Monday, 13 October 2014

Kill the Moon written by Peter Harness and directed by Paul Wilmshurst

This story in a nutshell: It's all in the title...

Indefinable: Apparently the Doctor's rules these days include 'no hanky panky' so he's either been reading fandom's wish list (except the shippers who have been penned awaiting execution) or hanging out with JNT in the 80s. Either way it is nice to hear it expressed in a way less vomit inducing than 'I'm not your boyfriend.' Yeah, I'll never stop mentioning that line just so it doesn't happen again. This Doctor doesn't big people up and make them feel special, it simply doesn't register to him that that is something that he needs to do. It's such a marked difference from the hugging boys of old that you have to wonder if the Time Lords didn't deliberately toss in a little asshole juice when they blew the pixie dust out of Amy's crack in the sky. Try reading that sentence out loud. Watch him hopping about in front of his captors, babbling on about his endless regenerations if he should be shot again and no point does he try and make a single character feel comfortable in an already tense situation. Whereas the tenth Doctor had his fixed points in time that he can't change, the twelfth Doctor enjoys moments in time that he can't see or anticipate. The former came with emotional consequences of its own (not being able to interfere with terrible disasters) but the latter offers the unknown and for a character that became far too self assured and all knowing in his previous incarnation I find this a very satisfying development. Let's hope we visit a lot more of these unknowable points in time where the axis could shift dramatically either way. The Doctor makes a decision in this story of a sort that he has never done before. He chooses to remove himself from the climax and leave the hard choices to his companion. And what an impossible choice it is. I still haven't decided how I feel about this because I find myself siding with Clara at the climax when she calls him an insensitive, patronising bastard. However I can also see why he would want to leave this decision to the human race and not interfere (this would be ideal material for his next trial). Is it cowardice? Respect? He's so unknowable in his decisions it is hard to determine. It's a fascinating choice, dramatically, not only for the position it puts Clara in but also for the reaction from the audience. Are we supposed to like this man who will happily deal with the monsters but skip out of the way when the tough choices need to be made? I've seen this episode three times and I am still on the fence. Kudos to Harness for daring to do something as unusual as this. It's not until the Doctor sees how far he has pushed Clara that he will even acknowledge that he might have mishandled the situation. Fascinating stuff.

Impossible Girl: Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Finally! Sorry, I'm doing a little happy dance as I type. Finally Clara has been put in a situation that she cannot smile, charm or waltz confidently out of. She has to stay and make an awful choice, she has to face the emotional consequences of making that choice and she has to do it without the Doctor's help. How could I not empathise with Clara in this position? Suddenly she feels like a real person dealing with a real situation (albeit one that is utterly outrageous). She sheds tears. She reaches out for help. She's upset and afraid and alone. All the things I have wanted to see from her since the beginning of series eight. People who say they don't understand her anger at the end of the episode are failing to put themselves in her shoes. The fate of everybody on the planet at your fingertips, the fate of a newborn child? It's a catch-22 situation where it looks like something extraordinary has to be destroyed (the Earth or the creature). I would be furious if I was dumped in that situation and the man with all the answers popped off for coffee without a care in the world. Coleman is astonishingly good at the climax, crying what feels like real tears and facing a man she used to love and being slightly terrified by what he has become. I genuinely felt something for Clara that I never had before - pity. I don't like her allusions to domestic violence again, though ('I'll smack you so hard you'll regenerate!'). I can't wait to see where this goes. If Clara has walked out of the Doctor's life for good this moment will remain one of my favourite companion departures - it's the Tegan decision all over again but brought bang up to date ('If you stop enjoying it, give it up'). Clara has been belittled by the Doctor for what feels like the last time and she has had enough. That is quite a brave statement to make about a Doctor who is still finding his feet.

