Written by Peter Harness
Directed by Paul Wilmshurst
Airs Saturdays at 9pm ET on BBC America
This week, on Doctor Who: The Doctor and Clara discuss respect and choice. Also, space spiders.
In “The Caretaker”, the Doctor expressed a level of ownership over Clara, demanding an explanation for her relationship with Danny. In “Kill the Moon”, any ounce of paternalism is removed, as a fun and scary adventure on the moon gives way to an exploration of choice, responsibility, and respect.
The episode starts out fairly typically, with the Doctor heading off on an adventure with Clara and Courtney (who he’s accidentally traumatized). There’s a lot to like right off the bat, with the episode switching nimbly from comedy (nice to know there’s an official TARDIS anti-hanky-panky rule, though that might be a post-River addition) to suspense. Writer Peter Harness delivers an entertaining script and director Paul Wilmshurst adds fantastic visual flair to a rather standard monster-in-the-dark story. The abandoned station on the moon is filled with beautifully deep shadows, which certainly help when a (presumably) CGI spider shows up to attack them, and Wilmshurst intersperses middle shots with evocative long shots, showing the isolation of the Doctor, Clara, Courtney, and astronaut Lundvik (Hermione Norris). The aforementioned spider is creepy and surprisingly effective, particularly in close-up, and the threat to Courtney feels real. In a season that has featured several dead characters popping up elsewhere, Courtney dying only to return to haunt Clara in the finale would be an effective move.
A far cry from Clara’s annoying wards in “Nightmare in Silver”, not only does Courtney feel age appropriate, she’s likable and when nearly killed by a terrifying space spider, she gets scared. Ellis George is very good in the role, but credit should also go to Harness’ script. Decisions like Courtney finding comfort in calling Clara, “Miss” and her renewed courage, once she’s had the chance to recover from her attack, make her recognizable, yet laudable and her desire to contribute and have her voice heard ties in nicely with the episode’s larger themes. It turns out Earth’s moon is an egg, and always has been (the Doctor’s glee at the prospect is delightful). A brand new species is about to be born, a completely innocent life. Unfortunately, the unrest of the moon, caused by the space dragon (come on, it’s totally a space dragon, no matter how Lundvik describes it) inside it trying to hatch, is wreaking havoc on Earth and killing untold numbers of humans. If a large chunk of the moon falls to Earth, it could cause an extinction-level event, and the entirety of humanity, who have not yet taken to the stars, could be wiped out.
And this is where things get interesting. The episode is good to this point. It’s alternately fun and scary, with entertaining banter and moments of character building. There are Classic and NuWho shoutouts (the return of Steven Moffat’s TARDIS teleport via DVD from “Blink” is particularly nice), a tweak on existing lore (along with fixed points in time, there are also fuzzy points), and memorable dialogue (“My granny used to put things on Tumblr”). Then the episode takes a hard left and becomes a thinly (if at all) veiled allegory for abortion, as the Doctor leaves the trio of women to decide the fate of this innocent life, a life that could destroy their world forever. Doctor Who has taken on issues in the past, perhaps most directly in the Third Doctor’s “The Green Death”, but it hasn’t in a long time and it’s certainly not touched anything this controversial anywhere near this directly. This is the kind of discussion sci-fi can embrace and the best of sci-fi often does, and it’s absolutely wonderful to see it here.
The parallel is inherently flawed, as this is Doctor Who and rather than a pregnant human woman, the audience is presented with an about-to-hatch, unique-in-the-universe life that may or may not cause harm to the planet. This is not “Fires of Pompeii”; there’s no certainty that the human race will be destroyed if this alien is spared. Accordingly, the optimism and morality of the series weighs in and gives what should be an open discussion a correct and inevitable answer. Clara will choose to save the creature and she will be proven right in this choice, as nothing bad will happen (and probably, something amazingly positive will happen instead). Real life is nowhere near as simple. The beauty of the episode comes not in the decision to save the moon, but in the conversation surrounding it and even more, in Clara’s reaction to being forced to choose in the first place.
This is not the first time a Companion has been called upon to make a difficult, even impossible choice. In NuWho alone, Donna has done so with the Doctor in the previously mentioned “Fires of Pompeii” and in “The Beast Below”, Amy finds a solution to a not dissimilar problem. What’s different here is what comes next. Clara’s confrontation with the Doctor is the highlight of the episode. Whereas he is happy over the outcome, she is furious at having been abandoned. Here is where the morality gets tricky. Clara did not want this choice. She did not want the responsibility, and she asks the Doctor to take it from her. To give her some indication of what the correct choice is. His refusal to do so is remarkable; the Doctor loves telling people what to do. In this case, however, he has no answers. He has no secret knowledge. He knows only what they do and will not express an opinion—he refuses have his will decree what happens, however passively. It’s a significant pro-choice statement. The only man left standing all but flees the room, convinced he has no right to be there.
Clara disagrees (perhaps a statement on paternal rights?), and her anger at the Doctor is fueled by a sense of abandonment. In her hour of need, when she is confused and is looking for guidance, he disappears. The moon belongs as much to him as her, she argues, and they should have made the decision together. Unfortunately, that’s not what Clara was asking for. She wanted certainty, and this situation had none. She is traumatized by having to make this choice and does not see the Doctor’s distancing himself as respectful, as he does, but hurtful. There’s no right answer here. Fans will likely be split down the middle, with some seeing Clara’s pain at being put in this situation as weakness and the Doctor’s departure as respectful and others seeing Clara’s experience as intolerable and the Doctor’s departure as a betrayal.
Whether one’s with Clara or the Doctor on this issue, however, their exchange is powerful. She demands respect, he looks on confused, before explaining that this was his exact intent. Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi are tremendous in the scene and this conversation cuts to the heart of their miscommunication. Companions of the Doctor usually wind up growing over time, becoming brasher, more confident, and Doctor-y. Clara’s not been put in this position before; this is her first experience dealing with the choices the Doctor makes with almost every adventure. She can’t handle it, and is not judged negatively by the show for feeling this way—Danny notably does not respond when prompted, refusing to validate or undermine her feelings towards the Doctor in this moment.
Victoria Waterfield, a Companion who traveled with the Second Doctor (that regeneration was very fond of saying, “When I say run, run!”), left the TARDIS because she found traveling with the Doctor too stressful. She couldn’t handle the constant peril. It looks like Clara may be headed for a similar goodbye. She doesn’t want the responsibility that sometimes comes with the job. The Doctor and his Companions hold the weight of worlds on their shoulders every day, and most of them seem to handle this easily. Clara doesn’t want to run headlong into danger, she wants to follow after the Doctor. She does not want to be him, she wants to be his assistant, and this is a change from several of the modern Companions. Clara may not be ready to leave the TARDIS yet (her scene with Danny does a great job indicating this), but the shine has worn off and her time may be far more limited than she initially guessed; unlike her predecessors, Clara doesn’t want to change into someone capable of making these kinds of choices.
It’s hard to say exactly where the episode is coming down on abortion and paternal rights, but it’s having at least a part of the conversation, and it doesn’t back down from how thorny and fraught an issue this is. One of the great strengths of Doctor Who is its ability to be a new show every week. “Kill the Moon” is certainly a departure, but it’s an inventive and bold one, and it’s one the show would benefit from making far more frequently.