“Kill the Moon“.
Now that is one hell of a mountain to climb. Not just because it is a key episode in series 8’ arc (and really, in character arcs that expand all the way to series 10 and the end of the Capaldi era). Not just because it is a complicated mess of jumbled thematic throughlines. But also because it is a little bit controversial. Tiny bit. Teensy tiny.
The amount of sheer, vicious hatred that story generated is kind of impressive. With a large chunk of the fandom also praising the episode, it degenerated into a not-so-civil war of rather impressive proportions. I was there, I saw it, it was brutal. Now, things have calmed down a bit. Maybe the broadcast of the possibly even more divisive “Hell Bent” soothed that rift. Then again, the conflict surrounding “Hell Bent” and the one surrounding “Kill the Moon” are very different. “Hell Bent” kickstarted something that is, at its core, nothing more than a war of aesthetics – the tradition, the mythos, the figure of the Doctor, on one side; the reinvention, the feminist subversion, and the problematic role of the companion on the other. Considering the ideological positions of this site, there’s not much point in telling you about which of these aesthetics we consider to be the best one for the show and the one that most accurately represents it, in spite of all the YouTube edgelords protesting that the episode is an unreviewable piece of garbage. But the point is that both sides have a relatively solid position – “solid” is not a synonym of “justified” or “valid”, but at least there are two sides with a couple of big arguments there. The text of the episode is not really the key feature of the discussion – unless you belong to this strange category of people that claim to have understood nothing about the episode while confessing they weren’t paying attention to it.
“Kill the Moon” is unique, in that while it was and still is the subject of oh so many debates, nobody seems to be able to agree on whatever the hell it’s about. The battle, here, is very much about the text of the episode, and how to interpret it, and above all, what the fuck that text even is in the first place. That is, if you ignore those dismissing the story on the grounds of its scientific and chronological (within the show’s diegesis) inaccuracy. Which you should, because it’s the most boring argument one person can ever make about Who.
So here we have our question. What is “Kill the Moon” about?
Here’s a possible answer, from someone who loved the episode on first watch, hated it on second, didn’t understand anything on third, and now is back to loving it on fifth.
It’s not about a moral dilemma, for starters. That’s a Harness theme, for you – all three of his scripts are centered on a quandary of some sort, but they are always subverted in some way or another. “The Zygon Inversion” ‘s game of picking the right button is used to demonstrate precisely how the whole situation is absurd (of course, it also undermines any chance at moral complexity by making the Doctor obviously in the right, but the very iffy ideology of that story has not much to do with the story at hand). “The Pyramid at the End of the World” comes the closest to a straightforward choice, but it is implied in some ways that the whole situation was from start to finish engineered by the Monks – Bill acts the way she does in that climactic scene because she couldn’t act any other way, because her morality, and the morality of the show, are used as weapons against her, just like the Doctor’s hybris was against him.
It’s a great principle in political and moral-driven fiction: if you want a proper confrontation of ideas, a real fictional debate, you need to have different factions that are all framed in a relatively neutral way; and you need to have access to the facts of the matter being discussed. Star Trek is really good at that – take the TNG episode “The Wounded” (an incredible piece of television, I might add): the moral dilemma centers on a rogue captain gone terrorist, striking at random an alien race that might actually harbor unfriendly intentions. We learn more and more until we get a full picture of the situation – an ambiguous and morally complex one, but not a blurry one; and the three factions at play, the terrorists, the heroes, and the Cardassian race, are all framed as being partially right and justified in their actions. Let’s now take those two criteria and apply them to “Kill the Moon”. It, unsurprisingly, fails both. A key piece of information, ie that the Moon Beast would not “destroy its nest”, and therefore Earth, is withheld from the debating parties, and, consequently, from the audience; therefore, all the debates that do happen are moot. And of course, the Doctor is right. How can even doubt it? Of course he’s right, and him being right, in that precise moment, allows not just for Earth to be saved, but also for Courtney to be empowered, and humanity to find a newfound trust in the stars and a new desire to explore and discover.