Angie the Second: I'm not entirely sure why we should be giving a damn about Courtney either, Doctor. There certainly isn't enough character there (yet) to offer her a pass as a companion and it did feel like she was the element that was shoehorned into the episode awkwardly. Harness said he wanted a younger character involved and that was his prerogative but the bizarre way she is deployed, heads back to the TARDIS and then wants out again when things get interesting makes it feel as though she has been bolted onto a story that doesn't really need her. Clara could have been the one who was menaced by the spider (and as the actual companion probably should have been) and the philosophical debate could have been handled by the adults alone. Certainly there is nothing that Courtney adds to the debate that contributes to the Moon's fate. On the plus side I could tolerate the actress and she's far less of an irritant than Angie was (despite my rather disingenuous title above) but saying that she still displays a lot of the attitude that bugs me about a certain type of child. I love the fact that the Doctor doesn't give a damn about her and takes her along to the Moon on a whim. Even better, when it appears the three of them are going to be shot the Doctor shoves Courtney in the firing line first. That moment was divine and very Colin Baker. At least she's not useless, spraying one of the giant spiders to death. Surely she realises that she cannot put pictures of the Moon on Tumblr?

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Little moments where big things are decided. And this is one of them.'
'The Moon's an egg...' - enjoy this moment, it might be the only point when Capaldi's Doctor smiles in the entire episode. He's clearly tickled by this insane development, something that even he wouldn't have conceived. The universe can still surprise him.
'It's your Moon, womankind. It's your choice.'
'Get back in your lonely bloody TARDIS and don't come back.'

