Doctor Who Season 8, Episode 7 “Kill The Moon”
Directed by Paul Wilmshurst
Written by Peter Harness
Starring Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Samuel Anderson, Ellis George, Hermione Norris
Air Date: Saturday, October 4th, 2014
Doctor Who has a long, long history with “the base under siege.” Introduced to the series as a way to save money when the show was forced back into smaller production facilities because of lower ratings in the late 1960s, it provided a way to produce a lot of multi-week serials on a small number of standing sets.
The formula generally includes: the Doctor and companions arrive at a base (or other solid structure) in some remote location, they discover the inhabitants, the base comes under attack, the politics and conflicts among those in the base come to the surface, the Doctor and/or the companions are put in jeopardy, the jeopardy is resolved, and the Doctor uses his unique skills to save the base. Two of the most memorable recent stories of this type are “Silence In The Library/Forest Of The Dead” and “The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People.” Notice that those stories are two episodes. This one isn’t.
Feelings about this episode depend on how much you like Steven Moffat‘s execution of the Doctor Who concept. All of Moffat’s strengths are here: original and ambitious story ideas, snappy dialogue, and dramatic punch. The weaknesses are too: the compressed story pace and the (at times) painfully direct plotting. One of his other frequently cited sins, how he writes for women, is not; as with many recently, this is Clara’s episode and the speech she delivers to rebuke the Doctor at its end is somewhat unlike anything in Doctor Who history. This episode has all the ingredients to be a magnificent episode, a season high point, and executes nearly all of them strongly. For this viewer however, it’s not a question of the greatness of the source material but rather how much better the episode might have been if it were two parts.
Take the motion picture Alien as a classic example of the base under siege concept. There is a small cast of characters that we are allowed to get to know and with whom we can empathize. Those characters find something extremely nasty on a moon in a strange star system, and because of some seemingly innocent character flaws (or so it seems), that thing gets loose on their ship in space and starts killing them with extreme prejudice. There are a small number of deaths because the number of characters is small, but each is meaningful because we’ve spent a little time with each of them. When one of them turns out to have acted against the others from the beginning, the shock is deeper because we thought we knew what was going on. The jeopardy and the claustrophobia of the dark confines of the ship feel more real because we see the characters fight and communicate, fail and die.
Now cut all that in half to fit it into an hour TV show slot. I defy anyone to say that it will be as good.
That is the state of affairs with “Kill The Moon” as I see it. It has all the ingredients to be a Doctor Who story for the ages. The visual effects on the Moon were generally dazzling. There was some genuine suspense and horror in the spider-creature attacks. The notion of so explicitly putting the plot solely in the hands of Clara was somewhat unique (so far). In “Listen,” Clara was great because she got to create, to drive the plot. In that case, the sphere of her influence was small — just a few individuals. Here, she chooses the future for her whole home planet and her species. She’s truly put on equal footing with the Doctor, because he abdicates the act of decision at a critical moment and leaves it squarely in her hands.
It doesn’t quite get there because it’s too short. With the exception of Captain Lundvik, there are no supporting characters in this story. She arrives with two other astronauts but both are killed before viewers can know anything about them, in part because there is no time in an hour episode to give them anything meaningful to say. There is only one meaningful bit of jeopardy for the Doctor, Clara, or new companion Courtney because that’s what time allows. Captain Lundvik turns out to be a little meek in her convictions as the time to choose approaches because there isn’t time to deeply debate their options.
Finally, this episode repeats an annoying tendency that Moffat and his producing partners have shown previously: provide a momentous set up in one episode and explore it quickly and completely in the next, rather than build any kind of longer story arc. So, when we discover that River Song is actually Melody Pond at the end of “A Good Man Goes To War,” the bulk of River’s back story is filled with events in “Let’s Kill Hitler” (though after a two month gap in broadcast). Likewise, when a potential weakness is found in Clara’s friendship with the Doctor at the end of “The Caretaker,” that weakness is exploited the very next week in “Kill The Moon.”
Television has gotten much better at including story arcs of varying length in the last 20 years. Doctor Who has not been an exception with some fine season-long story threads, but this seems a bit excessive. The dramas that do this sort of thing best tend to know that some things best build slowly.
All this does not mean that I didn’t enjoy “Kill The Moon.” I enjoyed it, immensely. It was amazing to see Clara blow up at the Doctor and then see Danny prove himself even more competently the Doctor’s foil in how he counsels her afterward. The episode scared me, and thrilled me. Peter Capaldi‘s performance was beautifully eccentric, even if I’m not a fan of polka dots. It has so much to recommend it… but it still seemed short when compared with other classics of its genre in the long history of Doctor Who.
P.S. As someone who was born before Apollo 11 landed on the Moon and who wanted to be an astronaut when he was very young, the premise of this episode is utterly unsupported by science. Apollo 15 brought a rock sample of anorthosite dubbed the “Genesis Rock” that indicates the Moon’s age to be over four billion years old. Current science suggests that the Moon formed after a large asteroid collision in the early days of the solar system shattered the Earth. The bulk of the debris re-formed the Earth. Some coalesced into the Moon. The Moon has played a key role in the formation of the biosphere on Earth since that time through the regulation of ocean tides and protection of the Earth from destruction by near-Earth objects.