Blind to the Words’ Genuine Significance, Doctor Who: Kill the Moon, 04/10/2014

There’s no way I can discuss anything in this story without my tag of 


at the beginning. I’ll get the obvious parts of the review out of the way first, again thanks to Phil Sandifer having already done a bunch of the work. The storyline, atmosphere, world-building, acting, and scares of Kill the Moon are all of the highest quality. I do believe that Kill the Moon is, in terms of its aesthetic quality, one of the single best stories in this season, and in the history of Doctor Who. 

Her performance in Kill the Moon, especially in its last
scenes, solidifies Clara, specifically in her relationship with
the Capaldi Doctor, as one of the greatest companions in
Doctor Who, and Jenna Coleman as one of the show's
best companion actors.
Jenna Coleman’s performance in particular is fantastic. I had a feeling throughout this season that since her travelling with the Doctor as his companion is an aspect of her Earthly life (and not, as companions typically have been, a rejection of any Earthly life), she would only leave the role of companion after a serious falling-out. There would be a profound ethical disagreement between them, which the Doctor could not win. 

This is essentially what happened. Clara found the Doctor so patronizing in having left such a difficult, demanding decision to her and Courtney that his actions were intolerable. He said he was stepping back from humanity, so they could decide on their own, letting them make the autonomous choice and, as he put it, “take the stabilizers off your bike.” But Clara rightly noted that deciding to step back from a role of authority is just as paternalistic as taking on that role, presuming that you were such an authority in the first place. 

And she’s right. Clara did ultimately make the right choice for that situation: instead of a pettily violent act in short-sighted self-defence as the consensus of those humans able to participate* would have wanted, Clara took the riskier alternative to let the space dragon be born from its egg, Earth’s moon, an image that inspired all those petty people to return to space exploration. That decision would ultimately result in humanity’s survival long past the natural end of the Sol system, and becoming one of the few species to endure as long as the universe itself.

I doubt India and China would have voted differently than
Europe and the Americas, but it still looked dubious. A
problem with the episode as a whole, really.
* It was correctly problematic, as some commenters at Sandifer’s review pointed out, that only humans in the industrialized West were able to participate in this decision. This side of Earth faced the moon at the time, and Africa was still not yet sufficiently electrified in the episode’s 2049 to vote with its house and street lights in Clara’s impromptu referendum. Only Europe and the Americas could. But I find this less problematic as oddly appropriate on reflection, since petty, short-term, resentfully insular thinking is generally (if perhaps not entirely correctly) associated with the Western point of view anyway).

But the most important philosophical issue in Kill the Moon is the abortion question: the fact that the dialogue and the framework of “womankind’s” choice makes both the Doctor and Doctor Who appear openly anti-abortion and anti-choice regarding abortion. 

Conceptual clarification first: these are two different stances, although the political context in which the abortion debate typically appears in public discourse often renders them as equivalent. If you are anti-choice, then you think abortion is immoral and that the state should make it largely criminal, instituting punishment such as jail time for a woman who aborts her pregnancy and medical practitioners who provide the service. You can be anti-abortion but pro-choice if you believe abortion to be immoral, but that the state and its laws should prioritize protecting the bodily autonomy of a woman. You can be both pro-choice and pro-abortion if you think terminating a pregnancy is not an immoral act at all.

The problem Doctor Who and its creators** face is that the situation in Kill the Moon is physically incredibly different from a human pregnancy. The moon isn’t a female creature with clear bodily autonomy gestating another that doesn’t have such autonomy; it’s an egg the size of an astronomical body. The only living creature involved in this decision is the hatching space dragon and the human population that might be harmed by country-sized rocky eggshells falling to Earth. The scenario of human abortion doesn’t literally apply here.

