When I was ten, I had a nightmare that burned itself into my conscious mind the way an afterimage is said to burn itself into the retina. In it, our local primary school had been converted into a zoo, and the small ICT lab (consisting, in those days, of two BBC micros and a Logo turtle) had been turned into the tarantula enclosure. I can remember with vivid detail the horror of approaching one of the glass cases to be confronted with the sight of a colossal hairy beast, the size of a badger, ascending the glass case, filling it, and my terror and screaming as I ran to the doors – and found them locked.
Since that day, I haven’t been able to look at one. I have to leave the room in the opening scenes of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Spider-centred pictures in the vein of Eight-Legged Freaks or Arachnophobia were an absolute no-no. There are even scenes in Moonwalker that make me cringe. It’s a stupid phobia, and I have never been able to fully explain it or deal with it. For the most part it doesn’t get in the way; I just have to be careful at wildlife parks. That said Emily and I came close to blows in a darkened cinema when she leaned over during the Shelob’s Lair sequence in Return of the King, and asked if I was OK, just before running a hand up my arm.
It’s not all spiders, though, it’s just tarantulas, and even then it’s only really the black-and-orange ones. The others I can just about handle. Just about. I will admit that this evening was the first time I’ve seriously considered the back of the sofa as a possible alternative viewing location for Doctor Who since the first time we watched ‘Blink’. Because while ‘Kill the Moon’ was uneven, preachy and occasionally, dull, when the spiders were on, it was downright terrifying.
The last time we had a Young Person in the TARDIS, it ended in disaster, largely because Eve de Leon Allen’s character treated the whole adventure like a day excursion in The Dumping Ground. It also suffered from chronic editing failures when the Doctor foolishly appeared to leave his vulnerable charges in an incredibly dangerous place while he went off exploring – with Gaiman’s explanation as to why seemingly abandoned on the cutting room floor. ‘Kill The Moon’ neatly sidesteps such silliness by casting someone who’s actually pleasantly watchable (Ellis George, whom I’d be happy to see again) and also by confining Courtney to the TARDIS before she has a chance to outstay her welcome or get kidnapped, allowing her to emerge in the final act to say a couple of important things. She sounds like she’s in a human ethics debate in a GCSE RE lesson, but I can just about live with this given the possible alternatives, even if the Doctor’s explanation of the fallout to her intervention (President? Really?) is mind-numbingly tedious. Having a supporting teenager that you actually don’t want to confine to their room until the episode is over is a welcome rarity, to the extent that I can live with the Tumblr stuff, even though it’s probably got its own page by now.
The first thing you notice about ‘Kill the Moon’ is the striking visual design. The Doctor and his companions stride out onto the surface of a dead world that is mostly rendered in black and white, while their own suits appear to have been saturated. It looks weirdly artificial but somehow it works – as if you know that the moon is dying, to use the Doctor’s own words. Crevices and chasms are effectively rendered, and the sky looms in the distance. It looks like how the moon would look in one of those inspirational desktop wallpapers you find on Google, but for once that really doesn’t matter.
Interiors are functional and sparse, all dim lighting and conveniently placed crates and desks for when the monster-of-the-week shows up. The attack of the spider – the story’s undoubted high point – takes its visual cue from Alien, as everything since 1979 generally does. It would be churlish to criticise Paul Wilmshurst for not trying to fix something that never broke in the first place, and even though I was half-waiting for a shot of the spiky tail, the whole thing worked beautifully.
Unfortunately, that’s about the last time it did. It’s a strange coincidence that ‘Kill the Moon’ mirrors Apollo 13 in that it spends most of its second half trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. You can’t entirely blame Peter Harness for this – he clearly had points he wanted to make and an arc in which he needed to fit them. For a first time writer, he nails both the Doctor and Clara with uncanny precision, and creates a sympathetic antagonist in Lundvik, even if the accompanying astronauts are underdeveloped red shirt fodder (and a criminal waste of Tony Osoba). The jokes are kept to a minimum for what is basically a serious episode, and for the most part don’t grate, although it probably wasn’t necessary to have the Doctor spout Patrick Troughton’s catchphrase.
Still. When the credits rolled, I felt cheated. Ethical debates in Doctor Who are nothing new, at least post-2005. But this is a Saturday evening family show and resolutions always have to be tidy. ‘The Unquiet Dead’ neatly sidesteps the question of whether it’s wrong to allow the Gelth to inhabit the corpses of Cardiff by revealing their purposes as malevolent at the eleventh hour. ‘Kill the Moon’ also neatly echoes ‘The Beast Below’ by imposing a fierce moral quandary upon its leads: the destruction of a gargantuan, innocent creature, or the possible massacre of thousands.
The problem with the star whale was resolved by Amy’s ability to think outside the box. In ‘Kill the Moon’, the Doctor does it by hiding inside the box, leaving Clara to deal with the consequences by hosting the biggest interactive TV event since Eurovision. “Hello Earth,” she says. And then, as paraphrased by a friend of mine, “You don’t know who I am or what I’m talking about and mostly don’t speak English, but if you want me to blow up the moon turn your lights off now.”
And everyone does! It takes a few seconds, but the entire planet switches off. There isn’t one visible dissenter. Not even a cluster of them in one of the liberal parts of London. Everyone’s out for self-preservation. Either that or there had been a massive power outage, which is presumably the sort of thing that happens when you’ve got tsunamis and cyclones ripping continents in half because the tides are all shot to shit. Or perhaps everyone in the part of the earth they could see happened to be asleep. If this had happened in 1966 (and the idea, to be fair, is no more ridiculous than the sort of thing that the First Doctor was liable to encounter) there would have been some spoken confirmation over a scratchy radio, before Ben and Polly took opposing sides in the moral dilemma and the Doctor scratched his chin. But visual cues are far more powerful – who said they had to make any sense?
When all this is over, and when the Doctor has conveniently reappeared and transported Clara and the others down to Earth, where they can casually observe the moon’s destruction (and rebirth) from possibly the most unsafe location imaginable, there is the fallout scene. Clara once more threatens violence (which is once more OK, because the Doctor’s being a bastard) and then becomes seriously angry in a clip that’s destined to be recycled endlessly on YouTube playlists, BAFTA nomination videos and those bloody irritating animated gifs that people seem so fond of. She loses her rag with a volatility that we haven’t seen before, and then storms out of the TARDIS and straight into the arms of a boyfriend who saw all this coming, and warned her about it last week. Danny’s appearance is fleeting, but important, and while I could have done without the veiled smugness it’s a refreshing change that he doesn’t come across as a maladjusted dick.
It’s a powerful moment, if only because it emerges to a certain extent out of left field – Clara’s spent so long making excuses that it almost feels as if she’s forgotten what we’ve known for a while. For her to suddenly turn on the Doctor, and so quickly, is such an anomaly that I can’t help thinking its importance as a ‘game changer’ has been overstated, and that she’ll be back in the TARDIS far sooner than the Coleman-free trailer for ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’ would have us believe. Things might be a little frosty, but I can’t overcome my cynical hunch that writing in a massive barney is more about ratings than character development – that closing scene is going to be the focus for many a review and column over the next week or so, and one can picture Moffat rubbing his hands in glee at all the press attention.
And that’s a shame, because the first half of ‘Kill the Moon’ – which Harness was instructed to rewrite so they could “Hinchcliffe the shit out of it” – really is quite good. The spiders are a bit of a Taran wood beast, but they were so effectively realised that it really didn’t matter that there was no interesting reason for them to be on the disintegrating satellite. The tension is cranked up gradually, and the occasional shocks, while mildly predictable, work very well. Only later, when the spiders are gone and the only monster is the one in the grotesque polka dot shirt, does the episode crumble faster than the moon did. Once again – and for the second time in the space of a month – we have a story that is at its best when it is frightening, and at its weakest when it is trying to be profound. It’s a curious schizophrenia that is not becoming, nor particularly effective.
It’s not that Doctor Who shouldn’t talk about important things. It just needs a little subtlety, which this episode does not have. It’s telling that when the Doctor is monologuing about humanity’s future, Clara stops him to ask “Do you have music playing in your head when you say things like that?” – an accusation we could quite easily level at her when she’s being similarly melodramatic a few seconds later. The whole narrative is basically an excuse to shift their relationship on a couple of notches, before the inevitability of the separation that is coming, but to do so within the context of what is to all intents and purposes a debate on abortion frankly seems a little crass. It’s as big and bloated and overblown as the moon that Clara sees through her bedroom window at the episode’s close: visually sumptuous, but already cracked beyond repair, and with no prospect of anything new and interesting awaiting after its end.