Airdate: October 4, 2014
Written by: Peter Harness
Directed by: Paul Wilmshurst
The Story So Far:It’s 2049 on the Moon, a year before the Gravitron is installed. A mining operation has been destroyed by giant spiders, and something enormous is shifting under the crust. The Doctor is asked to solve a very weighty moral dilemma, but refuses to get involved.
Watching this episode, from minute to minute, was the most enjoyable experience I’ve had with a regular-season Doctor Who story (excluding specials) since Vincent and the Doctor. I found Kill the Moon to be funny, scary, tense, thought-provoking, philosophical, and surprising. However, in fandom at large, it is hands-down the most divisive, love-it or hate-it episode of the season, even more so than the controversial Listen. There’s a lot to discuss… but first, we have to sort out all the myriad references to the Classic Series which informed Kill the Moon.
1. Hanky-panky in the TARDIS
The first few minutes sort through the consequences of Courtney Woods’ first, and wildly unsuccessful, voyage in the TARDIS. The Doctor, as I suspected last week, has thrown Courtney out of the ship, telling her that she wasn’t “special” (i.e., not companion material). Courtney sneaks back into the ship anyway, with household cleaner spray, and wearing Vortex Manipulators as air-sickness wristbands. “Good,” the Doctor snarls. “Because I don’t like people being sick in my TARDIS. No being sick, no hanky-panky.”
“No hanky-panky in the TARDIS” is a legendary quote from John Nathan-Turner, Doctor Who‘s show-runner in the 1980s, explaining why it was safe for the attractive young Peter Davison Doctor to travel alone with scantily-clad companions like Tegan and Nyssa. Of course, the New Series has seen plenty of hanky-panky in the TARDIS (River Song was conceived there, after all), but this line is yet another reminder that Capaldi is bringing us back to basics.
2. The Moonbase
Soon enough, the Doctor’s agreed to bring Courtney to the moon. In true Classic Series-style, he winds up off-course, landing in a repurposed NASA Space Shuttle. Once they’ve landed, and after the Doctor gains the trust of the Shuttle crew (Captain Lundvik, played with a transcendent crispness by Hermione Norris, channeling Lindsay Duncan from 2009’s The Waters of Mars; and two red-shirts), all parties wind up inside a ten-years-dead geological survey station on the moon’s surface.
Doctor Who‘s made many trips to the moon, as nicely summarized by Blogtor Who’s Cameron K. McEwan in this piece. But the one that concerns us most is 1967’s The Moonbase, to which this story serves as an eerily prescient prequel. In that Troughton-era story, we learn that the Gravitron was assembled on the moon in the year 2050; the 2nd Doctor arrives in 2070, 20 years later, and is described by Base Commander Hobson as a “proper Rip Van Winkle.”
The fact that Kill the Moon is set is 2049 can hardly be a coincidence. Thanks to what happens here, the moon is going to need new bases; the Gravitron’s key remit of controlling the tides and the weather would be very important missions for Earth, given the near disastrous events of this story. You almost want to go back and watch The Moonbase again, just to see if there are any hints that Hobson is, like, Lundvik’s son, or something. And, hey, both stories see an explosive decompression inside their respective bases, improbably plugged by an everyday object.
3. The Hinchcliffe Years
According to a post by Darren Mooney at the mOvie blog, Steven Moffat directed Kill the Moon writer Peter Harness to “Hinchcliffe the $%!* out of it for the first half.” So once again, we wind up with a story, and a portrayal of the Doctor, that owes a metric ton to Doctor Who‘s output under producer Philip Hinchcliffe from 1975 to 1977, and to Tom Baker’s comic, moody, alien portrayal of the Doctor at that point in Baker’s tenure.
The first 20 minutes of Kill the Moon are thus redolent of some of Hinchcliffe and Baker’s happiest hours. The cramped, abandoned base beset by an insectoid menace mirrors 1975’s The Ark in Space (itself a precursor to, but not a direct influence on, Alien). The Doctor’s recognizing the “prototype version of the Bennett oscillator” references both a fictitious bit of technology from, and the director of, Ark.
