It goes without saying that Doctor Who is a very weird show. It’s a sci-fi series where a two thousand year old, face-changing alien and his friends travel the universe in a time machine that looks like a phone box. Right from the start, the show’s basic premise asks the audience to accept a lot of trippy stuff at face value, and the more you get used to it, the more you grow accustomed to broadening your horizons and letting your imagination wander. But even Doctor Who has a few episodes that stretch the audience’s suspension of disbelief too far, to the point where it eventually breaks: like “Love And Monsters” (largely because of how awful the costume design for the Abzorbaloff was) or “Sleep No More” (the much maligned sleep-dust zombies episode from Series 9).
“Kill The Moon” has also gained a rather infamous reputation since 2014, since it abandons the show’s usual realm of science fiction and wanders into the world of pure fantasy. This story reveals that the Earth’s moon is actually an egg where a giant dragon has been incubating for billions of years, with bacteria living on it that looks like giant spiders for some reason. From there, the story ends with the dragon laying another egg that’s the same size and shape as its old one as soon as it hatches, to ensure there will be no long-lasting consequences to the show’s status quo after this adventure. So “Kill The Moon” raises a very interesting question about how far you can push an audience’s suspension of disbelief before it breaks – how crazy is too crazy, even for Doctor Who? Personally, my biggest gripe with this episode isn’t that the science is completely and totally whack: it’s that a lot of this episode is rather dull and heavy-handed. Peter Harness penned this installment, and his writing style can often feel very dry and overly blunt to me, though he does start to show some improvement in this area in his later episodes like “The Zygon Invasion” and “The Pyramid At The End Of The World”.
During the classic series, Doctor Who tried to give the Sixth Doctor a character arc where he would start out an aloof and abrasive figure who was hard to like at times, but he would gradually mellow out down the line. However, Colin Baker was fired from the show before that arc could reach its conclusion, due to some behind the scenes drama that was going on at the time. The revived series takes another stab at doing that kind of character arc with Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor – an emotionally distant and pragmatic anti-hero who’s often shown in a very flawed light – and is generally much more successful with it in the long run, since it’s allowed to play out uninterrupted. “Kill The Moon” is a very important episode for the Twelfth Doctor’s character development, since this is the one where he finally crosses a major moral line with Clara and has to deal with the consequences.
When “Kill The Moon” starts, the Twelfth Doctor’s rude and insensitive attitude has once again earned himself a good scolding from Clara. His dismissive comments towards Courtney Woods earlier have hurt the teenage girl’s feelings (which he doesn’t seem to be too bothered about), so he decides to make it up to her by taking her on a quick trip to the moon in the near future. From there, the Doctor and his friends quickly get wrapped up in another dangerous mystery, when they discover the moon is falling apart. It doesn’t take the Doctor long to figure out what’s happening, and once he’s got all the answers, he’s tickled pink about stumbling upon the scientific discovery of a lifetime. The initial premise of this episode – the Doctor trying to give Clara and her young ward a spontaneous fun day out, only for it go horribly wrong and force Clara to have to step up in his absence – feels really quite similar to “Nightmare In Silver” last season, though the chain of events that follows certainly lays out a lot of key differences between the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctor’s personalities.
Once he fully understands what’s at stake – having to kill a rare, innocent creature or let it live and risk it killing all of humanity – he decides to take a hands-off approach to the crisis for once. Instead of stepping in as humanity’s protector and making the choice on their behalf like he always does, he believes that they should be the ones to decide their own destiny this time: even if the only humans available are an astronaut, a school teacher and a teenage girl. He throws Clara into the deep end, whether she likes it or not, because he wants to see what she’ll do with all the training he’s given her as her mentor, and he has full faith that she’ll make the right choice when the time comes. It’s times like these where the audience is reminded that the Doctor thinks differently than humans do, and he can also be quite full of himself, because the audacity of this man is really quite impressive.
