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New Who 8.7 Kill The Moon

The first half of this season of Doctor Who has been characterised by Steven Moffat either writing or co-writing all of the episodes himself, except for Robot of Sherwood, which he apparently trusted Mark Gatiss to do on his own. We now move into a second phase - a run of stories by writers who are all entirely new to the series.

I think the biggest consequence of that this week is that the sciencey plot details suddenly went from sketchy-but-good-enough to utterly hokey. I am not generally bothered by this aspect of Doctor Who, but when even my suspension of disbelief is broken (seriously, an organism which has just hatched can already lay an egg larger than itself within minutes of emerging?), you know there's a problem. I suspect the issue was exacerbated by the decision to set this story on the Moon, which is a real-life setting that we actually know quite a lot about (for all that the story claimed it wasn't quite what we thought). An utterly fictional setting where the rules could be more fluid might have worked better. But fundamentally I just don't think this particular writer is very good at doing sciencey plot-business.

I also didn't like the way the entire story was precipitated by Courtney Woods' desperate desire for the Doctor's approval. Apart from anything else, this didn't even tally up with what we'd seen in the previous story. All I remember the Doctor saying to Courtney when she expressed an interest in travelling with him was "I'll let you know. I may have a vacancy, but not right now." I don't remember anything about him telling her she was 'nothing' or 'not special'. But even if he had, the whole scenario of a young black woman going off the rails because an older white man has denied her the approval she craves, and then him swooping in and 'curing' it by making her special through turning her into the first woman on the moon, is distinctly icky. It's also not at all in line with her confrontational, inquisitive and disruptive character, as established in the previous episodes. The story could easily have been kicked off in 101 different ways which didn't need to make Courtney's entire sense of self-worth and agency dependent on the Doctor's approval, and the fact that this one was chosen did not make for a good start to the episode.

That said, we did get some pretty decent material as the episode unfolded. I liked the way camera-work, character reactions and lighting all worked together to build up the tension when the spider-creatures first appeared, with nice nods to The Thing and Alien. I liked the direct engagement with the corollary of Fires of Pompeii's idea that some moments in time are fixed, and thus others are in flux and can only be determined in the moment. (Of course the flexible moments are set in Earth's future, not its past, so that they aren't at odds with events which are already fixed from the viewers' perspective, despite the Doctor's later claim that "the future is no more malleable than the past" - the very fact that this needs to be stated explicitly reveals that in practice it isn't the case, as I have long observed). And I very much liked the dialogue between Clara and Lundvik (with occasional input from Courtney) about whether or not to kill the moon-creature once the Doctor had left the three of them alone to debate the issue. Working within the collapsed, impressionistic time-frame which a TV drama inevitably requires, I felt that this did a good job of conveying a proper, focused, adult discussion of both the practical and the moral dimensions of the question, and the fact that it took place between three women went some way towards making up for the unfortunate start with Courtney.

In the end, though, that whole discussion was utterly undermined by the 'Have it both ways!' ending. All those practical issues that were raised about how the break-up of the shell and disappearance of the Moon might affect the Earth were totally waved away, but only after Clara had made a decision on gut instinct which went against the explicitly-stated views of everyone on the entire Earth. Someone in the comments thread on the doctorwho reaction post to this episode has pointed out that it all reads pretty nastily if viewed as a metaphor for abortion debates, and I can't disagree. We are pushed very strongly towards seeing Clara's baby-saving decision as the correct moral one, while issues such as the fact that it is made in ignorance and could potentially have caused the destruction of all life on Earth are waved away and smoothed aside by setting things up so that it all turned out to have been for the best after all. Means are excused in hindsight by reference to their ends, but Clara did not have hindsight at the moment when she pushed the button.

