05 October 2014

TV: Kill the Moon (Tom Newsom)

review by Tom Newsom (Twitter | Flickr | Blog)

“How would you like being the first woman on the Moon?” the Doctor tells realistic schoolgirl Courtney, and with that we’re taken into this week’s adventure which definitely gives you something to think about.

The episode promises Aliens but gives us a discussion on murder, or even abortion. The Ark in Space stuff is almost window dressing - admittedly the best looking window dressing we’ve had in years, as the volcanic Moon landscape being awe inspiring. Filming in bright rocky Lanzarote rather than a quarry or sandpit was a great choice, as is the muted grey/orange colour scheme. And it’s not just the visuals that are gorgeous, the direction overall is strong and the tone is tight. There’s mystery, there’s some proper scares from the ‘spiders’ and cobwebbed corridors (textbook creepiness), there’s funny lines too - but the episode, and the plot, is centred on the decision whether or not to ‘Kill the Moon’ rather than the visuals.

It’s not every day that the series goes all philosophical, though there are examples in recent years - The Beast Below had a similar, if less bleak, scenario, and The Waters of Mars featured another pioneering but doomed space crew. But this feels genuinely new territory for the show in a similar way as Listen, perhaps because it’s written (superbly) by a new writer to the show, Peter Harness. The default setting this series is ‘deep’: every episode has big running themes in the background, complex main characters (plural), nuanced motivation and grey areas, even more pronounced than in Moffat’s earlier Who. These are big, brave questions (do they have the right?) that sci-fi can do so well, and this one sticks in the mind.

And especially brave is that it’s an episode that didn’t present one clear view for us to root for - not even Clara was sure of the correct decision. Admittedly I wanted to see more of the ‘spiders’, certainly more of the threat that this creature apparently posed, more than a hologram and a description of life back on Earth. But all it needed from the other viewpoint in the end was the understated bleakness of the scene of Earth reacting to Clara’s impassioned speech by switching off their lights, by wanting to kill the thing that is killing them. It seemed a very realistic view of a future Earth (though a bit unfair for only the half of the world that’s in darkness to be able to vote, no?), if lacking in humanity. It’s a trait also evident in Hermione Norris’s quietly strong performance as the suicide-mission leader (she looked natural in a spacesuit to me, or maybe I’m just remembering Outcasts), and of course the Doctor.

He’s adopted a policy of not caring, and still remains an unknowable rather than truly unpredictable figure, a walker in eternity and above humans, whether they’re astronauts, scientists, schoolteachers or children. It’s bringing the character’s more alien traits to the forefront, but with the benefit of strong writing and acting that makes it more interesting than ever. And again, what the Doctor knows and decides to tell us affects the story (the dilemma changing to killing a living creature rather than a lump of rock), a bit like the problems in Listen, in Time Heist, and his reluctance to share information in The Caretaker.

Which means Clara’s exit at the end of this episode comes more out of the blue, this episode being the final straw after similar dangers in a series where some viewers have questioned why she kept travelling with this new Doctor. It’s written as cleverly and as complex as the rest of the episode: it’s the Doctor’s automatic faith in her to be the best of humanity that is pushing her away. Clara’s grown into a fully rounded, flawed character and perversely that means that she isn’t ‘companion material’ any more, unlike many of her predecessors that apparently put up with it. She’s not special.

Jenna Coleman sells this change for us perfectly - I’m sure everybody else must have teared up from seeing her and the Doctor’s reactions - and she’s more downbeat earlier in the episode too, with Courtney getting most of the quirky lines. It’s a natural performance of someone who isn’t comfortable with travelling with the Doctor, and this time she’s being pushed too far. Her scene with Danny Pink at the end is glorious (so reassuring to see him again, especially back to nice accepting mode) though painful for her. To use Tegan’s words, “it’s stopped being fun”.

But isn’t that a downside to this episode of Doctor Who, a lack of fun? There’s the dry coldness of the setup (more manufactured than most - it’s a big sell that we’re rushed into very quickly at the beginning) and a general lack of humanity as well as a lack of action. Certainly very little has changed physically by the ending - Clara cleverly second guesses the idea that they can’t destroy the Moon, but in the end, it’s still there - is that an anticlimax? The Doctor’s speech and the scenes at the end help cover up the lack of impact on the rest of the world or other characters, but the story only really affects Clara - and even that’s down to what the Doctor didn’t tell her rather than the scenario itself.

And even in the less philosophical episodes like The Caretaker, there’s been a huge increase on sniping between the main characters, which isn’t to everyone’s taste. After the previous episode, splitting the Doctor and Clara up at the end here in a complex fashion feels like it wants the audience to pick a side: is Clara being selfish, or is the Doctor? Viewers can all too easily fall into the trap of disliking the main character or the hero, and then it can be not so fun anymore, even if it is interesting to watch.

That is, unless viewers (and reviewers!) simply accept that this new show is ambiguous - science fiction and fantasy with gloriously deep drama, telly that you can get out of it whatever you want, depending on how much you want to analyse it. It might not be to everyone’s taste, but I think it’s a bold, certain step for probably the most analysed show ever. A series that can have Time Heist, The Caretaker and Kill the Moon one after another - mad ideas, character drama, action and scares and food for thought, and always always craziness - it’s why we love Doctor Who.

Because next week: killer mummy - in space!

many thanks to
Tom Newsom (Twitter | Flickr | Blog)

No comments:

Post a Comment