DOCTOR WHO: “Kill the Moon”

It’s another cracking episode even as the show hatches one of its silliest ideas yet. And that’s no yolk!

You walk our Earth, Doctor — you breathe our air. You make us your friend when that is your mood and you can damn well help us when we need it.

–Clara

This was a heck of debut for writer Peter Harness: a dark but ultimately hopeful hour that felt like an homage to some of the show’s best episodes, while also pushing it into uncharted emotional territory. The penultimate scene, where Clara really lets the Doctor have it for his patronizing and his arrogance, felt like it could have been spoken on behalf of Donna, Rose, Sarah Jane, and everyone else the Doctor has ever sucked into his orbit and spat back out. In short, it was a long time coming, and it’s the uncaring abrasiveness of Twelve that ultimately pushes the optimistic Clara to her breaking point. The question from the beginning of the season — is the Doctor “a good man?” — remains unanswered.

We begin in media res, in the year 2049: Clara and Captain Lundvik have 45 minutes to decide the fate of mankind; save one life, or save the whole planet? “The man who normally helps is gone,” Clara says into a TV monitor. And this time, she doesn’t think he’s coming back. CREDITS.

It’s impossible to know how much of a hand in the final draft Steven Moffat has in any given script, but Harness (whose work will be seen in the hotly-anticipated-by-me BBC adaptation of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell) has cooked up a devil of a hook, and it doesn’t go over easy. (OKAY, NO MORE EGG PUNS. I’M SORRY.) But first, we’re back at Coal Hill School, where Clara has heard from Courtney Woods that the Doctor doesn’t think she’s “special.” Hurt, she goes to confront him, where the Doctor is basically like okay, fine: “How’d you like to be the first woman on the moon?” except he thinks he’s coming across like the cool uncle, when really he’s treating Courtney like an idiot.

But in the grand Doctor Who tradition, it’s the most frivolous trips that become the most terrifying (see: “Midnight”). The TARDIS materializes in the cargo bay of a space shuttle, suddenly adding a ton of weight that causes its impending moon landing to…not go well. The trio are immediately confronted by a group of astronauts, led by their stern commander Lundvik (Hermione Norris), a near carbon-copy of Cpt. McDonnell from “42” and Adelaide Brooke from “The Waters of Mars.” The Doctor even still has that old orange space suit from the latter episode, with a couple of spares for Clara and Courtney. The other two astronauts are pure monster fodder, so I won’t even bother with their names. (My biggest criticism of this episode is the lack of development for the side characters.)

The hold is full of nuclear bombs, and the Doctor demands to know why. He also demands to know “what’s wrong with my yo-yo?” — in other words, why is there so much gravity on the moon? Lundvik alludes to something mysterious and terrible, and the nukes possibly coming in handy. Obviously the Doctor isn’t crazy about that, but he gets to keep his promise to Courtney, who is the first to emerge onto the lunar surface. (Ms. Woods: “One small thing for a thingie-thing!” Lundvik, dryly: “So much for history.”)

They make their way to an abandoned Mexican mining base — you can tell it’s Mexican because there is literally a poncho and bottle of tequila just lying around — and Lundvik says that something happened while the miners were here that led to the moon wreaking havoc on the tides, and it has only gotten worse. Yet the best the Earth could do is send “third-hand astronauts in a second-hand ship,” because no one was bothering with a space program at the time. But at the Mexican base, they find other things: creepy spider webs…eviscerated bodies…and, strangest of all, data readouts that show no minerals on the moon at all. The Doctor realizes that the lunar tectonic plates aren’t just shifting — the moon is literally crumbling apart. And something is getting out.

Right on cue, a HUGE F-ING SPIDER shows up and eats one of the astronauts. The thing is massive, and glowing red, like an acromantula on mushrooms. The whole sequence is terrifying and actually quite graphic for Who, but I’m not really complaining. Even the CG works, though it’s hard to screw up a huge f-ing spider, you know? So two out of the three astronauts have been eaten, and the others escape the room — except Courtney, who is about to be dinner as well until she inexplicably whips out a bottle of disinfectant spray as her only weapon on hand, and zaps the space spider into a smoking husk. The Doctor’s thought: the spider’s not a spider, it’s an enormous germ! Courtney, naturally, now just wants to go home.

Instead, the Doctor just sticks her back in the TARDIS. Why? Because they have to deal with this problem. Clara asks the question we’re all thinking: but we’ve been to the future, and there’s still a moon…isn’t there? The Doctor isn’t sure. “Maybe the moon isn’t the moon. Maybe it’s a hologram. Or a different moon.” More importantly, there are certain moments in history that the Doctor just can’t see, a reference to those “fixed points” that bugged the Doctor during the Russell T. Davies era. And this moment appears to be one of them — therefore, whatever happens is to be determined by these people still remaining on the moon. This is the show trying to have it both ways a little bit, as the “rules” of changing history have more or less shifted based on the whims of the writers, but we’ll roll with it for now.

In any case, the Doctor’s curiosity alone keeps them there, as he heads out onto the surface to investigate. After escaping his own near-death-experience near a cave infested with spider germs, he picks up a reading: amniotic fluid? Nothing for it but to jump off this ledge, I guess! “Will he be back? Ludvik asks. “If he says so,” replies Clara, “I suppose he will.” We are reminded that Clara, more than any other companion in the modern series, has if nothing else an unshakable faith in the Doctor. Foreshadowing!

