Since 1963 the TARDIS has taken us to zillions of exotic destinations, the gamut roughly ranging from Adipose 3 to Zolfa Thura. And yet the moon still feels way more exciting than any of them.
The sight of the police box descending slowly over the Marsh of Decay or maybe the Lake of Fear (17th century lunar nomenclature drawing from the same lurid well as First Doctor episode titles) tickles in the way it might if we recognised a local shop in the back of shot. Here’s Doctor Who going to somewhere we know. But, with that familiarity also comes an awareness of how truly distant the landscape is – nearly a quarter of a million miles and over 20 billion dollars away – and how unforgiving too. It’s truly alien territory, utterly inimical to life. There’s no ‘Earth-type’ atmosphere to jolly things along. You can’t fudge it on the moon.
Or can you? Peter Harness’ story has audacious plans for this most constant of constants, but like our view of the satellite, it waxes and wanes. Waxing with some of the most terrifying and thoughtful Doctor Who in years, and waning with… what’s the word? Is it ‘silliness’? The dour, determined tone throughout would seem to eschew that, but, yes, I think elements of Kill the Moon are just plain silly. It makes reviewing the story a potentially dizzying prospect, zig-zagging between those two poles.
So let’s take it sensibly, avoid sudden swerves. We’ll meander carefully, and begin by picking out something that really works. That’s the scares. Spider-like creatures jumping onto faces is nothing new in science-fiction, but it’s never been done with as much squelchy, crunchy vigour as this in Doctor Who. It’s the type of body-horror Robert Holmes surely dreamt of before Philip Hinchcliffe prudently applied a damp flannel. Let the ‘too scary for children’ debate froth up once more. Alongside this is a lovely, slow, creeping atmosphere. The moon itself is depicted in shafts of grey and black; that Lanzorate landscape desaturated into a creepy monotone. Plus there’s the huge tension bound up in the counterintuitive bit where the Doctor counsels his friends, “Slowly, slowly,” as a means of escaping a giant-arachnid.
The cast entirely fall-in with this approach. Hermione Norris is superb as Lundvik, conveying the character’s fatalism, while Tony Osoba and Phil Nice play her crew with a similar world-weariness, beautifully elucidating the notion theirs is a threadbare and doomed operation. Even Ellis George as Courtney Woods impresses, body-swerving all the potential pitfalls of being the annoying tag-along kid in the TARDIS (think: Artie or Angie).
So much of the above brings to mind The Ark in Space, and Kill the Moon‘s greatest accomplishment is surely that it has the temerity to not just raise itself up in the image of that 1975 story, but position itself as a prequel. And does so with style. This isn’t just my fan-brain overheating, desperately trying to organise together different bits of Doctor Who in some zealous filing operation. The script undeniably riffs on Ark; Earthlings out on the frontier, insectoids feasting upon them and the Doctor making use of a yo-yo to take a gravity reading. Near the final reel, it’s revealed everything’s now been teed up to send homo sapiens into space, presaging the eventual exodus from Earth on the Nova Beacon. “[Humanity] endures till the end of time,” says the Doctor, supplying a York Notes addendum to his fourth incarnation’s “indomitable” speech.
Sadly, this triumphant moment is precipitated by an absolutely nutty revelation. “The moon’s an egg!” gulps the Doctor, as if trying to swallow the news in embarrassment. I guess we should recognise this is big, conceptual thinking from Harness. However it calls to mind too unfortunate a scenario, especially when it’s established the creature within is fowl-like in appearance. So one conjures a space rooster, a-clucking and a-scratching outside the exosphere, before eventually popping one out. How ‘game-changing’ this new information might be in terms of the tenets of Doctor Who is almost immediately nullified when – off-camera for propriety’s sake – the newly born mega-chick squeezes out a replacement 2,160-mile diameter ovum. Oh, so that’s alright then. To all intents and purposes the moon’s back, so we need never speak of this again.
Ironically, it’s around this incredulity-straining plot turn that the story steals another of its triumphs. Because the debates about “killing the moon” truly resound. Arguments between the various formations of the Doctor, Clara, Lundvik and Courtney, seem real. People say things people would actually say – the Doctor pulls out that reliable time-travelling fall back “I’ve never killed Hitler,” and when he leaves, Lundvik concludes, as you very well might, “What a prat”. However, Clara then broadcasting to the entire planet and turning their “terrible decision” into a global phone vote is, if you’ll forgive the obvious pun, horribly eggy. “If you think we should kill the creature, turn your lights off,” she says. Or, add ’02’ if you’d like Big Ron to come in and save the day. That the schoolteacher might try to absolve herself of such a horrifying choice is reasonable. That she does so in this fashion, less so. Still, we can look forward to Clara being recognised by everyone from hereon in whenever the TARDIS lands on Earth post-2049. “There she is,” they’ll say. “The ‘lights on or off’ girl!”
Nonetheless, it leads us into one final verbal confrontation, and if anything about Kill the Moon does feel game-changing, it’s the exchange between the Doctor and Clara in the TARDIS at the adventure’s close. This is breath-taking. I don’t think anyone in the Time Lord’s orbit has ever managed to adopt the high ground quite as Clara does here. All his grandiose talk about “little moments in which big things are decided” really is a load of old puff. It is patronising, and she tells him so. More than that, she basically instructs this incarnation – who’s reaching a new zenith in self-satisfaction – to stop being such a massive tool.
Now there’s a footprint, a mark, which may not fade. Clara’s planted her flag in Doctor Who lore, and that’s one giant leap for mankind.