Doctor Who series 8: Kill The Moon review

Spoilers: Doctor Who hits top form with Kill The Moon. And Jenna Coleman has never been better...

This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.

8.7 Kill The Moon

“If you think we should kill the creature, turn your lights off”

Now that’s been a long time coming.

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For weeks now, Peter Capaldi’s Doctor hasn’t been very nice to Clara. That would be some understatement. We’ve had the uncomfortable digs about her appearance most prominently, but there’s been a dismissive undercurrent too in the curtness of the Doctor towards Clara. On the one hand, this has established Capaldi’s Doctor as a little more alien than he was in Matt Smith’s era (offering varying gradations of coldness, depending on the story). But then it’s also created a divide between the Doctor and Clara, one that was talked about extensively in Deep Breath, but ultimately far from resolved.

This week? He was just plain cruel. And she wasn’t taking it anymore.

So when Clara snapped, when Clara finally gave the Doctor a glimpse as to what the past few weeks have been like for her, she had our sympathy. And she certainly had everybody’s attention.

“You go away, okay? You go a long way away”

We’ve noted several times over the current run of Doctor Who that Jenna Coleman’s performance has become ever more impressive, especially now that her character has a more tangible and assured direction. Here, she’s brilliant. Just brilliant. As much as she loves the travelling, Clara’s seemingly had it with the Doctor (if rumours of Coleman’s exit from the show prove true, you can hardly say that crumbs haven’t been laid), and the last five minutes of Kill The Moon was just exemplary.

It leaves a shattered relationship primed to be explored – and resolved, if Danny the former soldier’s words are anything to go by – in the weeks coming. The Doctor treating Clara as just any other human doesn’t look like it’ll completely break things, but it’s running it incredibly close. The Doctor’s hardly been a great friend, as Clara rightly notes.

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Even without that ending, though, we’d be wildly applauding Kill The Moon, as good an episode as the impressive Doctor Who series 8 has served up to date. Writer Peter Harness – making his Who debut – establishes a good science fiction idea, shifts the tone of the series again, and plots his story so well that when a giant creature lays a new moon at the end, you don’t blink twice. You buy it entirely.

Well, we did.

Kill The Moon finds us in 2049, and opens with a nod of the hat towards Blink. This time it’s Clara sending out a distress call. The man who normally helps is gone, we learn. There’s 45 minutes to sort out the future of mankind, but there’s an innocent life that may have to be sacrificed as part of the deal. In essence, a traditional Doctor Who moral dilemma, one with a base under siege thrown in for good measure. Who has been here lots of times before.

Courtesy of a trip in a recycled space shuttle, we learn that said dilemma is simple: the moon is dying. The moon is falling apart. And the reason for that is ultimately that the moon is an egg, with a big creature in it. If the creature is allowed to wake up, it might destroy everything. If it isn’t allowed to wake up and instead is blasted by the handy collection of 100 nuclear bombs, well the Earth might be doomed anyway. A choice needs to be made.

The Doctor, intriguingly, declares all this a fuzzy bit of time that he can’t see (although he ultimately knows more than he initially lets on), and promptly buggers off to let Clara and co – including guest star Hermione Norris as Lundvik – to sort the mess out (with the residents of Earth and their lightbulbs – in a terrific sequence – no help at all).

The pivotal factor here, in a series where we’ve not had a Doctor-less episode, is that he disappears at the key moment. At the point where Doctor Who traditionally calls on the Doctor to resolve everything, he doesn’t. Instead, he basically sets Clara a test, and refuses to interfere, no matter that lives may be at stake. That test – one he knew the right answer to – is the one that goes on to have those aforementioned ramifications at the end of the episode.

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“My Gran used to put things on Tumblr”

It’s the second half of Kill The Moon that’s given over more and more to the key dilemma it’s posing. But the first half? Well, it’s an absolute belter in its own right. In the early stages, for instance, we get a cracking exchange between the Doctor and Clara over the dismissal of the returning Courtney – played well again by Ellis George – as not special. Harness’ dialogue is occasionally economic in his story, so he certainly makes his longer exchanges count.

And then there’s the really scary stuff. Double so if you’re terrified of spiders.

We’ve had some really creepy moments in Doctor Who this series, not least the spooky red blanket that Steven Moffat brought us in Listen. Yet the space spiders – well, germs – that we get here are exceptionally well done. It helps that they play on a primal fear that many people have of arachnids, but also, debut Who director Paul Wilmshurst absolutely knows how to frame them.

In one central sequence, where the returning Courtney is all but stranded with a deadly spider, the Doctor, Clara and Lundvik, it could have been lifted straight of an Alien film (from the first half of the movie boxset). The darkness, the lights shining through, the faces peering towards the camera: Wilmshurst fully understands that slowing things down and making little moments count is the key to crawling under people’s skins.

And when he does cut to a close up, and demonstrates the spider’s tip of the hat to Giger’s xenomorphs at it bares its teeth, a few backsides around the world will have leapt off their cushions. Ours certainly did. Dripping with tension and drenched with atmosphere, this is modern Who working with the claustrophobia of the old days. It’s hard to think of many other Saturday night shows that could deliver tension of such quality.

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Kill The Moon is far from a one-trick pony, though. Impressively again, Peter Harness’ script manages to explain key things, while embracing the lovely daftness the show can accommodate. The bacteria, for instance, are basically not particularly partial to a good bottle of Dettol. It’s just there doesn’t tend to be too much of the stuff on the Moon in 2049. There are constant little reminders of the show you’re watching in the midst of the spooky stuff.

“I’ve never killed Hitler. And you wouldn’t expect me to kill Hitler”

A word on the production values. It’s no secret that exterior work on this one took place in Lanzarote (although there’s no sign of The Master this time, for those looking for a very direct nod to Planet Of Fire), and by draining out some of the colour, Wilmshurst puts on screen an effective, and very alien moon. In fact, on this evidence, the quarries of Wales have some work to put in to be called convincing alien planets anymore. What’s more, even when the effects team are called in to destroy the surface, the look of it holds together. A special word of credit too to Murray Gold, whose tense score utterly supports the production. It’s one of the best he’s written for Who to date.

Our grumble column is incredibly small, and really, barely worth mentioning. If you’ve not been a fan of Clara taking the lead in this series so far, then Kill The Moon continues the trend of giving her the pivotal role in the episode. It’s been an unusual decision to give the Doctor a relative backseat in the series, and not always a unanimously popular one. We’d argue it’s working, though. Also, one or two bits of CG don’t convince as well as others. But heck, on that point, who really cares? It’s almost out of obligation we clutch at a straw or two here. In truth, Kill The Moon pretty much blew us away, and the positives column is full to bursting. The negatives barely seem to register.

In terms of the broader series, we should note, there didn’t seem too much in the way of underlying threads. No Missy or Seb, certainly. But, for speculation’s sake, what’s going to happen with those pictures Courtney has posted of the Doctor on the internet? Might there just be something to that, no matter what the Doctor’s tried to do about them.

“Super! Is there a word search?”

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A review with a very happy ending, then. The best Who episodes have something to say, get under your skin, and keep you pretty much gripped until the end credits roll. Kill The Moon certainly did that, with us heading for a rewatch as soon as it was done. It has a good science fiction story underneath it, a strong dilemma, and real consequences. It also boasts – and we’ve barely had a chance to mention it – an excellent supporting turn off Hermione Norris. A real collection of riches.

Next time, we get another new writer to Who, Jamie Mathieson, and Paul Wilmshurst is back directing. Mummy On The Orient Express in seven days’ time then. It’s going to have go some to match what we got to see tonight, though…

Our review of last week’s episode is here.

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