He brought Clara and her teenage student to this dangerous world and insisted that they stick around there, since fixing the moon was now their responsibility, only to peace out himself when he decided to push all of the pressure off on Clara. He abandons them on a crumbling moon where they could easily have been killed and forces them to decide the future of the entire human race by themselves within an hour. And then after he’s stabbed them in the back, he’s actually surprised that Clara isn’t more appreciative of the educational experience he gave her. During the epilogue, Clara blows up at him in anger and proceeds to verbally eviscerate him. The Doctor and Clara have had their fair share of fights before now but never anything as ugly as this, and it is well-deserved. After this, Twelve still believes that humanity will have to step up and take responsibility for their own planet from time to time, as seen in Series 10’s “Thin Ice”, but he’s thankfully far more tactful and considerate with that stance down the line, after the way he blew things with Clara.
“Kill The Moon” builds off Clara Oswald’s (Jenna Coleman) well-established characterization as someone who loves working with kids and has a fondness for them, since looking after the safety and well-being of her student is her top priority for most of this episode. Clara gets dragged along on a spontaneous trip to the Earth’s moon when the Doctor decides to treat Courtney to a fun day out, and things very quickly take a turn for the worse when they discover that the Moon’s mass is shifting, putting all of humanity at risk in the future. Clara initially wants to walk away from the problem and let history play out, since she’s apparently forgotten what the Doctor taught her in “The Rings Of Akhaten” and she’s certain the moon will be fine. However, the Doctor reminds her that the future isn’t set in stone and they have a responsibility as time travelers to make sure that history doesn’t change for the worse.
Throughout Series 8, Clara has put more and more of her trust into the Doctor’s methods – even while other characters like Danny and Psi have voiced their concerns that her faith in him might be misplaced (and Clara herself has had her doubts along the way) – and in “Kill The Moon”, Clara is blindsided when the Doctor betrays that trust. She’s left alone to make a sadistic choice between the safety of the entire human race and the life of an innocent alien that will apparently have to be sacrificed. So basically, it’s the climax of “The Beast Below” all over again – except this time, the dilemma is even worse. In “The Beast Below”, there was literally nothing that insisted the Doctor had to make a decision about what he would do with the star whale right then and there, except for his own fury and righteous indignation about what humanity had done to the creature. In “Kill The Moon”, Clara has a time limit looming over her that will unfortunately only last for an hour, and the stakes she’s dealing with are massive.
Throughout Doctor Who, we’ve seen time and time again that humanity goes on to become a spacefaring species, and their influence reaches out throughout the stars for a 100 trillion years, affecting an untold amount of worlds. If the human race dies now, before they’ve even left their own solar system, it will change the future history of the entire universe, and all those worlds Clara has been to with the Doctor over the last two seasons will cease to exist. What makes things so much worse is that Courtney is trapped in this predicament with her and will probably die with her, decades away from her home and her family, so Clara feels like she’s failed her as her caretaker. Killing the creature goes against all of Clara’s values, along with everything the Doctor has taught her about the sanctity of life, so she decides to spare the creature and her gamble thankfully pays off.
By the episode’s end, the future is safe but Clara is still furious – since the Doctor’s little stunt was needlessly cruel – so once they’re alone, she lets him have a piece of her mind. All season, the Doctor has been trying her patience: whether it’s locking her in a room with a monster against her wishes or being needlessly petty, condescending and antagonistic towards her boyfriend and her students – ditching her on the moon was simply the last straw. In the heat of the moment, Clara tells him to get lost and decides that she never wants to see him again. One of the perks of letting Danny in on her time-traveling secret is that she has someone else to talk to now when she’s stressed, and he fulfils his supportive boyfriend duties here. When she vents about what happened to him, he suspects that she’ll feel differently once she’s had some time to cool down, since she and the Doctor have so much history together, and he offers her some gentle advice not to write her best friend off so quickly (even though he isn’t all that fond of Twelve himself).