Capaldi’s Doctor using a yo-yo to test for gravity is a direct homage to Tom Baker, who did the same thing several times his first year on TV (Season 12), before his characterization outgrew the need for such a prop. And read this meditation delivered by Capaldi … it’s impossible to do without summoning up Baker’s most alien moments:
The Doctor: Meaning, Clara, that the moon, this little planetoid that’s been tagging along beside you for a hundred million years, that’s kept you light at night, and seas to sail on, is in the process of falling to bits.
4. 1980, Clara, If You Want To Get Off
Capaldi is a heady mix of moody, critical, whimsical, and philosophical in this one. The best qualities of all the Classic Series Doctors, only Capaldi ramps the intensity up to 11. “Is that the best you could get?” he challenges Lundvik, when one of her two crewman (Henry, the first to be killed) proves timid and incompetent. There’s his “gravity testing”, which involves lots of GIF-friendly dance-moves about the interior of the space shuttle. And, in an overt nod to the Troughton years, he even brings back, “When I say run, run!”; in a nice post-modern twist, Lundvik then challenges him: “Who made you boss?”, to which he responds, “You say run, then!”
And, in an enormous homage to 1975’s Pyramids of Mars, Clara challenges the Doctor as to why they need to stay (after he’s disgustedly barricaded a terrified Courtney in the TARDIS, mistaking her for a 35-year-old); she knows the moon doesn’t get destroyed in 2049. In Pyramids, Sarah had suggested that the Doctor could leave 1911 behind, knowing that the Egyptian god Sutekh couldn’t destroy the world, as she’d seen it in 1980. In a rightly famous bit, the Doctor then takes her back to 1980, now a barren wasteland. The future can be shaped, if not chosen, and the 4th Doctor knows he has to fight Sutekh in 1911 in order to preserve Sarah’s 1980.
Kill the Moon resurrects this argument and, again, ramps it up to 11. Clara is not quite persuaded by the Doctor’s logic, but he makes a compelling case, nonetheless:
Clara: But you would know.
The Doctor: I would?
Clara: If the moon fell to bits in 2049, somebody would have mentioned it, it would have come up in conversation. So it doesn’t break up, so the world doesn’t end, so let’s just get in the TARDIS and go.
The Doctor: Clara, there are some moments in time that I simply can’t see. Little eye-blinks, they don’t look the same as other things, they’re not clear, they’re fuzzy, they’re grey. Little moments in which big things are decided, and this is one of them. Just now I can’t tell what happens to the moon, because whatever happens to the moon hasn’t been decided yet. And it’s going to be decided here and now. Which very much sounds as though it’s up to us.
5. Part Two
Shortly thereafter, Kill the Moon waves bye-bye to its Ark in Space roots, and, at the halfway point, pivots into a completely different story altogether. Who by and large doesn’t do cliffhangers anymore, but this story does split in half rather neatly. Before this happens, Duke, Tony Osoba’s character, the more competent of Lundvik’s two crewmen, is killed by a carnivorous spider. Pity Tony Osoba; he’s now oh-for-three in Doctor Who stories; he had a meaty but doomed part in 1979’s Destiny of the Daleks, and a less memorable but equally doomed turn in 1987’s Dragonfire. Older, greyer and thicker, Osoba gets little to do in Kill the Moon but stand around and look either out-of-his-depth or grimly determined. Pay attention to his facial expressions, he’s quite watchable in an otherwise thankless part. It was good to see him back… while he was there.
But it turns out the spiders don’t matter, they’re not the plot. They’re bacteria feeding on what’s inside the moon — the embryo of a 1.3-billion ton flying creature, that’s nearing the end of its 100,000,000-year gestation cycle. “The moon’s an egg.”
“The moon’s an egg.” You have to say those words very carefully. I was just about ready to lose faith in the story at that point, and, based on my social media feeds, many of you did, too. But, fortunately, the script doesn’t use that as an opportunity to get silly. Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s “Bad Eggs” this is not — there’s a lot more gravitas to the moon’s embryo than a mere Mother Bezoar.
