Doctor Who is no stranger to outrageous, unbelievable plots. One could even say the show has practically been built on them. “Kill the Moon” is cut from a cloth that emphasizes emotional wallop and wonder over hard science, and for some folks that could be a difficult hurdle to overcome. If you’re one of the yeah-right people (as in “Yeeeaah, right!”), there’s a good chance this episode left you wanting something a little more grounded in reality. But if you’re a Doctor Who fan — and surely you must be or you wouldn’t be reading this — you’re used to suspending pachyderm-size amounts of disbelief. If you can do that with “Kill the Moon,” it’s a dazzling foray into the beautiful, demanding, and strange, cobbled together around a thrilling sense of uncertainty.
Right off the bat it grabs the viewer with an utterly compelling pre-credits sequence. At first it seemed a function of the script to join the proceedings mid-adventure — as if we’ve been thrown into the middle of a real-time episode: 45 minutes are on the countdown timer, Clara and her student Courtney are in the midst of something perilous, and the Doctor is nowhere to be found. Surely he’ll show up to save the day? We’ll find out soon enough that "Kill the Moon" isn’t nearly that predictable. Indeed, whatever criticisms one might have of the episode, predictability surely can’t be one of them (except for one thing, but we’ll come to that).
Post credits and we’re back at Coal Hill, where Clara takes the Doctor to task for telling Courtney she isn’t special, which has apparently done a number on the kid, and she’s now using the psychic paper as fake I.D. (The Doctor: "To get into museums?"). He is genuinely confounded by Clara’s chatter and does not understand why it might be important to buoy this girl’s confidence. There’s hypocrisy, denial, or maybe just plain obliviousness going on here, as the Doctor surely lives with and even thrives on the knowledge that he must be one of the most special beings in the universe. It isn’t until Courtney reads him a minor riot act that he softens, and soon enough, the trio heads to the moon so Courtney can be the first woman on it … and feel special. The Doctor is so inept at connecting with humans that making these sorts of grand gestures is the only way he can communicate.
But the TARDIS materializes instead on a space shuttle loaded with nuclear weaponry headed for the moon in the year 2049, where the trio meets another trio — the second unlikeliest group of astronauts ever (the first being the Far Out Space Nuts, of course), led by Captain Lundvik (Hermione Norris). One of the many great things about this episode is that it implies how foolish and broken mankind has become as a result of abandoning its space programs, and it’s a sad commentary that in this instance the only people even qualified to go into space are way past their physical prime. In many Doctor Who episodes, especially the old ones, the rest of the story would go ahead and take place on the space shuttle, but this episode moves swiftly into a glorious crash landing on the lunar surface.
There can be no amount of praise too high for the decision to shoot the moon’s surface on Lanzarote, one of the Canary Islands. This thing drips atmosphere and authenticity, and the first half especially plays much like an Alien movie, but never in ways that feel hackish — just spooky, haunted-house fun. The episode’s only monsters, the spiders, even have a face-hugger quality about them. Surely this was an ideal episode to kick off October.
The science seems pretty dodgy, and my friend John Iwaniszek says this on the subject: "The mass of the moon increased by magic. Only matter has mass, and gravity is produced by mass. It was not clear how the moon's gravity could increase without some source of new matter to increase its mass." John’s a smart guy, and I assume he knows what he’s talking about (it’s been a long time since I opened a science book). The science may be bad, but it serves a couple of purposes, not the least of which is the revelation that the moon is an enormous, billion-year-old egg. It’s a far-out-there idea, though no more far out than the entire premise of Space: 1999, which is a classic, and if we can accept that, let’s go along with this for 45 minutes, which isn’t as long as a whole TV series. The dodgy science also allows for this episode to take place on a moon with gravity, as a realistic lunar surface would’ve been nigh impossible to pull off on location. Even in studio it would’ve presented problems; there’s a reason every planet the TARDIS lands on has a gravity similar to Earth’s.
