Watching this series Moffat has really latched on to the flash forward/roll back technique with his story telling. Once again he starts us about half way through the story with Clara telling the Earth the man who usually helps them (one guess who that is) is gone and may never come back but they have a decision to make, one innocent life or risking the human race. Once this sting is planted we get the opening credits and roll back to Coal Hill School. It has to be said this is very effective, these kinds of laying the steaks of the episode out early are great but my fear is over use. Last week we had flashes of Clara juggling Danny and the Doctor, before that we had Clara’s disastrous date, and before that we had the flash back and forth of Danny’s painful flirtation. This is fun, it keeps the momentum up on this steam train of a season, but there’s a concern about cheapening the experience by getting too “tricksy”.
He’s having none of it, storming back to the TARDIS we find Courtney fiddling about with the controls. The TARDIS must like her because those doors don’t just open for anyone. She’s taken precautions and anyone level of empathy would instantly see this is a kid who’s trying to make a good impression. She brought cleaning supplies and a travel sickness band (which the Doctor calls a Vortex Manipulator in a cute aside to Captain Jack). Clara tries to get the Doctor to tell her she’s special which he still refuses to do. Courtney does not take this well, she feels like the Doctor has told her she’s nothing and she lets him know it. The Doctor, in his own way, tries to make amends bringing Courtney and Clara to the moon giving her the chance to be special. Much to their surprise instead of landing on the moon they find themselves in a recycled space shuttle and the Bennett Oscillator. This is a deep deep cut of Who Trivia and shows that Moffat is serious about making this 50th anniversary season really rich in references to the original series. The Bennett Oscillator was first mentioned in the Tom Baker adventure Ark In Space and was in fact even back then an inside joke Bennett being the last name of a director of the series. So this is a 39 year old call back to an inside joke. I don’t know if it was Moffat’s suggestion or the writer Peter Harness but who ever came up with that call back, congratulations you get a prize.
The unfortunate thing is this Shuttle has been loaded to the rafters with nuclear bombs! Here we are given our second call back to Ark In Space soldiers come storming wondering who the hell these people are the entire time the Doctor is pretty much ignoring their questions asking them about the bombs. This is when he does one of the most Tom Baker things I’ve seen in the new season to date, he aggressively babbles with purpose. Doing a strange little dance he moves around telling the astronauts they’ll have to kill them and to start with the girl because he’s not even sure he can die because he could regenerate forever for all he knows. This is an interesting possibly buried lead as to the future of the regeneration problem. He’s been reset, but maybe he was reset for ever? The dance it turns out to be a “Gravity Test” ends with him producing a Yoyo (one of the favorite time wasters of Tom Baker’s Doctor) and again his favourite tool for testing gravity which is the nub of the Doctor’s funny little dance. Why is there gravity on the moon?
Courtney is really earning my admiration; Ellis George plays her very naturally. Her reaction to landing on the moon is wow followed by a jokey attempt at the “one small step” speech. Having been a 15 year old with self-esteem problems trying to impress the adults this is exactly how I would have behaved and it doesn’t come across as forced at all. The moonscape itself looks spectacular, filmed on location at Timanfaya National Park in Spain previously used in the 1984 Doctor Who serial Planet of Fire as the planet Sarn hence the working title Return to Sarn. More often than not Doctor Who is in tight corridors, inside, or on the streets of some British city. The Welsh quarries would often get a thorough working out as generic alien planet stand in, in this case though by going on location and filming in a volcanic natural park they are able to create a viable moonscape with the help of a few filters. The quality of the light is truly amazing and it shows what a good lighting designer and a qualified cinematographer can do.
Lundvick gives us a tidy bit of exposition, a Mexican mining survey went to the moon. They lost contact and that’s when the problems started. Finding the Mexcian mining base the thing is covered in what appears to be cobwebs which (oddly) aside from an exclamation of shock from Clara it’s pretty much ignored. Searching the base and restoring power they find the Mexican mining survey found no minerals on the moon what so ever! Suddenly the power starts to fail and a skittering comes from down the hall. A spider like thing enters the room where the Doctor, Lundvick, Clara and Courtney are trying to figure out what’s going on. They realize the creature reacts to motion and try to sneak out when all of a sudden the gravity disappears stranding Courtney in the middle of the room floating. The spider thing lurches for Courtney when she sprays it with the cleaning product, it screams and bubbles up and melts, it would appear that this anti-bacterial cleaning solution is deadly to the beast because it would appear it is a macro-bacterial life form!
The first couple of acts of this episode are intense really calling back to the horror vibe from late 70s and early 80s Doctor Who. There are corpses of humans in webbing lurching out of the dark, people getting their heads crushed by spider things, it’s all truly horrifying and pitch perfect. This entire season from the Anniversary special forward has been one long love letter to vintage Who.
