The Troubling (Not At All) Subtle Subtext of “Kill the Moon,” by Kyle Anderson.

capaldi-ktmThis is the moment I say “mea culpa” to everyone in the world. I completely, utterly, and totally didn’t pick up on something that was about as obvious and on the nose as anything that’s been on television in…ever. This weekend’s Doctor Who episode, “Kill the Moon,” featured a storyline and images and themes and discussions that were so blatantly referencing a hot-button issue that it should have been painfully evident to me while watching it. And yet it wasn’t. At all. I watched it two times. I wrote a review that didn’t even mention this subtext and simply went on about how good an episode I thought it was. Then, once what I had missed was pointed out to me, I felt embarrassed, and uncomfortable, and disturbed, and deeply troubled, both as to why and how I could have missed it, and why and how it was put on television the way it was. But now I can’t unsee it and can’t unknow it, and I can’t in good conscience not talk about it.

This is a very spoilery issue, so if you’ve yet to see “Kill the Moon” and don’t want to be spoiled, please do not continue reading.

The entire crux of “Kill the Moon” is that the moon itself is actually an egg containing a nearly-hatching celestial creature, and nobody knows what will happen once it does indeed hatch, whether it will destroy the Earth or not. The Doctor arrives there with Clara and her student Courtney and meet a female astronaut named Lundvik and her two aging male co-pilots. They both of them get killed fairly early on and so we’re left with the three women and the Doctor; an interesting set-up.

Once it’s discovered what the moon is, that it’s an egg about to hatch, Lundvik asks how they kill it, thus saving the moon, and hopefully the Earth as well. The Doctor balks at her question and decides, instead of trying to convince her not to want to destroy it with all the nuclear weapons they bought, he leaves the three ladies alone to decide for themselves, despite Clara’s tearful frustration. They put the issue to a vote (of very shaky logic) to the people of the Earth that if they turn their lights off, they’ll kill the creature and if they don’t they won’t. Then they wait and as the moments almost tick down to zero, both Courtney and Clara hit the button to stop the bomb and the Doctor immediately arrives to show them the impact of their choice.

Even typing that, I feel like the biggest idiot for not seeing just how closely it hews to the debate of pro-life versus pro-choice. It’s right there. If it were an outraged person it would have punched me, and should have. The episode’s chief moral dilemma is whether or not to literally abort a child before it’s born. There’s even a line spoken by Clara that says “You can’t blame a baby for kicking.” There are many comparisons between the moon and a chicken egg, for crissakes.

The episode’s writer, Peter Harness, left Twitter unceremoniously not long before the episode aired, probably foreseeing, or being instructed to foresee, a backlash that would have likely befallen him. The problem is this: the show might be trying to say that there was a choice being made, but it can’t help but come down on the side of life. The fact is the decision is left up to three women of different age ranges (Lundvik even asks Clara at one point if she hopes to have children one day) and it’s Clara, the most motherly and of child-bearing age, to make the ultimate decision. Courtney is clearly on the side of letting it live, and Lundvik is clearly on the side of not letting it live, and is practically vilified for it.

The Doctor completely leaves, allowing, I suppose, the women, or “womankind” as he refers to them, the chance to choose the fate of the planet, and of this creature. Is he allowing them the choice or is he merely abandoning them when they need him the most? Is the Doctor, the protector, the medical person, just completely removing himself from any responsibility in the whole thing? Yes, I think he is, and I think Clara believes this to be the case, hence her yelling at him, even though he says at the end that he trusted her to do the right thing. The “right thing”???

We also have a moment where a vote was cast, and an overwhelming amount of people on the Earth chose to destroy the creature, and not risk the lives of all the humans on the planet, but they are ultimately overruled then by two out of the three people with their fingers on the button of the bomb. Just because it worked out for the best doesn’t mean it was their choice to make; a small group of people chose the fate of all the people who vocally expressed their opinions the other way, removing the idea of choice or of voting about it in the process.

