It's not supposed to be easy.
All of us forget that, from time to time. The Doctor forgets that. His companions forget that. The various writers and showrunners forget that. And we, the audience, tend to forget it most often of all: we get lulled by formula, accustomed to well-worn grooves, used to cruising comfortably along on the rails of expectation. X will happen, and Y will happen, and in the end the Doctor will do the right thing and save the day. That is what we're used to. That is what we expect. That is, in many ways, what we want, and we can be forgiven if, sometimes, that's all we want.
But, for the second time this season—after the challenging "Listen"—Doctor Who is reminding us that it's not always supposed to be easy. Yes, the show says, we will still have plenty of silly runarounds like "Robot of Sherwood" and "Time Heist," in which questions are simple, and lessons are clear, and the understandable needs for amusement and reassurance are met. But we will also push you, and challenge you; we will sometimes trust you to deal with ambiguity, and depth, and conflict, and situations in which the moral of the story—the question of right and wrong—is not immediately clear.
"Kill the Moon," written by Who newcomer Peter Harness, is the second kind of story, and bless Steven Moffat for shoving a crowbar into the sometimes restricting structure of modern Who and opening it up to possibilities we haven't seen since the classic era. "Kill the Moon" is not a perfect episode—no more than "Listen" was—but it's an important episode, if for no other reason than that it reminds us that there are times when there is no clear choice between right and wrong. Sometimes every choice is a little bit right, a little bit wrong. Sometimes every person is a little bit right, and a little bit wrong. Sometimes conflicts—personal conflicts, plot conflicts, ethical conflicts—shouldn't be neatly resolved at the end of a story, but should continue to linger, and to trouble, and to provide lasting effects.
Sometimes, it's not supposed to be easy.
"Hello, Earth. We have a terrible decision to make." — Clara
"Kill the Moon" is not an easy episode. The situation—though it takes a while to get there—is simple enough: the Doctor discovers Earth's moon is really an egg, and it's about to hatch. (Questionable science aside—I don't care so much about that—this is such a marvelous idea for a sci-fi story that I have trouble believing no one has thought of it before. Perhaps they have, and I'm just not aware of them: either way, kudos to Peter Harness.)
So the problem is simple, but the solution is not: the breaking apart of the moon, and its increased gravity, is already causing catastrophic damage on Earth. No one seems entirely sure what will happen when the moon breaks apart completely, and no one knows what this incomprehensibly large creature is likely to do once it's born. So perhaps the safest thing to do is just to kill it? That's the position of Captain Lundvik (Hermione Norris), the commander (and, soon enough, lone survivor) of the astronauts sent to investigate. But Clara and her student Courtney Woods (Ellis George) argue that the creature is an innocent baby who can't be blamed for kicking.
Yes, there's a thinly veiled abortion metaphor running throughout "Kill the Moon." (As the Doctor says, "You might have some very difficult conversations to have with your kids.") It's no accident that the only man present—the Doctor—leaves the decision entirely to the women. ("Kill it, or let it live. I can't make this decision for you," he says. "It's your moon, womankind. It's your choice.") And it might not be a coincidence that Clara ultimately decides that the collective voice of democracy—the will of the people—is wrong on this point. I don't know if Harness seriously intended this episode as a pro-life message, but there's certainly fuel for anyone who cares to interpret it that way. (Ironically, pushing the "ABORT" button here means not terminating the life.)
Though I would never want Doctor Who to be preachy—and though I'm vehemently pro-choice myself—I’m generally in favor of science fiction tackling important political subjects through metaphors like this: coming back to my main thesis, science fiction should be difficult sometimes, and handle complicated themes, and recognize that hard questions often have messy and complicated and debatable answers. And, fortunately, Harness has the good sense not to push this particular metaphor too far: it's a pretty thin analogy, after all, and, if the political subtext were really the point of the episode, it would be a problem.
Ultimately, however, I think to focus on the abortion metaphor in "Kill the Moon"—though it's undeniably present—is to overlook the real point and undersell the episode. The real point of this episode is not the issue itself, but simply to establish an ethically sticky situation in which an impossible, important, painful choice has to be made.