So then, you have two options. Either you consider Harness is an idiot, who wrote a bad story that fails at presenting a convincing moral dilemma. Or you assume that the fact the moral dilemma is unconvincing is a fully acknowledged feature of the story. I know that if I’m faced with that kind of dilemma, I would rather pick the solution that allows me the maximum enjoyment of the story.
And if you start looking at the story that way, interesting things happen. For once, you may start noticing the very purposeful meta touches – the fact that the story starts by having Clara using your TV screen as a monitor, calling directly to you, looking into the camera, to deliver a message; the way the set-up of the story evokes early Hartnell era, with an old, cranky Doctor, a young, plucky, slightly annoying young girl, and two teachers from Coal Hill School being involved (admittedly, Danny is left behind throughout most of the narrative, but his presence as the perfect ideological opponent of the Doctor makes it tricky to integrate it in a story about the morals of said Doctor); the mention of Blinovitch (interesting in that it places the episode under the sign of paradoxes, of a reversal of expected norms: also, making him, apparently, Courtney’s future husband makes sense – a disruptive influence and the man who named the most famous Who paradox) et caetera. Really, from that first sequence, two things are clear – one, that you, yourself, the viewer, are part of the narrative, are called upon the stage; that this is a story that considers Doctor Who as a media, that is going to purposefully invoke the tropes of the show to make a point and expects you to follow it through and use whatever knowledge you have of the show. As pointed out, it has a Hartnell set-up, down to the environment being a danger and an obstacle in a way you don’t often see in modern serial; but it then shifts to Hinchliffe horror, with giant spiders and empty space bases (a clear reference, Harness having been asked to “Hinchcliffe the shit out of the script” by Moffat ). And then it shifts again to a more modern sort of Who, the kind of morality plays the Davies and Smith years had aplenty – “Boom Town” or “Cold Blood”, for instance. But there is one last shift. The story doesn’t stop at being a morality play, and evolved into yet another genre. It references the past to make a final statement about the future of the show.
What is that statement?
Well, to answer that question, one first needs to consider a key reading of “Kill the Moon”: the episode as an abortion metaphor. I don’t think it holds much water in the long run, but I don’t think it is a fundamentally bad way to look at the episode. Indeed, some critics praised the episode while still seeing it, overall, as an allegory, and there has been some very good meta written on the subject. Here is Mark McCullough, regular writer on DWTV (and, as it happens, an acquaintance of your not-so-humble servant), arguing for that reading :
“They learn the true nature of the moon as an egg (containing an unborn baby). This leads to the moral dilemma of whether the mission to destroy the moon (and unborn child) should be completed. We are told that the consequences of allowing the baby to be born could have unknown catastrophic effects on the life of Earth. The Doctor is then removed from the narrative, whilst making a comment on how the decision rests on womankind (the moment that to me essentially confirmed my reading of the episode’s abortion theme). With the Doctor gone, the opinion of Earth is consulted in the beautifully powerful lights turning out scene, although the decision ultimately comes down to the three women in the room. They decide to let the creature be born regardless of the consequences and are lucky enough that another moon-egg is created by the creature’s reproductive system (more on that specifically later). The episode then ends on an argument between the Doctor and Clara because the former left the latter to make the decision on her own. From that it’s easy to see where the abortion analogy can be drawn, by simply replacing the moon with a woman and scaling the consequences to a personal level you’ve got a perfect abortion story.
With the abortion debate in our society, it is very much the case that those who choose to have terminations face social stigma, particularly from the church. What Kill the Moon is able to do with the concept of the lights going out is change the situation so as the social pressure is now in favour of ‘aborting’ the egg meaning in choose to let it live Clara would have faced the same stigma had the outcome not been so favourable. What is just so smart about this is the commentary on how everyone can have an opinion on what should be done, but in reality when placed in the shoes of the decision maker ultimately they defaulted and made the same decision. There was also some talk at the time of the episode about those in control of the electric making the decisions. This is something we will never know, but it is worth looking at towards Italy to see the position of the light of the Catholic Church (I’ve only used that as an example here because they are their own state, so if a government cut the lights it was the church themselves).”