How are we supposed to take this any other way than the program saying that it’s never a good idea to have an abortion, or that people can’t be in control of their own fate about such things, or that the medical professionals don’t want anything to do with it and can offer no help? It’s intensely troubling; whichever way you fall on the debate. And, please do not use the comments below as a forum for debating the issue itself. PLEASE, this isn’t trying to stir that kind of talk, it’s merely pointing out what happened and that it is, any way you look at it, a troubling piece of storytelling.

Once again, I apologize to everyone for having missed this. I am absolutely ashamed for having let it roll over me without a second thought, and I want to thank those women on Twitter who brought it up to me Saturday night as politely and intelligently as they did. I want them and everyone to know I wasn’t shirking the debate, or downgrading its importance in the discussion of the episode, it just simply didn’t occur to me, and that’s something I’m going to have to think about.

If we are to discuss anything in the comments, I want to know whether or not you think Doctor Who and its production acted responsibly in tackling a topic such as this the way they did. It’s certainly very rare for a show that tends to lean pro-science 99% of the time to be so muddled and not scientific about the way it dealt with this.

Thank you all for reading, and again, many apologies.

This guest piece was written by Kyle Anderson, a long-time friend of The Three Who Rule here at Radio Free Skaro. We are privileged to be asked to host this article about the latest Doctor Who episode Kill The Moon. Kyle is an irregular guest on Radio Free Skaro, most recently appearing on Episode #432; you can also find him on twitter at @functionalnerd.

24 Comments on “The Troubling (Not At All) Subtle Subtext of “Kill the Moon,” by Kyle Anderson.

  1. Kyle,
    I don’t think you need to be ashamed or apologize for missing it. It wasn’t subtle but it was unusual for an episode to tackle such an issue.
    As a woman of childbearing age, I also didn’t see it until I finished the episode. The parts you mentioned are troubling. For me, the vilifying of the astronaut was the worst because it if had just been three people with differing views, I could accept it as not being one side or another. However, I do wonder if Clara freaking out on the Doctor is supposed to symbolize how hard such a decision is and that there isn’t a clear cut “right” choice. She struggles with it and even after the “happily ever after” she knows that it could have been a terrible choice.
    Has Doctor Who made any statement about this?

  2. It’s okay, Kyle, I completely missed it too, and when it was pointed out to me I was baffled and disturbed. I wasn’t super into the episode to begin with but with the not-so-subtext now punching me in the face I honestly think it’s the worst of the season.

  3. I agree with Shelley — in a way, this “subtext” was almost SO on-the-nose and ham-handed that it was kind of easy to miss that they were making it about abortion? Especially because it’s so rare for Doctor Who to take on a political message of any kind (unless it’s just generally anti-war). I don’t think you should be ashamed or feel bad for missing it. Tbh, I almost wish that I hadn’t seen it/that I hadn’t had the metaphor brought to my attention on twitter during the episode, because I sure would have enjoyed it more without being beaten over the head with that message.

  4. THANK YOU for writing this. And thank you for stating that you are going to be thinking further about the episode and how it handled the subject. I found both this episode’s science and moralizing (still not sure I want to call it that) deeply uncomfortable. Even if we argue that Doctor Who is a “science-fiction lite” show, there was no need to use bad science to explain the biology of the creature and the physics involved. There is plenty of good, correct science out there to explain the whole “the moon is an egg and it might be killing the Earth” plot point. But beyond that, I really wish the show would have included a more thoughtful exploration about pro-life/pro-choice issues, rather than the muddled mess smeared on top of an abortion metaphor which it offered. I don’t think I have anything additional to say about the abortion “debate” the episode provided that you haven’t already touched on above, so I’m just going to say that I really don’t feel respected as a viewer and I am very irritated that this episode is likely to be hailed as “a very special Doctor Who episode.”

  5. “Even typing that, I feel like the biggest idiot for not seeing just how closely it hews to the debate of pro-life versus pro-choice. It’s right there.”

    No it isn’t.

    The American side of fandom [mostly] is seeing an abortion subtext when there isn’t one. Look, the UK is nowhere near as wrapped up in the abortion debate as the US is. This is a cultural divide issue.