6. “You must help yourselves”
Much has been made, and many thousands of words have already been exchanged online, over the Doctor’s decision to not make a choice about what to do with the moon-embryo — to kill it, or don’t kill it. “It’s your moon, womankind,” he says to Lundvik and Clara. “It’s your choice” (this also has massive political overtones, at least to a U.S. audience, as we’ll see below). It’s a real Moment for Capaldi, and also for Jenna Coleman — watch her her moue of disgust after the Doctor tells her that “It’s time to take the stabilizers off your bike.”
Recent TV shows like Mad Men have done very well by staging lengthy and passionate arguments between two main characters, in which both characters are right. That’s the way real-life arguments work. Here, it’s correct for Clara to seek to put the burden of this choice on the Doctor, and it’s correct for the Doctor to refuse the choice — although it puts neither character in a particularly good light. It’s a fascinating scene to watch.
Also fascinating is that, the Doctor has done this before. In 1976’s The Seeds of Doom, an alien vegetable pod has been unearthed by an Antarctic scientific survey team; the pod hatches and the emerging plant infects one of the scientists. That plant is a Krynoid, an organism that is inimical (lethal) to mankind. This happens in Part One of a six-part story (and one of the finest, if more underrated, serials in the Hinchcliffe era). In the beginning, there’s still time to nip this infection in the bud — by amputating the arm of the infected scientist. The Doctor is asked to perform the operation, as there are no qualified surgeons in the base.
The Doctor refuses. “You must help yourselves,” he intones. So it’s resolved: the zoologist, who’s only ever dissected dead specimens, must perform the operation that, if it fails, could spell the end of mankind. It’s a chilling moment, but underplayed by all actors involved and made moot by the next few minutes of the story. This scene had to have been an overt influence on Kill the Moon, which, as we’ve already discussed, intentionally and thoroughly mines other Hinchcliffe stories from the same era for plot points, dialogue quotes, and technobabble.
An interesting thread on this same subject was posted on rec.arts.drwho in 1996, by a pseudonymous scholar. I was surprised yesterday to find my own words at the bottom of the thread; I probably somewhat agree now with what I said nearly 19 years ago. Not every Doctor Who story can feature such an aloof Doctor. But Kill the Moon does it very, very well. In my opinion. It takes the Doctor’s refusal to get involved, but makes it integral to the story’s solution, and causes conflict with his companion. A substantial upgrade from the already-terrific scene in Seeds of Doom.
7. And now, a political thread
So what we’re left with is an abortion metaphor. I’ve seen multiple people online describe this episode, with disappointment, as being staunchly pro-life. Peter Harness is, as far as I can tell, English, and has spent no time in the United States; being charitable, perhaps he is unaware what political hot-button issue he was pressing. Approaching this from the lawyer’s perspective, the political debate is this: in some instances, the government has the right to prohibit abortion; in all other instance, the question becomes, who owns the choice to abort? Should it be the woman who must carry to term — or, her doctor, her husband, a judge, or a politician? Kill the Moon shows the Doctor allowing the women to make the choice; while their end result is to allow the moon embryo to live, the Doctor honors their right to choose in a way that keeps Doctor Who‘s recent left-wing bona-fides intact. From this lawyer’s perspective.
But I freely acknowledge that I am looking at this episode strictly from my vantage point as a male legal professional, and that my view is narrow and detached. A much more passionate and informed viewpoint is provided by Kim Rogers on Head Over Feels. Given the march of state-by-state legislation (confined to politically “red” states) over the past few years, with the intent of overturning the past 41 years of U.S. Supreme Court precedent, it’s easy to interpret Kill the Moon in a highly political way — even if Peter Harness didn’t intend to tread that ground.
Please go over and read Kim’s post. It wrestles with the issues from this portion of the episode, much more eloquently than I ever could.