The Good:
* A teaser where there is no hoping about to a million destinations to get to a very simple point? Where the central dilemma of the episode is alluded to within seconds? Where the dramatic thrust of this piece of drama is laid bare for the audience to see immediately? Peter Harness, you can stay. He was told to Hinchcliffe the hell out of the first half of the episode (or words to that effect) and he certainly has a damn good try at recapturing the feel of the opening episode of those mid 70s stories - suspicious guest characters pointing guns, a creepy alien landscape, the wreck of a spaceship crawlies with beasties. It's the stuff of nightmares and it feels like proper old school Doctor Who. As much as Doctor Who fans are open to the original ideas (although if they are too 'out there' they will reject them outright as this episode proved) they are just as comfortable with the base under siege formula that has served the show since its origins. Dark corridors, flash lights, scuttling creatures, imminent's a recipe that will never get old and always thrill (as long as it is directed as well as it is here). I especially love the image of the bodies twisted in webs lying on the Moon's surface. How chilling.
* And spiders? Come on, you know that is going to be a winner. They worked a treat in Planet of the Spiders when they were leaping onto peoples backs and they provide a thrilling (and terrifying if you are arachnophobic) monster for this story. Clearly the work of CGI, that doesn't make them any less skin crawling as they are scuttling over the walls at a rate of knots, leaping at victims with giant fangs and dribbling saliva and nesting in a dark crevice on the Moon, legs twisted together, crawling on top of one another and leaping out to attack unsuspecting visitors. It would have taken a real numbskull to mess this one up because two thirds of the audience are already terrified at the though of seeing a spider. But I have to say the director did a great job of taking the horror as far as it can go in the time slot, especially the attack on Courtney and sudden shock as the Doctor is leapt at from the nest. Very well done.
* I cannot in all good conscience provide a critical appraisal of this episode and neglect to discuss how stunning the production values are this week. I was quite taken aback by the quality of the production and how a trip to the moon was pulled off with cinematic visuals on a BBC budget. Whoever had the notion to use the volcanic plains of Lanzerote to double for the Moon's surface deserves a massive round of applause because the ensuing shots of the deserted landscape are just gorgeous. Doctor Who has presented quite a few versions of the Moon's surface and most of them have been pretty good but to have actors out on location in such vast space truly sells the notion of the unending desolation on the lunar surface. 
* It helps that the direction was a damn sight more imaginative than usual too. The dissolve of the moon into Clara's eye, connecting the orbiting body and the character in a visually arresting way provides the key to this episodes central dilemma without uttering a word.
* There are two musical themes this year that I have fallen a little bit in love with. One I am calling 'the Doctor Reacts', which is the blood pumping, pacy score that accompanies the more exciting moments of the season (such as the ship screaming down to the Moon in this episode). The other is 'The Doctor Muses' which is the unnerving, darker motif that plays every time he is deliberately try to creep people out (and sounds remarkably similar to and yet entirely unlike Stannis Boratheon's theme in Game of Thrones). Listen out for it when the Doctor talks about the gravity levels on the Moon, pointing out the inexactness of the situation. Add to that the piece that plays as the Doctor and his companions reach the Mexican colony and study the surface photos of the Moon. You're in no doubt that the shit has hit the fan...and is about to do so again.
* I love Clara's assertion that the Moon is still around in the future because it makes you think of the future times that she has visited and whether she would have taken the time to look up in the sky and check. It reminds us that the celestial body that effects so much of our lives is practically ignored by everybody except poets and children. We know it is there, we except that it is there, it lights up the sky at night but do we often take time to appreciate its dark beauty and its duty of care? I doubt it. Maybe we'll glance up at the sky tonight and offer a smile to the old Man in the Moon.
* We've been told that the Moon is getting heavier, we have the evidence of its newfound gravity and suddenly it starts splitting apart (in one glorious shot taking the shuttle down one of its cracks). This is suddenly a race against time to prevent a natural disaster and that always creates a sense of tension. But what on Earth is up with the Moon? Oh yeah, it's an egg. Hang on...what? The Moon that has been hanging in the sky longer than any of us have been on this Earth is a living creature gestating inside a shell. That's insane. It's whacky. It's impossible. It's so out there that half of fandom's love for the show shrivelled up and wilted away to nothing. It's just madness. I love it. It's as brilliant and bold and imaginative as a man with two hearts and the ability to regenerate travelling around time and space in a box that is bigger on the inside than the outside. It's the sort of crazy ideas that Doctor Who has been dining out on for 50 years. Scientifically it might be absurd (especially in relation to it hatching and the seas failing to let rip on the planet) but creatively it is one of the riskiest and bravest twists that Doctor Who has ever attempted. I was applauding.
* Suddenly this predictable, Hinchcliffe horror has become much more interesting, and consequently because of Lundvik's suggestion that they kill the creature and prevent it from hatching, a whole lot darker too. I personally found the second half of Kill the Moon far more engaging because suddenly the show was firing on all thrusters again, not dallying in a formula from the past (which so many episodes this year have been guilty of) but pushing for a dark, philosophical debate over an outrageous concept. It's more innovative than the show has been for year. You have three women discussing the rights and wrong of abortion. Those who choose not to see that are ignoring the evidence of their own eyes. Lundvik, Clara and Courtney have to make the decision whether to abort a child or destroy the Earth. It's an overwhelming decision and Clara buckles under the pressure. What a terrible position to put her in (and by golly it is about time).

The Bad:
* The curse of the dreary guests characters in season eight even extends to its better episodes. I have never been a huge fan of Hermione Norris and have often found her to be the sort of actress to walk through roles like she has a bad smell under her nose. Something haughty and unlikable. And as if to exacerbate that she is given a haughty and unlikable character to play in Kill the Moon. On the plus side I felt there was enough of a back story for her to feel like a real person but she wasn't anybody that I was desperate to give the time of day to. With the Doctor behaving in an exclusively abusive manner, Courtney acting out like your typical teen and the remaining guest characters being little more than canon fodder, I was stuck in the unfortunate position of only having Clara to have any feelings of warmth towards. Lundvik has an important dramatic role to play in Kill the Moon but by golly is she a bore. Has she never heard of gallows humour?
* Taking Courtney back to the TARDIS is a weird diversion from the story. I feel that once they reached the base the story should have remained there for maximum claustrophobia. The scene of her huffing and puffing in the ship hardly enamours her to the audience.
* A shame that once the purpose of the spiders is revealed that the writer and director ditch the idea of making them scary again. They become a bit irrelevant to the story, proving they were just there to kill time in the first place.
* The lights going off around the world? That all happens terribly quickly. It's one of those times when a big decision has to be made in a hurry because there simply isn't any time for it to play out at a more relaxed, thoughtful pace. The fact that the people of the Earth chose to kill the creature genuinely surprised me though, I thought there would be more lights left on. I guess we are a self-preserving species above all else after all.
* Even I had trouble with the creature inside the Moon laying another egg to take its place. Since when does a creature have the capacity to lay an egg at birth that is of larger mass than itself? Let's just assume this is an extraordinary species that we don't understand and hop along.