Of course, the Doctor does come back, because we’re only halfway through the episode. And he’s made a curious, literally world-changing discovery: the moon is not the moon. The moon is an egg! And it’s hatching! There’s a giant thing inside the moon! How fantastic! “This is unique, and utterly beautiful,” the Doctor monologues in reverie. So leave it to Lundvik to say exactly what he doesn’t want to hear: “So how do we kill it?” Oh, well fine. If all you care about is saving the human race at the expense of destroying an extraordinary baby creature. (Boy, I hope no one looks at this episode through a political lens AUGH TOO LATE. If you think I’m touching that, you’re crazy.)

With this sequence, the episode officially shifts from creepy sci-fi to morality play. The Doctor essentially washes his hands of the whole affair; the nukes will probably do the trick, he says, but he wants no part of it. Clara wants to know why. “The future is no more malleable than the past,” the Doctor argues, as if that is an answer. “I’ve never killed Hitler! You wouldn’t expect me to kill Hitler.” (Except for that time he, uh, almost did.) “It’s your moon — it’s your choice.” And then he leaves. He just leaves! It’s an unusually heartless move, but maybe this is who the Doctor — or this Doctor — has been all along. Clara can’t believe it. Courtney (who was transported back to the base by putting a DVD in the Doctor’s media player, heh) is terrified. Ludvik, however, is as resolute as ever, believing this “choice” is a no-brainer, and starts the countdown clock on the bomb.

And am I a horrible person for thinking I agree? The life of one creature, however magnificent and unique, vs. the billions of souls on Earth? Because we don’t know what the Doctor clearly knows (thanks a lot, you jerk), the only reason this is even a debate is because of Clara’s unflagging optimism, and her fear of making a decision the Doctor would hate her for. As the spider germs spill out of every crack and crevasse on the lunar surface, she and Ludvik argue. “Imagine you’ve got children on Earth,” the astronaut fires. “Do you want that thing to get out?” Clara knows the answer is no (and Courtney, with a mocking “Mr. Piiiii-iiink!” does too), but she doesn’t want to be stuck making that decision. They put in a call to NASA, and broadcast their dilemma to the whole planet (or whoever happens to be watching at the time, which will have to be good enough): If you want us to nuke the creature, turn off your lights. If not, keep them on.

Okay, that’s a little cheesy. Even Clara has to know how this is going to go, right? Not to mention that they can only see half the planet as they orbit it — what if they’re over Siberia? Or the Pacific Ocean? No matter — once again, Clara is let down by the self-interest of the human race, as all across the horizon line, continents go dark. Kill the Beast, mankind says, just as it has always said. But Clara was never going to accept that answer, and, surprisingly, Ludvik doesn’t either. They abort the bomb. And just like we in the audience knew he would, the Doctor chooses that moment to reappear, snatching the three women into the TARDIS and to an unnamed beach back on Earth, where what we once knew as the moon hatches into…a gigantic space dragon, which lets out a cry and flies off into the infinite. But despite the implosion of the heavenly body, the beach remains strangely tranquil. What gives?

The Doctor goes into deep thought (you can tell because his eyes are closed): Humankind will not only survive this episode, but a new generation will be inspired to once again look up at the stars, and begin to travel between them. World governments will restart their space programs, and events have been set in motion for the colonization of distant planets (just don’t remind him about Mars, okay?), all because on this day, Earth caught a glimpse of something mysterious and beautiful. And — would you look at that — the space dragon even left us a new egg! Everybody lives! Again! Hooray! (It sounds sarcastic, but I actually did think this was a nifty ending. Once you get past the initial absurdity of THE MOON IS AN EGG, this is quintessential high-concept Who.)

But what elevates the hour from good to great is that it doesn’t end there. Clara is, rightfully, still smarting over her abandonment by the Doctor, and confronts him in the TARDIS: “Tell me what you knew, or I’ll smack you so hard you’ll regenerate.” (Great line.) “I knew you would always make the right choice,” the Doctor non-answers. This an excellent scene for both Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman — especially Jenna Coleman. She doesn’t get to show these kind of emotions very often, but she’s never been less than wonderful in an oft-underwritten role. And here, what the Doctor calls “respect,” leaving the choice in her hands, she calls patronizing. What about the countless times the Doctor HAS interfered? Is he saying that he never respected her before, or is this, as is painfully obvious, a half-baked excuse? What goes unsaid is that this Doctor just can’t bring himself to admit that he made a mistake. There’s no compassion or empathy here — the Doctor who would say “I am so sorry” enough times to make it its own joke is long gone. So, once again: who is this man? Clara doesn’t know, or doesn’t like the answer, so she’s officially had enough. “You go a long way away,” she orders, and walks out of the TARDIS, for what she wants to be the last time.

Is it the last time? Of course not; “Kill the Moon’s” epilogue continues as Clara spills everything to Danny (good for her, and a great edit here from the beginning of their conversation straight to the aftermath), and he calls her out: she’s not really done with him. Why else would she still be so angry? There are four episodes to go, five if you count the Christmas Special, so as Clara gazes up at the moon (that’s not really a moon), the countdown to her exit begins. Interestingly, she won’t appear in next week’s “Mummy on the Orient Express” — I’m totally hooked by that title — so the Doctor will have to discover how much he misses her.

Good episode; GREAT character work. It wasn’t perfect, but did exactly what it set out to do, as only Who can. I feel pretty comfortable saying this is the best season since the fifth (Moffat’s first as showrunner), and it has the chance to be even better.

 Grade: A-

One thought on “DOCTOR WHO: “Kill the Moon””

  1. It’s a great episode, particularly for Clara; unfortunately, it IS an obvious metaphor. I wish it was hope versus the absence of it…but the whole “woman kind” thing…the whole “baby thing”…ugh. I’ll just pretend that terrible metaphor wasn’t there and keep on truckin’….

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