The ending of the story, with Clara's angry outburst at the Doctor for leaving her to make such a momentous decision all on her own, could have made the fairytale cop-out of the moon-creature story acceptable again, but for me it just didn't ring true dramatically. It seemed like too sudden a turn-around with no foreshadowing to set the situation up - one moment Clara was all full of hippy love because she had saved the moon-creature, and the next she was swearing at the Doctor. From Danny's response ("It happened, didn't it?") it seems this is supposed to be the pay-off to his prediction in The Caretaker that there was a danger of the Doctor pushing Clara too far, but if that's really it then it is an utter anti-climax by comparison with the emotional weight of what I was expecting. And judging from the trailer next week everything is going to be All Better next thing we know - unless that's due to be a Clara-Lite episode while she works through her emotional issues for a week?

Other notes - this was an episode heavy with Classic Who continuity references (doubtless a potent temptation for new writers who grew up with the show). I expected the spiders and cobwebs to bring with them strong references to the Third Doctor, and obviously to some extent they did, but in the end it was the Fourth Doctor era which seemed the more defining influence. Twelve's use of the yo-yo was an obvious reference, though I appreciated the fact that it also had a meaningful role to play in this story - first as a way of demonstrating that the Moon's gravity levels had changed, and then later as a way to rescue Courtney. Even stronger was the resemblance between Clara's insistence that surely they could leave, because she knows Earth still has a Moon after 2049, and Sarah Jane's similar point about the Earth in Pyramids of Mars. This time, the Doctor's response is different, reflecting the set-up of the story. It wouldn't work to take Clara to a different point in time to show her the consequences of leaving, because from what we learn later it turns out they wouldn't be visible - there would still be something that looked like the Moon whether or not Clara had stayed to ensure that it was a new, living egg rather than an old dead one. But the issue and the point it raises about the causality of time-travellers' actions is the same. There was, of course, also a nice nod to Two (and via him, Five) in the classic "When I say run, run!" line, which was then immediately questioned - as a much-repeated motif should be.

Meanwhile, Water-and-Breathing Watch was once again on the case this week, and noted the following points:
  • A consequence of the changes to the Moon has been high tides wiping out major cities on the Earth - i.e. water as dangerous and uncontrolled.
  • Everyone is (rightly) surprised to find what appears to be water on the Moon. The Doctor then announces that it is amniotic fluid, but functionally it is much the same, and his jump into it constitutes his fourth watery plunge this season (following on from the Thames in Deep Breath, the yucky Dalek stomach-juices in Into the Dalek, and the river in Robot of Sherwood).
  • Breathable air is obviously quite an important issue on the Moon. Once power has been re-established in the Mexican mining base, the characters remove their helmets in order to 'save the air'. Later on, Lundvik worries that they are running out of oxygen as the crisis deepens.
  • Clara's rant to the Doctor includes the line, "You walk our Earth, you breathe our air" (and therefore he should play his part in humanity's big decisions).
Again, definitely some Stuff there to add to our collection - wherever it might be taking us.

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Comments

( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
qatsi
Oct. 5th, 2014 08:03 pm (UTC)
Bad Science
I thought this was distinctly weaker than the rest of the series so far, and I'm with you on the science. What bugged me was the Moon being "100 million years old" - in fact it's thought to be far older than that, and the increasing mass of the Moon (without some external source, the mass of the Moon is a zero-sum game and the gravitational field between it and the Earth is essentially fixed). Admittedly the first of these might be handwaved away if you say that the Doctor knew what was going on and it was part of a 100-million-year cycle where the Moon would be renewed. But the set-up of the episode was very scientifically orientated yet wrong. Like you, I think the basic story could have worked in a different context.

I thought Capaldi was particularly good in this episode - perhaps just in contrast to the general weakness. To me he seems to be showing conscious echoes of some of Hartnell's mannerisms, and the brusque side of his personality seems like a working version of the character Six was meant to be.

Edited at 2014-10-05 08:03 pm (UTC)
strange_complex
Oct. 5th, 2014 08:17 pm (UTC)
Re: Bad Science
I think the extra mass is meant to come from the spider-things. But unless they have arrived from somewhere else in space (which was never really made clear), you're right that the mass of the Moon as a whole shouldn't change as a result of either their growth or that of the moon-creature inside it. Capaldi definitely had more than a dash of Hartnell in him, and I'm very glad of the fact.

