08 October 2014

TV: Kill the Moon

Prior to Series 8, I predicted that Into the Dalek, The Caretaker and Kill the Moon would be my favourite episodes of the year. So far, massively coincidentally, I've been completely correct. What I couldn't have predicted though was just how good Peter Harness' debut episode - hopefully the first of many - would be.

Ellis George is in many ways at the heart of this week's story, and simultaneously right on the periphery. After her impressive debut perfomance last week, her turn as pupil Courtney Woods in Kill the Moon builds on Harness' script, to deliver a surprisingly layered character. Right from the off, she's firmly the focus of the episode, with the Doctor and Clara discussion his attitude towards her. Thanks to Peter Capaldi, the Twelfth Doctor isn't the cold bastard he could be. There's a buried warmth to the portrayal that leads me to think he only told Courtney she wasn't special indirectly at first. There is of course the crushing honesty that he displays all too often, but there's no doubt in my mind that he means well and has the best intentions of the big and little pictures at heart.

Harness uses his third crew member well, more so than Gareth Roberts in my opinion. Clara has been built up to be so infallible and unshakeable that this was about the point when we needed another identification figure. Trust the writer to flip the problem on its head and turn both Clara and Courtney into much more rounded, realistic, human beings. I'll move on from Courtney soon, don't worry, but I would just like to highlight one moment in particular.

I'm not sure what Harness' intentions were when he wrote her "I'm bored" line, when she's alone in the TARDIS but thanks to George there is substantial evidence to show this isn't simply another case of Angie-itis. George makes this line slightly regretful. It's important to point that this character is still a child. She's in a strange place on her own and the Moon is about to explode. Wouldn't you be scared? I think she just wants company, and really what she's asking is how long it will be until the Doctor and Clara are back. After all, this is why she asks to go back to the TARDIS in the first place - to get away from it all.

This is an odd story in construction. It starts off as a "classic" horror fare, with eerie camerawork and mounting tension. The spiders (whatever they actually were, I'm calling them spiders for sake of simplicity) were very well realised and massively creepy. I think the fact that they just leap at your head, knocking you clean off your feet is scary in itself. But then when their teeth and legs are clawing at you as well, this is the stuff of nightmares for me; any spider bigger than a two pence piece is bad enough in my opinion. The fact that we never learn anything about the spiders (their origins and motivations for example) probably makes them all the more effective. And don't tell me they're single-celled - they're clearly not. The Doctor has been wrong before you know.

But once this storyline is deemed to have run its course in the first twenty minutes or so, what we get instead is a story that evolves naturally from the original setup we're given. It's an entirely logical progression, and makes perfect sense but I guarantee no-one suspected this twist. The Moon is an egg. Peter Harness, wow. If this was all a device to get women talking more openly about abortion, then it was worth it. This is such a barmy concept that it just works for me. There's been rumblings about hard science being cast aside, and while that's probably true, I don't think it's a bad thing. That isn't what this story's about at all anyway.  It's about human drama, and the impact of our actions.

The other major plot point I feel almost obliged to mention is of course the Doctor's departure. While other Doctors may not have upped sticks and "buggered off" as the writer puts it so poetically in the next DWM, they would most definitely have left the decision up to humanity. At the point he rematerialises, he doesn't know the decision they've made, or the consequences which they might have. He might have a hunch, but he doesn't know. This is a key point because I feel he was entirely justified to sit this one out. It shouldn't have been Clara's decision but it had to be a human's. In the end I think only Clara herself made it her decision. She truly changed history, started human exploration into space. Not bad for a family that also contains the first time traveller.

In summary: I don't think the Doctor put Clara in any kind of position. He left her future entirely up to her. Perhaps it's her own actions that shock her so, but her outburst at the finale remains unjustified in my eyes.

