• 6th October 2014 • Review by Julian Hazeldine •
It would be tempting, and certainly fitting, to describe “Kill the Moon” as a curate’s egg, but the accepted use of the expression as a mixture of good and bad overlooks the intentions of the Punch cartoonist who coined it. Obviously, an even partially-rotten egg is inedible, and the illustration was intended to showcase a misplaced desire to be polite about a revolting meal. There’s no such need to be charitable about “Kill the Moon”, as there’s genuinely much to admire in the story. But it’s hard to view it with unadulterated delight, due to a slightly excessive illustration of the Twelfth Doctor’s flaws, and an unmistaken pro-life message in the narrative.
But let’s start with those positives. This episode is easily the most convincing realisation of an off-world setting in the history of Doctor Who. The digitally-coloured Lanzarote scenery makes for a breathtaking lunar surface, and is more than enough to make the viewer accept the unconvincing explanation for the earth-normal gravity. Speaking of which, it’s hard to believe that last year’s Alfonso Cuarón film wasn’t an influence on the production, and its pseudo-realistic depiction of the moon. When Series Three tried to depict a gritty space setting, it reached for the baby oil and filmed in an abandoned factory. This time, there are no compromises, and the realisation of the lunar surface sees a continuation of the high production values displayed during the show’s anniversary celebrations.
Dog-sized spiders are a distantly cheap shot when it comes to creating a scary Who monster, although the ‘germ’ analogy restores some dignity by providing a distinctive twist. The tale could arguably have functioned without the parasites, but the first half would have been slightly slower, and the body-horror terror nicely balances the more psychological scares we’ve had so far in this series, through “Deep Breath”‘s clockwork restaurant and the nocturnal wanderer in “Listen”‘s children’s home.
Despite all the death, there’s no trip to heaven this week, but Missy and her otherworldly tea rooms are a red herring; the real series arc is the way that Clara, Danny and the new Doctor relate to each other. “Kill the Moon” puts the Doctor to the fore, and escalates his behaviour from irascible to frankly unlikable. When Armando Iannucci was looking to dispel the widespread belief that Malcolm Tucker had just been cast as the Doctor, The Thick of It‘s co-creator tweeted that he was sure his friend would make a wise, caring and funny Doctor. So far, it looks as if the majority view was closer to the mark…
We’ve been in similar situations before to the one presented here, but not with a Doctor behaving this way. When our species was sitting on top of a space whale, the enraged eleventh Doctor was on the point of effectively killing the creature himself, although contorted with rage that humanity had put him in such a situation. When “Cold Blood” saw the Doctor in a time and place where he felt that he had no right to interfere in the negotiations between the humans and Silurians, he sat right in the front row, willing both species to succeed. Here, he simply leaves his companions in the lurch, either through disinterest or as a personal development exercise. Neither reflects well on him, and Clara’s decision to quit at the conclusion of the story is understandable.
Stepping aside from looking at this individual episode for a couple of minutes, it’s interesting to speculate as to exactly what’s eating at the Twelfth Doctor. While his behaviour might be just a quirk of this incarnation, we’ve never seen such a strong streak of arrogance before, and it could well be the result of his predecessor’s final adventures. Discovering that he in fact saved Gallifrey single/triple-handedly will have given his ego a kick-start, and as he points out in this episode, the massive dose of regenerative energy he received on Trenzalore could well have left him effectively immortal.
The Third Doctor had his moments of arrogance, but mixed them with affectations such as Bessie which left it impossible to take offence. Sylvester McCoy’s planet-bomber hid his true nature behind juggling and a goofy smile. Even the war-veteran Ninth Doctor knew when to turn on the charm. In contrast, the Twelfth simply isn’t any fun to be with. His only apparent hobby is solving algebra problems on the blackboards which litter the console room. Capaldi’s take is all-dour, all the time, and it makes moments when he’s supposed to be expressing joy, such as in witnessing the moon hatching, hard to take seriously. Wider reactions to this portrayal seem to be mixed, with some hailing the greatest Doctor ever, while others are turning off in disgust that their hero’s definition of “never cowardly or cruel” no longer matches any used on Earth. I wouldn’t deny the brilliance of Capaldi’s performance, but the attitude his character shows to his companions is borderline abusive. Hopefully his moment of redemption isn’t being held back for the end of the series, but will arrive rather sooner.
Capaldi may dominate the story, but he’s simply one part of an excellent cast. Jenna Coleman clearly relishes the chance to show some fire, and Clara’s decision to end her friendship with the Doctor is gradually built over the course of the story. Most of the guest cast are jettisoned early, to allow a tight focus on Hermione Norris’ retired astronaut. It’s a sensible move in view of the slightly-expanded TARDIS team, and the binary nature of the moral dilemma at the close of the episode means that the early casualties aren’t missed.
The second source of discomfort here is the strong anti-abortion message threaded into the narrative. Faced with a choice between killing the unborn creature at the heart of the moon and facing massive risk to all life on Earth, Clara offers the decision to an unexpectedly-unanimous humanity, only to override their wishes and save the unborn in a spontaneous fit of conscience. At which point, everything turns out for the best; the Doctor returns, the ‘flea’ turns out to be a beautiful dragon-butterfly, the moon’s surface disintegrates harmlessly and, in a frankly laughable development, the newborn lays a replacement satellite considerably larger than its body.
Some have expressed a view that this is an unavoidable consequence of the irresistibly Who-ish “The Moon’s an egg” plot, but it would have been possible to write around this. Suppose instead of an egg, a turtle in hibernation as the metaphor? Possibly an intelligent one, willing to sacrifice itself rather than risk obliterating the Earth’s crust? The filmed version of the script is genuinely puzzling. The anti-abortion message is too overpowering to have been missed by the production team, but surely someone would have referred to the BBC’s editorial guidelines on such matters?
There’s lots to enjoy in the episode, but these flies in the ointment stop me viewing it with the unconditional love others have expressed. The Doctor’s character arc is making him distinctly unpleasant company, and the narrative’s message leaves an even more lingering aftertaste.
All things considered, “Kill The Moon” offers the first thirty minutes of one of the best Doctor Who stories ever made. Not something that needs wrapping up in a cliché after all.