Doctor Who Kill the Moon review: “Audacious, hardcore sci-fi that defies the laws of physics”

Save the Earth and kill the Moon? Clara faces a dreadful dilemma – and giant spiders

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★★★★★ Long ago David Niven, Hollywood star and raconteur, told us that the Moon is a Balloon. Gravel-voiced Bea Arthur claimed in the movie Mame that the Man in the Moon is a bitch. Now Peter Harness, a writer new to Who, has the temerity to suggest an even more fanciful notion. And I rather like it.

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But imagine reading in plain type, before watching the episode, the BBC embargo “Please do not reveal the Moon is an egg” – and not choking with mirth. I was determined not to let this ovoid spoiler eclipse my enjoyment of Kill the Moon. Indeed, as this episode draws to its fantastical close, I like to envisage ornithologists in a flap and astronomers having a conniption at the preposterous concept of an avian alien hatching from the shell of the Moon then promptly laying another lunar egg.

It might be improbable, impossible, illogical, and clearly it defies the laws of physics and specifically gravity, but hey, this is Doctor Who and they just about get away with it. You want to believe. Or at least I do. Peter Harness’s first script for the programme is audacious, highly imaginative, and is well matched by Paul Wilmshurst’s supremely eerie, cinematic direction. (He’s new to Who too, and is back next week.)

Apart from the egg business, Kill the Moon feels like and looks like proper hardcore science fiction, with solid space hardware (decrepit shuttle, derelict lunar base), impressive filming (the lunar landscape of Lanzarote), clapped-out astronauts (led by a lemon-sucking Hermione Norris), and terrifying creatures crawling and pouncing from the shadows.

I’m not arachnophobic but surely any sane person will cringe at the sight of these ferocious, fanged, bug-eyed beggars. Fortunately, I had a foretaste of Kill the Moon’s spiders a few months ago at Millennium FX’s prosthetic factory in Chesham, when SFX producer Kate Walshe handed me the latex cast of a spider leg. I managed not to squeal and drop it on the floor but fondled it in admiration.

Doctor Who has a dismal record with giant spiders (cf unconvincing efforts in Planet of the Spiders, 1974, and Full Circle, 1980), but even my first-hand experience at Millennium couldn’t prepare me for how horribly realistic the Moon spiders would look on screen. Well done to all involved.

This later timeslot (8.30pm) allows for bigger scares and a higher horror content, yet still carefully controlled. We don’t actually see how the spiders have killed the astronauts; we can only infer the grisly details from the Doctor’s analysis: “Maybe something trying to find out how you’re put together. Or maybe how you tasted.” There’s no doubting this is PG material, with an allowance for mild swearing (several “bloodys” and one instance of “prat”). “Mind your language, please,” the Doctor tells Lundvik. “There are children present.”

I detect fleeting shades of Alien, even 2001: a Space Odyssey (embryo in space); there are probably loads of other allusions but I’m not that clued up on sci-fi. In Doctor Who terms, Kill the Moon closely echoes of The Waters of Mars (2009), the special from David Tennant’s final days – unusually creepy; near future; space pioneers; a wispy blonde, middle-aged commander (Lindsay Duncan). And both episodes feature the Doctor overstepping the mark.

It begins in a still moment – the action stops, the music cuts out and the Doctor announces: “I’m sorry, Clara. I can’t help you. The Earth isn’t my home. The Moon isn’t my moon…” He’s realised that this is one of those key moments in time when humanity must help itself. “Kill it or let it live. I can’t make this decision for you.” And more harshly: “It’s time to take the stabilisers off your bike.”

He vanishes in the Tardis, leaving the fate of the Earth and the Moon to an astronaut, a schoolteacher and her pupil. And it’s here that the three women really start to shine. Guest star Hermione Norris stops looking dejected. Courtney (the excellent Ellis George), looking a lot more grown-up since last week, stops being stroppy and earns her badge as First Woman on the Moon. (I had an idea that honour had been Martha’s in Smith and Jones, 2007, but, technically, she didn’t set foot on the surface.) Jenna Coleman expertly conveys Clara’s terrible dilemma – and later her tearful fury at the Doctor’s behaviour.

This season is gaining momentum now with fizzing chemistry between Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman, even as the cracks start to appear in the Doctor and Clara’s friendship. This dramatic tone would not have suited any of Capaldi’s recent predecessors, and it’s wonderful seeing Steven Moffat and Capaldi taking the 12th Doctor to some very shadowy places – locations obviously, but also exposing uglier aspects of the Time Lord’s nature. Even when sunlight floods in, he’s dark…

There’s that beach scene. Overlook the fact that this is the last place you’d stand and gawp if the tides are already in turmoil and the Moon is breaking up. The Doctor steps forward, clenched and concentrated, and delivers a moody speech worth quoting in full:

“The mid 21st century. Humankind starts creeping off into the stars. It spreads its way through the galaxy to the very edges of the universe and it endures to the end of time. And it does all that because one day in the year 2049, when it had stopped thinking about going to the stars, something occurred that made it look up, not down. It looked out there into the blackness and it saw something beautiful, something wonderful that, for once, it didn’t want to destroy. And in that one moment the whole course of history was changed. Not bad for a girl from Coal Hill School and her teacher.”

Portentous dialogue, sharp direction, urgent music and a powerhouse performance from Peter Capaldi make this one of the defining moments of the season. 

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Complete Radio Times Doctor Who Story Guide 1963–2014