This was of course Paul Wilmshurst's first contribution to the show as well, and it's a similarly impressive start from him. The decision to use Timanfaya National Park as the main location for the episode was inspired. I was lucky enough to visit the area (just for a day) just over a year ago at time of writing and it's exciting that it's all familiar. I recognised the larger structures most easily obviously but even down to rocks and inclines, it was recognisable. I took a whole load of photos there, but they're all at home now. Next time I'm there I'll upload some to show you. Needless to say though that Wilmshurst's chosen palette (and the effects applied to make it a reality) are stunning. This is possibly the best looking episode of this year so far which is saying something given how well we're doing with directors this year.

Also of note in Kill the Moon was Murray Gold's score. For me, his contributions to this year's run of episodes have varied in quality, but none have been of the standout calibre we were treated to so regularly during his first five series working on the show. Episode seven really gave him the opportunity to shine though. He underpins the edgy uncertainness of the first half with bassy undertones, breaking the surface with a moment of excitement and strings every so often. It's an accomplished soundtrack, and I really hope it's released at some point. I've not bought a soundtrack CD since the Series 1 and 2 compilation album, but this would definitely correct that.

The episodes that pin their ambitions to their chest and just go for their own style are those which usually divide fandom the most. To use completely the wrong word, those with confidence. Such previous episodes that you might list could include this year's Listen, and maybe Blink before it. You know the type of story I mean. I think this was another such instalment, with one exception: I loved it. Listen failed to move me really, although I could appreciate its merit, but Kill the Moon engaged me from start to end. There will always be the episodes that people enjoy but are basically middling - Robot of Sherwood, Time Heist etc. - but this type of story is where the meat is. Even the title is outrageous and therefore totally fits the tone. It's not some fairytale-esque pseudo-bollocks that Moffat might come up with (I always preferred His Darkest Hour to A Good Man Goes to War) - see also The Pandorica Opens, Let's Kill Hitler, The Wedding of River Song and so on. I'm not knocking Moffat, just stating my opinion. This is otherworldly without passing into eye-rolling territory.

It should be said though, this isn't perfect. The two astronauts who accompany Captain Grumpy - oh no, that's John Hurt - Hermione Norris are barely fleshed out at all before they're flesh off-ed [really? - Ed]. I knew Norris from Spooks, which I think is a great show, although it was better in its earlier years, but she played much the same character here, only in a spacesuit and with a foreign surname: miserable, dour and determined. Lundvik is the representative of the MO this episode: we learn nothing about her (even her first name). The emphasis is placed squarely on what Harness gives the characters to say and do rather than who they are. Nether the spiders nor the Moonite (© Strax) are named or classified. In this way, Harness delivers a commentary on judging by first appearances. Never assume you know all the facts, that's the lessen every character (that survives) learns here.

I'd also just like to note Lee Binding's contribution to this episode. After being absent for a few months, his artwork has returned to grace us once more. He really does create some stunning imagery and it seems a shame the BBC don't employ his services more on Doctor Who. It looks like he might be contributing a few more posters this year, let's hope so!

In conclusion, I thought this was an excellent episode. It ranks alongside Boom Town, Doomsday, The Sound of Drums, Vincent and the Doctor and Closing Time as one of the best single episodes since 2005 for me. It's not quite perfect but it's damn close. On the point of the supporting characters, it was an impossible dilemma for the writer: give them any more screen time and you damage the important part of the episode, get rid of them altogether and the credibility of the setup is lost. Another casualty of the running time are the spiders. They feature only a handful of times. It's telling that the threat was strong enough that the episode could have been constructed around them. That it went off on a completely different (but carefully plotted right from the off) tangent makes this all the magnificent. In a way I'm relieved, as a I hate spiders. More spider action may've meant a sleepless night. Overall though, this is a truly brilliant episode, and I don't think anything can really top this. Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi are once again at the top of their game (I love the Doctor's shirt by the way - subtle iconography with lots of big white dots = moons?) and Ellis George proves a valuable addition to the TARDIS. I hope to see her again in a few weeks for In the Forest of the Night.

If you want a slightly less enthusiastic, much better written version of what you've just read then don't hesitate to check out Tom Newsom's review here, now.

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