“An innocent life versus the future of mankind. We have forty five minutes to decide.”
It was another moral dilemma for the Doctor this week – he seems to be getting a lot of them of late. In the past, this was the show’s way of presenting the philosophy of its hero; perhaps the most notable example being the Fourth Doctor’s agonising decision over whether to save the universe from the Daleks by committing genocide against them before they were even created. As a moral dilemma, it’s hard to see a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer to that one clearly, and in fact the script for Genesis of the Daleks cheats by having the choice almost immediately taken out of the Doctor’s hands.
Kill the Moon had its resolution hinge on a moral dilemma that was virtually a retread of that one – and like that one, there was no easy answer. The trouble was that this time, rather than ‘cheat’ by sparing us a decision, writer Peter Harness decided that there is a ‘right’ answer after all. And unfortunately, I’m not at all convinced of that. It all just seemed far too convenient – for reasons I’ll come back to.
But to be even-handed first, it’s worth mentioning that there was some pretty good stuff in this episode, before the misjudged moralising of the final act. Peter Capaldi continues to impress as the Doctor, this time more reminiscent of Tom Baker’s early days than ever before. All that dialogue about how the Earth and the Moon weren’t his home, and therefore not his responsibility, was a welcome change from the crass heroics of David Tennant declaring, “it is defended!”; and a virtual repeat of one of Tom Baker’s lines from Pyramids of Mars. And if you found his seemingly cold abandonment of Clara, Courtney and Lundvik to make their own decision a surprise, it’s worth recalling Tom’s equally aloof refusal to help the Krynoid-infected biologist in The Seeds of Doom – “you must help yourselves.”
Since David Tennant’s generally easy going portrayal, it seems that Steven Moffat has been keen to emphasise that the Doctor is not a human being. With Matt Smith, that alienness was conveyed through humour more than anything; but Capaldi seems to have looked at Tom Baker’s early portrayal and been inspired by its mixture of humour with genuine aloofness and more than a touch of arrogance.
Similarly, the more human Clara Oswald gets, the more interesting she sees to be. When she was functioning as little more than a plot puzzle, she never felt fully realised; by now, we know how human – and occasionally fallible – she can be. Her tantrum at the Doctor this week, while perhaps seeming like an overreaction compared to some of the situations he’s put her into, has been a long time coming and is probably deserved. Given meatier material to work with than just ‘flirtatious witty Moffat heroine’ Jenna Coleman has been excellent in recent weeks.
Moffat continues to experiment with the companion role, taking it to some interesting places. Amy and Rory, in latter episodes, brought in the idea that companions might live their own lives rather than spend all their time with the Doctor till they leave the show. That’s continuing with Clara, but her difficulties in balancing her double life seem more realistic than Amy and Rory, who just shrugged and got on with it. Not to mention her far more fractious relationship with the Doctor – this kind of outright conflict between the two leads has been done before, but never in such a well-developed way. As a reaction to the character of Capaldi’s Doctor, Clara’s big bust-up with him is perfectly understandable.
We had a good guest character too, in Hermione Norris’ hard-bitten astronaut Lundvik. Norris, who I always enjoy, did seem to be sort of replaying her role as hard-bitten spy Ros Myers from Spooks somewhat – but no matter, Ros Myers in space is not necessarily a bad thing. And at least she had a character. Her two fellow astronauts were barely given time for two lines each before being killed, and certainly not given personalities. Rather a shame to waste Tony Osoba as Duke, in his third appearance for the show after Destiny of the Daleks and Dragonfire.
Kill the Moon felt like it had a wildly uneven tone and style, and the first half of the episode felt very enjoyable in a trad-Who sort of way. It was nice to have a story in a setting that was nothing like the Earth, and the surface of the Moon was nicely visualised for the most part. The script presented us first with a mystery – what’s happening to the Moon? – then another – what happened at the abandoned Mexican base? – then finally a claustrophobic bit of horror, as the ‘spiders’ attacked the abandoned base, and skeletal bodies in spacesuits cluttered up the lunar landscape.
There’s a fair bit of cribbing there – the abandoned base felt like the one from the beginning of The Thing, the astronaut corpses reminiscent of those from Planet of Evil. But apparently briefed to give us a Philp Hinchcliffe-style start to the story, Harness and director Paul Wilmshurst pulled it off pretty well. The ‘spiders’ (a reliable staple of sci fi horror) were fairly convincing one at a time, and creepy if you happen to be arachnophobic; though the visualisation of thousands of them pouring out of fissures in the Moon worked rather less well. Still, this is BBC Wales, not Miramax.
The trouble was, while an unenjoyable first half of an episode can be redeemed by a satisfying conclusion, for me this went exactly the other way. As soon as we were introduced to the concept of the planet-sized lifeform gestating within the Moon (another sci-fi cliché from the likes of Star Trek and Blake’s 7), the tone and style of the story changed dramatically to something far less satisfying. And the way the moral dilemma that became central to the final act was ultimately resolved left me with a bit of a bad taste in my mouth that, for me, spoiled the good stuff that had gone before.
