This post is about some thoughts I had while and after watching “Kill the Moon,” the seventh episode of the current season of Doctor Who. The episode originally aired on October 4, 2014. (There are spoilers below the fold.)
Here’s the scenario, stripped of extraneous plot points and details: the Doctor and his companions travel to the Moon in the year 2049. There they encounter a space shuttle from Earth carrying three astronauts and 100 nuclear warheads. The astronauts have come to the Moon because the Moon’s gravity has been increasing (causing massive, city-destroying tides on Earth — “the greatest natural disaster in history,” according to one of the characters). Through his investigations, the Doctor discovers that the Moon is in fact the egg of a massive organism; the Moon’s increased mass and gravitational pull are the result of a late-term embryonic growth spurt, shortly before the organism is set to hatch. The main astronaut (Captain Lundvik, played by Hermione Norris) proposes using the warheads to blow up the Moon — and kill the creature — before the creature can hatch. The Doctor’s companion (Clara Oswald, played by Jenna-Louise Coleman) opposes this plan, proposing instead that the creature be allowed to hatch. They decide to inform the human race of the situation and, in effect, hold a vote on whether to kill the organism. (At this point in the plot, the Doctor has absented himself, reasoning that, as an alien, it was not his Moon, not his Earth, ergo not his decision, not his place to vote.) Clara uses the shuttle communication equipment to broadcast a message (in theory) to the entire Earth:
Hello Earth: we have a terrible decision to make. It’s an uncertain decision, and we don’t have a lot of time. We can kill this creature or we can let it live. We don’t know what it’s going to do. We don’t know what’s going to happen when it hatches — if it will hurt us, help us, or just leave us alone. … an innocent life versus the future of all mankind; we have forty-five minutes to decide. … We have to decide together. This is the last time we’ll be able to speak to you, but you can send us a message. If you think we should kill the creature, turn your lights off. If you think we should take the chance — let it live — leave your lights on. We’ll be able to see. Goodnight Earth.
My thoughts, in no particular order:
1. The astronauts use a space shuttle to travel to the Moon. This is a pedantic point, but: the NASA Space Shuttle was never designed to travel to the Moon. When NASA did send men to the Moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s, they used a very different transport vehicle. To my knowledge, we have never even built a rocket capable of propelling the Shuttle out of Earth orbit and to the Moon; the Saturn V was launching a less massive spacecraft. It may seem silly to focus on this particular point, in a show that asks us to perform greater acts of suspended disbelief — time travel, alien organisms, the friggin’ Moon being an egg — but this particular point seems like it has the potential to help perpetuate misinformation. Plenty of people in this day and age, not knowing much about American space programs, probably believe that NASA used the Space Shuttle to go to the Moon. (I could probably prove this through some Googling, but the results would likely depress me.) Movies like Armageddon don’t help in this connection.
2. Clara makes her broadcast (quoted above), and then the characters go to a window to look at the Earth. Here’s the thing: they look for about 45 minutes. To state the obvious, it takes 24 hours for the Earth to complete one full rotation. To observe every time zone with significant population pass through nighttime, such that one might see whether the lights were on or off, would require something like 10-12 hours (I’m guessing). And that’s assuming (generously) that one could see all relevant latitudes from the surface of the Moon.
As it is, from what we see in the episode, Clara and the others are able to observe the night (and the lights) of western Europe, North America, and parts of South America and western Africa. They can’t observe the reactions of people China, India, Japan, Indonesia, Australia, etc. — that is, they can’t see whether people in those areas keep their lights on or turn them off.
On the whole, the Global South got screwed in this vote. (There’s something very British about that.)
3. So, there’s an unknown creature. And it could potentially be a threat, although we’ve no direct evidence that it would be hostile once it hatches. “We can kill this creature or we can let it live,” says Clara. “We don’t know what it’s going to do. We don’t know what’s going to happen when it hatches — if it will hurt us, help us, or just leave us alone.”
To anyone who has seen how Americans (and Europeans, to some degree) have reacted to perceived threats in the past 13 years, humanity’s vote is not very surprising.
(In fairness to the masses, national or sub-national governments could switch off power on a grid-wide level; the governor of Texas could tell the Texas utility companies to stop the flow of electricity from the power plants to the cities, for example. So the decision, in some locations, may not be as democratic as Clara probably intended.)
4. Jenna-Louise Coleman, who plays Clara, has announced that she will be leaving the show at the end of this season. To no small extent, the “purpose” of this episode (within the larger season arc) was to create a conflict between the Doctor and Clara, laying the framework for her eventual departure as companion. I was a little worried that the writers and producers were setting up Courtney Woods (played by Ellis George) as the next companion. This would be a mistake, imho; Courtney does not strike me as good companion material. (If anything, she reminds me of Angie in last season’s “Nightmare in Silver”; how well did she work out as a companion?) But Courtney spends a lot of time in this episode (it seems) saying things like, “I’d like to go home, now.” That is not the attitude of a permanent companion.
5. This episode deals with astronauts on the Moon in 2049. To me, the nature of this episode invited comparison with the 2009 episode “The Waters of Mars,” which deals with astronauts on Mars in 2059 (i.e., ten years after the events of “Kill the Moon”).
First, a point of continuity: none of the characters in “The Waters of Mars” make reference to anything happening to the Moon ten years earlier. That’s OK, I suppose. But characters in “Kill the Moon” indicate that Earth’s space programs are atrophied in 2049; so in ten years, following “the greatest natural disaster in history,” humanity goes from a moth-balled space program to a functioning Mars research base. That seems a bit more of a stretch.
Comparing the two episodes, I think that “The Waters of Mars” comes out ahead on almost every metric. (It probably helps that “The Waters of Mars” got a full 60 minutes to tell its story, versus 42 minutes for “Kill the Moon.” I should also announce my own biases: “The Waters of Mars” is one of my favorite episodes of Doctor Who.) Writing in the Telegraph, Ben Lawrence says, of “Kill the Moon,” that the “guest characters were underdeveloped.” This seems especially true compared to even some of the minor characters in “The Waters of Mars.” To take only the most obvious comparison, Adelaide Brooke, the commander of the Mars expedition, is a much richer character than Captain Lundvik, the commander of the Lunar expedition.
In short, I actually liked and cared about the Mars astronauts in “The Waters of Mars.” The astronauts in “Kill the Moon” are mere plot devices by comparison.
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The strange thing is that, even with all of the above, I actually enjoyed this episode. I do think that the producers in this season are trying a little too hard to give Doctor Who a “dark” aspect (b/c Christopher Nolan has taught us that darker is better). And I’m still unsure about Capaldi as the Doctor. But I thought that this episode was a basically good sci-fi story. (Just not as good as “The Waters of Mars.”)
Image credit: (1) Photo by Gregory H. Revera, October 2010. Used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license. Source: Wikimedia Commons. (2) Earth at night. Courtesy NASA Earth Observatory/NOAA NGDC.