Let’s play the Kill the Moon game again and put aside the question of public opinion, not look at comments, and just go straight out. Not because I’m about to go on another rave about how this is a transcendent piece of Doctor Who, although it basically is. You can basically fairly accuse it of being Kill the Moon as if it were the Olympic Opening Ceremony, and that’s a fair criticism, so, spoilers, I’m going to put it in second. Well, though you can fairly accuse Kill the Moon of being a pro-life parable. So I guess in the end it goes down to the aesthetics of the thing, and personal preference. I think the ending of Kill the Moon is paced a bit better. So still second, but damn, that’s close.
But the real reason I’m putting public opinion aside is that this is, as many thought possible, the Blake episode. And I should set that reading up quickly, because it’s tremendously important to the episode and how I’m going to read it. If you’re a Blake geek, this is a hell of a thing. So. The Doctor suggests that the forest comes from the manipulation of time, and specifically mentions the date 1795. That is the year Blake began printing the combined volume Songs of Innocence and of Experience, from which his famed poem “The Tyger” emerges. This is the poem the episode’s title is taken from, and the tacit reason that the Doctor, Clara, and Maebh are menaced by a tiger.
This connection is reinforced by Maebh’s description of seeing and hearing “ideas” flying around her, a description that consciously evokes Blake’s biography. Blake, and there’s not really another way to put this, had visions. These visions directly inspired and shaped his work, which was often an attempt to express the revelations he experienced. His famed miniature The Ghost of a Flea is, for instance, an illustration of a literal ghost he claimed to see. There is very little reason to think Blake was a charlatan in this regard. Certainly if he was, his act was terribly ineffectual. He lived in poverty his whole life, stubbornly clinging to his visionary art despite clearly being talented enough to fashion a career if only he were more disciplined. If he was a charlatan, the adaptability needed to craft so convincing an act failed him in every other aspect of his life. No, any reckoning of William Blake as a great artist and writer must accept up front – his art was the product of visions. Numerous hypotheses exist as to the nature of these visions, but they genuinely motivated his work.
So when Maebh Arden stands within a forest from 1795, and says she sees ideas, she is in explicit communion with whatever strange source was tapped to produce Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion and America a Prophecy. She communes with the hand that dared seize the fire. This is a story about the visions that William Blake saw – visions that come from some older, stranger eternity. One we are told is the very mythic past of Britain – the image of the dark forest, the savage unknown that lurks beneath the surface of this world, and will emerge and cover over our bones when our time is done. This is Albion. This is Faerie. This is the central, sacred myth. The national character.
And it’s expressed in a vision of childhood that is not quite unreconstructed innocence, but is nevertheless fundamentally hopeful – the same one represented by Courtney. A bunch of fuckup kids we lie to and tell they’re gifted and talented when in fact they’re the problem cases. The thick and the violent and the just plain broken. Redeemed by the classic spirit of every British children’s story ever, and turned to wonders who save the world. Innocence and Experience. Much like the “sun that creates and the sun that destroys,” or the marriage of heaven to hell. Jane’s going to have a field day with this.
The Doctor, Clara, and Danny are all clearly themselves, and they do things that advance the plot, but the plot is essentially that of Warrior’s Gate – one in which the answer is to simply do nothing. Just be. Fear less, trust more.
It is here my quibble comes up. Much as with Kill the Moon, there’s a use of the medium to celebrate its own magical power. It’s television as ritual – art as magic. A textbook example of what Moore and Morrison are talking about, even if it wasn’t actually conceived of in terms of that explicit philosophy. This is a spell. When it ends, we will wake up and forget it ever happened, but it will still effect us, in our dreams. The magical forest that lurks beneath the world reached out and saved us, and for one moment we got to commune with its dark and wondrous beauty. Much like we collectively used the moon to give birth to the possibility of utopia by leaving our lights on so Tinkerbell would live a few weeks ago.
Except that Kill the Moon was a spell telling us to wake up. To fight, and reclaim our utopias, by being brave and standing up for the beautiful and the strange no matter how many people tell us we are wrong. And this is a spell telling us to trust the world, which is a terribly dangerous thing to say when we are on the brink of choking it to death, and of choking ourselves to death.
