Thursday, 9 October 2014

The title of the latest Doctor Who episode may have reminded you of Steven Moffat’s Let’s Kill Hitler, or of that quote from Romeo and Juliet. But is Peter Harness’ Kill The Moon an epic of Shakespearean quality that will endure for centuries or a big pile of crap with no redeeming qualities other than one of history’s most evil men being comically punched in the face? Or somewhere in the middle?

The Doctor takes Clara and Coal Hill pupil Courtney on a trip to the moon, only to find that something’s up with its gravity (I love how he uses a yo-yo for this, much cooler than the oft-overused sonic screwdriver). This is apparently causing chaos for those down on Earth, and so our time travellers bump into Lundvik (Hermione Norris) and her astronaut henchmen, sent to blow up the moon. Which will make everything fine. I’m not going to try to work out the science here. 

The team’s search of the barren lunar landscape leads them to a worryingly cobwebbed Mexican research project, and its not long before they’re under attack from very deadly spiders. With a Lanzarote volcano standing in effectively for the moon, this early section of the episode looks and feels great, an isolated horror reminiscent of The Waters of Mars and certainly not comfortable for arachnophobes.

And then, at its midpoint, Kill The Moon takes an unexpected twist. The Doctor works out what’s going on: the spiders are bacteria, and the moon is… an egg. Housing a giant alien creature, about to hatch. And we’re treated to one of the best pieces of dialogue in the history of Doctor Who:

“I think that it’s unique. I think that it’s the only one of its kind in the universe. I think that that is… utterly beautiful.”

“How do we kill it?”

Ouch. A heartbreaking statement of intent, and a curt summary of the moral dilemma that makes up the second half of the episode. The Doctor, appearing callous in a way unexpected of previous incarnations, but with the best of intentions in letting humanity decide its own fate, buggers off. Clara, Lundvik and Courtney are left with a difficult choice – kill the creature and save Earth, or let it live and risk bits of moon-egg falling into the atmosphere. I love sci-fi that deals with tough dilemmas and the interchanges here are exquisite. Lundvik, who has no children, is cold and logical – one life to save the entire earth is no loss to her – and uses the argument that Clara might have children down on Earth to try to convince her to save them. But it’s Clara’s caring, you could say maternal, side that keeps her firmly in favour of not blowing up baby. Is this an exploration of maternity? A metaphor for abortion? (If so, is it problematic that it comes to a pro-life conclusion?) This is worthy of a lot of discussion, but however you interpret it, what we have is three female characters arguing about whether it’s right to kill an unborn. Which, compared to the likes of Time Heist, is pretty deep stuff.

But, despite this great central dilemma, Kill The Moon does have its flaws…

Firstly, once the moon’s secret has been revealed, the episode is suddenly lacking in physical threat. A great monster has been set up in the ‘bacteria’ spiders, but they just… stop attacking. Why? The bomb countdown set by Lundvik is arbitrary and dramatically meaningless, because the heroes have control over it, so the situation would be much more immediately tense if they were under attack and had to make their decision before the spiders overwhelmed them. At one point, the three of them run down a corridor in slow motion with explosions going on around them, for no real reason other than  that the director probably realised how visually dull the surrounding scenes are.

Secondly, I want to know more about Lundvik and her team. She’s a very interesting character – the loner scientist who’s concluded that “some things are just bad” – and so I wanted to know more about how she got to this point, what made her so bitter. More backstory would have made her side in the big debate even more powerful. But a bigger problem is her team, who are just… well, nobodies. One of them is presented as the bumbling comedy moron who worries about how to find the instruction manual for the nuclear bombs he’s been entrusted with. Even considering Lundvik’s line about them being the last astronauts left on an Earth turned against space travel, this Mr. Bean wannabe would never had been allowed within five kilometres of NASA. Giving either of them a hint of personality wouldn’t have hurt, either.

Thirdly, Courtney, while a great addition to mix up the TARDIS dynamic, didn’t do enough to earn her place in this episode. Her early nervousness and desire to go home seemed like a set-up for her to build some courage and save the day in the episode’s climax, but no. She sort of stood around as Clara did stuff. Plus, she gave us one of the worst lines of dialogue in the history of Doctor Who:

“One small thing for a thing, one enormous thing for a thingy thing.”

Fuck’s sake. I complained about series eight’s abuse of the word thing last week, but it’s fought back, and it’s fought back hard.

Anyway. Kill the Moon isn’t brilliant, but teeters on the brink of brilliance. Issues with its characters and its suspense aside, this was the kind of sci-fi that has a deep ethical dilemma at its heart, and a load of great dialogue exploring that issue. And the same cannot be said for Let’s Kill Hitler.

Next week: Thing on the Orient Express, followed by In the Forest of the Thing, Thing of the Daleks, and The Last Thing of the Time Things.


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