Top or Flop: Kill the Moon

Debate3

Image Credit: Adapted from – DnetSvg (Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Image Description: Will and Sam standing at podiums

The return of the feature where two fans are pitched against each other on a
point of contention. James Ashworth introduces the argument, and debaters
William Shaw and Sam Sheppard

“The moon’s an egg!”
“Has it, er, always been an egg?”
“Yes, for a hundred million years or so.”
— Kill the Moon (BBC, 2014)

The fourth of October 2014 was much like any other day. For some, it was a day of politics, with Latvia voting in a parliamentary election, while Sweden recognised Palestine as a state. For some, it was a day of celebration, as the Asian Games drew to a close in South Korea. Here in Oxford, a new academic year was dawning, as the WhoSoc Committee tirelessly planned their new Freshers campaign. They may also have been contemplating the episode that was to be shown at 2030 that very evening, after Strictly had finally dropped the curtain. Who knew what they would be in for…

Kill the Moon, it’s fair to say, was an episode that divided from its very beginning. For some, it has become what the defence would call “a top episode”, with publications like The Radio Times and IGN giving it 5/5 and 9.3/10 respectively, the former describing it as “audacious” and “highly imaginative”. For others though, Kill the Moon was criticised by the Forbes review as delivering “false controversy”, while not respecting “the debate it was trying to start in the viewers at home”. The science was also problematic, with Phil Plait’s review stating that the “science mistakes were so egregious and so obvious that they kept pulling [him] right out of the story”. In Oxford, its controversy only grew further after being screened by a pro-life group, despite author Peter Harness saying that any abortion parallels were unintentional.

At WhoSoc, Kill the Moon has become a cause célèbre, provoking instant debate whenever it rears its head. In an (unlikely) effort to put it to bed, we gave one fan and one critic the opportunity to put their arguments to the test…

For the Defence: William Shaw

William Shaw is a writer, blogger and fanboy, formerly of Corpus Christi College. You can find him online on his website or Twitter

For the Prosecution: Sam Sheppard

Sam is a long-term Doctor Who fan who has recently completed a BA at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. His experience of the show was started by the Tom Baker era and a host of Target novelisations.

The Case For Kill the Moon – By William Shaw

Kill the Moon is a problematic episode. And by ‘problematic’, I do not mean in the colloquial sense of ‘reinforcing some form of bigotry; racism, sexism, homophobia etc.’ It may well be that, but I use the term in a slightly different sense. Kill the Moon is problematic in that it seems designed to frustrate totalising interpretation. Any definitive statement about what it is, says, or does, immediately throws up half a dozen contradictions and qualifications. For example, the statement ‘Kill the Moon is pro-life’ immediately invites the would-be defender to shoot back “It’s your moon, womankind. It’s your choice.” Similarly, the statement ‘Kill the Moon is pro-choice’ prompts more than a few pointed questions about “the gravity of the little dead baby.” This is not to say that Kill the Moon is invested in some facile notion of ‘balance’ at the expense of any statement or ideology of its own. It is simply to observe, following Elizabeth Sandifer, that the nature of Kill the Moon is to messily over-signify.

There is a basic appeal to this kind of unruliness. The pioneering Marxist sci-fi author China Miéville has described himself as “very pro-metaphor and very anti-allegory”; metaphor allows the reader a freer hand; reading becomes a practice with room for uncertainty, argument, and nuance, rather than an exercise in code-breaking. Stories become mysteries, rather than enigmas. It’s also a very Doctor Who approach,and has been ever since it did a supposed WW2 allegory in which tall, muscular blonde men had to be goaded into fighting a race of technologically advanced atom bomb victims. 

We see this same problematising tendency in both of Peter Harness’s subsequent stories. For Harness, the Zygons are simultaneously youthful rebels, religious zealots, Soviet infiltrators, youthful anarchists, South American immigrants, internet trolls, and ISIS, as well as rubbery monsters from a 70s kids TV show. Similarly, the Monks are computer hackers, nuclear physicists, Donald Trump, an entire rogue nation, and the organisers of disingenuous referenda. All these categories are broadly similar, while still being wildly distinct, and their unsettling power derives in part from the fact that the audience is never sure precisely which set of conventions are in play at any given moment. Harness’s stories are superpositional; they stick in the mind because we are never allowed the comfort of unified, total understanding. 

