Soooo, last week’s episode, “The Caretaker,” left me a little flat; wasn’t terrible, just wasn’t my favorite, which in a season is bound to happen, and overall Series 8 of Doctor Who has been superb. Still, I entered the viewing of this week’s episode, “Kill the Moon,” with some serious trepidation. As I detailed in last week’s review, I was concerned about the Next Time trailer which showed Courtney Woods, the precocious student at Coal Hill School played by Ellis George, on the adventure, in a spacesuit, and on the moon. I rolled my eyes quite hard at this idea, given how the last time children under Clara’s care traveled in the TARDIS we got “Nightmare in Silver.” However, as with most of this episode, I was pleasantly surprised by how well Courtney was handled. It was an episode that was scary, moody, conceptually interesting, and had deep consequences to the characters. I think it might be among my favorites of the year.
Written by Peter Harness and directed by Paul Wilmshurst, two people who’d never worked on Doctor Who before, “Kill the Moon” is possibly one of the best looking episodes they’ve ever done. Right away I want to praise Wilmshurst’s direction because it’s simply gorgeous. They really were able to turn the volcanic ground they shot on in Lanzarote, Spain, into a decidedly lunar surface, and the blackness of space, the grayness of the ground, and the orange of the spacesuits really popped onscreen. This is also an episode that featured Moon Spider things (which, we find out, are really bacteria for a much, much larger being) which are suitably terrifying. I thought the Spiders were from Mars, right Ziggy? (I’m the funniest person alive.)
Okay, so we agree it looks awesome, right? Let’s move on. “Kill the Moon” has some really fantastic narrative things going for it: a bonkers sci-fi idea, a huge moral dilemma, peril on all sides, a ticking clock element, an unreliable hero, and a resolution where not everything goes back to the way it was. This is the first episode of the second half of this series and it’s not resting on its laurels at all; it’s attempting to shake up the status quo and make us question whether the man we think of as a hero is really any good at all. Or, at least it’s making Clara ask that question. All series she’s been defending the Doctor’s brash, cranky, and sometimes plainly rude ways to people, but now she’s finally had her limit as well.
We start with the TARDIS still at Coal Hill School (or again there anyway) and Clara chastising the Doctor for having told Courtney that she wasn’t special after she’d gobbed on the floor following her trip into space. She’s demanding to go somewhere again and prove that she’s special. The Doctor wants to toss her out, even if she brought disinfectant with her this time, but doesn’t, because he maybe realizes that he did thrust this whole big world on her without any context or explanation. So, he decides to make her the first woman on the moon. Unfortunately, but fortunately for dramatic purposes, they don’t end up on the moon in 2014; they end up on a shuttle going to the moon in 2049.
The shuttle is being piloted by Lundvik (Hermione Norris) and her two, let’s face it, elderly cohorts, Duke (Tony Osoba) and Henry (Phil Nice), and they have a whole heap of nuclear weapons onboard. After they land, the Doctor begins jumping around the shuttle while telling the astronauts if they’re going to kill them to start with the little girl, a means of calling their bluff. Why is the Doctor jumping around? Because he’s a genius. He’s testing the gravity and determines that they should be bouncing around but they aren’t, indicating the moon’s mass has gotten greater accelerating the force of gravity. What could be doing that?
The astronauts have come up as a last ditch effort to figure out what’s going on, because the moon changing size and shifting is causing all sorts of horrible things to happen on Earth. These three are Earth’s final hope, and they’re not even a solid B-team, really. They traverse the surface to a Mexican outpost and find all the personnel dead, in grotty ways, and something akin to cobwebs. That doesn’t bode well. Henry goes to check something out and is attacked and killed by something that comes up from a cave (it’s a spider), and later Duke meets the same fate. Courtney almost gets it as well, but luckily, the gravity shifts and she floats (the Doctor tosses her a yo-yo before the gravity is fine again) and then she sprays the spider to death with disinfectant (perhaps one of the few dumb parts of the episode). But! It illustrates that it kills all germs, leading the Doctor to realize they aren’t spiders at all but germs.