  6. Yes, and yet no.

    The terms “Pro-Choice” and “Pro-Life,” though usually portrayed as opposites, are not opposites at all. “Pro-Choice” is in fact the middle path between two hypothetical binaries: Pro-Life (the idea that a zygote is a potential human and so to kill it is equivalent to murder) and “No-Life” (the idea that a zygote is insignificant and may be disposed of at convenience as one would, say, a toenail.) Very few people take the “No-Life” camp. My experience with Pro-Choice advocates is that the idea of potential life is very real to them, and that abortion should not be seen as an easy choice, but a necessary one.

    What “Kill The Moon” presented was a group of women making a choice – and so it is, in fact a pro-choice statement.

    Try running the scenario in your head where they decide to kill the moon creature. It could be done, I suppose, but it would be an impossibly grim plot for a Doctor Who episode.

  7. yeah. i knew it was there. i was trying to ignore the debate. some people see this as a black or white issue. right or wrong. no gray areas. in this case it was not one woman making the a choice for one life. she made the choice for all human-kind and we got lucky.

    this isn’t the kind of debate i want in a show that is suppose to entertain me.

  8. Hey buddy I think you are being a little hard on yourself. I noticed it when I watched it and I am still unsure about how I feel about some parts of the episode. We are All human and we all make mistakes

  9. Thanks for this essay! I found Kill the Moon to be a profoundly uncomfortable viewing experience. However, I knew right away that other viewers wouldn’t necessarily see the abortion connection at all, or maybe not at first. You are to be commended for seeing it your way–yet also acknowledging the way I read it, too. You are modeling the way fans need to behave toward each other when opinions on a story vary. I only wish more fans would follow your gracious, honest, and heartfelt example. 🙂

  10. I don’t think you have anything to apologise for, Kyle. As jk said, over here in the UK, we’re not so wrapped up in the abortion debate as viewers in the US. Although, thanks to the internet, there aren’t really any divides between US and non-US viewers…

    Also, I don’t think it spoils the episode for me: there’s a big difference between a metaphor and a message. A metaphor is just a story-telling device, it doesn’t claim to take a stance. A message is when the author of a piece says “here’s where I stand” – that would be a problem for me, no-one likes to be preached to.

    I agree that the abortion metaphor (or allusion) is there (or can certainly be interpreted to be there) in Kill The Moon, but I think it’s a leap to say Peter Harness is explicitly taking a pro-life stance. If anything, it’s just as likely the episode takes a pro-choice stance, for the reasons Richard says. I just think it’s deliberately ambiguous.

    I’m not sure I like shows which set out to make me feel the same thing every week. This story made me uncomfortable for sure, but isn’t that a good thing? Isn’t ambiguity a good thing? A story with a massive moral dilemma which not only makes the characters think, but also makes the viewers think – and then doesn’t provide an easy set of right or wrong answers… isn’t that a good thing?

    I loved this episode, for all its perceived faults (scientific, moral or otherwise). It’s currently my favourite episode in an incredible series so far, the salt in the caramel, if you like.

    But that view could well change: the older I get, the more I’m trying to make my opinions on a show conditional and open to change. I love this episode now, but if I find out that Harness or Moffat did intend to make this an stridently finger-pointing anti-abortion morality tale – I’ll change my mind. So far, that hasn’t happened. (In fact, I’ve read somewhere that Moffat has outright denied it.)

    Likewise, if Capaldi’s Doctor ends the season just as much of a dick as he’s playing it now… then I’ll change my mind. I’m happy to sit back and enjoy the ride: we’re only 7 episodes in after all.

    Bloody hell, I’ve rambled on so long, I’m surprised I haven’t hatched a moon dragon, sorry everyone…

  11. Pingback: “Kill the Moon” – The Abortion Episode of Doctor Who | Beyond the Browncoat

  12. “How are we supposed to take this any other way than the program saying that it’s never a good idea to have an abortion, or that people can’t be in control of their own fate about such things, or that the medical professionals don’t want anything to do with it and can offer no help?”