Result: 'It's time to take the stabilisers off your bike...' I think I might be turning a corner with season eight. With the advent of Kill the Moon (and Mummy on the Orient Express for anybody who might be interested) that is four of the last five episodes that have ranked from good to great. Kill the Moon was written by a new writer to the series and it shows because it isn't resting on the laurels of the past but pushing ahead with something unique and groundbreaking (hoho). The fact that fan reaction to the extraordinary twist that the Moon is an egg was so divisive proves that he must be doing something right, until this point in the season I don't think there has been anything worth getting this het up about. This was a massive risk and for some (like me) it paid off in spades. I love how the episode shifts gears from your traditional Doctor Who spook fest (which the director pulled off with some gusto) to something much more dramatically substantial and philosophical. For once an episode tossed out the timey wimey clever cleverness and actually seemed to be about something. Whereas I have been slouching back and enjoying the show for what it is in season eight there were three times in Kill the Moon when I bolted upright on the edge of my seat and really paid attention (for the record it was the egg twists,  the Doctor choosing to exonerate himself from responsibility and Clara's devastating accusations in the closing TARDIS scene). There is so much to admire about this episode; the stunning filming in Lanzerote, the arachnophobiacs nightmare, the standout performances of Capaldi and especially Coleman who truly proves her worth in the devastating climax. I'll take a point away for the humourless and generally staid guest cast of characters and another because Courtney's presence baffles me but overall this joins Listen as the best episode of the year to date for me. I feel as if the season is gaining more momentum as it progresses and new regime is starting to click into place. It's nice to be so positive about the show again. More new writers please, it is clear that the Moffat era can still flourish with some new creative blood to back him up: 8/10


Ed Azad said...

Unfortunately we seem to be back to the "sugar daddy" Doctor in Mummy on the Orient Express, so I'm not sure where we're supposed to go with this duo. The whole relationship smacks of a tawdry love affair that's unexpectedly petered out, like Jerry Seinfeld's line about breakups being like a refrigerator you have to rock back and forth a few time before it collapses. I am bored spitless by this TARDIS team! It's an open secret that fandom would much rather have Capaldi flying solo next series, so why're we flogging tbis dead horse?

Richard S. said...

The idea of the Moon being an egg goes back at least to the 1934 story "Born of the Sun" by Jack Williamson. There, too, the science is utter rubbish - it's the Grand Idea and how the characters react to it that makes the story. Williamson has it play out over a greater length of time, so you get to see more of society's reaction to the planets' "hatching".

David Pirtle said...

This story chucks science out the window with enthusiasm. That's not how bacteria, bombs, eggs, or asteroids work. Fortunately it doesn't pretend that any of those nonsensical plot points are important. What is important is the thrills and the drama, and they are expertly delivered. This is a fascinating episode for the 12th Doctor and yet another terrific one for Clara, who has every right to be outraged at the end. I think the worst thing the Doctor did here wasn't leaving the decision to Clara et al. It was not saying he'd pick them up regardless of their decision, which seems like a particularly sinister way to put his thumb on the scale, basically threatening to let Clara die if she didn't save the space creature.