While being an interesting reading, I think it is, at the end, a superficial one, in that it does not take into account all the facts of the text of the episode – the situation, here, is not quite similar to a woman having an abortion. Babies being born do not explode, threatening of wiping everyone on Earth – and to be intellectually honest, those objections are taken into account in Mark’s article, which I have linked to down below. The episode is not, or at least not “quite” an abortion allegory – but it’s undeniable that it uses imagery reminiscent of abortion. These symbols, however, don’t exist in a vacuum. That scene where the three women – Lundvik, Courtney and Clara – are debating the fate of the Moonspawn together is placed in part under the sign of real world parallels and of abortion, yes, but it also echoes to much more abstract symbolism. It most notably quotes pretty explicitly a key concept of Neopaganism, and, some argue, of multiple religions throughout history – the Triple Goddess; the idea that the power of magic and womanhood is embodies by a threefold goddess whose different aspects represent the three ages of the woman. The Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone. The power dynamics, within their exchange, fit that formula almost perfectly, with Lundvik, the eldest woman in the room, being the Crone, and the young and impulsive Courtney being the Maiden. Clara as a Mother is more of a stretch, but then again, the dialogue explicitly draws attention to her ability to carry children:
LUNDVIK: “Oh you wanna talk about babies? You probably got babies down there. You want to have babies?
CLARA: Well, uh … Yeah.
COURTNEY: Mr. Piiiiiiiiink …
LUNDVIK: Okay. You imagine you’ve got children down there on Earth now, right? Grandchildren, maybe. You want that thing to get out? And kill them all? You want this to be the day life on Earth stops because you couldn’t make an unfair decision?” 
Of course, an important part of that threefold divinity is its ties to the phases of the Moon: waxing (maiden), full (mother), waning (crone); the Moon which is, itself, a representation of biological womanhood, tied as it is to the representation of the menstrual cycle and of reproduction. There is a rich and complex symbolical nexus at the heart of the story.
So, when that kind of mystical tropes permeates the essence of a scene, reading it literally, as a pure analogue to actual events, becomes extremely difficult. And that is where the importance of metatext throughout the story, prevalent through the use of screens to communicate (Courtney does it; the mission control does it, and of course Clara does it), and Courtney being asked to insert a DVD within the TARDIS console to kickstart a program, becomes critical.
Because that is what “Kill the Moon” is about, at the end of the day – it’s a story about the way Who frames and considers dilemmas and morality. The statement the story makes is a critique, and a devastating one with that, of the show.
Because the Doctor is right. He is right because he is the moral compass of the show, the all-knowing wise man of space. And maybe he’s well-intentioned too – the addition of Courtney, often criticized, is essential at that level because it allows for an added level of complexity: the Doctor does indeed fulfill the request Clara made to him at the beginning of the episode, he allows Courtney to feel special, he shows her the wonders of the universe and allows her to prove her worth, instead of doing as Clara suggests and simply pretending that she is, being, in a way, more honest than his companion there. But his methods, now those are questionable.
Because we are faced with an old, male, cis (the gender-fluidity of the Doctor is never brought explicitly forwards, at the center of the narrative, until at least “Dark Water”) person imposing his morality on a young female lead. The power dynamics of the show have a darkness, a problematic aspect to them. And yes, you’re not forced to address it, and you can create good and progressive storylines without doing that – but “Kill the Moon” does, specifically because it needs to do just that so that the show can move on and evolve in a more lasting and definitive way. It examines the morality of a show that started in the 1960s to bring it up to date with the 2010s, with intersectional feminism and the modern dynamics of allyship. It pierces that boil before it might be able to fester – and, as that choice of metaphor might indicate, it’s not exactly what you’d call a pleasant process. It’s a messy, cruel story that is, on purpose, very unlikeable. But it’s also devilishly efficient at what it does.
