Thoughts on Kill the Moon

So, uh, this latest Doctor Who episode has been a bit controversial, hasn’t it? Much of that controversy seems to fall into three camps:

  • The episode is taking a strong anti-abortion, misogynistic stance.
  • The episode is pro-choice, and emphasizing that pro-choice means pro-choice, in favor of people having options and making their own decisions.
  • The episode isn’t about abortion at all and people are getting upset over nothing. As in most debates, this seems to be the angriest group.

My own view? I think it comes down to how you choose to read a particular relationship that can be taken either way. We’ve got the creature hatching, the people of Earth, and the three women with the bomb, and they can be read at least three different ways. First, the creature hatching could be just another unknown alien who is wrongly feared and turns out to be harmless if left alone, putting the people of Earth in their usual position as angry xenophobes and the women with the bomb in the position of the Doctor and companions, advocating an ethos of wonder and life and all that good stuff–as usual, with one rejecting and having to be taught by the others. There are a couple of arguments for this read, which is the read in which the episode is not about abortion: first, that the alien is in the process of being born, and abortions do not normally occur during labor, and second that the creature is hatching from an egg, which means there is nobody (more accurately, no body) whose autonomy is being violated by its presence. The abortion read is thus an unfortunate implication in an episode that’s really about pretty much the same things as “The Beast Below” or any of umpteen other stories in Doctor Who‘s run.

However, there are counterarguments to both the arguments I just mentioned. First, late-term abortions are performed when the pregnancy is life-threatening, and there is a risk that the destruction of the Moon will cause serious damage to the Earth and its people, so neither of the arguments I cited in the previous paragraph necessarily hold. This leads to the second read, in which the creature is a fetus being incubated by the Earth, putting the people of Earth collectively in the position of its mother. They choose to abort, and are overruled by Clara, Courtney, and the scientist (was she even named? I never caught it if she was), who act in the position of the anti-abortion government and force the Earth to carry through the risky and difficult labor. The strongest support for this position are Courtney’s repeated declaration “It’s a baby!” and refusal to even consider killing it as an option, and Clara’s teary rejection of being given a choice as patronizing. Read this way, the episode is pretty clearly repeating the misogynistic arguments of anti-choicers, denying the agency and autonomy of the collective mother in favor of the moral judgment of a tiny minority.

But there are arguments against this reading, too, the biggest being that the first read makes both Clara’s final confrontation with the Doctor and her ensuing conversation with Danny afterthoughts, while the second badly misunderstands what Clara is saying in that confrontation–she’s not angry that the Doctor left her to make a choice on her own, she’s angry about him denying her information that would have been useful in making her choice and his general condescending attitude. Which brings us to the third way to understand the relationship between the three players: to see the hatching creature as a fetus threatening the well-being of the women on the moon, and the people of Earth as voters in a democratic government that nonetheless lacks the moral authority to tell those three women what to do in regards to a choice that impacts them directly. In this read, the episode is emphatically pro-choice, as it says not even a popular vote with (note the visual pun) one hundred percent turnout can legitimately tell a person what to do when their bodily autonomy is on the line.

And I do think this is the strongest reading, for a number of reasons. One is that visual pun, and another that shows up a bit later: the button Clara and Courtney press to cancel the bombing is, as indicated by the bombs’ display, the ABORT command. Further, the women standing around the bomb fall rather neatly into a couple of archetypes involving trios–and yes, I know I’ve been rather hard on archetypal readings in the past, but that’s because I find they are often used in constraining and limiting ways; I’m all for making characters serve as multiple contradictory archetypes simultaneously or otherwise using them in ways that multiply, rather than restrict, available readings.

One way to read the trio of women is as representing Women with the tired old “triple goddess” routine. They slide quite neatly into the roles: Courtney is a child, and hence the Maiden; Clara is the next-oldest and takes care of children for a living and the possibility that she has children on Earth in 2049 is floated, making her the Mother; the scientist is the oldest of them, starting to show wrinkles, and emphatically rejects the notion of having children, making her the Crone. It’s a reductive and excessively reproductive way of defining Women, but perhaps a reproductive approach is not entirely inappropriate when discussing reproductive rights.

