Nobody could have predicted quite how dry September would be, but one unexpected bonus – at least as far as Doctor Who’s production team was concerned – was the proliferation of autumn spiders. Never, it seems, have they been quite so big or so bountiful. And while a nation filled its social media with tales of green-fanged arachnids and immigrating eight-legs, so the people behind Kill the Moon must have smiled inwardly.
But that’s not really why we’re here. The spiders, really, are just another Scovox Blitzer.
Since its return in 2005, Doctor Who has discovered the ability to tell small stories in big packages, often concealing intimate dramas beneath potential global Armageddon. The story of a shop girl making good, or of a man who might spend two millennia watching over the woman he loves. The focus appears to be shifting in Series 8, however; the series still conceals its stories within high concept plots, but the balance is changing, rearranging itself so that the personal dramas now reflect concepts as grand as the tag-lines. Giant spiders on a self-destructing moon is as nothing compared to the choice Clara, Courtney and Hermione Norris’ Lundvik have to make. And that choice is itself quite insignificant next to the drama it reflects; out of death comes new life, and Kill the Moon is necessarily a far more serious episode than we’ve seen of late.
Peter Harness’ script is astonishing, and it has so much ground to cover in the first half, it strips the dialogue right back until it’s almost as spartan as the surface of the satellite upon which the episode takes place. When Clara implores the uninterested Doctor to tell her pupil that she’s not as ordinary as he had previously implied, rather than giving her a speech about “indomitable species,” he whisks the pudding-brain off to the moon in an act that’s extraordinary and abrupt, and symptomatic of the startling and sometimes profound leaps Harness’ story takes. It’s an astounding way to get the plot in motion. In fact, by bringing Courtney along, Harness has written large Pyramids of Mars’ famous exchange about balancing the death of one man against the lives of many across the entire story; here we see a Clara whose concern is for an individual, in sharp relief against the Doctor – whose concern is similar but universal. It’s either exceptionally intelligent writing, or an incredibly lucky coincidence, but the way the two characters reflect one another’s preoccupations and yet arrive in entirely different places by the end of the story is as apt a demonstration of the series’ newfound maturity as anything we’ve yet seen. That’s “newfound maturity” with giant eight-legged bacteria and a colossal space egg.
Taking its cue from The Day of the Doctor, an episode that set out to celebrate Doctor Who’s achievements and ended up demonstrating its capabilities, Kill the Moon is ostensibly a simple story with an apparently hard sci-fi mystery at its core, seemingly eschewing the generally magical feel of Steven Moffat’s tenure to date. In much the same way as Time Heist did two weeks previously, it promises a certain kind of resolution and by flipping the expectation of that so resolutely on its head, turns out to have been not the episode we thought it was at all, but something much better. And in spite of only finding something to do for one of its three guest actors (introducing Lundvik’s sidekicks only to kill them off, a pair of sacrifices for the 45 minute slot), it was hardly slouching to begin with.
It’s not all plain sailing. Some of that sparseness in the first act creates an environment that isn’t quite as involving as it needed to be, and Norris’ low-key interpretation of Lundvik – while appropriate for the character – makes her an unengaging presence in the story. There are compensations, though; Lanzarote makes a spectacular and convincing lunar landscape, and the Doctor is as quixotic and surprising as we’ve yet seen this most quixotic and surprising twelfth incarnation (the reappearance of his yoyo is a welcome and unexpected inclusion). There are moments of beauty amongst the starkness, and sequences which begin to rival the Alien movies for being unsettling.
In the relationship between Clara and Danny Pink, Steven Moffat has proven that he can do human beings just as realistically and as sympathetically as any other writer on Doctor Who. And by stacking his series with contemplations on the nature versus nurture of evil, the need for heroes, the origin and propagation of basic childhood fears, the fundamental value of life and the way we balance our relationships, he has also proven that he can do Doctor Who as profoundly as the best of them – and without forgoing any of the fun, too. Series 8 is shaping up to be easily the best series since 2005, if not ever. The Hinchcliffe and Holmes years have always been the most fondly remembered, but in spite of being the most striking and the most evocative, they were generally not especially deep. Peter Harness was told to “Hinchcliffe the shit out of” Kill the Moon, but fortunately for us he failed somewhat. Which is to say, rather than crafting a story that was chilling and archetypal but essentially rather shallow, instead he’s done all of that but also created a thoughtful deliberation not just on the nature of humanity, but on the nature of nature itself – and the choices it makes and by forgoing it, the choices we make on its behalf. There are no easy solutions here, and that’s entirely the Doctor’s point; it’s sometimes the choosing itself that’s the decision. That the Doctor shows up the instant the button is pressed and not a moment before speaks volumes. And when Clara and the Doctor cannot see eye to eye on this point it is a brilliant and bittersweet junction in their relationship; previous companions would have given an arm and a leg for writing this good on their exit. Happily for us, Clara isn’t yet gone.
I can’t begin to imagine how the rest of Series 8 will unfold. And I haven’t been this excited to find out in decades.