Monday, October 6, 2014

Women, Choices, And (Almost) Perfect Doctor Who: “Kill The Moon!”

The Good: Great character moments, Decent performances, Engaging plot development, Special effects
The Bad: Premise problems in the concept and resolution
The Basics: “Kill The Moon” is so close to perfect that its issues are almost easy to overlook, but the power of the episode is gutted by one or two questions the audience is not able to reconcile.

When I encounter great television, I find myself excited and happy to be a reviewer. After all, I love talking about film and storytelling and when my wife got into Doctor Who late last year, I’ve discovered that the best episodes of the series spark conversations between us. “Kill The Moon” certainly did that for us and while my wife has some great theories to explain away the problems I have with the episode – and they are all based in the minutiae – they are not supported by the episode itself, which robs the episode of being a rare, perfect episode. That said, “Kill The Moon” is ridiculously close to perfect and that is impressive given that some of the moments hinge on the young actress Ellis George.

What makes “Kill The Moon” so good is the fact that the episode evolves. What starts as a throwaway adventure turns into a creepy episode and then into a philosophical debate. But unlike some of the episodes of Doctor Who where a philosophical concept is explored and executed, “Kill The Moon” actually has big character-based consequences for The Doctor and his companion, Clara Oswald. That there is a significant character-based consequence to what could be an “alien of the week” story elevates “Kill The Moon” and makes for a great hour of television. Unfortunately, it also makes it difficult to discuss “Kill The Moon” without skirting close to spoilers for the episode (I’ll try to minimize the spoilerific aspects in this review!).

“Kill The Moon” picks up very shortly after “The Caretaker” (reviewed here!) and it immediately begins with a sense of consequence to the prior episode. “The Caretaker” had The Doctor on Earth with Clara at the Coal Hill school. Interacting with people there led The Doctor to very casually pick one of the students, Courtney, to whisk away in the TARDIS and that has consequences in “Kill The Moon.”

Following The Doctor’s interaction with the somewhat troubled student at Coal Hill, Courtney, Clara complains about how Courtney has been acting since. Apparently, Courtney stole The Doctor’s psychic paper and has been acting out because The Doctor flippantly remarked that Courtney was not at all special. Asking The Doctor to reassure the girl that she is, in fact, special, The Doctor offers to take Courtney to the moon where she will become the first woman on the moon. But the trip takes Clara, Courtney and The Doctor to 2049 where they discover the TARDIS has landed not on the moon, but rather on a space shuttle that is headed to the moon and crashes there.

The Doctor almost instantly discovers that the gravity on the moon is off; it, in fact, has a gravity field that it should not have. The Doctor’s team learns that the shuttle is being sent to the moon, ten years after a Mexican mining expedition to the moon lost contact with Earth, to potentially destroy the moon with nuclear bombs. Clara is initially unimpressed by the dilemma; she has been to the future and knows the moon exists, but The Doctor insists that he does not know the outcome of events in play. That ambiguity soon turns horrible for Clara when it becomes clear that the moon is infested with what appears to be giant, extraterrestrial spiders, but the crew realizes are antibodies for a giant embryo. Facing the idea that the moon is, in fact, a massive, one hundred million year-old egg that is about to crack and leave Earth without a satellite and potentially threatened by what comes out, Clara squares off against the last astronaut and The Doctor. With The Doctor refusing to influence events, Clara, Courtney and the astronaut struggle to choose how best to save Earth and humanity or the emergent life form.

“Kill The Moon” starts out and finishes with two somewhat ridiculous premises and that is all that robs the episode of perfection. In trying to suddenly be human to Courtney (at Clara’s behest), The Doctor chooses to take Courtney to the moon to be the first woman to step foot on the moon. That premise is fine, but in the Doctor Who universe, that would mean going back to the past: early in the third season of the relaunched Doctor Who, the episode “Smith And Jones” had plenty of humans stuck on the moon. In short, writer Peter Harness fails to adequately explain why The Doctor would need to go into the future to make Courtney the first woman on the moon; especially when it would take the TARDIS to one of history’s blind spots for The Doctor. The only other serious problem with the episode comes at the episode’s climax. In reality, there are no entities that are born pregnant – the closest would be in Star Trek’s “The Trouble With Tribbles” (reviewed here!) and that is, obviously, not reality. So, while “Kill The Moon” could not – even in the Doctor Who Universe – end without the Earth having a moon, the way that happens is not intellectually satisfying. The biology of an egg that takes 100,000,000 years to gestate, ten years to hatch and then both cracks out almost instantly with the ability to drop a new egg is dubious.

Even so, “Kill The Moon” is impressive and smart. When the TARDIS appears on the moon and the crew is hunted by the spiders that are revealed to be massive single-celled organisms, I had the fear that “Kill The Moon” would actually just be a cheap retread of the Star Trek: Voyager episode “Macrocosm” (reviewed here!). Fortunately, the episode quickly moves away from being a suspense or action episode. Instead, “Kill The Moon” becomes a simultaneous debate on the sanctity of life (whether it is ethical to destroy a planet to let a unique life form come into being or if humanity must be saved) and the power of choice. Doctor Who does not offer easy answers and perhaps one of the greatest moments in the new Doctor’s story is when he declares that humans have to make some of their own choices unimpeded by an alien like him and he abandons Clara on the moon.

“Kill The Moon” climaxes in a conflict between The Doctor and Clara. Truth be told, I’m not a huge fan of Clara. But in “Kill The Moon,” Clara rises to the occasion and becomes a viable and interesting character who does not want the responsibility of make a choice for all of humanity. That and her profound and realistic reaction to the Doctor’s actions make her suddenly viable and compelling. Jenna Coleman sells Clara’s angst perfectly and her fury after the action of the episode is intensely-delivered.

Even Ellis George rises to the occasion as Courtney. Courtney was a pretty generic brat in “The Caretaker,” but in “Kill The Moon,” she has a very interesting and realistic arc. George plays Courtney as a girl who oscillates between excited, terrified and bored. She manages to play all along the emotional spectrum without ever feeling erratic or like she is not playing the same character throughout.

Peter Capaldi is wonderful as The Doctor in “Kill The Moon.” Instead of just being cranky, Capaldi plays The Doctor as existing on a higher moral plane. The Doctor refuses to advocate killing the emergent life form and he asks Clara to take a moral stand, without stepping in to make the choice for her. Until now, The Doctor has been cranky and short-tempered – in fact, his prior crankiness is what initiates the action of the episode. In “Kill The Moon,” he moves beyond that to a place where he exhibits faith and genuine appreciation for Clara and humanity in general. Capaldi makes the transition work.

Ultimately, “Kill The Moon” is science fiction at its best (more or less): it has an audacious premise, but grounds the extraordinary in a universal or deeply human theme. That makes the episode successful when it could have been ridiculous.

[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Doctor Who - The Complete Eighth Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the debut season of Peter Capaldi as The Doctor here!


For other Doctor Who episode and movie reviews, please visit my Doctor Who Review Index Page!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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