Sunday, 5 October 2014

Doctor Who: Kill The Moon (Episode Review)

When writer Peter Harness started work on this particular story, Steven Moffat explicitly told him to "Hinchcliffe the shit out of it for the first half". It's probably the best order he could have given as the beginning plays out like an excellently well crafted classic Doctor Who tale, building up to something extremely creepy and with a few good ideas. It's dark, well paced and hits all the right notes, but it's a damn shame he didn't ask him to give the second half the same treatment. It's really there that the story goes completely off the rails.

Serving as something of a sequel to the events of last week's episode, Kill The Moon sees the Doctor trying to make reparations to Courtney at Clara's behest. Having told her that she was "not special" the Doctor refuses to take back his words, instead opting to trying to make her special by being the first woman on the moon. Unfortunately, they arrive at a time when humanity is on the brink of destruction. Something has gone horribly wrong on Luna and the last remaining astronauts on Earth have been sent on a do or die mission to ensure humanity's survival. Caught up in events, things prove to be more complicated than anyone realises.

Now, let's get one thing cleared up first - Yes, this is far better than last week's The Caretaker. Whatever else it might be, it's clearly making the effort to be science fiction and sticking to that genre. Atop of this, many scenes do work both in terms of drama and excellent acting. For the first half an hour or so, it's a very well done episode and it really works wonders with what's on offer.

The design of the spacesuits, the shuttle, the eerily silent surface of the moon and the creepy simplicity of the spider-like villains all came together perfectly in this one. While you might raise the odd eyebrow at a few background spacesuits being aged Cold War era pilot equipment, there's very little here to seriously criticise. 
A big part in this is thanks to the writing covering a few potential errors early on and using them to build a bigger world. Why is Earth using a woefully out of date space shuttle decades into the future? Because it is all they had left, having focused inwards and so much having been destroyed thanks to an impending disaster. Why does the moon have Earth-like gravity? No one knows, and that is what's causing so many disasters down there. It's that right mix of special effects and the unknown which can really hook in an audience.

Things only improve with the pacing and information balancing out here. The script still carries the breakneck speed Matt Smith era stories often went with. Yet rather than rushing through things without any info, there's enough here to really build and image of the world we never truly see. Combined with the sudden and very threatening introduction of the aliens, and it's the kind of rapid start that truly works, keeping up that momentum until the end.

Better yet the presence of Courtney, one predicted failing, was not nearly as bad as was expected. While largely unnecessary to the tale, her irritating behaviour and attitude was at least tolerable thanks to the characters treating her as such. It's a vast improvement over certain similar characters from past seasons, and is further proof that, whatever else people might say, the creative forces behind the programme do listen to feedback at least a little bit.

Sticking to the side characters, the choice of Hermione Norris to play the more cynical face of humanity in this era was clearly the right one from the start. While her character, Captain Lundvik, has few real lines to make her stand out, Norris adds enough of a human face to the figure to make her memorable. Of the lines and moments she is given, there's enough in her delivery and small inflections to give the impression of a person who has lived out their life in a very different time. Compare this to the wooden performances which helped torpedo Into The Dalek, and there's a truly staggering difference in the overall quality. It's almost enough to save the story when things start to go wrong.

The problem is that the narrative very quickly fails once the moral issue is thrown into the mix. How so? Because of one very basic problem: Half the episode's content is written to encourage the audience to think and consider about morality. The other half only works if the viewer has their brain switched off.

It's next to impossible to really go into why without delving into spoilers but, by the time the scene on the beach is done, you'll likely be banging your head against the nearest hard surface. The show is Doctor Who, leaps in logic and the abandonment of scientific fact is expected in almost every area. That said, it only works to a certain point and Kill The Moon crosses that line which shatters that suspension of disbelief. If you have any understanding of gravity, any understanding of biology, any understanding that space does not contain air, this story will hurt you for it, and hurt you hard. A fact only made worse thanks to the script reminding audiences of certain scientific facts early on, only to completely abandon them by the end.

Spoiler - The conclusion features a creature flapping its wings through the vacuum of space, then proceeding to lay an egg larger than itself within moments of its birth. 

Still, the bloody abuse of the laws of science even to such a degree is not uncommon in Who. Even when it starts mimicking Star Trek Voyager's most infamous errors, you might be able to sit through it for the dilemma itself. The chief failing is that said dilemma is not nearly as deftly handled as it could have been and simply tries to tackle far too many themes at once. Any one of these could have worked, the final one it settles on especially if it had given it real focus or properly set up the Doctor as a true chess-master, but it's instead weighed down by other problems. The hard decision supposedly made doesn't work because from the start it seems to be no decision at all, and then by the end the negative consequences of their actions are magically removed in an instant.