Contradicting and coexisting with that read is one in which they represent a single woman via Freudian nonsense: “disruptive influence” Courtney serving as the id, the scientist–professionally rational and the one endorsing going with the judgment of society as a whole–as the superego, and Clara mediating between them as the ego. Again, a silly way to construct a person, but still a read reasonably well supported by the episode. In this read it’s interesting that the “It’s a baby!” attitude is associated with the unreasoning, over-emotional aspect, while “I fail to see the moral dilemma” is associated with the most rational aspect. This is pretty accurate where the abortion debate is concerned. Admittedly, the waters are somewhat muddied by Clara’s decision not to destroy the creature, but again, that’s because in this read the episode is attempting to navigate the nuance between being pro-choice and rejecting the anti-choice narrative that pro-choice activists are genocidal fetus-haters.

Ultimately, though, all three of these readings seem reasonable and supported by the text, as I’m sure are a multitude of others. This is a justified controversy, and I think a good one, as it seems likely to, in among the usual fractious debates, produce some conversations worth having.

In the Heart and Mind of the Universe, There Is a Reason

Doctor Who Series 3, episode 2, “The Shakespeare Code,” poses serious issues for a long-time, committed and discerning fan such as myself. On the one hand, as a fan I very much want it to be good, or at least to find something to enjoy in it. On the other, as a person whose taste has been shaped by past experience of works of this type, it would dishonor the memory of my favorites to not recognize when something fails to live up to them.

And look, I’m no purist. I understand that art requires trying new things, that it is necessary to experiment. At the same time, it is the nature of experimentation that most attempts fail to accomplish their goals–indeed, that is the point, to try out things that might or might not succeed and discard the ones that do not. If we pretend that a failed experiment is not a failure, then we have missed the point of experimentation. True, it is just as bad to fail to recognize something good just because it’s unfamiliar, but I don’t think that’s the issue here. I’ve had and enjoyed mint ice cream with peanut-butter sauce and raspberries; it takes some getting used to, but once you understand what it’s doing, it’s actually quite delicious.

But I’m sorry, try as I might I cannot figure out how I’m supposed to enjoy or even appreciate this. This goes beyond experimentation or even challenging our expectations; I have to seriously question the judgment of the people responsible for making it. Have they ever even eaten ice cream? Do they know what it is?

Consider: Even the simplest hot fudge sundae is a study in delicious contrasts. Thick, sticky sauce, so dark a brown it’s nearly black, dribbling down the sides of a creamy mound of bright white ice cream. Hot, bittersweet, rich chocolate shares mouthspace with cold, sweet, refreshing vanilla. But here we have no such contrasts–quite the opposite, as the episode takes pains to make the 16th century as familiar an experience for modern-day Martha as possible, from the Doctor’s speech early in the episode comparing people on the street to their 21st-century equivalents, to the depiction of William Shakespeare as a pop-cultural icon.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with challenging definitions in art, at least in principle. Can you make a sundae without ice cream? Well, frozen yogurt seems like a reasonable substitute. Maybe sherbet, perhaps even a sorbet, as long as they have toppings. But would a bowl of chocolate sauce and sprinkles be a sundae? Is it still a sundae after the ice cream has melted? Those seem like reasonable avenues for exploration.

But “The Shakespeare Code” isn’t even edible! You might be able to make the case that 44 minutes of sitting, spoon in hand, as frustration mounts is an artistic experience of some sort, but it certainly isn’t an ice cream sundae by any stretch of the definition I can imagine!

Like I said, it makes me seriously question the judgment of the BBC. I get that Doctor Who is one of their longest-running properties, and maybe they’re concerned about getting stale, but it got to be so long-running because of fan loyalty. Now, I don’t want to be one of those “entitled” fans here; I get that the BBC owes me nothing, but at the same time I don’t owe them anything, either. It’s not a matter of owing something, but of cause and effect: if you want to retain your fans, you have to give them something to like. And people love ice cream! It’s been one of the most popular desserts for decades, and for good reason. So you can’t just go around, presenting something that is blatantly not at all an ice cream sundae, and expect to retain viewers!

This is typical Davies, and sadly, I can say with some authority (having seen the entirety of the new series to date) that Moffat does no better. They both seem utterly determined to provide viewers with no ice cream whatsoever–indeed, ice cream is barely even mentioned anywhere in their runs! It makes me seriously question why I continue to bother watching—I don’t know who they think they’re making this series for, but it’s obviously not ice cream aficionados any more.

If it ever even was.