And this is where it starts to come apart for him and Clara, he refuses to answer, he explains about fixed points and that he can’t see some moments in time. They aren’t clear, these are focal points where giant decisions that change the course of history occur and these things are in flux. Clara’s frustration with the Doctor is clear on her face, she is not enjoying this anymore but more importantly she’s not sure the Doctor really cares, at least not like he used to.
Finding the cracks in the moon full of these spider monsters the Doctor discovers a pool of amniotic fluid ignoring their please jumping in to a canyon leaving Clara with Lundvick to carry the slack. Once again we come back to the line “you’re good at making excuses” and as time wears on these excuses seem more tired and less convincing. The Doctor insists he’ll be back but the way Clara confirms this seems like she’s not so sure any more though this leads to some cute asides about Tumblr and the Doctor’s not being a fan of having pictures of himself on the internet.
Now comes the part in the episode where the Doctor begins to preach, once again babbling with purpose. The moon as it turns out is an egg and how Humanity handles this determines their future as a species and once again, he takes off. Ditching Courtney and Clara he explains this is not his task, he’s not able to make this decision this is one that belongs to humanity and it’s not right for him to force change on them. Clara, at this point, is shattered arguing that he’s done it before why not this time. He returns to the argument of fixed points and leaves them there with a pile of bombs and an astronaut who wants to blow them out of space. Making an impassioned plea to humanity knowing the only way they’ll be able to communicate is using their lights to signal Clara asks what they should do and here we are back at the start of the episode.
Lundvick is sure the debris from the egg hatching would wipe out life on earth, Clara is not so sure insisting that there’s a chance that the debris would break up. Courtney makes the plea that this is an innocent creature and should be given a chance to live and breathe because it’s special (echoes from earlier in the episode).
In the end the time ticks down and eventually in the last few minutes all of humanity has decided kill it, burn it, destroy it, because they are more interested in self-preservation than doing the right thing. What’s one innocent life compared to the lives of a planet? It would appear that Courtney and Clara are going to go along with it but at the last moment they stop the bomb hitting the abort button preventing Lundvick from destroying the moon and the creature.
As soon as they do this the Doctor returns ushering them back to earth to watch the creature hatch and flies away. Clara demands to know what the Doctor knew, there’s a moment of stillness before he starts rattling off how this was the defining moment. In this moment humanity looked up and saw not something to be afraid of but a beautiful and special thing that was unique and they saw the skies with wonder and this was the birth of the human journey in to the stars. From this moment their heavens spanning empire was born and he felt this was something they had to do on their own and this was because of Courtney and in some ways it appears as an attempt to make her feel special.
Returning Courtney Clara sends her off to class and then rounds on the Doctor, she has had it, seeing what Danny saw in a matter of minutes for the first time she sees his imperiousness, his condescension, and his disrespect. The Doctor is trying very hard to be a good man, his intentions were quite noble, this was a special moment in the history of humanity and if he made the choice it would cheapen it for the species. This had to be theirs, but he did this putting the life of a child at risk and lying and manipulating the people who trusted him most. Leaving the TARDIS Clara tells him to leave her alone and in the last few moments of the show you see her ranting to Danny about the Doctor how she felt hurt and betrayed and he says he’s seen a similar look on his face in the past when it came to the army but deep down she’s not done with him yet. Clara doesn’t understand and Danny says she cares enough to be angry, you’re never done with anything when you care enough to be angry.
We’re here in the home stretch of the series with some of the tightest and best acted episodes of the new series to date. We aren’t clouded by romance or flirty hair and cheekbones we are getting stories driven by deep introspective moments and shadows of pure terror. This is classic Who at its best, Capaldi is brilliant he is able to emote more in subtle facial expressions than Smith, Tennant or Eccleston could emote in an entire soliloquy and we see a Doctor who is really REALLY trying but just doesn’t understand what he does has an impact and doesn’t really understand humans at all beyond the fact he loves them. Coleman as well is putting in a master performance, her rage and frustration seems so genuine and so relatable, she feels betrayed by a person she trusted but what hurts even more is the reason is a patronizing one that when he “respects” her she feels more cheapened then when he makes fun of her and she drives home a point that is seldom made to the Doctor, he may not be human but he’s an Earthling, he’s spent more years on earth than most humans ever will and he has a responsibility. Interestingly though, which is never quite laid bare, Clara appears to have the same kind of relationship with Courtney. She is trying to be "chums" which Courtney wants none of and at times seems to speak down to her without even really knowing.
Once again we come back to the themes of guilt and responsibility, it will be interesting, but I can certainly say I’m all aboard for the next episode!