Kill the Moon represents a turning point in Series 8, in more ways than one. On the surface is of course the continued exploration of The Doctor and Clara’s relationship following Eleven’s regeneration. In this instance, Kill the Moon excels, as I will explain. However, one word springs to mind more than any when dissecting this episode: potential. Kill the Moon has all the ingredients of a tense classic, from intrigue to fear, yet what we are presented with feels like a spoiled meal. Potential gone AWOL.
I say this because this is a disappointment I wish did not exist. Kill the Moon should stand as one of Capaldi’s darkest but greatest hours, teaching Clara that mankind can not always rely on his services, a discourse positioned as one of Series 8’s best. An air of Nine’s raw brashness towards humanity is even channeled throughout Kill the Moon, moments in which our entire whimsical attachment to The Doctor is eroded away in an instant. But this lesson alone can not be the episode’s crutch. The shell, the plot surrounding it, is simply lacking in the thoughtful tact and depth of it’s philosophical centre. Especially when the episode begins strongly enough…
The opening scene featuring Clara and Courtney proudly demonstrates the more intimate and, well, human tension of the episode. A fateful choice must be made by Earth alone, and this time without The Doctor’s help. As a reverse chronology technique, expectations regarding the events leading up to this end point are immediately set. Why did The Doctor leave? Why is Courtney there? Why are they on the Moon in the first place? This is a great way of getting the mind of the viewer racing with possibilities and establishes a captivating atmosphere of dread and denial.
Writer Peter Harness continues this human conflict with a particularly heart wrenching scene between Courtney and The Doctor back at Coal Hill. Capaldi’s acerbic and harsher Doctor refuses to immediately call Courtney ‘special’, another brief moment were Eleven truly feels gone now. Harness does a good job of presenting her less as a spoilt brat than she initially came across in previous episodes such as The Caretaker. In its place is a sensitive soul, one simply wanting appreciation. Her actress, Ellis George, pulls this off very well, never feeling out of place in the episode’s overarching human conflict.
Case in point, Kill the Moon begins on great footing. Courtney travelling with The Doctor and Clara to the Moon – albeit in The Doctor’s ill advised effort to make her feel special – is a thoughtful premise, especially when coupled with the dark opening we have already witnessed, a juxtaposition that promises dangerous events to unfold. Upon landing in a shuttle heading to the Moon, it becomes clear something serious has happened to it, forcing a crew to leave Earth and investigate. Harness reveals this plot point with very minimalistic detail, a creative decision that benefits the episode as a whole. Harness could have easily fallen into the trap of intense exposition to reveal the main problem, an issue he not only smoothly and effectively navigates past, but also invokes a great mystery riddled with tension. Small details, such as The Doctor’s hypothesis on an altering of the Earth’s tides, are enough to draw a dark veil over the episode.
It is also in this scene that we are introduced to some of the supporting cast of Kill the Moon and consequently the episode’s first major issues. The chief problem here lies in the captain, Lundvik, played by Hermoine Norris. A combination of her dialogue and an overly aggressive performance results in one of the most insufferable and unlikable characters in recent Doctor Who memory. It is clear as events transpire that Harness uses Lundvik as a mirror to Clara’s denial to kill the creature in the moon, but it is difficult to accept the views of a character who is simply unlikable in raw personality. Picture Water of Mars’s Adelaide Brooke without the courage and determination. This reeks of poor execution by both writer and actress and extends to the other astronauts in her group, who serve only as fodder for the episode’s other monster, an issue of course prevalent in many episodes of Doctor Who, but no less disappointing.
The plot and characters are a major factor towards Kill the Moon’s ultimate failure, but some credit must go to the continually excellent set design and special effects. Many of our reviews previously have touched upon Series 8’s excellent special effects and sets, and Kill the Moon is no exception to this rule, with wonderful vistas of Earth from a Moon that is superbly visualised. Every set is awash in darkness that grips you and leaves you clinging onto the episode’s primary mystery and its inevitable revelation within that same darkness. Indeed the setting of Kill the Moon is the episode’s greatest accomplishment by far, perhaps even the most beautifully crafted setting in the whole series.
Yet within this wonderful setting lies that horrible miasma of potential hovering over the entire episode. What transpires within this environment fails to embrace itself to it’s fullest: themes of anger, loss, choice and responsibility are only explored within the incredibly tense nucleus of Earth’s big decision. Any events outside of that nucleus feel superfluous, such as the deaths of the other astronauts and Courtney travelling in the TARDIS. Harness appears to get lost within this central major event and ultimately relies upon it to drive the narrative, rather than spreading and exploring it across the whole episode. What is the point of making us scared of the spider monsters when they eventually are discarded with such speed? Kill the Moon feels like an atom: a powerful centre with spinning, orbiting pieces that never come together.
For all my displeasure for the strength of Kill the Moon’s overall plot, some credit must go to Harness for having the gall to push The Doctor and Clara’s relationship to breaking point and doing so with aplomb. He sets up The Doctor’s sudden departure with such rawness that when he does leave, we are made to feel as raw and lost as Clara does, faced with a decision without his deus ex machina guiding hand. The decision of whether or not to sacrifice the creature within the Moon is one of Doctor Who’s most well executed flashpoints, in no small part due to the the excellent acting of Jenna Coleman and Hermoine Norris, who in this scene is able to shape that over aggression into a figure of gripping determination. The Doctor’s absence here is crucial to the tension Harness is developing, as with him, would this life threatening decision truly be as tense? It is not often in Doctor Who that the lives of billions is left solely on the shoulders of the companion and companion alone, especially with a Doctor whose new persona leaves his motives to be desired. For once, it truly feels like The Doctor is not coming back.
Harness smartly stretches this scene out, making every second with The Doctor gone a dreaded ordeal. As such, Earth’s choice carries much more emotional weight with The Doctor not coming back to save the day. Kill the Moon’s big philosophical question, should the creature be killed, is so harrowing that Clara truly believes The Doctor has left her, beautifully conveyed by Jenna Coleman with a deflating and defeated expression. When The Doctor does return, he does so not to save them, but merely to observe their decision and guides them to witness what happens to our satellite. It can be argued that Clara’s intervention and his return is simply another deus ex machina like turn around, and in reality is, with the Moon never truly a threat upon cracking, Harness manages to make such a revelation feel breathtaking. Clara’s anger is palpable and electrifying, the birth of the Moon creature is a beautifully constructed scene and the consequences of the episode feel impactful way into Earth’s future. The entire climax of Kill the Moon is an absolute treat in it’s rupture of Clara and The Doctor’s relationship. Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi put in a series defining performance, revealing emotions and reactions from the characters we deep down want to see. Who hasn’t wanted to see The Doctor dumbfounded by a companion storming out of the TARDIS and judging him to his very core? It adds a bitter dimension to the ‘Am I a good man?’ series arc.
Re-assessing Kill the Moon again has only reinforced my unwanted disappointment. Peter Harness crafts such an excellent core, such a gripping conundrum, yet fails to wrap it up with an equally engaging narrative. With some episodes I would dismiss it simply as a poor episode, but with Kill the Moon I am wracked only with a feeling of lost potential. And with an episode that highlights The Doctor and his companion in a light never seen before, topped with such a brilliant ending, Series 8 hits a polarising crossroad.
Next up we have Sophie face to face with a Mummy On The Orient Express…