Things are not made much better thanks to it being Clara and two people the audience have barely seen sitting and focusing upon this, with the Doctor standing back for apparently no reason. While half of a reason is given, stop for a moment and consider his words, and the justification fails to truly hit home. It's more of an excuse to shift the show's focus towards the companions once more, and the whole discussion in question seems oddly half baked. It lacks the conciseness of the "Do I have the right?" speech so famous within the franchise, nor even the build we saw in stories such as Cold Blood. The sad thing is that, despite taking up the final act, the actual discussion over their choice is woefully underdeveloped.

Like so many stories from past eras, the true tragedy is that up to a certain point it was doing oh so well and it's hard not to appreciate the episode this could have been. With a clearer focus or perhaps even a few better re-writes this might have stood out as a fantastic outing, but it falls below the mark. Opinions of this episode have been extremely polarising across the internet, so there is a chance you might enjoy this one. Just be warned of the issues above and go into this one with some caution should you wish to watch it.

Plus, at the very least, no matter the problems in the script department, Capaldi remains as outstanding as ever as the Doctor.


  1. I really wasn't fond of this to be honest, I think I'd go into the extremely negative reception category. This is the first episode of Capaldi's era I've just found almost nothing good about. I'm hesitant to spoil but some basic points

    I did think the early sections were extremely atmospheric and well-done.

    My problem started around the fifteen minute mark actually with a particular moment involving Courtney, and the moral dilemma just made it worse. Not only did I feel like they were making some very hamfisted comparisons to a fairly controversial issue, but they were making comparisons where there wasn't really a comparison to be made. One of science fiction's strengths can be when it uses the fantastical to reflect on and deliver commentary on real world issues, but here I felt the fantastical nature of the situation divorced it from being more than a forced connection to the issue they tried to connect it to (not helped by in my opinion Lundvik being relegated to a strawman position).

    The moment that took the cake for me was the spoiler you gave. That was when I just flat out went 'I cannot believe Moffat approved this nonsense'. I was already not happy with the episode, but that was when my disbelief flew out the window entirely.

    I think my consensus is really that the first fifteen minutes were well done, but around the fifteen minute mark the episode begins to crack, and the moral dilemma drags it down a lot. It's a pity because on reflection I do think you're right, this did have the makings of a good episode. When I saw the trailer last week, I remember being quite interested and excited. I definitely wasn't expecting what we got.

    1. On reflection you're probably right about it being good only up to the fifteen minute mark rather than half the episode. While I wouldn't say that it immediate jumped from a high quality tale to a low quality one, there was a definite descent into madness from the moment they find out what the monsters actually were.

      Admittedly a lot of the things i'm trying to praise the episode for are also elements which sort of worked despite themselves. Lundvik was certainly a strawman character and it seems all of her points were ignored by the end, but the actress did work to give her a bit more depth than that. The same goes with Courtney, he was irritating as hell but, unlike past stories, the characters at least seemed to treat her as such.

  2. This is one of those episodes I wish they would have gone the opposite direction that they did. There was way too much riding on the decision to leave it to chance the way they did, and idealism doesn't always play out the way you'd like, which is something they've covered before in this series and I normally like happy endings, I just don't like them when they're only granted through terrible writing.

    On the plus side I don't think the alien "flew", I'm pretty sure that was just a metaphor the Doctor used, though how/why it laid an egg bigger than it is beyond me.

    @Phantom Revenger: I completely agree that the earlier parts of this episode are well done, I'd definitely say it starts falling apart when the detergent is brought out, and why did she have that in her suit anyway? Also what real life issue is this supposed to be a commentary on because I can't think of one at the moment.

  3. They do actually explain the detergent since she had it in the opening scene, but it is odd that she brought it after that. It's a particularly painful weakness since it's just exploited like that with no buildup or anything. I know people complain heavily about the Slitheen, and yes the farting was juvenile, but their weakness to vinegar still carried some tension with Jackie making the cocktail because you couldn't be sure if the Slitheen would get through the door before she finished it. Here Courtney just pulls out the disinfectant and all menace the germs had is dispelled because you know that's all they have to do.

    As for the issue, abortion. The alien is repeatedly referred to as a baby, there's the bit with the amniotic fluid, Lundvik is written as a pro-abortion strawman (hence the 'I don't have kids' line), and while it's a bit of a stretch, the people left to discuss the issue are all women. The problem is that the situation doesn't fit right to abortion, so the analogy doesn't work well, and I referred to it elsewhere as the writer banging a square pin against a round hole insisting he can make it fit.

    1. She had it in the opening scene, but why put it in the spacesuit? It's still a very odd thing to carry everywhere with you.

      Oh that's the issue. Now that I know that (and it makes sense) I'm changing my opinion on the episode to completely awful, the second half is completely irredeemable. That issue is horribly presented and now that I know that I'm still for killing the thing. I'm also for killing the next egg before it grows and causes the tides to kill millions like this one did (I don't care that it doesn't know that it's killing people), choosing not to kill it means you vetoed the entirety of humanity just to make yourself feel better, and it comes off to me as the writer saying telling me that's what should happen with pregnancies, and considering that some pregnancies can prove fatal, it pisses me off.