The Doctor, using some of the Mexican astronauts’ equipment and his own grabbing of grotty viscous fluid, determines what exactly’s going on, and it’s crazy: the moon isn’t a moon at all, it’s an egg for some enormous, unknown creature that has been gestating for hundreds of millions of years. The spiders are bacteria. The Doctor is excited by this development, the chance to see a whole new species. But Lundvik simply says “How do we kill it?” This makes the Doctor suddenly doubt humanity and decides to leave Clara, Courtney, and Lundvik to decide for themselves what to do. It’s not his planet after all, so he shouldn’t be the one to make the decisions. Clara is aghast but the Doctor leaves in the TARDIS, possibly never to come back.
It’s a hefty, hefty decision and despite the Doctor’s assertion that a school girl, her teacher, and an astronaut are perfect choices to make it (womankind, show your mettle), Clara is full of doubt: either they destroy the moon, the creature, and themselves in the process with the nuclear weapons, or they don’t and let whatever fate befall the Earth after the creature does hatch. They send a message to all of humanity (or at least the side of it facing them) that if they want to blow up the moon, turn out their lights and if they don’t, to leave them on. During the 45 minutes for the bomb, all or most of the lights they can see turn out and just as Lundvik is about to let it blow, both Clara and Courtney hit the abort button.
Immediately, the TARDIS appears and takes everybody down to Earth to see what they’ve just done. The moon hatches, a huge flying critter comes out and flies away, and the moon debris dissolves. The Doctor tells them that this is the day, this is the moment, when humanity decided to stop looking down and instead to go out and explore what else they don’t know about the universe, leading to space travel and colonization until the end of time, and it was those three ladies who helped make it happen.
This is where the show kicks it up a notch from a character standpoint, and where the episode becomes something truly special, I think. Courtney’s fairly satisfied, Lundvik is satisfied, despite being 2,500 miles away from NASA, but Clara decidedly is not. She lays into the Doctor about how much he knew, since he claims to have grey areas in the ol’ memory. He says he was helping them by making them make their own decisions, that he was respecting Clara and her judgement because she’d always make the right choice. Clara does not see it this way; she was abandoned by her friend, again, when she needed him the most. He left her to make an impossibly hard decision on her own and even she didn’t know what she’d do. As much as the Doctor tries to justify it (and I do think in his mind he was 100% respecting her and not holding her hand again), Clara leaves and tells him to go away on his own.
This is huge. Immensely huge. How often has a companion told the Doctor to shove off? If your answer is zero, you are correct. This isn’t just “I’m not going with you anymore,” this is “You need to go away and never come back.” She’s been disrespected by him one too many times now and she’s done with it. She tells Danny the whole story and he knows she’s not REALLY done with the Doctor because she’s still so angry. This reminds Danny of when he left the army, something else he loved, because he too had a very bad day. I imagine we’ll see or hear more of this and why Danny’s so touchy about his time in the military. Or at least I hope we do.
Ultimately, “Kill the Moon” is much, much more than just a nifty premise and some fancy camera work; it’s a story of the Doctor leading everyone around and then setting them adrift to fend for themselves when they need him the most. Maybe he’s doing them a favor, maybe he isn’t, but this is the kind of Doctor the Twelfth is. He’s not going to just shoulder all the responsibility himself. He’s teaching, even if the students are pissed at him for doing it. This is an episode to mull over and think about for awhile for the moral complexities of the Doctor’s actions, and the no-win scenario he places on people who might need a bit more guidance.
Next week, we don’t know if Clara will be back, judging by the Next Time trailer (but, come on). It’s “Mummy on the Orient Express” written by another newcomer to Who, Jamie Mathieson, and again directed by Paul Wilmshurst. This looks real weird. Have a look, and let me know what you thought of “Kill the Moon” in the comments below.