As has been standard in recent weeks, Kill the Moon has fairly evenly divided fans into love and hate. Of those who hate it, one of the most frequent criticisms has been of its scientific inaccuracy. To an extent, that is somewhat unfair. Doctor Who has never been renowned for scientific accuracy, and its entire premise depends on the viewers suspending their disbelief enough to accept that a 2000 year old alien who looks like a person takes people travelling through all of space and time in a ship that looks like a phone box and is bigger on the inside than the outside.
So I’m perfectly happy to gloss over some questionable assertions about gravity and unstable mass – not least because I’m not much of a scientist myself, and would likely be no more accurate if I tried to justify the criticism. I’m prepared to accept – just – that the ‘spiders’, despite being clearly quite complex lifeforms with multiple different organs, were actually “unicellular organisms”. I can just about think it’s OK that they can survive in an airless vacuum that alternates between -173 and 116 degrees Celsius – after all, they’re a new species, who knows what they’re capable of?
But I have a much harder time dealing with it when the show gets the absolute basics of science, the sort of stuff that “every schoolboy knows” so glaringly wrong. So, because the Moon is actually an egg, the Mexican survey team found no minerals, because, as the script pointed out, it’s made of eggshell, not rock. Er, no. Because people have been to the Moon and brought some of the rock back and analysed it – you can see it in museums. Unless the show’s alleging that the Moon landings were a hoax a couple of years after it actually showed them in Day of the Moon.
And yes, hatching eggs don’t usually “destroy the nest”. But they don’t usually disintegrate into dust either, if that’s the analogy you want to make. Even if the Moon was made of some kind of eggshell, Lundvik’s presumption that the debris would hit Earth and cause catastrophic damage seemed like the right call. No matter what it was made of, there was no reason to presume that it wouldn’t impact Earth and cause severe damage.
The fact that it didn’t was central to the – in my view – misjudged attempt to answer the moral dilemma from Genesis of the Daleks. The fact that the shell just disintegrated, even though there was no reason for the humans to expect it to, and that the creature conveniently laid another ‘Moon’ before flying off and leaving Earth alone (which Earth would have surely been right to worry about) was used to vindicate Clara and Courtney’s decision not to kill it. A decision explicitly endorsed by the Doctor when he reappeared.
You’d have to be blindly optimistic to base the answer to this moral dilemma on an optimistic certainty that these most wildly unlikely results of the scenario would come to pass. It’s not a nice answer either way, but weighing the lives of billions of humans against one space creature, no matter how beautiful and unique, it seems bonkers to favour the latter in blind hope that everything will turn out all right beyond all reason. The fact that it ultimately did was optimistic, sure, but it felt like such a convenient vindication of “the right thing to do” that, to me, it came across as false.
There’s been a lot of argument online as to whether this scenario was meant as an analogy for the debate over abortion. That seems a little heavy for a teatime family show (even if it is on at 8.30pm), but I must admit it was the first parallel that came into my head when I was watching it. That’s a debate I can uncomfortably see both sides of; and if this was an analogy for it, it seemed to me that it fell very firmly into the ‘pro-life’ camp with its emotive use of phrases like “It’s just a baby”, “you’re talking about killing a baby” and “you can’t blame a baby for killing” (morally perhaps not, but pragmatically?)
The parallel may not have been the author’s intention – indeed, I hope not, as I find the idea of a moral certainty over either side of the argument a trifle concerning. But I can certainly see why people read it that way.
But for me, the crowning problem with the story’s moral stance was its view of humanity as a species. Capaldi had another Tom Baker-emulating moment when he soliloquised about the admirable, enduring nature of humanity; and yet he’s been slagging them off constantly since he regenerated.
You could take that as his soft centre below the abrasive exterior, but the story’s final act doesn’t back that view up. Lundvik’s first reaction on learning of the creature, despite the Doctor enthusing that it’s “utterly beautiful” is “how can we kill it?” Then Clara gives the population of the Earth the chance to ‘vote’ on whether or not to kill the creature, like a sort of mega-abortion X Factor; though in another example of staggering scientific ineptitude, only the half of the Earth that’s currently dark gets the chance to participate. When they do, the population unanimously votes for the creature’s death – there’s not a single light left on, not one human voice speaking up for the creature’s right to live.
That’s a pretty cynical view of humanity, and very much at odds with the Doctor’s leonising of them in his final speech. It also seems like, in the circumstances, the best decision anyone could have made. The fact that the script then shows everyone to have been wrong (except Clara, Courtney and the Doctor) for the most unlikely of reasons doesn’t come across as hope and optimism so much as false vindication of “the nice thing to do”. Morality is rarely that black and white, and I thought the show was currently trying to show how such massive decisions have equally massive consequences. This one seemed to be consequence-free, and as such it didn’t convince at all.
Using such plot contrivance to justify an easy answer to a very difficult moral question really soured me on the episode as a whole, no matter how good the fist half was. As I say, there was a fair bit of good stuff here – but at the end of the story, I was just left with an impression of a very convenient and questionably uncomplex moral choice. I could probably have overlooked either the questionable morality or the glaring scientific howlers in isolation; but both together rather spoiled the story for me. If it hadn’t been trying to Say Something Serious, it would have worked a lot better; but if you’re reaching for profundity, you’d better have something to back it up – and for me, this story really didn’t.