    Because writing can employ metaphor or symbolism without being intended as allegory.

  13. I’m still not sure how I feel about “Kill the Moon.” It’s quite a polarizing episode, with folks citing bad science and messaging as flaws and others praising the episode for taking risks with the characters and delivering that amazing final scene with Clara and the Doctor.

    Kyle, your reading of the episode is thoughtful and you make some strong arguments. Given your interpretation, yes, the subtext is worrisome. However, what makes the episode fascinating–and polarizing–is that we can argue the opposite view with the same scenes. It’s also possible to ignore any real-world parallels and look at the choice as essentially the same as the one that Amy has to make in “The Beast Below.” In both situations, the companion goes against the majority opinion in order to save a unique creature.

    I can’t remember a time that I’ve read (and listened to) so much critical analysis on an episode of tv for which I didn’t already have a strong opinion. What I’m starting to think is that this will have to go down as a classic for the intense debate and really smart writing it’s inspired.

  14. I actually think the show/writers gave themselves a little wiggle room with the fact that it wasn’t just a “baby”, but the LAST of its species. This creates a whole other kind of dilemma. It’s not just a pro-life/pro-choice debate anymore, but it’s also at least a little bit about genocide.

  15. So the democratic decision of mankind was overruled by a few silly women!
    Of course the science was absurd. How can a creature within an egg lay an egg bigger than itself. What did the embryo feed on to gain so much weight. How did the Moon become an egg.
    We need much better ‘science’ and a lot less silly girls with an attitude problem and a lot less Moffat smugness, or the series is doomed – again!

  16. I’m a reviewer over at WhatCulture and I have to admit I didn’t see the abortion debate subtext at first either though I do now. I think the episode was about making difficult choices with no clear right or wrong answer. That’s a legitimate thing for Doctor Who to talk about. It seems clear the Doctor is a mentor figure this season and a good teacher has to allow his students to learn the hard way. If he rushes in and solves everything for them they’ll never grow up and take responsibility for their actions.

  17. It’s possible the dragon laid an egg that’s a lot smaller, but just closer to the Earth. We have no idea of the size or distance. I’m grabbing at straws, I know…

  18. I also missed it. I tend to see these things literally, and consequently a bit cynically.

    What, then, is Courtney’s role in this (not so) subtle underlying story?

  19. The 3-women decision scene is a classic example of a “Freudian Trio”. Here’s a quote from the TV Tropes page which goes into more detail:

    “Freud defined the human psyche as consisting of three parts: the Id, which represented emotional and instinctual desires; the Superego, which represented the logical and intellectual reasoning (or rules and social conventions, which is how Freud actually used the term); and the Ego, which reconciled the Id and Superego. Likewise, the Freudian Trio consists of three characters: one who acts emotionally and instinctively, one who acts with cold, passionless logic and one who reconciles the two conflicting ideals.”

    Courtney was the Id, Lundvik was the Superego and Clara was the balancing Ego.

    • That’s an interesting way of looking at it. You could go back even further and say that the three women represent the fates from greek mythology – Lundvik is the crone, Clara the mother and Courtney the maiden.

  20. You are reading way to much into this.
    Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes a sci/fi plot about a moon being an egg with a space dragon inside it is just that.
    I am reminded about Tom Baker saying how much he loved the American fans because they would read all kinds of things into stories that simply were not there.

    This is one of those occasions.

  21. If you want to interpret a programme a certain way, that’s up to you.
    Just because something is shown happening in a programme does not mean the writer, the programme makers or the BBC support or advocate it.
    If you don’t agree with how Earth was consulted and the decision then made, you are entitled to do that.
    But the subtext of what you are saying is that it shouldn’t have been shown. Censorship. This is dangerous and wrong.
    If the way you reacted, or did not initially react, to the episode caused you to face some difficult questions about yourself, that’s your responsibility alone. Not the programme or the programme makers.
    Once you have had some time to reflect, I hope you will recognise this and apologise to the people you are unfairly maligning.

  22. Pingback: The Troubling Subtext of Kill the Moon → | - Geekdom Nation -

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