Up until now, Courtney Woods has played a very minor part in Series 8, only appearing here and there for a quick gag. “Kill The Moon” expands quite a lot on her character, since she’s given a supporting role in this outing, and we get to see that she does have layers beyond being an unruly and rebellious teen. She’s the initial catalyst for everything that transpires in this episode: when the Doctor makes a dismissively rude comment about her offscreen she takes it very personally, since her self-esteem is rather fragile, but she’s hoping to change all that by doing something noteworthy. Right from the start, she gets more than what she bargained for on this trip to outer space. She watches a man get eaten by a giant spider and is nearly acquainted with the Grim Reaper herself when said spider comes after her next. She’s only fifteen years old, so her near-death experience naturally traumatizes her.
She beats a hasty retreat back to the TARDIS to get away from all the madness, but she’s quickly drawn back into the Doctor and Clara’s mission by her compassion for the creature they’re studying, and her need to play a part in what’s happening. Courtney is very naïve and short-sighted but she also has a noble side, and she does seem to gain some more respect for Clara during this experience, since she constantly turns to her for guidance and emotional support when things start to get scary or overwhelming. By the journey’s end, Courtney has stuck stubbornly to her principles, and as a result, she’s helped Clara to save the future of the entire human race, so she’s definitely got something to feel proud of now. Assuming the Doctor’s claim about her later is true (and it isn’t just another one of his tall tales), Courtney was inspired by this adventure to try to make a difference in the world when she became an adult and eventually decided to go into politics. So she’s had a pretty nice character arc over these last two episodes.
Over the years, Doctor Who has told a number of different stories about the human race’s steady progression as space explorers, who are driven to seek out knowledge as they try to find their place amongst the cosmos, and “Kill The Moon” is another chapter in that saga, taking place roughly around the same time period as “The Waters Of Mars“. By the 2040’s, mankind has lost interest in exploring the stars and have grown complacent in the treasure trove of knowledge their forefathers already uncovered, so they’re completely caught off guard when their world starts to change along with the moon. A small team of astronauts are sent to find answers about the moon’s transformation, with Captain Lundvik leading them. Lundvik is a very grizzled and pessimistic woman, and she only grows more jaded after all her crewmates are killed on the mission.
Her world has been going to hell for years now, and she’s just about lost hope in it ever getting better on its own, so she’s prepared to do whatever it takes to save her planet. She’s deadset on killing the creature living inside the moon before it can hatch, which puts her directly at odds with the Doctor, Clara and Courtney, who all think that’s appalling. Lundvik firmly believes that the ends justify the means when the stakes are this high, and she dismisses all the others as being foolishly sentimental. Ultimately, Clara overrules her and follows her own gut instinct to trust mother nature, which turns out to be the right call after all. Humanity as a whole is inspired by the dragon’s miraculous birth to restart their space programs, because there’s so still much to see and learn out there beyond their home. And Lundvik has been humbled by this experience – Clara didn’t just save the dragon, she also saved her from making the wrong choice, much like Amy did with the Doctor in “The Beast Below” – so hopefully, it’ll have a positive effect on her as well down the line.
“Kill The Moon” was originally conceived as an Eleventh Doctor story for the latter half of Series 7, when Clara was still a brand new companion. However, it was eventually pushed back to Series 8 and the whole story had to be radically overhauled to accommodate the Twelfth Doctor and his radically different dynamic with Clara, which honestly leaves me wondering what the original draft of this episode was like. “Kill The Moon” is helmed by Paul Wilmshurt, whose direction is very serviceable (if a bit unremarkable) throughout the hour: it probably shines the most during the attack of the spider germs early on, where he does a really good job of building up tension while our heroes are being preyed upon in the dark. “Kill The Moon” was primarily filmed in Timanfaya National Park in Lanzarote, Spain – the same place “Planet Of Fire” was filmed in the classic series, thirty years earlier – with the gravelly mountain terrain standing in for the rocky surface of the Moon.