And then to have the Doctor refuse to make it.
"That was me respecting you." — The Doctor
Steven Moffat and Peter Capaldi have been preparing us for this sort of moment all season, and in fact Moffat has been working towards it since he took over the show in 2010. I've talked enough in previous reviews about the "Moffat Masterplan"—the long, slow process of returning new Who to something that more closely resembles its roots—and I'm not going to cover that ground again here.
But I haven't talked that much about Capaldi's version of the Doctor, which—though it incorporates elements of Christopher Eccleston's Ninth Doctor—is really the first dramatic reinterpretation of the character since Doctor Who returned in 2005. If we had any doubts that this is a very different Doctor—and a very different show— "Kill the Moon" should put those doubts to rest.
The Ninth Doctor, of course, could be rude—he liked to call humans "stupid apes"—and the Tenth and Eleventh could both be angry and arrogant, but the core components of the Doctor's character in the modern era have been kindness, and compassion, and a general fondness for humanity as a whole and every individual life in particular. "In 900 years of time and space, I've never met anyone who wasn't important," the Eleventh Doctor said once.1
The Twelfth Doctor, however is not kind—at all—and he is not particularly compassionate: he exhibits a general disdain for humanity as a whole, and no real interest in individuals. He often can't remember people's names, or whether he's met them before—even if those people are, or were, important to him. (He is frequently fuzzy on the details of Clara's life—including, at times, her name—and in "Deep Breath" we learned that he has apparently completely forgotten one of the great tragic loves of his Tenth incarnation, Madame de Pompadour. One can easily imagine this Doctor asking "Rose? Rose who?") And it's not that he seems absent-minded or senile; rather, it seems he just doesn't care. The deep vein of sentimentality that ran through his immediate predecessors is almost wholly absent now.
In "Kill the Moon," the entire adventure is set in motion because the Doctor has told 15-year-old Courtney Woods that she's not special. This Doctor—unlike even the Ninth2—does not see every person as a unique and precious snowflake. It may strike us as cruel, but she's not particularly special, in his eyes; when pushed by Clara to rectify the situation, he sets out to make Courtney special, rather than lying to her. (Because it's what you do—not what anyone else thinks of you or says about you—that matters.)
That brutal honesty and disregard for talk seem to permeate every aspect of this Doctor's approach to life. He doesn't bother ingratiating himself to anyone. He doesn't flatter people, or lie to people, or soft-peddle what he says. He is not given naturally to inspirational speeches or comforting, uplifting counsel. He does not often explain himself, and he does not often apologize. He says what he thinks, and does what he does, and he expects the people around him to do the same. Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be: be one.
There's another element of the Twelfth Doctor's character that I've mentioned in passing this season, but haven't really explored: the fact that he doesn't seem to be having a lot of fun. Fun, too, has been a defining characteristic of the Doctor, certainly in the modern era. (Asked to state his name, rank, and purpose the Tenth Doctor once responded, "Doctor, Doctor, fun.")3 All of the new Who Doctors, and most of the classic series Doctors, have acted as though running all over the universe getting into life and death situations was simply the most joyous thing they could think of to do.
Like it or not, this Doctor is different. At first that bothered me about Capaldi's performance—He's playing the Doctor wrong!—and then it worried me about the Doctor's character arc—What's wrong with the Doctor?—but now I think both of those responses missed the point. "Listen" gave us a glimpse of how this Doctor may be driven in part by a deep-seeded childhood fear of monsters under the bed, but the Twelfth Doctor is not the hyperactive child that previous incarnations sometimes appeared to be. This Doctor is a grown up: he's not a little boy off on an adventure, and he's not a dashing playboy off on a lark, and he's not a galactic tour guide or cruise director who thinks it's his job to entertain bored humans. He has serious shit to do, and he's doing it, and it's not always fun.