8. Oh, look, more Classic Series references
Lundvik is on the verge of destroying the moon embryo (with humanity’s consent) when Clara, literally at the last second, intervenes in the embryo’s favor. The Doctor then instantly rematerializes in the TARDIS and emerges by quoting Logopolis, Tom Baker’s 1981 swan song: “One, two, three [pointing to Clara, Lundvik and Courtney]. Into the TARDIS.” He shows them what happens next: the moon embryo hatches, the old moon disintegrates in a cloud of dust, and a new moon-egg is created. The Doctor wasn’t using his time away from the base to hide from the situation; he was researching it, and clearly supported the decision that he knew Clara would (eventually) make without him.
He also learned that the future “President of America” would turn out to be… young Courtney Woods herself. Courtney, the bored 15-year-old who hid away in the TARDIS for the middle portion of the episode, updating her Tumblr feed (has Doctor Who ever captured a teenager so realistically before?). “Rather bizarrely, she becomes President of the United States. She met this bloke called Blinovitch.” Blinovitch was a name invoked several times in the Classic Series, mostly during the Pertwee era (Capaldi’s “home” era); the Blinovitch Limitation Effect governed what happened if a character met a past or future version of themselves (and actually happened in 1983’s Mawdryn Undead). Malcolm Hulke’s novelization of Invasion of the Dinosaurs explains who Blinovitch was, although in a way that rules out the possibility of Courtney meeting him at some point between 2014 and 2049.
9. Walking Out
In another intense scene, Clara challenges the Doctor’s decisions, and then walks out on him. This has happened only twice before in the Doctor Who canon. As Ben Herman points out in his more critical take on Kill the Moon, Ace did it to the 7th Doctor in the 1992 New Adventure Love & War, a story in which the Doctor’s inaction had a far more deadly result.
More relevant to us is Steven Taylor storming out on the 1st Doctor in one of the all-time great stories, The Massacre. The Doctor, terrified at the prospect of the upcoming St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, flees the scene, refusing to save the life of a doomed Huguenot teenager. Steven bristles: “If your researches have so little regard for human life, then I want no part of it.” Steven returns only a few minutes after storming out of the TARDIS, because, that sort of thing just wasn’t done in 1966.
Clara’s fight with the Doctor is not quite as even-handed as earlier arguments within the episode. Peter Capaldi plays the scene as if he knows the Doctor has made the wrong choice, and deserves Clara’s ire; check out the fantastically phony smile that he flashes her at one point. At the same time, we know it’s not the end of The Doctor-and-Clara; even Danny Pink says so. Danny had planted negative thoughts about the Doctor in Clara’s head in the previous episode, but he’s much more even-handed here. We won’t really be able to judge Clara’s departure until the rest of Series 8 plays out; we know she’s coming back, in some capacity, and hopefully in a less ludicrous way than Steven Taylor.
10. Bad Science
Doctor Who is famous for introducing cringe-worthy bad science into its stories, ever since the Hartnell era when writers used terms like galaxy, constellation and universe interchangeably. I’ve read many cutting remarks about the science in Kill the Moon. And it is bad. The “shifting mass” of the 100-million year-old embryo doesn’t affect the Earth’s tides until 999,990 years into its gestation cycle. Etc. It’s unexplained how Courtney, a British subject, could become President of the United States (barring some change in our Constitution over the next 35 years); neither of her parents had audible U.S. accents in The Caretaker. While that doesn’t rule out Courtney being a natural-born U.S. citizen, it’s another bit of apparently sloppy writing.
Oh, and Tony Osoba’s character is revealed, after the moment of his death, to have been Lundvik’s mentor, and to have just become a grandfather. Clunk. And, unless I missed it in a flurry of frantic dialogue, Norris’ character is never actually named Lundvik on-screen. So there’s a lot that Harness could have done better.
Perhaps the next 40 years won’t be so kind to Kill the Moon‘s reputation.
11. Next Time
Mummies on the Orient Express. Without any hint that we’ll see Clara or Danny. Based on the title alone, I expect to spend most of next week again discussing Pyramids of Mars. From the Hinchcliffe era. Again.