germ of the idea for the story, the only way that it could be made to work is to then ignore pretty much all science fact and sense along the way. I can go quite a long way with suspension of disbelief but this left so many holes that it really strained even my limits of forgiveness, and in particular the Doctor’s assertion that the Moon is 100 million years old (rather than over four billion) was such a bizarre and obvious error of easily-researched fact that it quickly sucked away any forbearance I had been wishing to extend it. If you’re attempting a really ambitious, huge SF idea (such as the Moon being a space egg that’s hatching) then you really have to build your initial story foundations as rock solid as possible or else risk the end result coming across as absurd, laughable and derisible. And while trying to be kind, let’s just say that the new moon at the end of the story wasn’t the only egg that the script ended up laying after so much good work preceding it.
That’s a shame, and consequently a large part of how you see this episode will depend on whether you think the rest of the episode (the enthralling first 20 minutes of horror, a second half of moral dilemma, and the compelling conflict between the Doctor and Clara at the end) is worth overlooking the Moon-sized issues with the main plot. A far as I’m concerned it’s an easy call, and despite the major scientific flaws I still found this a completely stunning, audacious and quite brilliant instalment of Doctor Who and without doubt one of my instant favourites of the Moffat-helmed era.
Doctor Who continues on BBC One on Saturday evenings, with episodes repeated on Sundays on BBC Three and also available on demand on BBC iPlayer. A ten minute ‘behind the scenes’ feature is also available on the iPlayer and on the red button. Series 8 will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on November 17 2014, and series opener “Deep Breath” is already available as a standalone release.