This is, of course, merely a difference of aesthetics. And it’s a tension that’s always implicit in Doctor Who, which can never be pure and Innocent, and is always tainted by Experience. You can make plenty of criticisms of Kill the Moon, and it’s possible that I’d have liked this one more if it had aired first. Certainly this has loads of good politics. The angry snarl against reflexive and unthinking use of psychiatric meds, and against pathologizing people is beautiful. The fact that Maebh’s visions are both legitimate in the sense that she really does talk to the trees and legitimate in that they are products of her actual and real trauma is perfect.
But at the end of the day, this is a story that tells us not to medicate the genius out of William Blake, and Kill the Moon is a story that tells us to be William Blake and fly angrily against the entirety of our times, radically embracing the glimmering lights on the other side of the veil between here and faerie. One must go above the other. I pick Kill the Moon.
- Good lord, though, this is brilliant.
- The show has gotten so very, very adept at advancing character development in a tangible way each episode. It actually, notably, hasn’t meant a ton of coordination among scripts. Instead, there’s just been an orderly breakdown of “pick up Clara’s life here and put it down here” selected for each script and given to the writers. One is reminded of Moffat’s grousing that nobody told him that Age of Steel ended with Rose and Mickey pissed at each other, and if they had he’d have written Girl in the Fireplace differently. It looks like his approach to getting a season arc this year has simply been to make sure everybody is briefed expressly on where the characters are meant to go. It’s worked marvelously – to a “this is clearly the way to do it for the foreseeable future” extent. Come up with a twelve-step arc for your main characters, give one step to each writer, and tell them to write a Doctor Who story around it.
- This season has very much retained the “movie poster” idea of self-contained, high concept stories. A very “television as pop music” version of “here’s our latest hit single.” It’s very WicDiv. This approach appears to pay off very well with new writers – ones who are eager to do “here’s my big definitive statement on Doctor Who” stories. Even Jamie Matheson, whose ideas have been among the most modest of the series (and remembering that the first half was largely turned over to letting Peter Capaldi make his big definitive statements on classic types of Doctor Who stories), has clearly thrived on the fun of doing definitive takes on things.
- And this really combines those approaches to a satisfying degree. It’s simultaneously a huge, definitive Statement of an episode – the most blatant and comprehensive take on a particular vision of Doctor Who ever attempted – and a satisfying exploration of the character interactions between this particular version of the Doctor, Clara the control freak who’s a little too good at being the children’s book heroine, and Danny the good man who really did go to war. It’s been thought through politically, visually, aesthetically, in terms of genre, in terms of British history; this is a sleekly ornate piece of thematic unity that I am going to get to have a blast with when I do a TARDIS Eruditorum on it. It’s a gonzo entry waiting to happen. It’s also a lovely character piece.
- I wonder what will annoy people more. The moon being an egg, or the science in this.
- You know what would have improved this episode for me? A little more acknowledgment of the possibility that one day the trees won’t save us. A reminder at the end that the Doctor’s speeches about catastrophe were true, and that there absolutely is an end for the age of man on this planet, and we don’t actually know when it is. If it had left that edge to things even as it went for its happy utopian resolution, it would have supplanted The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang as my all-time favorite Doctor Who story. Instead, it’s a 10/10, but with a touch of “respect instead of love” for me.
- I love the scene of Clara sending the Doctor off and accepting her fate, because it’s played completely straight, despite the fact that we know it’s not actually going to play out. The believability of the scene is precisely zero, but it’s nevertheless such an iconic, perfect Doctor/Clara moment that it doesn’t matter. All that was missing was the line “run, you clever boy, and remember me.”
- You know, thinking about it… I actually think I liked Listen more than this too.
- So, rankings. In fact, let’s freshen things up a bit, and rank off the top of my head, if I were to rewatch an episode right now, which one I’d choose, in ranked order.
- Kill the Moon
- In the Forest of the Night
- The Caretaker
- Mummy on the Orient Express
- Deep Breath
- Into the Dalek
- Time Heist
- Robot of Sherwood