Of course, this is not to argue that Harness’s stories say nothing at all about the world. The Zygon Inversion, for instance, ends with a paternalistic white man shouting at a young woman who has been forced to hide her entire life that her basic desire for radical change is childish and immoral. Pyramid at the End of the World, meanwhile, suggests that international cooperation is futile in the face of the dangerous power of incoherently ‘Oriental’ manipulators. Which is to say that, while the problematisation of existing narratives is compelling, we must be mindful of the context in which that problematisation takes place. In this case, the problematisation of these concepts in the context of a mainstream Western television show will inevitably be one that reinforces hegemonic ideology. 

To drag this argument back to Kill the Moon, then, whatever its problematic protestations, the episode has had a material impact on the discourse. A story does not get championed by Tim Montgomerie and Oxford Students for Life as a voice of conservative, pro-life politics for no reason. Kill the Moon has been read as a pro-life story: there is textual evidence to support this reading. But there is also textual evidence to support other readings, and those readings are, I think, strong enough to warrant a defence. 

Let’s start with the basics: Kill the Moon is well-shot, briskly-paced, and superbly acted. The cold open with a visibly terrified Clara telling the audience “we have forty-five minutes to decide” is an exquisite hook, tying the nature of the story’s dilemma to its medium, the tension palpable and immediate. Compare this to the rather less elegant 42, which attempts a similar trick but ultimately turns into a fairly standard Doctor Who plot which occasionally flashes up a decreasing number. From there, the episode’s opening scenes escalate smoothly from Coal Hill banter to fish-out-of-water TARDIS antics to high-tech space cupboard exploration, the transitions fast enough that their open contrivance feels smooth and natural. The scripting of these opening scenes is absolutely masterful; every single line advances the plot, gives us character information, introduces strange and evocative imagery, or all three, but it never feels overstuffed. Paul Wilmshurst is busy earning his title as one of the best directors of the Capaldi era; later in the episode we’ll have plenty of neo-Hinchcliffe shadow horror and intense corridor debates, but even in these early scenes he’s making his mark. The Coal Hill/TARDIS scenes cut just a little too quickly, and the camera moves slightly too fast, foreshadowing the story’s more off-kilter qualities Meanwhile, the repeated framing of the Doctor, Clara, Courtney and Lundvik with the TARDIS looming in the foreground helps emphasise its later absence.

The acting, of course, is in a class of its own. Hermione Norris is world-weary and blackly humourous as Lundvik, her Voice of Reason act under visible strain, and Ellis George projects an adolescent glee (distinct from childlike glee) at the initial moon trip. She makes a convincing turn towards uncertainty and panic as things get serious, visibly struggling to maintain her composure, perfectly complementing Coleman’s attempts to do the same. Even Christopher Dane does splendidly with a very minor part as Ground Control. The horror of Earth’s tidal devastation rests almost entirely on his quiet, shaken delivery of “Yeah… pretty bad,” and he absolutely nails it.  

Capaldi, meanwhile, is still finding ways to surprise as the Doctor. His delivery of “the moon’s an egg” is deliberately halting and muted, almost coming out of the side of his mouth. Capaldi will use a similar technique for his earnest declarations to Harold and Missy in The Doctor Falls, but here it signifies a barely suppressed glee. Capaldi plays a Doctor both utterly in love with the universe, and at pains not to let that love show — a dynamic that will mature and develop over the remainder of his tenure. It’s also important to note how many future episodes involve the Doctor misleading the supporting cast. Capaldi excels at playing emotional misdirection; unsurprising for a man previously most famous for playing a spin doctor. 

But more than any other actor, this is Jenna Coleman’s episode. Clara spends most of the story confused, scared, or abandoned, but forcing herself not to let it show, lest she endanger Courtney (or indeed the world) by doing so. So when she finally lets loose at Capaldi in the climactic scene, the catharsis hits like a bomb going off. If you can watch Coleman (and indeed Capaldi) in this scene without feeling like you’ve been punched in the stomach, you’re a stronger person than me. Harness has described this ending as a lot of long-term hurt coming out in front of the Doctor for the first time, and part of this scene’s power comes from the fact that we haven’t seen a companion outburst quite like this before. When Barbara or Ace or Donna have expressed anger or disappointment in the Doctor, it’s generally been during the course of an adventure, essentially as yet another plot function; we’ve never seen a companion suppress their pain over multiple episodes until it has come flying out at the climactic note of a story, almost involuntarily.  Perhaps the closest we’ve seen before this is Tegan in Resurrection of the Daleks, which is, while ahead of its time, still not very close. Similarly, Ace in The Curse of Fenric is being deliberately manipulated by the Doctor, rather than thoughtlessly neglected (though the Virgin New Adventures, particularly Love and War, do come much closer to this dynamic). The discomfort of this scene is that of an existing paradigm being suddenly uprooted, found wanting, and a whole new type of Doctor/companion dynamic emerging, breaking from its shell to feel the sun on its back. If Kill the Moon shows Capaldi’s Doctor is still able to surprise halfway through his first season, it’s also where Clara shows she can still become a wholly different type of character halfway through her second.