Since “The Caretaker” saved up a lot of money for the show’s special effects budget, “Kill The Moon” can afford to be a very flashy episode, with freaky CGI spider creatures running around the desert terrain, and the starry black vista of deep space being digitally composited into the sky at all times. For the most part, the illusions at play all hold up well, except for the establishing shots of Lundvik’s space shuttle, which never quite manage to be convincing. Longtime viewers will notice that the Twelfth Doctor is wearing the same orange spacesuit that the Tenth Doctor picked up for himself in Series 2 – the same one the Doc has worn in “The Satan Pit“, “42“, “The Waters Of Mars” and “Hide” – which means the show has gotten a lot of mileage out of that prop over the years. Murray Gold’s electronic score is very moody and restrained this week, with some heroic new variations of the Twelfth Doctor’s theme simmering below the surface in tracks like “Are You Going To Shoot Me?“, “When I Say Run” and “That Is The Moon“.
All in all, “Kill The Moon” is a very average episode of Doctor Who that would probably be more forgettable, were it not for Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman bringing their A-game to the table as usual, as well as the character drama that forms between the two leads as a result of this adventure.
* “So, an innocent life versus the future of all mankind. We have forty-five minutes to decide” I see you leaning on the fourth wall again with the time limit, Doctor Who.
* The big twist about the moon’s true nature in this episode is actually quite similar to something the Doctor discovered in “The Runaway Bride“: that the Earth’s core was formed by a nest of giant alien spiders billions of years ago. In this show, anything is fair game for having an alien-related backstory.
* “Why didn’t you just tell her you didn’t mean it?!”
* “Oh? Well, you’re just going to have to shoot us, then. Shoot the little girl first. She doesn’t want to stand there watching us getting shot, does she? She’ll be terrified. Girl first, then her teacher, and then me”.
* “Do you know what’s wrong with the moon?” “It’s put on weight” Relatable.
* “One small thing for a thing. One enormous thing for a thingy thing!” r/Cringe.
* “What you doing?” “Putting some pictures on Tumblr” “No! Courtney, don’t put any photos on Tumblr!”
* “Is it a chicken?” “No!” “Cause for a chicken to have laid an egg that big-” “Courtney, don’t spoil the moment“.
* The latter half of this episode feels a lot like an abortion allegory. The climax is three women arguing amongst themselves about whether or not they have the right to kill an unborn creature in a womb, when letting it be born would be incredibly harmful, while the only male member of the cast dips out because he feels like it isn’t his place to intervene. According to Peter Harness, that was completely unintentional on his part, but the parallels are definitely there and once you notice them, they get very distracting.
* “Who’s better qualified?” “I don’t know! The President of America!” “Oh, take something off his plate. He makes far too many decisions anyway”.
* “Listen, we went to dinner in Berlin in 1937, right? We didn’t nip out after pudding and kill Hitler. I’ve never killed Hitler. And you wouldn’t expect me to kill Hitler” River Song would do it.
* “Oh, what a prat” That’s putting it lightly, Lundvik.
* “Loads of things lay eggs” “…It’s not a chicken”.
* “Hey, why don’t you call me Clara?” “I prefer ‘miss’, miss” That got a good laugh out of me. Just because they’re both going to die, does not mean Courtney wants to get all chummy with her teacher. That would just be weird.
* During the climax, Clara decides to broadcast to everyone on Earth and put the fate of the creature up to a vote. When the vote doesn’t go the way she wanted it to however, she decides ‘fuck democracy’ and goes against everyone else’s wishes anyway. When the moon started breaking apart and no one had any idea what was about to happen for a few minutes, I imagine all the people back on Earth were thinking lots of colorful thoughts about Clara once they realized she betrayed them.
* “Tell me what you knew, Doctor, or else I’ll smack you so hard you regenerate” Oh snap.
* “Oh, don’t you ever tell me to mind my language! Don’t you ever tell me to take the stabilizers off my bike! And don’t you dare lump me in with the rest of all the little humans that you think are so tiny and silly and predictable! You walk our Earth, Doctor, you breathe our air. You make us your friend, and that is your moon too, and you can damn well help us when we need it!” Hell, yes.
* “When did you get to become so wise?” “The same way as anyone else. I had a really bad day”.
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