The monsters were also extremely effective and scary, and
a brilliant example of how Doctor Who treats its monsters
today: as red herrings and frighteners ultimately existing
on the sidelines of the narrative.
** If Steven Moffat was in enough trouble when a vocal minority of Doctor Who and general sci-fi fans thought he was sexist simply for seeming to rely on Manic Pixie Dream Girls as his character template for female protagonists (I actually think this is a misinterpretation, and that his actual template for female protagonists is a dominatrix), I feel especially sympathetic for him now that Kill the Moon has made it appear that he has put explicitly anti-choice messages in Doctor Who.

But the dialogue makes it appear that it does. It’s especially awkward that the episode comes so soon after the Global Day of Action for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion. This is a relatively new day on the activism calendar, which is why I don’t think the production team or BBC brass was aware of this awkward scheduling. Yet this only compounds the error.

Because I don’t think Peter Harness intended to write this episode as a piece of anti-choice propaganda. The scenario is literally different. Yet his dialogue is full of significations for abortion narratives and issues, quite often falling on the anti-choice side. Courtney’s analysis is the type of thing that a 15-year-old girl who hasn’t yet had to think seriously about these issues would likely say. But she still describes the hatching space dragon as a baby, just as anti-choice activists describe a fetus. 

Captain Lundvik openly frames the decision as being about saving the life of an alien child or Clara’s own eventual grandchildren. The hatching alien is described as a life to be saved, just as anti-choice activists describe a fetus. The entire scenario of the decision to kill the hatching alien is framed as a choice which women have the personal autonomy to make. 

Why I think Capaldi's Doctor is more aloof from humanity
than Tennant's and Smith's: now that Gallifrey has been
saved, the Doctor need no longer consider Earth his
adopted homeworld. This perspective is, however, quite
petty and short-sighted, as Clara reminds him.
Terminating the hatching process is clearly recognized as having been the wrong choice, both morally and practically. The Doctor himself announces that this event determines the future survival of humanity, a pivotal event in the world of Doctor Who that is clearly signified as a woman’s decision not to terminate a pregnancy.

The worst part is that I genuinely believe that this was totally unintentional, precisely because the dialogue signifying this is so clumsy and obvious. Doctor Who is an extremely textually sophisticated show now, speaking in allegories all the time and constantly oversignified. Compared to the complex signification of even a mediocre episode like Time Heist, the dialogue signifying anti-choice in Kill the Moon arrives on a plate with a giant fist of ham. It amazes me that no one saw this. 

Well, it actually doesn’t amaze me that much. One of the problems that a lot of folks on the internet pointed out going into this season was how few women are currently involved in the creative staff of Doctor Who. The last three episodes have female directors, but not a single writer is female. Moffat has acknowledged this to be a problem, and that he’s working to rectify it as he sources scripts for the 2015 season, but we see the most serious effect, beyond simple representation, in Kill the Moon.

A note on naming. A line in Kill the Moon establishes the
possibility that, after Clara's intervention in Time of the
Doctor, the Doctor may never run out of regenerations.
So the numerical naming of the Doctors is going to get
awkward eventually (63rd Doctor?). Therefore, I've started
naming Doctors by their actors. Diegetically, this may also
account for another aspect of bitterness in the Capaldi
Doctor. Time of the Doctor was about the Doctor coming
to terms with his own death, and Utopia established his
discomfort with actual immortality. After this, the prospect
that you would never end can be unsettling.
A woman writing this scenario would have understood how the audience would perceive all the talk of babies, children, and terminating a pregnancy. She would have framed the scenario entirely differently simply because women are more self-conscious of the significance of the language of babies, reproduction, and abortion. Most men do not think of this as part of their self-concept. Women are socialized into it from a very early age. 

I don’t believe Moffat or Harness saw the culturally conservative anti-choice message in this dialogue. They probably took the fact that this was so different from a human pregnancy that the dialogue could stand as it is. And the dialogue is appropriate to the characters in question. 

But it is a blindness on their part that I think a woman in the creative staff would have been better able to see. If Kill the Moon demonstrates anything, it’s that integrating more women into the production staff of Doctor Who is necessary to keep it the progressive show that it historically has been. 

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