It also provides the basis for a more liberatory reading of the episode. I have written elsewhere about the usefulness of Kill the Moon in explaining the gendered concept of emotional labour,but note how this episode repeatedly reinforces the Doctor’s unthinking disrespect of Clara. Even before the big abandonment, the episode hangs on moments that would be quick cutaways in any other story. The Doctor dives into a ravine to face almost certain death; Lundvik asks if he’ll be back; all Clara can do is sigh and say, “If he says so, I suppose he will.” The Doctor makes no effort to communicate with Clara, or any of the women in this story, beyond the odd high-handed lecture about looking to the stars. His rationale?

THE DOCTOR: That was me… respecting you.

And Clara’s response?

CLARA: Yeah, well respect is not how I feel. 

Because respect for women (or indeed anyone) does not involve refusing to help them when it is well within your power to do so. Nor does it involve setting the terms on which you will respect them. It involves listening to them, it involves mucking in, and, if necessary, it involves serving at their pleasure. This is the lesson the Doctor learns from Kill the Moon, which the series goes out of its way to demonstrate him having learned, most obviously in In the Forest of the Night and Thin Ice. It’s certainly my preferred reading of the episode, and the way I would rescue it from the Tim Montgomeries of the world. It is, I hope to have demonstrated, possible to pull useful, even radical readings out of this episode. I certainly cannot blame anyone for being unwilling to do so, but for me, this is why Kill the Moon remains one of the most important episodes of the single greatest era of Doctor Who so far.  

The Case Against Kill the Moon – By Sam Sheppard

“An innocent life versus the future of all mankind. We have 45 minutes to decide.” This announcement, delivered by Clara, forms the powerful opening of Kill the Moon, rapidly and effectively introducing the crisis facing humanity in a way which takes advantage of the show’s very format (“45 minutes” is, of course, the length of the episode itself). However, I think this also suggests a basic problem with Kill the Moon. For me, it is an episode which tries to do too much in too small a space. 

Rewatching the episode, I found myself a little disinterested in its first act. Arguably, it relies a little too heavily on visual spectacle: “Look, we’re on the moon!” It doesn’t help that the astronauts, with the exception of Lundvik, are very much disposable. Their main purpose is to be rapidly killed off in order to highlight the severity of the situation. Similarly, I can’t help but feel that the spiders aren’t truly necessary. They remind me of Leandro in The Woman Who Lived, in that it seems as though they have been included to satisfy a “monster of the week” obligation, rather than because their presence is needed to make the story work.

The biggest reason for my lack of interest, though, is that the most interesting – not to say challenging – part of the episode comes later, when the debate as to whether the creature should live or die is introduced. Here, I think, is where Kill the Moon’s flaws really lie. The episode attempts to tackle a complicated and sensitive issue in a confused and rushed manner which leaves itself far too open to misinterpretation. 

Specifically, it has often been claimed that Kill the Moon is an episode which features an anti-abortion agenda; for instance, the group Oxford Students for Life screened the episode at one of their events, noting that ‘it has been reviewed as one of the most ‘pro-life’ episodes released’. In fairness, Harness has denied any intention to write a ‘pro-life’ episode, and the episode offers a genuinely compelling exploration of the relationship between masculinity and emotional labour. It is, after all, the episode which contains the line: ‘It’s your moon, womankind. It’s your choice.’ However, it is also the episode in which the decision to spare the unborn creature is ultimately framed as the morally correct one. There are also lines such as Clara’s “I’m going to have to be a lot more certain than that if I’m going to kill a baby”, which is uncomfortably reminiscent of the pro-life rhetoric utilised by the far right. This, then, is why Kill the Moon’s handling of its ethical debate is muddled at best. It’s difficult to overlook the fact that Harness is a male author seeking to tackle the question of female agency, and I can’t help but think that such a debate might have been better handled by a female author.

