There are many aspects, or ingredients if you like, which make a great Doctor Who story. Of course, a lot of these are personal tastes, Doctor Who can apply itself to so many different genres that you don’t need the titular character in it much, or even at all, for it to be a great piece of Who. If I were to compile a list of my favourite Doctor Who stories, or ones which frequently top polls as being some of the show’s finest work, then I’d probably find that they were quite dark in tone, had some sort of message or commentary, showcased the lead actors at their finest, and used the time they had to tell their story well. Obviously, there are several more ingredients to the recipe of good Who, and you don’t have to use all of them to be good, but I think there are common links between the cream of the crop.
Out of all of the things which I mentioned above, Kill the Moon actually has all of them. It’s brilliantly dark and atmospheric, there’s definitely a message or allegory there whatever it may be (and intentional or not), it features arguably Jenna Coleman’s strongest performance to date, and it’s paced very well. Theoretically, then, Kill the Moon should work. And for some, it definitely does. But I think while Peter Harness knows what makes a great Doctor Who story, he isn’t too aware on how to actually tell one.
If there’s one thing Kill the Moon does have, it’s ambition. Harness’ writing is certainly enthusiastic, and the script reads like he’s thrilled to be writing for the show. He’s also obviously aware of what makes the show work and why it does, which is why there’s almost too many of it’s ‘good’ codes and conventions there. Harness has obviously done his homework and knows what Doctor Who can do at its best, the problem is he has no idea how to apply these aspects. The story is trying to be far too many things at once, so much that it doesn’t really work.
As I said, all of the aspects of a good Doctor Who story are present in the script, but Harness really is clueless on how to use them. It’s a dark story, but it’s not consistently dark, and for some reason Harness tries to insert humour into the script during these dark moments (Lundvik and Clara are talking about future children, and Courtney makes a Danny Pink joke. Sure, it’s very much in character, but it’s not appropriate to the tone of the scene). There’s a moral dilemma, whether it’s referring to abortion or not, and yet there are no consequences to the chosen option. Jenna Coleman gets some excellent material, but Peter Capaldi isn’t particularly well written at times (While the Doctor has been incredibly blunt and almost obnoxious this series, I’ve never found him particularly unlikable). This story is a good idea on paper, and it should work theoretically, but it doesn’t, as Harness, as enthusiastic as he is, doesn’t really know what he’s doing. I’m quite surprised that Moffat’s name was tagged onto three episodes this series by experienced Who writers when I think Harness could have done with more of a helping hand.
This episode also has other problems. Firstly, the science is ludicrous. Sure, I’m not expecting anything too scientific in Doctor Who, it’s not really what the show is about, but when used, it should be as accurate as possible. Secondly, the Moon being an egg, while certainly is an original idea, is one of those ideas which is far too silly for its own good. The dialogue also sucks in places, particularly from Courtney, who wins the award for most dubiously written character of the series (she’s coming across as less of a “disruptive influence” and a “bad kid” and more “a bit thick”).
While we’re on Courtney, I really don’t like the guest cast in this one. I can’t really criticise the performance of Ellis George, because in all honesty, it’s not terrible, and she is only a child. She does a good job with the material she’s given and comes across like she’s happy to be there, so I can’t really complain. It’s early days for her, and I hope to see her on my TV screen in a few years with a better role, as I honestly think she has the potential to be a decent actress. Hermione Norris, on the other hand, is given bad material, and Norris’ performance is so half-arsed that I would not be surprised if she sacked her agent after filming wrapped. She comes across as so bored doing this, she might have well been doing jury service.
The thing which saves this episode, and the reason it has gone up overall despite my criticism of it, is the performance of Jenna Coleman. While I feel that the Doctor and Clara have pretty much gotten equal focus within the scripts themselves, on the whole, I imagine most of the media attention at this time would have been on Capaldi, partly because he’s brilliant, but realistically because he’s new and she isn’t. While it’s a little bit of a shame to see Capaldi leave the screen for a good while, it does work well in the script and does provide us with the best scene in the episode, Clara’s anger at the Doctor at the end of the episode. Jenna puts so much emotion and power into that performance that it’s gripping to watch, and captures the anger and disappointment of the character absolutely perfectly. Another highlight is her blank expression when Lundvik says thank you to her. It’s one of those moments where she really understands what the character is going through. This is her time to shine, and if you needed any proof to why she’s one of the best actresses on television at the moment, then look no further than here.
The direction is also really good, and the lighting, while a tad too dark at times (so much so that I can’t really tell what’s going on) is very atmospheric and effective. The Classic Who fanboy in me also cheered when the Doctor got his yo-yo out to test for gravity like he did in The Ark in Space. That was a very subtle, but rather cool moment.
Overall: Kill the Moon has all the qualities of a good Who story, they’re just not used very well. But Harness certainly deserves some points for trying, and it’s clear he’s trying to tell a good story. Jenna Coleman’s performance is phenomenal, though.
Previous rating: 2
New Rating: 3