Last week Danny asked Clara why she traveled with the Doctor. "Because it's amazing," she said. "Because I see wonders." In my review I complained that this answer was unworthy of a Doctor Who companion: I thought she should have made some mention of doing good deeds and saving lives. Once again, I underestimated this show and its writers: I thought that was a misstep in the screenplay, but now I think it was intentional. Clara has been too focused on the fun of it all, the sightseeing and freewheeling, the amazement and awe. She has a real life back on Earth, and the Doctor is her getaway, her excitement, a roller-coaster she can jump on and off as she pleases. Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) was a little like that as well, so addicted to life in the TARDIS that she and Rory sacrificed their child, any semblance of a normal life, and ultimately their lives.
Again (as I did last week), I'll quote the Eleventh Doctor's speech in "The God Complex," in which he seemed to realize the irresponsibility of tempting humans into this life. "I'd say it was their choice," he said of his companions, "but offer a child a suitcase full of sweets, and they'll take it." All throughout the modern era, the Doctor has been treating time in the TARDIS as a bag of sweets he can trade for companionship. And who can resist? It's the best ride in the universe, who wouldn't want to gorge him or herself on the sugar rush of endless possibilities?
But it wasn't always that way. Several inhabitants of the TARDIS in the classic series—beginning with the very first ones4—were reluctant passengers, horrified to find themselves trapped with this madman and ushered from one dangerous, nightmarish scenario to another. Most of them learned to appreciate life in the TARDIS, eventually, but it wasn't always fun and games. It wasn't easy, and it wasn't supposed to be easy.
"It's time to take the stabilizers off your bike." — The Doctor
That, I think, is the point of "Kill the Moon," and the point of the Doctor's refusal to solve the problem (which will surely be the subject of much debate). "Who made you the boss?" Captain Lundvik asks him, early in the episode. Who indeed? Why is the Doctor the one who always has to solve the problems, make the hard decisions, and get his hands dirty? One of the mistakes of the Russell T Davies era—which Moffat has been moving away from ever since—is the notion of the Doctor as this all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful Messiah figure who is always right, and always wins. Yes, he's smarter than most, and more powerful than most, but he's still just a man, flawed and fallible and sometimes driven—as we saw in "Listen"—by very human foibles.
In her final, extraordinary scene with the Doctor this week, Clara is furious with the Doctor for leaving her to make the decision about the fate of the Earth. She feels patronized, she feels betrayed, she feels abandoned. (And yes, Jenna Coleman—as she's been doing all season—absolutely rocks this scene.) At the moment when she needed him most, the Doctor flew away and left her on her own: she has always trusted him to do the right thing, to think of the clever solution, and—as she said last week to Danny—he's never let her down. Until now.
Sometimes everyone is a little bit right, and everyone is a little bit wrong. It's easy to watch this episode and think The Doctor is kind of a dick. (I confess I said those very words as I was watching.) He is patronizing, and he is frustratingly non-communicative, and it is unfair to expect ordinary people to be placed in these impossible situations. ("You're turning me into you," Rory accused him in "The Girl Who Waited.")
But, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that—though this Doctor may indeed be something of a dick—he's also absolutely right.
Because this isn't a game, this thing they do. It isn't a theme-park ride, it isn't an all-expense-paid cruise to exotic locations, it isn't a live-action role-playing game where people can play at being heroes and suffer no real risks. This is a life in which life or death decisions are made, often—as they are here—about entire civilizations. This is a life in which the issues are complicated, and the right path is often not clear, and the wrong answer can have devastating consequences. Clara is furious that he forced her to do what he always has to do: to be the one person who can do what you think is the right thing, even when no one else will, and even when the stakes are as high as they can possibly be. This is a grown-up life, and it's a tremendous, terrible responsibility to be the person who makes those decisions, and it's not supposed to be easy. Sometimes, in fact, it's not even supposed to be fun.
I don't know what Moffat's favorite era of classic Who was, but mine—though it's an unpopular choice—was the reign of the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy), and specifically those last two seasons before the show was cancelled. Script editor Andrew Cartmel took the already declining franchise in new directions, and attempted to restore some of the mystery and complexity that had been watered down over the years.