There is another problem which complicates the debate. Clara is the person least justified to override the vote as to whether the creature should live or die. It’s true, of course, that the vote is a somewhat unfair way of deciding the issue, but that doesn’t cancel out the fact that Clara takes a huge gamble and happens to get very lucky. She has no way of knowing that sparing the creature’s life will not result in disaster, and this becomes all the more significant when it is considered that Clara is from the past. Unlike Lundvik, whose time period this is, she would not be directly affected by any catastrophe. 

Should anything go wrong, Clara can simply return to the past, and it will be more than 30 years before she has to face the consequences of her actions. Regarding Clara’s decision, therefore, there is a potentially challenging debate to be had about accountability and moral responsibility. This would, perhaps, be reminiscent of the debates surrounding Brexit and the referendum on Scottish independence; many criticised these events on the basis that important political decisions had been heavily influenced by the older generations, despite the fact that it would chiefly be the younger generations who had to shoulder the burden of any negative consequences; indeed, I can’t help but wince at the fact that, in contrast with Kill the Moon, there will probably not be a magic solution that makes Brexit turn out all right.  However, Harness chooses to skirt around any possible debate surrounding Clara’s actions. He simply presents her as making an objectively correct decision, and this is something I find particularly dissatisfying.

The problem with Kill the Moon, then, is not that its premise is silly or scientifically unrealistic; criticising the episode on this basis is rather narrow-minded. A more significant issue is that the newly-hatched creature lays an egg which is completely identical to the original moon-egg, thereby saving humanity from disaster. This incredibly convenient ending neatly restores the status quo, and this prevents Harness from having to challenge or address the morality of Clara’s intervention. Because the moon is instantaneously replaced, the episode is free to depict her as having made the right choice, as emphasised by Clara’s line: “I nearly didn’t press that button. I nearly got it wrong.” The wording, furthermore, implies that terminating the creature’s life would have been the ‘wrong’ decision, and this only reinforces the arguments that Kill the Moon is a pro-life episode. This leaves me feeling conflicted, to be honest; I do think that the episode offers a strong and valid critique of the Doctor’s actions, but I would also argue that the episode’s portrayal of Clara’s actions is a disappointing oversimplification. This echoes the way in which the convenient resolution to the moon-egg dilemma is too neat, too pat to be entirely satisfying. 

Beyond the Doctor and Clara, furthermore, there is another significant character whose treatment, I would argue, leaves much to be desired. Kill the Moon’s handing of Courtney presents us with the uncomfortable image of a white man belittling a black child, and this forms part of a deeply undesirable pattern; Kill the Moon, after all, appears in the same series as The Caretaker, in which the Doctor regards Danny Pink with condescension and hostility, apparently refusing to believe that he could be anything other than a “PE teacher”. Admittedly, it isn’t entirely fair that my opinion of Kill the Moon has been influenced by another episode in this way. However, I think the treatment of Courtney in Kill the Moon itself remains open to criticism; for one thing, her role in this episode feels rather insubstantial. 

Although Courtney says she wants to “help”, she is given little to do. Arguably, Clara would still have decided to spare the creature even if Courtney hadn’t been there. Furthermore, the Doctor’s patronising attitude towards Courtney is never challenged in the same way that his behaviour towards Clara is. His behaviour towards both women forms part of the same pattern of high-handedness and unthinking disrespect – one which must be broken, and I do think one of Kill the Moon’s strengths lies in its willingness to make this point – and yet the episode ultimately relegates Courtney to the sidelines while Clara takes the spotlight. This particular weakness is highlighted by comparison with Thin Ice, in which it is Bill who ultimately determines the Doctor’s decision to save the creature living underneath the Thames. True, it is something of an oversimplification to compare Kill the Moon and Thin Ice in this way, but it still seems that the latter episode lends Bill a degree of agency and influence which Courtney simply does not have in Kill the Moon.

All in all, Kill the Moon is not an entirely irredeemable episode, and I’m prepared to admit that it has its strengths. Indeed, there are several compelling and valid readings to be gleaned from the text; however, this doesn’t change the fact that the source material suffers from a lack of clarity which allows and even invites a pro-life reading. To me, in fact, it seems as though discussing Kill the Moon with other people is much more interesting and rewarding than actually watching it. I might even go so far as to say that some of Clara’s words are ironic because I feel like Kill the Moon is itself somewhat ‘patronising’. Watching it, I feel like I’m the one being patted on the back.

Tides 42 is, at time of publication, available to buy through this link

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s