Twelve’s behavior here is not just criticized because he is rude and downright cruel in the pursuit of maximum efficiency. Because, when you get down to it, what he does is not really different from what the others would do – the critique land better because Twelve is much more direct about it, and doesn’t sugar-coat the cruelty with kindness, affection and warmth. But there’s a reason why that script was originally written for Matt Smith’ Doctor . Take a look at “Cold Blood”, or at some key episodes in the Tenth Doctor’s arc, and you’ll see what is truly called out here – hypocrisy.
Twelve pretends that he removes himself from the debate, that he leaves the three women to decide for themselves. But that is a lie – because Clara knows what he expects from her. She has to decide knowing what the ethos of the Doctor, and, really, what the ethos of the show is – and therefore cannot come to a really independent decision. The companions are shaped by the Doctor, as Davros pointed in “Journey’s End”, they become instruments of his will. Clara therefore takes the right decision within the world of Who, but the wrong decision by any other criteria. The decision to kill the moon was democratically taken by the entire population of Earth, represented through a council of three woman, one in her fifties, one black, and one queer. And more importantly, it was taken by you – the viewer. The episode, if you watched it lived, calls upon you directly, through Clara’s projection at the beginning. It asks you to turn the light off, or on, depending on your choice. You are part of the consensus that is formed there. Formed, and ignored. Clara’s final decision goes again common sense. It goes against democracy. It goes against the autonomy and independence of women. And yet, it is the right one. Because the Doctor is the Doctor, and we’re watching Doctor Who.
What “Kill the Moon” shows is the sheer violence behind the way the Doctor imposes his morality on others. And that’s why Clara snaps – because she is not happy with the conventions, with this tilted narrative that still exists in 2014. Because she wants to redefine the terms of her relationship with the Doctor, and to change the show so that she might finally be an equal to the Doctor. Clara’s quest for enlightenment and Doctor-status is not just a personal, egoist one (although, let’s be clear, it is also an egoist one – Clara is a deeply, wonderfully flawed person) – it’s one she undertakes in the name of women, everywhere, and of progress.
And it’s one that informs all the rest of the Capaldi’s era. “Kill the Moon”, at its core, is an exploration of the Doctor’s privileges – and the rest of Twelve’s run is devoted to the deconstruction of said privileges, ending in his regeneration into a female form. It’s at this point Clara signifies her will to redefine the role of companion, to go beyond that kind of boundaries, which of course directly informs the following stories, “Flatline” especially, and will form the backbone of series 9, culminating in a second, and definitive, rejection of the Doctor’s privileges – “Hell Bent”: while “Kill the Moon” tackled his flawed moral system; “Hell Bent” questions the very framing of the show around him, and chooses to refuse focusing on his past history and his grief to instead create a new, feminist path. Both get hated for doing that, of course, because that’s how things are. But they allow the creation of a new persona for Twelve – an ally, a teacher offering supports to female characters that are allowed to drive the action: more than anything, series 10 is the story of Missy and of Bill, with the Doctor standing as a catalyst and a facilitator in the middle of events. And the way he himself defines allydom (a definition that is not quite perfect – “Oxygen” and “The Pyramid at the End of the World” show his selfishness; and “World Enough and Time” questions his class privileges) is framed in direct relationship with “Kill the Moon” – two later scenes at least call explicitly that final confrontation sequence. Compare …
CLARA: You walk our Earth, Doctor. You breathe our air. You make us our friends, and that is your Moon too, and you can damn well help us when we need it! 
… to this …
DOCTOR: This is my world too. I walk your Earth. I breathe your air. 
… and this:
BILL: Why is it up to me?
DOCTOR: Because it can’t be up to me. Your people, your planet. I serve at the pleasure of the human race, and right now, that’s you. Give me an order. Not long till noon. I need an order. 