If the first half is about creeping terror, the second half cranks up the tension and emotion to 11. The Doctor is dazzled: "The moon isn’t breaking apart. It’s hatching. The moon’s an egg!" Everyone else is considerably less filled with wonder. Lundvik’s immediate reaction: "How do we kill it?" All three of the time travelers are less quick to call for blood, but the narrative kicks the stakes up several notches when the Doctor not only places the decision entirely in the hands of the three humans, but uncharacteristically hops in the TARDIS and abandons them entirely. It’s not even unreasonable to assume he went off and had one or two or even several solo adventures. I mentioned earlier that there was one predictable aspect here, and that was when Clara jumped in and hit the abort button. No matter what the people of Earth may have decided, it never seemed possible that she would allow this peculiar brand of holocaust to occur. It almost feels as though the episode is robbed of its climax; however, the real climax is yet to come
So, yes, the scene between Clara and the Doctor — the scene it feels as though the entire season has been building toward. What a thing of devastating, heartrending beauty. Clara’s frustrations were understood, as she was literally seconds away from not only destroying this magnificent new life form, but possibly herself, Courtney, and Lundvik as well. (Though surely under either circumstance the Doctor would’ve shown up and whisked them from harm’s way, yes? I have to believe so.) She has every right to tear into him as she does … and yet, he’s innocent. He genuinely felt as though he was doing exactly the right thing. The angrier and more emotional she gets, the more baffled and distant the look on his face becomes. I think this is a, if not the, defining moment for the Twelfth Doctor. This is his inability to clearly see and understand humanity at its most pained and vulnerable. There’s much to discuss about this episode. The material feels as though it’s intended to spark thought. Fans should gather together in groups either in person or online and have furious debates over it. Despite featuring a teenage lead, "Kill the Moon" is Doctor Who at its most refreshingly adult.
Odds and ends
- The Doctor’s heartfelt speech on the beach about humanity was highly reminiscent of a similarly impassioned one the Fourth Doctor gave in “The Ark in Space.” Likewise, the Doctor used a similar yo-yo in that tale. Likewise, it had critters coming after the protagonists. It seems probable that freshman Who scribe Peter Harness had a look at that story at some point during the writing process.
- The post-script scene with Danny appears to show things are going swimmingly for the couple, and it speaks highly of Danny Pink’s character that he so easily accepts Clara’s other life without any jealousy or resentment, because, let’s face it, that’s the last thing she needs right now.
- Tony Osoba, who played Duke, also had sizable roles in 1979’s “Destiny of the Daleks” and 1987’s "Dragonfire." Phil Nice, who played Henry, appeared in Torchwood: Miracle Day.
- "It’s time to take the stabilizers off your bike." —The Doctor
- Doctor Who previously filmed on location in Lanzarote for Peter Davison’s penultimate story, "Planet of Fire," from 1984.
- "Look, when you’ve grown up a bit you’ll realize that everything doesn’t have to be nice. Some things are just bad." —Captain Lundvik
- The second part of the TARDIS rules — "No being sick and no hanky panky!" — is old-school Who 101, spoken aloud for the very first time.
- This episode was actually written for Matt Smith. How different must it have been, and what sorts of rewrites were done, to accommodate the character arcs of Clara and the Twelfth Doctor?
- The Doctor tells Lundvik if she shoots him, he may keep on regenerating forever. This is the season’s first acknowledgment of the Doctor’s new life cycle, and his acknowledgment of how little he knows about his own physiology at this point.
- "Maybe something’s trying to figure out how you’re put together … or how you tasted." —The Doctor
- Of the many things the episode asks us to believe, the single hardest thing for me to swallow was that the creature could lay an egg the size of itself in an instant.
- "My granny used to put things on Tumblr." – Captain Lundvik
- The DVD Courtney uses to bring the TARDIS back is a reference to "Blink."