TV Apart from the usual timeslot three things almost mitigated against me reviewing Doctor Who’s Kill The Moon tonight. After enduring itchy eye syndrome last week, this week I caught the September bug, which put me to bed for three days. There are still headaches. On the upside, I’ve binged through the second season of The Newsroom and the second season of Continuum which desperately seems like it wants to be The Wire with time travel but ultimately ends up being Fringe-lite. The second reason is Catherine Bennett’s storming Onion-like parody of just these kinds of blog posts in The Guardian this morning which is so on the nose most of the commenters don’t realise it's satire and which threatens to destabilise the process. Plus it depended on the quality of the episode. Yes, well, wish me luck. Let’s see how far I get before the paracetamol stops working.
The optimal condition to be watching Kill The Moon is on painkillers so with that in mind let’s start with the easy stuff. As readers of Lance and Lars’s AHistory will know, c 2040, The Seeds of Death featured a world dependent on T-Mat technology with spacecraft left as museum pieces. I can’t quite square what happens there with the Mexican survey ship, but the existence of this tubular transporter explains why Earth doesn’t have much in the way of a space programme so they have to pull this space shuttle from a museum with the events of Kill The Moon becoming the inspiration for Earth to properly return to the stars which ultimately leads to Bowie Base and all that Waters of Mars business which will become important later. Oh hold on, Adelaide Brooke says she first landed on Mars in the early 2040s. Time can be rewritten. Cracks. Rebooted universe. Faction Paradox. Breath. Breath.
Breath because Kill The Moon doesn’t have any “easy stuff”. It’s difficult, difficult and if you’ll excuse me, lemon difficult. It’s the kind of episode, which is everything Doctor Who should be doing and nothing at all that Doctor Who should be doing. Unpicking the recursion in that sentence shouldn’t take long but like the apparent fuzziness of the Doctor’s perception of time, which is rather a better explanation here than in Cold Blood, it means that you can’t categorically say whether this a good episode of Doctor Who or not. I do have another way of explaining that, but I’ll keep it for the final paragraph because at a certain point I’m going to have to end this thing and I need to lead up to something. I’ve even already written it so I’ll have it at the bottom of this Word document as I type as an ever-present reminder, rather like the flash forward in tonight’s teaser.
Kill The Moon is excellent, the kind of challenging television Doctor Who can and often is capable of. The kind of episode you can show fans of Battlestar Galactica or Game of Thrones when they have the audacity to suggest it’s just some kids show. It’s morally complex, asks difficult questions about what humanity is and can be capable of in relation to saving itself and has some of the best performances, writing ("My Granny used to put things up on Tumblr.") and direction in television right now, doing all of this on a Saturday night between Strictly Come Dancing and Casualty. None of which is that new (cf, The Aztecs back in 1964) but at a time when, as someone suggested to me earlier today, “Saturday night television is rubbish”, here’s something which plainly isn’t and which arguably deserves its present timeslot. When the Hugos pop around again, expect Kill The Moon to be on the list.
Storywise, we’re effectively being handed a do-over of The Beast Below gene-spliced with The Waters of Mars. Like The Beast Below, humanity is essentially given a choice as to whether to let a giant space creature live or die in order to save themselves. Like The Beast Below, humanity chooses to save itself, which is something we do every day when we eat meat, wear skins and test animals for probably the very thing which is keeping me healthy enough to type and like The Beast Below, when a single time travelling member of humanity decides to override the that decision and let the giant space creature live, everybody does. Actually now that come to think of it, it’s also the same decision made about the Silurians over and over again, although the wind blows in the other direction on that, with the Brigadier's nonchalant moustache hovering over the YES (or is it NO) button.
The journey to that decision point is chilling. Preview clips suggested this was going to be something akin to The Ark in Space, a trad bit of base under siege, the writer having been told to "Hinchcliffe the sh** out of it" (source: DWM) and earlier in the episode, with its onion like structure that’s exactly what we were gifted, director Nick Hurran making full use of horror of shadows and Jenna Coleman’s saucer-like eyes screaming terror through their irises. Perhaps family programmes aren’t allowed to sustain that through forty-five minutes, but you can still imagine a range of old school actors, directors and special fxperts watching such things and grimacing as they remember the intense studio lights they had to work with. Actually you don’t have to imagine, just choose to a dvd commentary from any of the 80s Whos and listen to the pain.
The other half of the episode is The Waters of Mars if the Doctor had decided to sod off and leave them to it. The similarities with Mars can’t be unintentional. How heroes spend the episode wearing the same 43K2.1 era space suit the Tenth Doctor wore in that episode. Once again we’re greeted by another pioneering and surely famous female astronaut whose impossibly whisked back to her planet at a instant of certain doom. Once again we have an important celestial body at risk. This latest series does seem to be very directly commenting on and reproducing iconic moments from RTD era, from The Girl in the Fireplace to Dalek to Blink to School Reunion and now this, which is also texturally similar to The Mysterious Planet/The Satan Pit. Oh look, the paracetamol's stopped working.
By drawing attention to these similarities, new Who writer Peter Harness (welcome) and whoever illuminate the differences. In Mars, Tenth was aware of the temporal outcome and says that he can’t change it until he does which fulfils my old theory and that whole fixed point in time business is really just about whether the Doctor has knowledge of the future of a place and time and can only change things if he doesn’t. In Moon, the Twelfth Doctor doesn’t remember what happened, so could stick around and change things but curiously doesn’t, leaving the business at hand to Clara instead, almost as though he’s washing his hands of the whole thing when in reality he’s done nothing of the sort.
