Right. Let’s deal with the crucial stuff first. Giant spiders! Giant frickin’ spiders! Giant frickin’ spiders on the frickin’ Moon!
Ok. Medical check complete. My geek heart is clearly still fully functioning. Let’s talk about the rest, shall we?
The first half of “Kill The Moon” amps up its shadows and scares in a way that justifies Doctor Who’s recent flight from teatime. The Twelfth Doctor told us he was heading “into darkness” and here it is, draped with cobwebs and fitfully illuminated by torchlight.
Director Paul Wilmshurst evokes a remarkable atmosphere on Earth’s eerie, not-so-empty satellite. He also doesn’t hesitate to fling pure nightmare fuel at the kids. The initial spider attack is thrillingly strong stuff, Aliens by way of BBC Wales. It’s the soundscape that sells it at first: we hear skittering, squelching, the scuttle of multiple legs in the darkened control room. The creature’s half-glimpsed, the camera almost too afraid to linger on it. We see huge arachnid shadows, the glow of hellishly red eyes, a glimpse of the beast feeding on a man’s face. It’s wonderfully extreme, Doctor Who at its most mercilessly scary. Does The X-Factor give you incurable arachnophobia? I think not, ITV.
First time Who writer Peter Harness delivers an impressive debut script, one that lightly but effectively sketches the near-future crucible of his story. It’s clearly a world where humanity has walked away from possibility, its dreams of space flight now museum pieces. But there’s a hint of something darker, too, some uneasy chapter of recent history we never see. “We blew them up,” says Lundvik. “That’s what we do with aliens, isn’t it?” It’s a future that intrigues, that feels real.
The Moon itself makes for an equally credible backdrop. A spot of location filming in Lanzarote proves a crafty way to fake a Moon landing, volcanic hues and blue Mediterranean skies replaced by silver tones and inky horizons. There’s real light at play in these shots, something you never get with traditional studiobound solutions to planetary landscapes.
Peter Capaldi remains infinitely watchable, and Harness’ script gives him gifts. He speaks of “Moments in which big things are decided” and it’s pure essence of Doctor. There's also that lovely, shivery moment on the beach as he prepares to reveal the future of humanity. He closes his eyes and then his head snaps up, as if he’s just plugged into the vortex, as if he’s communing with time itself. Elsewhere he remains compellingly tricky: “The tides will be so high that they will drown whole cities,” he snarls, with just a hint of relish. And he’s surely channelling Patrick Troughton as he bashfully declares “The moon’s an egg,” as if embarrassed by the enormity of the notion.
Two callbacks to classic Who: the Doctor uses his yo-yo to determine gravity, just like Tom Baker in 1975's "The Ark In Space", and resurrects Patrick Troughton's old catchphrase "When I say run, run!"
Harness also moves the Doctor and Clara’s relationship to a really interesting and provocative place. “Kill The Moon” doesn’t necessarily approve of its hero, and we may be surprised by just how much we side against him. Clara asks “Do you hear music in your head when you say rubbish like that?” and its a line that wounds because it feels hurled not just at the Doctor but Doctor Who itself, all those moments when its lead character has reinforced his heroism with a bombastic bit of scoring. All anger and hurt, Jenna Coleman plays the hell out of this scene, one the entire episode, and possibly the series, has been building toward. Capaldi’s generous enough to let her own it, and it makes his quietly wounded Doctor all the more effective.
For all its pulp SF thrills, its subtle worldbuilding, its wit and its wonderful character work, there are unmistakable faultlines in “Kill The Moon”, improbabilities radiating like those mysterious fractures in the Moon’s surface. Surely that first sight of lunar cobwebs should be met with more than an offhand acknowledgement? Come on! Cobwebs! On the moon! That’s major league weirdness, right? You’re not allowed to just say “Cobwebs?” as if you’re dusting some forgotten corner of your nan’s house.
More problematically, I’m not sure I buy Clara and Courtney championing the creature’s right to live over and above the fate of mankind. That feels like characters being maneuvered against their obvious sympathies for the sake of a broad strokes moral dilemma. It just doesn’t ring right for me. And surely only half the Earth – the half of the Earth lit up against the night - would be able to vote?
And wait - the destruction of the Moon has all the repercussions of a really splendid firework? And a newly hatched creature is able to lay a giant space egg as big as itself? If I had a physics or a xenobiology degree I’d feel on safer ground quibbling with this stuff. But I have an English degree instead, so I’m prepared to swallow the preposterous bits. Let’s just call them moments of poetry and move on, eh?
Oh, and the Doctor wonders if he might keep regenerating forever. Did the Time Lord gift of a new regeneration cycle come without the standard “Twelve-and-you’re-out” clause? Interesting...
Doctor Who airs on BBC One and BBC America on Saturday nights.
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