“Kill the Moon” ends with a wrenching emotional development that should be a major turning point in the relationship between the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara (Jenna Coleman). Unfortunately, the story leading up to that development (written by Peter Harness, a newcomer to the series) rests on a whole string of ludicrous scientific concepts that, as the famous physicist Wolfgang Pauli might have put it, are so not right that they’re not even wrong.
Of course, Doctor Who has never been renowned for particularly rigorous science; it is, after all, a series about an alien who travels through time and space in a phone box that’s bigger on the inside. But there are limits to any viewer’s suspension of disbelief, and for most people this episode will zoom right past them. The Doctor, Clara, and school student Courtney Woods (Ellis George) land on the moon in 2049, and encounter a small group of astronauts trying to discover why the satellite is in the process of breaking apart. The rather surprising answer is, in the Doctor’s words: “The moon is an egg!” A world-sized creature has been incubating for millions of years and is about to hatch, which will result in devastation on Earth.
It’s a high concept straight out of pulp magazine SF; a story by Jack Williamson called “Born of the Sun” (published in the appropriately titled Astounding Stories) presented the same basic idea as early as 1934. Even then it was a rather outré notion, and to see it being employed seriously in 2014, without any kind of ironic or humorous twist, is bizarre. As if that wasn’t enough, the episode also mixes in so-called “germs” that look like dog-sized tarantulas (but nevertheless are apparently still single-celled), a pool of “amniotic fluid” unaffected by the vacuum of the lunar surface, and the completely inexplicable gain of billions of tons of mass by the growing creature (without any consequent loss of mass in the surrounding moon). And for the crowning touch, when the creature finally hatches and flies away, it somehow leaves behind another egg, a “new moon”—a replacement satellite seemingly as large as itself!
Provided only that one can get past the jarring silliness at the heart of the story, there are certainly things to appreciate in this episode. Thanks to a location shoot on the volcanic island of Lanzarote, director Paul Wilmshurst (another newcomer to the Doctor Who universe) is able to present a convincingly vast and arid moonscape. In the first half, before the big reveal of the creature within the moon, an effectively creepy atmosphere is evoked as the characters explore an abandoned base belonging to a previous expedition. The cobwebbed, dark rooms and the sudden attacks by the scuttling “spider-germs” evoke memories of the classic show’s mid-’70s peak, when the stories would regularly draw inspiration from Universal and Hammer horror movies. Harness is clearly a fan of this period: The scene where the Doctor first meets the astronauts has multiple callbacks to 1975’s “The Ark in Space,” with the Doctor taking a “gravity reading” and playing with a yo-yo.
Hermione Norris plays Lundvik, the leader of the astronauts, with a passivity and fatalism that gives the impression that she doesn’t really believe her group is capable of dealing with the problem; after an initial perfunctory challenge, she readily follows the Doctor’s lead. It’s all too believable, given our current lack of interest in space travel, that by 2049 (only 35 years away) a bunch of aging has-beens and a museum-piece space shuttle are the best humanity can provide. Lundvik only really comes alive when she, along with Clara and Courtney, must decide whether to go ahead with detonating an arsenal of nuclear bombs the astronauts brought with them to kill the creature.
There’s an ironic contrast between this story and “The Waters of Mars,” the 2009 David Tennant episode which is set just 10 years further in the future. In that episode, the Doctor was helpless to prevent a cataclysm because it was a fixed point in time—an event that had to happen. Here, the Doctor (in a rather shocking moment) voluntarily removes himself from the debate on sparing the creature, leaving in the TARDIS and only returning after the decision is made. The story reaches a happy ending, with the creature free, Earth saved, and humanity’s interest in space reignited, but Clara isn’t at all pleased at being put on the spot in such a fashion. The Doctor tries to explain that, from his viewpoint as an outsider, he was respecting Clara and humanity by not influencing their actions, but his rather patronizing comment about “taking the stabilizers off your bike” leads to her rounding on him furiously.
Coleman is brilliant in this confrontation, showing Clara sobbing with both distress and rage, reaching a level of raw emotion rare in Doctor Who. Finally, Clara sends the Doctor away and gives the impression she would be glad never to see him again, before unburdening herself to her boyfriend, Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson), who only last week had suggested to her that a day might come when the Doctor would push her too far. Having previously been so close, the Doctor and Clara have never seemed further apart. It’s a powerful ending that, had it not arisen from such an egregiously nonsensical story, would have been even more effective.
Next Week: Murder and mayhem aboard a space-going train, in “Mummy on the Orient Express.”
Classic Who DVD Recommendation: A previous visit to Lanzarote in Doctor Who, with the island playing both itself and the surface of an alien planet, can be found in 1984’s “Planet of Fire,” starring Peter Davison, Mark Strickson, and Nicola Bryant.
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