In Mars, Tenth counter-intuitively stays even though he knows the temporal outcome and decides to change it therefore displaying his Time Lord arrogance. In Moon, Twelfth doesn’t apparently know the outcome but goes anyway knowing that Clara will make “the correct decision” therefore displaying his Time Lord arrogance. On both occasions, there’s a human at the other end, a human to tell him what a rotter he’s been but again the difference is, whereas in Mars the Tenth Doctor realises the damage he’s done leading to hijinks, mayhem and marriage to Liz 1, the Twelfth Doctor simply stands there with a bewildered look on his face unable to comprehend his wrongness, which as far as he can see, unlike The Waters of Mars, wasn’t that big a decision in the imposing method of stuff.
Courtney’s now a companion too. Why would he do that, and what is it with the show’s view of youngsters this age that they’re so cynical and bored with the whole thing until they’re frightened out of their wits? The episode was apparently originally written for Matt Smith (yes, really) and she's filling in the gap left by the Maitlands. Figures (source: DWM). Also, what about the Moon in the Whoniverse then? Giant space egg. The TARDIS Datacore entry’s already been updated but glance through the rest and you’re now reading about a bunch of colonies and bases being massed on the side of an egg shell. Shrugs. This is the sort of premise changing new information which will ripple through for quite some time. Unless, cracks. Rebooted universe. Faction Paradox.
Challenging, challenging stuff, aided by some remarkable performance from the small cast. About the only bum note is that due to the truncated base under siege chunk, acting legends and ‘verse veterans Phil Nice and Tony Osoba barely have enough time to get into their space suits on before the spiders bite them open. Despite the haiku-like characterisation Hermione Norris is a tour-de-force, as morose as someone on that mission would be when face with three time travellers who seem strangely reluctant to save her planet. Ellis George is making the most of her first screen role. But the plaudits are with Capaldi and Coleman who’re both utterly mesmerising especially in that final scene with Clara burning with anger and hatred and disbelief with this man who was once her hero now, as Lundvik encapsulates succinctly, “a prat.”
Yes, well, fuck that. Intuitively, I can see what Moffat and the gang are trying to do here. They’re shaking things up a bit. Emphasising as the pre-publicity suggested, the Doctor’s alienness, reminding us that he’s not human, that he’s an Time Lord from Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborous, the man who thinks that it might be possible for humanity and the Silurians to share the planet, who doesn’t favour one species over another. He doesn’t do hugs. Faced with the same moral dilemma he was handed in The Waters of Mars, he’d have been back in the TARDIS way before there was even the hint of danger to himself. An attempt to do the pilot version of the First Doctor or C. Baker “properly” not to mention The Cartmel Masterplan. Blah, blah, blah, see previous blog posts in this series.
Yes, well, fuck that because ultimately, in the end, for the series to work, the Doctor has to be a hero. The episode pays lip service to that, with his attempts to save Courtney and his speech about how humanity having seen this magnificent vision in the sky decides to go have a look at it, but at no point, and this is important on so many levels, should we as an audience hear a character describe him as “a prat” and agree with them, not be on his side. When Clara describes his actions as cheap, pathetic and patronising, we should not be nodding along. Simply put, it breaks the show and saps it of its uniqueness. In Kill The Moon, we have the absence of the Doctor syndrome writ large, we have something akin to Time Lord Victorious as status quo.
Yes, well, alright language, but between this and last week’s cavalcade of wrongness, we’re in very dangerous territory in relation to how the show’s treating its audience who’re almost in the same position as Clara in the episode. If the production team are challenging us with this aren’t they also patronising us for liking what came before? Is it somehow wrong of us to want a likeable main character going on a great spirit of adventure were moral discussions are implicit rather than explicit, as is ability to inspire humanity to do great things, in which he’s the one fighting monsters rather than giving a decent imitation of being one himself? As I’ve asked previously I wonder how this plays with the core audience. How do kids feel about Capaldi? Have they simply switched their allegiance to Clara as the protagonist?
At the risk of reviewing the gaps, I was desperate for Clara to say she missed the earlier version, really stick the dagger in. Perhaps if, when Clara left the TARDIS, in the reverse shot Capaldi could have given some indication of the conversation having had some meaning for him but there’s nothing but a blank expression. An acting choice to be sure, understated emotion, but this is veering on Bresson-like in its ambiguity. At least he didn’t shrug. We have to assume and to hope that what we’re seeing from Capaldi and his Doctor here is some kind of arc towards being able to accept hugs, to remember what it is to be the Doctor, but at this point I’m pretty desperate for Clara to hit him so hard he regenerates, no matter what the recent correspondent to the Radio Times thinks. Much as I wanted Capaldi and still do, I don't want him like this.
In other words, this might be a brilliant piece of television drama, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. Judging by the trailer, next week’s episode looks like it’s going to be Clara-lite which means we’re back to double banking with a similar shooting structure to season four rather than mostly leaving both lead actors out for the week (seasons two and three) or clearly only shooting them for a couple of days on a few sets (The Long Game). The narrative implications of that are that Twelfth will have his first full on protagonist appearance. After that perhaps Flatline will be Doctor free then we’ll have a big reunion for Frank Cottrell Boyce’s In the Forest of the Night. Please understand, for everything I’ve said this past few weeks, I’m not discounting some grander arc like narrative which will explain all of these choices. I just wish, well, I just wish.