Blogger’s Disclaimer: I will be the first to admit that I’m probably far from the first person to notice the subtext below. However, I haven’t actually read any other reviews, so maybe my particular take is unique.
I’m generally in the camp that finds authorial intent one of the less interesting, and often misleading, aspects of criticism. I’m also a vocal antagonist to what Corey Olsen has called “Crit Fic,” a term based on C.S. Lewis’ explanation of the critical fallacy wherein critics eschew close text-reading for speculative guesswork as to the author’s intentions or motivations. However, I can’t avoid talking about the signposts which announce in big, bold letters the subtext of the story. “Kill the Moon,” Peter Harness’ debut episode of Doctor Who, is about abortion.
“The moon is an egg,” the Doctor tells us. The egg is hatching, with potentially life-threatening and/or catastrophic repercussions for planet Earth. It is up to humanity to make a choice: Kill the moon preemptively, or let it hatch and come what may. The trinity of human representatives are all women. They represent different walks of life: Lundvik is middle-aged, and a scientist. Clara, a young professional woman. Courtney, a teenaged schoolgirl. The Doctor stands for the other who steps back, taking himself out of the equation to let “womankind” (in his words) make their choice. He is alien. He is male. He is also quite patronizing. “It’s time to take the stabilizers off your bike.” He peaces out, leaving the fate of the egg, the planet, and the future of the human race in their hands. Yeah, no pressure. The question of detonating a bomb to destroy the moon is spelled out via two buttons, with the choice to “ABORT” the mission labeled in block letters for those not paying attention. Counter-intuitively, to abort the mission will save the life of the creature inside the egg, but the question still stands: What is the life of the unborn creature worth?
I have to admit to being a little shocked (and pleasantly surprised) by where the episode ends up. Two disclaimers. First, I admit that when taking on a hot-button, topical issue like this, if the writer steps back and allows for any ambiguity at all, then there is every chance that viewers will mostly likely read into the episode their own viewpoints and see what they want to see. But that’s OK, because crit fic is dumb. Just because Harness didn’t intend something doesn’t mean it’s not there. Second, let’s be upfront about my own biases in that case. I myself happen to be pro-life. For reasons for spirituality and upbringing, yes, but also from what I see as a rational and pragmatic standpoint: The question of a woman’s control over her body is crucial, but by the same token this argument is used take choices and life away from another person. I can’t help but see that as hypocritical. It basically all comes down to whether or not you see an unborn fetus as a person, and I do.
Now, I am more than aware that this is not the popular opinion in our culture at the moment, and especially in more liberal and secular communities such as the UK, for one, and the arts/entertainments, for two. I would find it very hard to believe (though not impossible) that Peter Harness and Steven Moffat hold the same opinions I do on this issue. I was prepared and expecting for the episode to conclude that killing the moon was the only sane thing to do. I think a lot of others felt the same way. I haven’t read any reviews of this episode yet, but one fan poll I did see showed that the majority of viewers agreed with the Doctor that stepping back and letting Clara and the others make the decision on their own was the right call, and I suspect that many would have chosen to kill the titular moon in the interest of saving planet Earth.
Strangely enough, that’s not what the episode itself seems to be saying. Maybe it’s my own wish-fulfillment, maybe it was Jenna Coleman’s devastating performance, but I think that the episode itself (if there is such an entity) firmly sided with Clara in their final confrontation. She is reluctant all the way through. She doesn’t want to, as she puts it, “kill a baby,” and her compassion is shown as more attractive and sympathetic than Lundvik’s pragmatism. It’s her last-minute reversal which saves the egg, which both events themselves and the Doctor confirm to be the right decision. In the end, she is righteously, and rightfully, furious at the Doctor for abandoning her to that impossible situation.
Clara: It was cheap, it was pathetic. No, no, no. It was patronizing. That was you patting us on the back, saying, “you’re big enough to go to the shops by yourself now. Go on, toddle along.”
Doctor: No, that was me allowing me to make a choice about your own future. That was me respecting you.
Clara: Oh my God, really? Was it? Yeah, well respected is not how I feel… I nearly didn’t press that button. I nearly got it wrong. That was you, my friend, making me scared. Making me feel like a bloody idiot.
Clara: Oh, don’t you ever tell me to mind my language. Don’t you ever tell me to take the stabilizers off my bike. And don’t you dare lump me in the rest of all the little humans that you think are so tiny and silly and predictable. You walk our Earth, Doctor. You breathe our air. You make us your friend, and that is your moon, too. And you can damn well help us when we need it.
Damn straight. How many times has the Doctor taken initiative and made decisions on the behalf of other peoples and planets? Deposing Harriet Jones in “The Christmas Invasion,” anyone? For better or worse, he is no stranger to making decisions on behalf of humanity. Whatever your opinions on the abortion debate, what this story calls out is the notion that we do not all have a duty to be a part of this discussion. Not that the decision should have been solely the Doctor’s, but that abandoning Clara and the others behind a thin smokescreen of “it’s not my decision, see you later” was a major cop-out, and I love that Clara called him out on it. More than anything, this episode is a call to serious discussion on the issue, and it does so without hiding behind the cliches and political correctness which characterize most such discussion in popular media.
The ending itself, with Clara and the Doctor’s painful confrontation, is quite unlike anything we’ve seen from a companion in Doctor Who, and I’m sure Peter Capaldi was referring to this scene primarily when he talked of Jenna Coleman being asked to chart new territory in the history of the show. We’ve seen angry, tearful fights with the Doctor before. Donna demanding he go back for survivors in “The Fires of Pompeii” and Amy and Rory’s scathing criticisms in “The Girl Who Waited” spring to mind. But always, at the end, there is the reconciliation. The reset to zero. Or at least, a kind of resigned acceptance that this is who the Doctor is, and if they want to maintain this lifestyle and relationship they can’t expect him to change. It is both shocking and thrilling when Clara takes a different route, ordering him out of her life. “This is new for me,” she tells Danny, and it’s new for us, too. It’s a great move to have this inflexible Twelfth Doctor met with a newly uncompromising companion, and opens up lots of new avenues for what the relationship between the Doctor and his companions could and should mean. Bringing the discussion back to the episode’s subtext, it feels right that this episode should be the one to cross that line. In a story with lesser weight, Clara’s reaction would be overwrought and melodramatic. The powerful emotions give her ample motivation, and it works flawlessly. I am sure that Harness’ first Doctor Who story is and will continue to be controversial, but I for one would love to see more from him in the future (and can’t wait for his BBC adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell).