First, Kill the Moon. No, wait, first, what do I mean by “genre competition” and why in the world would anything like that matter? So let’s go back and review what’s already been established via TARDIS Eruditorum. Most readers here should be familiar with the term “narrative substitution,” which is what happens when we’re toodling along, all genre-savvy and boned up on TV Tropes, and suddenly the rug is pulled out from under us and the story we think we’re watching turns into something else.
Phil coined the phrase in his review of A Good Man Goes to War, where the “male revenge for his hurt woman” story trope is rejected for something quite different – instead, it turns into a story of Grace, which is delivered not by the Doctor, but by River Song. Or we might look at the “epic season finale” of The Pandorica Opens and how the fulfilled narrative collapse is supplanted by a small, intimate story of one family.
What we get in Kill the Moon is something similar, but it is structurally different, not to mention ramped up to 11. Rather than giving us one story, and then substituting it with something else, Kill the Moon cycles through a variety of genre tropes – especially genre tropes familiar to Doctor Who – and then puts them in competition against each other to see which will prevail. Which ultimately ends up being a statement of values, or perhaps a hierarchy of values, for the genres themselves have certain values implicitly coded into them from the beginning. To top it all off, the story then comments on this.
We should have seen coming from the cold open, which features Clara talking to us through our TV monitors. Of course within the story itself she’s talking to our fictional counterparts on Earth, but for our purposes that doesn’t matter – simply addressing the camera directly suffices in this day and age to imply a metafictional component. And metafiction, we should point out, as is the case with every kind of genre, carries with it certain assumptions and values. Which we’ll get to later. I would like to point out, though, that there’s another layer to this convention within Doctor Who itself, namely that it’s an invocation of the Second Doctor, who was often peering out of television monitors, always on the verge of breaching the veil between fiction and reality.
So let’s go through Kill the Moon’s various genre invocations, and what those imply both in terms of themselves and within Doctor Who.
After the credits we begin at Coal Hill (love the alchemical implication of the nigredo stage of the Great Work in the name of that school) where Clara talks to the Doctor about Courtney. Courtney, who’s already in the TARDIS, ready to go on an adventure, armed with motion-sickness wristbands and a bottle of disinfectant in case she still gets sick. In these opening moments, then, we have an invocation of Children’s Television. A children’s moral is laid out – every one is special; no one is nothing – and the kind of humor we get is based on bodily functions (the potential of throwing up). And, of course, the narrative has placed a child at its center.
We’re in the territory of Hartnell’s era here, with its early mandate to provide education to children, typically fulfilled through the historical stories and basic science lessons. Whether those tactics actually edify children is beside the point – the intent is to be socially responsible, on a broad scale (and as such qualifies as “alchemy” under our definition of “social material progress”). The values implicit in the genre are those of social responsibility.
So when Kill the Moon puts us in a space shuttle landing on the moon in the year 2049, it makes for an easy transition, especially when the primary question of the narrative becomes ascertaining the reason behind the increase in the Moon’s gravity. We’ve switched to the genre of science fiction. Now the concerns are of space flight, scientific principles, and technology (as exemplified by all those nuclear bombs). It makes sense, because science is one of those subjects that fulfills the mandate of “education” – at least in the Hartnell years.
It’s not just the subject matter that informs us that we’re now in a science-fiction story. Paul Wilmshurst, the director of Kill the Moon, does a brilliant job of conveying that sense through a variety of means. We get a moonscape that’s stark and barren. The set and costume design isn’t just functional – it’s cold, as reflected by the lighting and the number of long camera shots, which create a sense of emotional distance. The astronaut suits are like shells, representative of their wearers calculating and serious demeanor. This isn’t just science fiction, it’s hard science fiction.
Again, there are implicit values here. This conception of science is detached, “objective,” concerned creating a map for the territory of the world around us (as opposed to within us). Beyond that, though, science and technology embody rationalist values, motivated by the specific belief that the world makes sense and we can gain systematic knowledge of it, and materialist values, specifically through a praxis of science designed to give us power and control over the world around us. Which is great when we want to cure polio, not so great with the invention of nuclear bombs, and useless when it comes to questions of wisdom versus information. (And to be clear, most scientists do not actively adhere to such a philosophy – these are the values of the genre, not real people.)
In Doctor Who terms, I’m inclined to nod in the direction of the Third Doctor here, the “scientific advisor” who has to deal with a group of people with militaristic inclinations – they may be astronauts, but they’re armed with nuclear bombs… though they have environmental concerns. Also, though, there’s a bit of a metafictional aspect to this whole setup that’s quietly lurking in the background: we can see that the gravity in these shots isn’t at all like what we’ve seen on the actual Moon, or in SF like 2001: A Space Odyssey for that matter. It’s very easy to surmise that the “problem” of the Moon’s gravity increasing is one motivated by the production concerns of the storytellers.
Notice that at this point in the story Courtney is still quite a willing participant; the genres of “children’s television” and “science fiction” as conceived are indeed compatible. That will change after the next genre-switch: when they “Hinchcliffe the hell” out of Kill the Moon and make it a 4th Doctor story. Now we get an invocation of horror. And what an invocation it is. We go from a brightly lit moonscape, all black and white, to a poorly lit claustrophobic environment drenched in spider webs. It’s here that we get dead bodies, and monsters, and screams.
The concerns of the horror genre are of course quite different from science fiction. In some respects they’re almost diametrically opposed. Horror seeks first and foremost to elicit a visceral response. Which means it’s supposed to operate at a pre-rational level, which is to say at the level of our emotions, and specifically negative emotions – fear, disgust, loathing, even anger. Not that horror can’t also be intellectual – but this isn’t its defining feature. It isn’t what makes horror, well, horror. And so in horror we also often get a variety of anti-rational tropes – monsters and the supernatural, as well as encroaching upon cultural taboos and darkness.
In Kill the Moon it’s not just the aesthetic that’s overwhelmed by horror tropes. It’s here that the “hard SF” tropes also begin getting dismantled. The spiders are described as unicellular, despite obviously not being such – the “proof” is only generated by the necessity of the plot, by Courtney’s dispatching of one by an anti-germ disinfectant. Likewise, the concern with gravity goes haywire – there’s no way Courtney would suddenly levitate because of a shift in gravity, let alone that she would drop upon grasping the Doctor’s yo-yo; this latter action seems entirely symbolic, given the yo-yo is used to explain the problem of gravity in the first place. Interestingly, at this point Courtney wants to abandon the adventure – her children’s TV aesthetic isn’t compatible with horror.
Which, we should point out, is not a statement that the genres of children’s TV and horror aren’t compatible – obviously they are, given so much of Doctor Who’s history. Rather, then, we are seeing the result of an early competition: horror has, for the moment, won out over children’s TV.
It’s also at this point that Clara wants to leave the story as well, but she is roped into staying when the Doctor points out that just because she believes a certain future is preordained doesn’t mean that she isn’t mistaken. She’s operating under the tropes of timey-wimey SF (as opposed to hard SF) and it’s only because she’s made to feel she has a moral obligation to participate that she continues. Keep this in mind.
Because before we get into the tropes of a moral dilemma, we have another genre shift – when the Doctor announces that the amniotic fluid (horror trope) he found on the moon in fact points to the moon being an egg. A moon-dragon egg. Which is an invocation of the Fantasy genre. And specifically, an invocation of Game of Thrones, as “it is known” among the Dothraki that the moon is an egg, as a handmaiden once told Daenerys Targaryen, Mother of Dragons. This is now an 11th Doctor story.
Fantasy is faintly similar to horror – it too makes use of monsters, and the supernatural. It too is largely anti-scientific. But where horror seeks a kind of catharsis through the overloading of negative emotions, fantasy (faery-stories) is motivated by a different set of values. Fantasy tends to posit a very different world from ours, not just one haunted by a lurking chthonic horror, but often an entirely different universe altogether, through which (via metaphor) we can gain a fresh understanding of our own mundane world. Fantasy is a means of escape, and tends to fall on the side of Hope, of Triumph, and thus is optimistic rather than pessimistic.
But what of the Doctor’s departure? Very manipulative. Very 7th Doctor. Not really a 2nd Doctor invocation any more. But, whatever.
The Doctor scuppers off as Courtney rejoins the group, and now the sides of the competition are laid bare. Lundvik takes the side of Hard SF and Horror. Courtney takes the side of Children’s TV and Fantasy. This tag-team wrestling match is presented to Clara in the form of a moral dilemma. Her response to is to go meta with it. She gives the audience the opportunity to weigh in (leave your lights on turn them off) speaking to us directly through our TV sets, bringing the story full circle… but with a twist. The earlier shot of Clara was looking right at us, no filter. Here, there’s a bit of interference in the picture, suggesting that we’re seeing her through another TV set. So there are two sides, two audiences. And this is an interesting solution, insofar as it brings back another kind of fiction – metafiction – into the fold, into the competition. Except here the metafiction gets to play referee, which is totally and completely apt.
And when humanity gets the genre wrong, Clara sides with Courtney. Hooray, fantasy and children’s adventure wins out over hard SF and horror. And so a certain set of values prevails over another set of values.
Except really it’s metafiction that wins the competition. Metafiction, of course, is concerned with what it means to tell stories in the first place. It’s about unmasking the fictionality of fiction, unlike the concern of Escape in fantasy. And in so doing, it helps us to recognize the structures of power that are implicit in all storytelling. Which is what Clara does when she confronts the Doctor’s role in all this after Courtney leaves. And in this scene, coupled with her scene with Danny, she weds metafiction (her commentary on it being “cheap” and “patronizing” are very much an instance of self-aware fiction) to straight-up drama. Davies-era stuff.
Human drama, of course, also has its own values. It is concerned primarily with interiority and how that affects our choices. So it values emotions. All of them. And it values people. Not society so much, but the individual. Clara, then, takes another genre and uses it to trump the metafictional conceit presented to her. Because the point of telling stories about stories has no point without consideration for people themselves.
But what of the denouement? Danny talks Clara down. Because deep down, she still wants to stay in relationship with the Doctor. Okay, fine, still drama. But that final scene, the one where she pours a glass of red wine, walks up to the window, pulls aside the veil, and looks at a full moon – yeah, that one. That one is loaded with symbolism. The Moon, of course, was shown in Clara’s eye right at the beginning, suggesting that what’s inside the Moon is inside of Clara, metaphorically speaking. Her outburst to the Doctor, then, is like “breaking the eggshell” of her carefully constructed persona. Letting loose her inner dragon.
Pulling aside the veil, though… that’s terribly symbolic. The “veil” is of course a religious symbol, suggestive of another reality beyond the one available to our ordinary senses. And it was blatantly discussed in Deep Breath. When we get into symbolism, we’re entering yet another genre – one might call it “arthouse.” That simple final scene, it’s all visual imagery and symbolism. The aesthetic of drinking red wine. The veil. The reflection of the moon upon Clara’s window as she looks out. No dialogue. It’s this scene that synthesizes so many of the genres that came earlier, specifically the “victory” of the fantasy genre in union with human drama.
And it’s beautiful.
The Zygon Invasion/Inversion
The new Zygon two-parter follows, in some respects, the kind of genre competition exemplified by Kill the Moon. In some respects. I mean, it’s not a straightforward progression through genres; there are far fewer, and the modes are switching back and forth. But the same kind of narrative substitution is still in play.
First and foremost, the Zygon story flits back and forth between the modes of “political thriller” (which includes “spy movies”) and “horror.” Both genres are fairly easy to identify, and are in fact laid out in the cold open: when Osgood runs inside a building to evade the sound effects of gunfire, only to then have to hide under a desk while a Zygon stalks her and captures her.
So, a little about the modes. When it’s in horror mode, it’s primarily an aesthetic. We get a focus on things grotesque and uncanny. Certainly the underground lair filled with pod people. The poor man who can’t stop himself from “normalizing” and ends up in a hybrid state covered in suckers before he kills himself. The Zygon technology. (The electric wigs, though, are just “weird fiction,” something utterly strange but not, in of themselves, horrific.) Lots of shots bathed in red or darkness – the elevator in the tunnel, and the goo dripping from its control panel.
And just about everyone on the internet has identified the “political thriller” stuff: the Zygon motif stylized like an ISIS flag, the military scenes, Kate snooping around in a New Mexico sheriff’s office, the Doctor flying around on a jet, and hell, just Bonnie’s amazing outfit, that long dark trenchcoat with leather sleeves, oh yeah. But this isn’t just an aesthetic – this mode is largely driving the plot. So this “hybrid” story, if you want to call it that, is much like a Zygon – one kind of story on the outside, and something very different lurking beneath the surface.
As we said before, “horror” is concerned with that stuff lurking deep inside us, those pre-rational negative emotions, taboos, and just what is grotesque about our physical material embodiment. The political thriller, on the other hand, is also concerned with materiality, but it’s specifically concerned with structures of power, of social institutions, and of heady intellectual concepts. Regardless of whatever politics are being trumpeted, the genre itself is still going to be upholding certain kinds of values in terms of how we organize our lives as social beings – just the fact that we do organize our lives with other people, and have to engage in politics. Which makes the political thriller very different from, say, a story that manifestly avoids politics altogether, for even if the thriller is reactionary and designed to uphold the status quo, there’s still an implicit fear that things could change, whereas the apolitical story has already given up.
This dichotomy continues in the second part – the horror stuff being driven by Clara’s dream state (and some really wonderful work with mirrors) while everyone else is converging upon the Dark Archives for the political thriller. But once we get in there, the competition opens up, so to speak. The ground shifts.
First of all, the horror aesthetic is replaced by something distinctly alchemical. The boxes are presented as opposites, one Red, one Blue, calling on a color-coding of dichotomy that’s been especially prevalent in the Moffat era. And meanwhile the visible Zygons are reduced to simply standing guard. In the background. The boxes themselves bear the Circle in the Square motif. This comes to us from Masonry, and symbolizes the union of the Divine in the Material Body. The alchemical “great work” is all about synthesis, of bringing together opposites and by so doing transcending the limits of duality altogether. And this occurs primarily at the interior level, in our psyches. So it’s no surprise that the big scene becomes focused on Bonnie’s interiority.
So, of course, alchemy has its own intrinsic values. It is concerned with the interior. But not just negative emotions, like horror, but all emotions, especially when they’re in contradiction. Alchemy is about answering the question “Who are you?” and realizing that the answer is, must be, in some respect, “No one.”
At the same time that horror is transformed into alchemy, the dynamics of the political thriller at the surface level of the plot become subsumed by the genre of “game shows,” of all things, which some of you might have already gleaned from certain threads at Gallifrey Base. We should note that the New Mexico town of Truth or Consequences actually renamed itself as part of the eponymous game-show’s challenge. The game show itself was rather banal – contestants tried to answer quiz-show questions, with hardly any time at all, mostly to put them in position of then enacting the “consequences,” like some absurd reality show contestant. Except the point was actually to show how brave, and funny, and resourceful people are. And there’d be prizes, especially for families with soldiers overseas, who were often reunited on the show itself. Just like that Church scene in the first episode.
So we get Kate and Bonnie positioned at the two boxes, each with two buttons to press, but with much different stakes than a few nice prizes. They are the contestants. They have to answer questions, mostly about what it is that they actually want. And this informs what consequences they would actually be willing to face. The game show is actually a nice distillation of the political thriller – they’re both ultimately about what people want, at a material level, and how our needs and desires are often contradictory, at odds to each other. Politics and game shows, they’re both about competition, and how to divvy up the goods.
But this version of a game show isn’t really a game show at all, despite many of the Doctor’s emcee mannerisms. This is really an act of alchemy. For the boxes are in fact the same. They are empty. There is no dichotomy. It was all in their minds. And Bonnie’s triumph is likewise alchemical, as she becomes another Osgood who is manifestly a union of opposites, namely Human and Zygon. This, of course, is a kind of ego-death. She is no longer Bonnie.
And this is kind of presaged by the icon lurking in the background of this scene. It’s the Mire helmet that Ashildr wore. That killed her. And that ultimately transformed her identity. This helmet, it was used to tell a story. Now it’s in the Black Archive, in the same room that a certain Vortex Manipulator once resided. It’s bathed in Red, the color of the rubedo stage, the final stage of the Great Work; Ashildr was bathed in Red as she told her story of a Dragon to the invading Mire.
So the competition is ultimately a rout on the part of Alchemy. What prevails is our ability to transform ourselves by telling new stories, about ourselves, and our place in the world. And there’s tremendous power in this. This ability to step into a new reality is borne, I think, from our storytelling. To refashion ourselves, possibly because the “self” is an illusion, and so can be changed according to deeper values than the maintenance of an ego.
So who are you?