–Spoilers for Doctor Who: “Kill the Moon”–
A man puts on a red spacesuit and walks onto a planet, to find a team of people grappling with an alien threat. It’s a very special moment, a time when big things are about to be decided. In response to the threat, there’s a nuclear bomb that might have to be set off.
The leader of the team says to him, “Who the hell do you think you are?” Well, he’s a Time Lord, a superintelligent alien being, with the power to step into special moments like these and shape the future. He can help . . . but maybe he shouldn’t.
This is the premise of the Doctor Who episode “Kill the Moon.” Curiously, it’s also the premise of a previous episode, “The Waters of Mars.” Although “Kill the Moon” works perfectly well as its own story, it also works as a duet with “The Waters of Mars.” And when the two are put together, they ask some philosophical questions I’d be hard-pressed to answer.
In brief, here are the two plots. In “The Waters of Mars,” which takes place in 2059, the Doctor as played by David Tennant finds himself on Mars, at what he calls a “fixed point in time and space.” There are some moments he is not allowed to change, based on laws of time that only he understands. The inhabitants there are forced to blow up the colony with a nuclear weapon, sacrificing themselves to save the Earth from malicious aliens. But when it comes right down to it, he can’t sit back and let that happen. He’s grown so attached to the people on the base that he tries to save them at any cost. This is the wrong choice, and it makes him cross the line from good to evil. “Who the hell do you think you are?” asks one of the women he saves, Captain Adelaide Brooke.
In “Kill the Moon,” which takes place in 2049, the Doctor as played by Peter Capaldi finds himself and two companions on a space shuttle on the Moon, where some mighty strange things are going on. He meets up with a team of astronauts, and the first thing the captain says is “Who the hell do you think you are?” The Earth is at risk because the Moon has become “gravity flexible,” and a team of astronauts have come up with a hundred nuclear bombs to destroy the alien threat. Only it turns out that the alien is innocent, and killing it might or might not save humanity. In a moment of apparent cruelty, the Doctor washes his hands of the whole affair and walks off, stranding three human women in a room where the terrible decision awaits.
“Kill the Moon” has a number of deliberate allusions to “The Waters of Mars” — the year, the color of the Doctor’s space suit, the nuclear bomb dilemma, the concept of a pivotal moment in time, the Doctor’s acknowledgment that he shouldn’t be there, and the Doctor’s conflicting view of humans as “little people” or greatly important.
Along with allusions, the two episodes have some important contrasts, beginning with their personalities. Tennant is fairly warm and fuzzy and considerate. He wrings his hands over difficult decisions and pays explicit attention to others’ well-being. So when he makes his initial decision to leave the Mars colony to his fate, he is near tears. His downfall comes from caring too much.
In contrast, Capaldi is often dismissive of others’ feelings — at least outwardly. When he decides to leave the three women on the Moon, he is positively rude about it. “I’m sorry,” he says. “Well, actually, no, I’m not sorry! It’s time to take the stabilizers off your bike. It’s your moon, womankind!” That’s patronizing and quite cruel.
Another important contrast is the choice itself. Tennant makes the wrong one. Through some combination of caring too much about the colonists and growing too attracted to power, he risks humanity’s future and ultimately dooms himself and is forced to regenerate (which is as close to death as the Doctor can get).
Capaldi’s choice is the opposite. On the surface, he doesn’t care about the three women, and he leaves them to live or die, depending on their actions. Had they detonated the nuclear bombs, they presumably would have been killed right along with the alien creature.
Another contrast lies in how the Doctor treats a human woman’s right to choose. Tennant’s wrong choice overrules a human woman’s choice. Captain Adelaide Brooke makes up her mind to die to sacrifice herself, and he saves her instead. Luckily for the Doctor and the future of humanity, Brooke shoots herself, undoing Tennant’s mistake.
In contrast, Capaldi forces three women to make a choice on their own, despite repeated pleas for help. “It’s your moon, womankind,” he says. “It’s your choice.” He even goes so far as to drag a fifteen-year-old girl out of the TARDIS to participate in the impossible decision.
Here’s what I’m wondering: did Capaldi do the right thing? Faced with a similar situation, he made the opposite choice. Was it the right one, or did he veer too far in the other direction? It’s hard to tell. Unlike the two previous Doctors, Capaldi rarely explains himself, and when he does, we don’t know whether or not he’s telling the truth.
On the other hand, he deserves credit for refusing to sugarcoat the hard truths he lives by. He could have easily made the same choice but won over Clara’s heart, and the viewers’ hearts, if he had wrung his hands or shed a tear before he left. Instead, he overtly patronized and manipulated people so that at the end of the episode when Clara gave him a spectacular telling off, a lot of viewers were right there with her. Who the hell does he think he is?
I’d like to think Capaldi made the right choice — that he’s brusque and arrogant but underneath it all has a more mature understanding of morality than either of the two previous Doctors.
But maybe that’s not the point. Maybe the point of “Kill the Moon,” in combination with “Waters of Mars,” is not the Doctor, but the viewers. We’re asked to look critically at our hero’s actions, to question his motives, and to ponder what we might do in the same situation. We’re right there with him, seeing the universe in all its cruelty and splendor, and hoping, as he hopes, that humanity can be saved.