(PS - I am so over the current LJ bug which makes default icons appear on comments, regardless of what icon you actually choose.)
steer
Oct. 5th, 2014 08:55 pm (UTC)
Re: Bad Science
The unexplained mass thing was really annoying... especially as the mass was shown to fluctuate and be variable (especially the weird bit where the little girl floats until she can touch the yoyo).

I enjoyed the episode as a whole but, frankly, I don't think I've ever seen any TV sci-fi with good science and read precious little so I'm used to going "ouch science". (In a way, it's actually better when the whole science book goes out of the window rather than "ooh, you were so NEARLY right").
steer
Oct. 5th, 2014 08:58 pm (UTC)
I just can't see the abortion thing. In abortion you stack the rights of an unborn child that will become an intelligent being against the rights of its mother (and to be clear I'm pro-choice in this).

There is no "animal abortion debate". This was about an animal that was the only representative of its species, was capable of sustaining its own life (and indeed was about to be born) with no present mother but which posed a severe danger to others.

It's quite a bad thing if abortion issues have reached the stage where showing people not killing a nearly born animal is considered contentious.
steer
Oct. 5th, 2014 09:00 pm (UTC)
Oh, one thing I did like from this episode was Clara berating the doctor for being so patronising and putting her and the others in that situation. It was almost as if she nipped in ahead of the fans who were about to say that.
parrot_knight
Oct. 5th, 2014 11:27 pm (UTC)
My thoughts on watching were that people will see this as an abortion allegory, but I don't think it's there, and Moffat has reportedly explicitly said this was not the author's intention.
steer
Oct. 6th, 2014 12:01 am (UTC)
It looked to me as if the writers took about every step you could possibly take NOT to make it an abortion allegory:
1) Within moments of birth
2) Parents explicitly defined to be dead
3) Hatching from an egg not born from a womb (hence definitely outside parent's body)
4) Defined (implicitly) to not be intelligent (I recall this at least but later this seemed to be made a bit vague)

I read one person say it must be an abortion allegory because the debate was between women (which is pretty much the opposite of any abortion legislation ever passed).

parrot_knight
Oct. 6th, 2014 12:03 am (UTC)
Well, yes.
danieldwilliam
Oct. 6th, 2014 10:51 am (UTC)
There seemed to me to be a close enough parallel that I was thinking during the episode that there might be something about abortion going on.

Not saying there was, or that it was intentional.
danieldwilliam
Oct. 6th, 2014 10:49 am (UTC)
Science and democracy.

I’m not sure what was going on here in terms of the moon.

Did the Doctor know that this was part of a 100 million year cycle and that it would be okay? If so, then what was he doing?

If not, what was he doing?

Clara has over turned a pretty clear mandate from the bits of one hemisphere with electric lights. That’s nearly as bad as First Past the Post. I don’t think you ought to ask the question if you are going to disrespect the answer.

As an aside I thought the XKCD What If section might have covered the moon’s mass increasing but this was the closest I could find.

http://what-if.xkcd.com/67/
spacelem
Oct. 7th, 2014 08:54 am (UTC)
I'm no fan of FPTP, but it makes sense in what is essentially a referendum with a binary answer, and when there's no other way of getting an answer. Also most of earth's landmasses are on one hemisphere, so you could in theory get a fairish vote if you had just the right angle.

You're right though. Earth clearly chose to destroy the thing, so why did she bother to ask the question?
danieldwilliam
Oct. 7th, 2014 09:11 am (UTC)
I claim vote rigging.

I have a video that clearly shows that the hemisphere facing the Moon was the Pacific Ocean and yet we're being asked to believe that we were shown Eurasisa?

Mmh, no, those sorts of conspiracy theories don't sound any better when applied to something other than IndyRef.
danieldwilliam
Oct. 7th, 2014 09:12 am (UTC)
More seriously, you're right FPTP in a binary referendum with a short time scale is fine.
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )

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