That’s no moon, it’s a great episode of Doctor Who
HE RUNS. The Doctor always runs. This is true in the literal sense; it’s become a bit of a running joke that, since its earliest iterations, the Doctor has always been running around dealing with other people’s problems but, when the problem becomes personal, he runs. When a teenage girl asks him if he truly thinks she’s special – he runs. The Doctor is just like the rest of us; he’s afraid. We saw this in the superb ‘Listen’, he has the same fears. Maybe I was wrong a moment ago. He’s not really like us at all; he has quite firmly embraced his alien side.
Between ‘The Caretaker’ and this week’s superb episode ‘Kill The Moon’, we can see what Stephen Moffat has been trying to show us all along; the Doctor can act humanely but he can never act as a human. In ‘Into the Dalek’, the Dan Abbott panned second episode we saw two important sentences: Early on the Doctor asks ‘Am I a good man?’ then later near the end of the episode, there is a reversal of type in which the Doctor is referred to as ‘a good Dalek’. In both of these instances it’s easy enough to linger on the word ‘good’, the idea of good and evil, black and white, red and blue but I’ll get back to that. I think the important part of the original question was meant not to be is he a good man but is he a good man? Is he a good dalek? Quite simply, what is he?
It was probably wrong to start off this review focusing on the Doctor as this is Clara’s episode. ‘Kill The Moon’ starts off like so many television programmes do these days, showing us Clara and Courtney Hill (one of her pupils) in the heat of the action. They have 45 minutes, a nice piece of meta inclusion of the audience in their struggle, giving them the average episode length to sort their problem, in which to decide between one innocent life and the fate of humanity. The Doctor isn’t there and they have to make a choice.
Credits roll, we jump to hours earlier, out of media res as the Doctor and Clara argue about how he has been handling the awkward Courtney. I must give credit to the writers, directors and of course to Ellis George for managing with Courtney to create a teenage Doctor Who character who isn’t completely insufferable. She’s an innocent, confused young girl prone to occasional outbursts who has been thrust into a situation she can’t comprehend and all she wants to do is go home. The Doctor has apparently told Courtney she’s isn’t special which has caused her to go a bit off-the-rails and Clara has confronted him about this. The Doctor does what he was always going to do when confronted with this situation; he flies off to the moon.
We’re introduced to a team of astronauts aboard a shuttle headed to the moon laden with nuclear bombs. I’m not going to bother dwelling on two of them as they die pretty soon into the episode but the one survivor of them is Hermione Norris’ Lundvik. The episode slightly fails Lundvik as you could have told me she was a re-cast, slightly younger version of Lindsay Duncan’s Adelaide Brooks from ‘The Waters of Mars’ and I would have believed you, but Norris does enough with what she’s given to add contrasting cold and warm notes to her performance and hints of humour below her steely gaze. The following 15 minutes are interesting if uneasy ‘Who’ as we learn that the moon has ‘put on weight’ and is causing problems for Earth so the resolution is to blow it up. The superfluous scientists die, there are Moon Spiders and the plot moves like gangbusters. Then the Doctor finds out what’s going on and it probably makes no sense but I don’t care because it’s so gloriously, goofily incredible; the moon is pregnant with a dragon. Another great Capaldi moment as you can see his excitement with getting to reveal this to both Clara and the audience.
This causes one of the most devastating moral dilemmas in recent Doctor Who. This alone would have been enough to elevate this into the top episodes of this series so far but what confirms it for me as a defining episode of the entire New Who run is why and how the Doctor leaves. He just does. In the middle of the debate about whether to allow the dragon to be born or blow it up for the good of humanity, the Doctor appoints Clara, Lundvik and Courtney as humans to be the only ones who can make it, so he leaves. In this moment the Doctor is callous and cruel but also rational and oddly correct. He tells them “some decisions are too important not to make on your own”, he’s not saying he doesn’t care, he’s just telling them he isn’t in a position to tell them what to do.
At this point, an episode that began as Doctor Who does Michael Bay’s Armageddon becomes more like an episode of The Twilight Zone, stranding these three characters in the middle of a morality play. Side note: Congratulations to Doctor Who for absolutely smashing the Bechdel test in this episode. Considering some of Moffat’s detractors’ comments, it’s quite gratifying. Eventually Clara decides the three of them cannot make such a decision and leaves it to the people of Earth: if they turn on their lights, the creature lives but if they turn them off, the creature dies. Of course humanity dooms the creature.
This seems like a return to the themes of one of my favourite episodes ‘Midnight’ with the Men in Black logic – “a person can be smart, people are dumb”. They decide the creature has to die, humanity doesn’t want to take chances with their lives when there’s a chance when they can just blow up the problem and be rid of it. At the last moment Clara still chooses to go against the will of the people and cancel the detonation. We have seen this series that Clara has become the conscience of The Doctor and to a certain extent, she here becomes the conscience of the people. It’s not an easy decision she has to make but this is Doctor Who and the Doctor isn’t there. She has to be willing to make the hard choice because it’s what’s right and the Doctor might not be a man, but he certainly is good.
The episode does have some issues. After a lovely scene on a beach in Lanzarote, the episode pulls a slightly false note in having the moon dragon laying a new moon egg which feels too sweet considering everything surrounding it. The moon spiders, though well-animated, are never really a threat. But as I said, this is Clara’s episode. The scene near the end where she tells the Doctor she can’t travel with him anymore is a blistering, heartbreaking speech that hasn’t been heard enough in the past 51 years but is something that needed to be said.
We’re only seven episodes into the 12 episode order of Series Eight so I’m assuming Clara will be back in the TARDIS in an episode or two but, for now, it seems right that she would leave. I’ve had problems with Clara before but this series has truly made her a great companion. It’s a simple fix but it’s become clear what the series needed was to make Clara and Danny (who gets a nice scene as well) fully human and remind the Doctor that he was an alien.
As with everything, there are going to be people that will hate this episode. It could be seen as by turns too big and too small but it had a firmly distinctive path to follow and I’m glad it did so with a minimal level of compromise. Doctor Who has come a long way from the farting Slitheen. It’s trying to get back to its place as truly grown-up, mature interesting television that children can still enjoy. So, next week, the Doctor fights a mummy on the Orient Express in Space. Maybe it’s not time for it to grow up just yet.