Humanity stands on the brink of environmental catastrophe as a result of strange happenings on the moon. Clara and Courtney face an impossible moral dilemma. And the Doctor pushes his relationship with his companion to breaking point.
There are some moments in time that I simply can’t see … Little moments in which big things are decided.
Aside from an ending which resets the balance of nature a little too conveniently with the creation of a new
egg moon, this is as close to the perfect Doctor Who episode as you’re ever likely to see.
In a single standard-length episode we are presented with a big sci-fi concept (the moon as an egg), a heavyweight moral dilemma (to nuke or not to nuke?) with high stakes (the future of mankind) and a shades-of-grey debate with space shuttle Captain Lundvik (Hermione Norris) on one side and Clara and troublesome Coal Hill student Courtney Woods (Ellis George) on the other. Better still, this is given space to play out fully after the Doctor abandons them to fend for themselves. There have been two-parters in the past containing far less plot.
First-time Who writer Peter Harness produces a cracking (pun intended) script which opens with a stressed Clara’s plea to the people of Earth before rewinding to the start and plunging us straight into the heart of the action. Where many episodes struggle to find the right balance within the confines of a 45-minute run-time – too much action at the expense of story, or too much exposition at the expense of pace – Harness gets it spot on.
There’s magic sprinkled throughout this episode, from the expansive premise to the simple threat of the giant spider-like bacteria, which serves to underline that a monster doesn’t need a pithy catchphrase – or indeed any dialogue whatsoever – to be thoroughly terrifying.
Courtney serves not only as a child viewer’s eyes and ears throughout, but as a reminder of the effect that even a brief adventure with the Doctor can have on people. The disruptive influence who can’t even remember Neil Armstrong’s iconic words is inspired by her experiences to become the special person Clara insists the Doctor tells her she isn’t at the outset – the future President of the United States. I don’t know if we’ll see the character again – if not, this was a wonderful pay-off of her journey.
The moral dilemma
Kill it or let it live – I can’t make this decision for you.
Could anyone reasonably expect to make the decision that faces Lundvik, Clara and Courtney? Both sides of the argument have their own merits. Lundvik feels that killing a new life-form is a price worth paying to give Earth a better chance of survival. Clara and Courtney are willing to take their chances to preserve an innocent life, even though it means going against the decision of the entire planet.
It’s this face-off and the sense of dread that accompanies the knowledge that there is no way for the characters to know what the right decision is that elevates this episode. So often it’s left to the Doctor to make things right and pluck a neat solution out of thin air with a couple of lines of technobabble and a wave of the sonic screwdriver. But on this occasion the Doctor has absconded and Clara is left with the weight of the moon on her shoulders, ultimately trusting her instinct with no good reason to back it up.
Indeed, as has been a recurring theme throughout this season, this is very much Jenna Coleman‘s episode as we get to see a grittier, angrier, less in control side of Clara in which Coleman acts her socks off. For a character who I found difficult to like during her ‘Impossible Girl’ phase, Clara’s development and multi-faceted relationship with both Eleven and Twelve has become, for me, the most satisfying since Ace and the Seventh Doctor. Coleman deserves to be recognised for her performances when awards season rolls around again.
What now for Clara and the Doctor?
It’s hard to see how the relationship between Doctor and companion can ever go back to what it was after this episode. This isn’t the first time Twelve (or indeed several of his previous incarnations) has been grumpy and gruff, cold and callous. But his comment to Clara about it being time to take the stabilisers off the bike is both patronising and disingenuous.
What he does – and the laws of time regarding fixed or pivotal events are vague enough that he might very well have had good reason for not intervening – is not so much remove the stabilisers as push the bike out onto a tightrope suspended in mid-air with no safety net beneath.
Clara’s righteous fury is as justified as it is understandable. In her eyes, the Doctor has abandoned the duty of care he has not only to her and to humanity as a whole but also to Courtney, an innocent child caught up in a coin-toss decision which weighs infanticide against the possible eradication of all life on Earth. The fact the Doctor initiated this whole chain of events merely to correct his earlier assertion that Courtney isn’t special only makes matters worse.
Make no mistake – as if we didn’t already know, this Doctor is no one’s boyfriend or even best friend. He is much more like his earlier incarnations – in particular, the First, Fourth and Seventh Doctors – than his two most recent ones. And in Twelve’s occasional cold-blooded ruthlessness we perhaps see a reflection of how the War Doctor came to be.
At the end of The Caretaker, Danny presciently made Clara promise to tell him if the Doctor ever pushed her too far. And in the ending here he’s wise enough to recognise that this isn’t the end of Clara’s time in the TARDIS – yet. But it will be soon. For the first time, Clara questions whether she should continue travelling with the Doctor. Kill the Moon marks the beginning of the end.
Fun stuff, references & quotables
- This is far from the first time the Doctor has visited the moon. Among others, there are the Second Doctor adventures The Moonbase (1967) and The Seeds of Death (1969). More recently, we were introduced to Martha Jones in Smith and Jones, while the real world first moon landing was integral to humanity collectively overcoming the Silence in Day of the Moon.
- It’s those orange space-suits again – acquired by the Tenth Doctor in The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit and subsequently used in both The Waters of Mars and Hide.
- After landing in the space shuttle’s cargo bay, the Doctor notes the presence of a prototype Bennett oscillator. This is a reference to a device mentioned in the Fourth Doctor story The Ark in Space, which in itself was an in-joke name-checking former Who director Rodney Bennett.
- “One small thing for a thing. One enormous thing for a thingy thing.” Courtney obviously wasn’t paying full attention in history class when learning about Neil Armstrong.
- “Last time you said that, she [the TARDIS] ended up on the wrong side of the planet.” Clara recalls the events of Cold War.
- The 1.3 billion tons by which the moon’s mass has increased sounds like a lot but its mass is actually 70 billion billion tons. That would only have an infinitesimal increase on the moon’s gravitational pull – not enough to make the difference we see in the episode.
- The Doctor says Courtney becomes President of the United States after meeting a man named Blinovitch. The Blinovitch Limitation Effect has long been referred to in the series as describing what would happen if a person encountered a future or past version of themselves.
- For Courtney to become the future President, the eligibility rules would have to change (or at least be reinterpreted). Currently only natural-born citizens of the US are eligible to become president – marrying an American citizen, as the Doctor begins to tell Clara, is insufficient.
- “It’s not a chicken.”
- “Tell me what you know, Doctor, or else I’ll smack you so hard you’ll regenerate.”