That was the era when Ace (Sophie Aldred), a 20th century teen-ager, was traveling with the Doctor, and it was not an easy time. The Seventh Doctor was manipulative, even slightly sinister; he had complicated plans he rarely bothered to explain, and he had a definite agenda for Ace that involved putting her through an emotional and psychological wringer. The show was canceled before that agenda got to play out, but we know now that his ultimate plan was to train Ace to be a Time Lord. He put her through Hell at times—manipulating her into confronting her own traumatic, abusive childhood—but there was a purpose to it: to help her grow up, and help turn her into someone who could do what the Doctor himself does.
I doubt there's literally such an agenda for Clara, but essentially the goal seems to be the same. "It's time to take the stabilizers off your bike," the Doctor tells her now. It is patronizing, and it may not be what Clara signed up for, but in the end it may be the highest compliment this very rude Doctor is able to provide: to push her into being someone more like him, and to trust her to handle it.
It may also be that, after a thousand years of being the Last of the Time Lords, the Doctor has an understandable desire to share the terrible burden of his awesome responsibility. I shouldn't have to be the one who always has to decide, he may be saying.
This is difficult stuff, but it may at last be the solution to what I've called the "Companion Conundrum": the irresponsibility of the Doctor's letting normal humans ride with him, and the inherent power (and gender) imbalance within the TARDIS. Arrogant and patronizing though he is—and he is—this Doctor, unlike previous versions, doesn't want a companion, or an assistant. He doesn't want to be loved, or looked up to, or worshiped. What he wants, perhaps, is an equal, someone to help shoulder the burden and make the hard decisions. What he wants to do for Clara—as he did in a much smaller way with Courtney—is to help her become someone extraordinary.
There is a moment in the 1989 Seventh Doctor story "The Curse of Fenric" when the Doctor is forced to disillusion his young companion: Ace's faith in him is helping to fuel the monster, and so he must insult her, belittle her, cruelly attack her and sever her connection to him. Afterwards—even after he explains that he didn't mean any of it, and that it was just a ploy to beat the monster—we sense that their relationship has changed forever. And I've always thought that that was intentional too: breaking Ace's faith was necessary, not just to solve the immediate problem, but as part of her growing-up process, part of her becoming something more.
The Moffat era has flirted with this kind of thing before—there was a confrontation between the Doctor and Amy at the end of "The God Complex" that reminded me of the same classic scene—but I found myself thinking about it again during "Kill the Moon." The Doctor does not belittle Clara here—in fact, he pays her the highest of compliments—but the effect is the same: to shatter her faith in him, to rob her of her trust, to put an end to her certainty that he is an infallible, reliable savior who will always save the day. That's a cruel thing to do, perhaps, and a hard thing to endure, but it also may be necessary part of a larger transformation.
Hero worship—as Danny (Samuel Anderson) implied last week—can be a dangerous, unhealthy thing: disappointment and anger and disillusion may all be part of the process of achieving a new, and better, and more egalitarian relationship. Clara is angry—and she is right to be angry—but that anger itself is a path to her claiming her own power, and becoming something more than the Doctor's assistant.
Call them birth pains, if you will: the egg is comfortable and familiar, but it ultimately must be destroyed, shattering along its fault lines and erupting—painfully, destructively, frighteningly—to leave new life in its place.
"When you've grown up a bit, you'll realize that everything doesn't have to be nice." — Captain Lundvik
In talking about all of this, I am, as always, talking both about life with the Doctor and life with Doctor Who. This show is changing: I've been writing for three years now about how Moffat has been slowly moving this show away from the Davies era, and towards something closer to the show he dreamed of making in the last days of classic Doctor Who. This season, those plans are coming to fruition, and "Kill the Moon" represents a bold step forward: this is not the same edifying, uplifiting, reassuring show we're used to. Season Eight has—in episodes like "Listen" and "Kill the Moon"—hearkened back to those days of the Seventh Doctor, and for me that's a good thing. That was a show that could push the boundaries, one that could deliver incredibly difficult stories like "Ghost Light," and engage with real emotional content like Ace's complex psychological and emotional journey out of childhood. It could still be very silly, and it could still be very funny and thrilling, but it was a show that sometimes took the training wheels off and trusted its audience to pedal.