There dynamic between the Doctor and his interlocutor clearly evolves between these three episodes. In “Kill the Moon”, he positions himself as an arbiter, a superior judge that has no part to play in the affairs of puny mortals and just comments on the moral color of their choices, even though, as Clara justly points out, he is part of this world too, be it only through the connections he creates with it, the people he befriends. In “In the Forest of the Night”, following the events of the previous two stories, he and Clara chose to be equals, to look at the situation from the same point of view – now, that is not yet perfect, because the Doctor possesses certain privileges he can’t let go of. As he says to Clara in “Face the Raven”, he’s “less breakable than her”. Their relationship is balanced in theory, but not yet in practice, and this is why “Hell Bent” is needed – it allows a complete reversal of that power dynamic, with the Doctor voluntarily de-powering himself to better get on the level of the human race and help them. It’s the kind of things he needed a Chameleon Arch to do, back in the Tenth Doctor era, but now he can make that transition out of sheer will – giving up his memories for Clara allows him to repeat that act forwards, to serve humankind. He acknowledges that he is not of this Earth, but not to take a position of willful inferiority, not of superiority.
That same dynamic exists at an intra-seasonal level, within series 8 – “Death in Heaven” is an especially interesting case in that it inverts certain key beats of “Kill the Moon”. That story was about latent privilege, while the finale has the Doctor being handed certain privileges: by Kate, who names him President of the World, and then by Missy, who gives him a Cyberman army. Hell, you could even see in Kate Stewart and Lundvik opposite doubles, one criticizing the Doctor and the other praising him in a way that might not be the healthiest – they are, after all, both blonde women in positions of strength and responsibility, who even kind of look alike.
But of course, that episode ends up with the Doctor refusing the boons that are granted to him, and accepting an inferior position – changing his motto from the constantly repeated “I am the Doctor” of the Smith years, to “I am an idiot”. Accepting the low status, the strange insights, and the innocence of the classic Fool.
And that is why “Kill the Moon” is such a great story. It is the first and main stone in the gigantic work of deconstruction and reconstruction that defines the Capaldi era. It’s a story that rejects entire chunks of Who to choose a new, bold, path, and freely says, to quote a song – “goodnight Moon, I want the Sun”. Out of the night, and into the light.
I don’t know about you, but that’s a path I want to follow.
[25/09 addendum: I wanted to add something on Courtney’s role within the episode. I like how the narrative kinda implies, near the end, that the Doctor kinda manufactured the whole situation just to make her feel “special” and important – because it’s linked to some pretty clever themes of female empowerement. The Doctor thinks he can lift up a woman (and a woman of colour with that). But he doesn’t do it out of genuine concern of appreciation, he simply does it to shut up two women that have issues with him – making the constrast with his treatment of Bill, who is very much a student of colour, all the more interesting and strong by comparison. But the real problem with that narrative, and I think it is acknowledged by the narrative, is that the Doctor, in that empowerement narrative he tries to craft, puts other women down and ignore their wills and agencies to lift Courtney specifically up. Basically, the whole narrative is “the Doctor is a bad feminist/ally”.]
 Mark McCullough, “Appreciating Kill the Moon”, DoctorWhoTV, 25/10/2015 http://www.doctorwhotv.co.uk/appreciating-kill-the-moon-76647.htm
 “Kill the Moon”, s. Peter Harness, d. Paul Whilsmhurst, 30:55 to 31:17
 As revealed in Doctor Who Magazine #478, summarized here by DoctorWhoTV: http://www.doctorwhotv.co.uk/tantalising-details-on-series-8-episodes-5-8-66791.htm
 “Kill the Moon”, s. Peter Harness, d. Paul Whilsmhurst, 41:24 to 41:32
 “In the Forest of the Night”, s. Frank Cottrel-Boyce, d. Shree Folkson, 33:08 to 33:16
 “Thin Ice”, s. Sarah Dollard, d. Bill Anderson, 34:28 to 34:41