But of course, it should also be noted, audiences didn't like that show: "The Curse of Fenric" was the second to last story before Doctor Who disappeared for 16 years. The show was already on the ropes, but the so-called "Cartmel Masterplan" helped put the nail in the coffin.
Will the Moffat Masterplan do the same? I doubt it: Doctor Who is a juggernaut now, one that can afford to take some risks. But Clara's feeling of betrayal at the end of this episode may, I think, find sympathetic echoes in some audience members, as Steven Moffat changes this show, slightly, from what it has been for the past seven seasons. We come for the fun, and we come for the wonder, and we come for the comforting sense that the Doctor will always be our hero and everything will work out in the end. We do not necessarily come—or we are not accustomed to coming—in order to grapple with difficult issues, or dark emotional themes, or to have our hero fail to provide all the answers. We do not come, necessarily, to be challenged ourselves, to be pushed to think in new ways and grow in new directions. This isn't what I signed up for: that, ultimately, is what Clara is feeling, and it may be what some audience members are feeling as well.
Clara ends this episode exactly where she begins it: she has a terrible decision to make. Will she leave the Doctor, or will she accept that he has changed and be strong enough, brave enough, to change with him?
We have the same decision to make, as Doctor Who itself changes. It's not an easy choice. It's not supposed to be easy.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- I realize I didn't actually discuss the episode much, let alone "review" it. (Can we call these "essays" or "pieces" or "blatherings" instead of "reviews?" Reviewing is so boring, isn't it?) But, for the record, I liked it: Capaldi and Coleman were both at the top of their games, and the guest stars were good as well, and I liked the spiders. I could have stood for a bit more ambiguity about the final outcome—the instant "new moon" was a bit too convenient—but even leaving out all the meta and metaphor, I thought it was a very good episode.
- Courtney's presence at first seemed a little superfluous, but I think it was important. For one thing, from a meta standpoint, it's an acknowledgement that children are part of this show's equation as well, and are capable of grappling with difficult ethical questions. For another thing, her path comments on Clara's a bit: at first she's just having fun, and then—when things get serious—she just wants to go away and let "the grown-ups" handle the problem. She doesn't want to be the person to make the tough decisions, or take the ultimate responsibility. (A nice note on this point is that she doesn't want to call Clara "Clara"—she prefers "Miss." She doesn't want a relationship of equals, but prefers to yield the authority to Clara. This nicely echoes Clara's relationship to the Doctor.) Finally, however, Courtney wants to come back: not because it's fun, but because she wants to help. That—I have almost no doubt—is the same decision Clara will make.
- As a huge fan of the space program—what Doctor Who fan could not be?—I liked the cautionary tale about what happens if we lose interest in exploring the stars.
- Another nice move away from the Davies era: Davies introduced the concept of "fixed points in time," which could not be changed. Now we have an opposite effect: fuzzy moments in time when the Doctor legitimately has no idea what happens. That's an excellent addition to the Doctor Who mythos, and helps to take away some of the Doctor's omniscience.
- Since I kind of hated Danny after last episode, I should mention that I really liked him here: he wasn't being patronizing or condescending like he was last week, but was actually listening to Clara and recognizing that whatever decision she arrives at is hers to make. That's an improvement. And I like his answer when Clara asks him how he got so wise, which reinforces the theme of how personal growth is not always pleasant: "Same way as everyone else: I had a really bad day."
- In the Season Five Christmas Special, “A Christmas Carol.”
- It was in Season One’s “Father’s Day” that the Ninth Doctor first called a human a “stupid ape.” But it was also in that episode that he said an ordinary man was the most important thing in creation, and told a normal bride and groom that their commonplace love story was more amazing than all his own adventures.
- In Season Four’s “The Waters of Mars.”
- The First Doctor literally kidnapped Ian Chesterton (William Russell) and Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill), who spent a long time just wanting the Doctor to take them home.