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Elizabeth Sandifer

Elizabeth Sandifer created Eruditorum Press. She’s not really sure why she did that, and she apologizes for the inconvenience. She currently writes Last War in Albion, a history of the magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. She used to write TARDIS Eruditorum, a history of Britain told through the lens of a ropey sci-fi series. She also wrote Neoreaction a Basilisk, writes comics these days, and has ADHD so will probably just randomly write some other shit sooner or later. Support Elizabeth on Patreon.


  1. David Anderson
    May 14, 2018 @ 9:55 am

    The only other companions who would think about killing the moon are male or military or both. Or teachers at Coal Hill.


  2. mx_mond
    May 14, 2018 @ 10:10 am

    Thank you for this. Between mentions of Andrea Long Chu, explorations of the Moon’s symbolism, and jokes about the moon being an egg, this is everything I hoped this post would be.

    As for the episode. When I watched it, the single vision of utopian future as space exploration obscured the deeper symbolical readings. And it bugged me that humanity can become worthy on the future by choosing unknown but not just in a situation of a lack of evidence that this is a good choice, but in a situation where all the evidence seems to point to that choice being wrong.

    But then I started thinking of this story in terms of post-humanism and that elevated in immensely.

    Kill the Moon (along with In the Forest of the Night) might be one of the most radical post-humanist stories in New Who, and is the most radical in the tradition started by The Beast Below and ended (for now) with Thin Ice. In all those stories humanity is faced with a choice whether to kill/continue to exploit another living being or liberate it and risk the death of a lot of people/ the whole planet. Thin Ice doesn’t seem radical because it’s smaller scale; while in TBB Amy deduces that the Space Whale will help humanity based on its similarities to the Doctor.

    In Kill the Moon, humanity can either decide that its continued existence is the most important thing that trumps the life of the moon dragon, or it can risk its own extinction by relinquishing their central position and simply letting nature take its course. This makes humans not just survive, but become worthy of survival.

    I also like how the episode shows how difficult it is to let nature take its course. By the time of the choice, the bomb is activated. All the human systems run on, depending on the assumption that humanity’s needs are the most important. It takes a lot of effort to say “no”, that’s not how it should be.

    This is also an important episode in terms of Clara’s initiation into being a Doctor. After discovering the Doctor’s modus operandi in Deep Breath, here she has to come face to face with what it truly means to be a Doctor: making the right choices even when it’s overwhelmingly hard. This is her first ride without the steering wheels, so no wonder she blows up at the Doctor (in another scene that I now see as wonderfully spiky and difficult). But at the same time it’s important to note that she deals with the situation very well. She’s absolutely capable of being a Doctor.


    • Aylwin
      May 14, 2018 @ 12:08 pm

      Of course, it’s not just the extinction of humanity which is an effective certainty if the moon hatches (though that certainty is blurred here by all the bad science, and nonsensical arguments of the “I knew that eggs are not bombs. I know they don’t usually destroy their nests” sort), but at least the vast majority of other species on the planet. That’s an awful lot of life and variety to weigh against just one organism. “But it’s so much bigger!” doesn’t add up to much of a moral argument. Even if you ignore all that other life and look only at the human toll, in moral terms it makes far less sense to let the giant space damselfly live and go about its business than any rabid dog, plague rat, malarial mosquito or spree-killing human, yet few enough people would justify intervening to defend those against those who would kill them, whether or not they felt comfortable about doing the deed themselves.

      And as you say, in this trolley problem it is a matter of positively intervening to stop the bombs rather than of anyone having to pull a trigger. Indeed, the force of that killing-it-as-default and not-killing-it-as-intervention setup is redoubled by the fact that the one person present who actually belongs here, Lundvik, is all in favour of the killing, as are the majority below, in so far as their views are expressed by the “vote”. Only the time-travellers, intervening from outside the context of this problem, are discernibly against it. That arguably complicates the idea that the action taken amounts to humanity as it is at that time showing itself “worthy”, though the story itself does not really treat their separation in time as making Clara and Courtney outsiders. Though, again, whether or not they belong to the population in question may not matter so much, given that if this reflects positively on humanity, it can only do so as an indication of the potential scope of its behaviour as manifested in individuals, rather than its normal behaviour in aggregate. Like the city being spared if one just person can be found in it, as in Jeremiah 5:1, if I may go all biblical for a moment.

      Anyway, getting back to my original point, there is no rational moral case for saving the moon-thing that really stands up. What tells in favour of that is an irrational and essentially aesthetic impulse. It’s about the symbolism of the act of killing rather than its content – “Of course, it won’t be very pretty. You’d have an enormous corpse floating in the sky.” It’s aesthetics over ethics, or aesthetics as the determining force in ethics. Given Elizabeth’s views on such matters, that may play some part in how the story resonates so strongly with her (though obviously that sort of inferential dissection of someone else’s reactions is impertinent, even when not unkindly meant, so I am probably being a pillock here).


      • Aylwin
        May 14, 2018 @ 12:42 pm

        Incidentally, just to make a bid to find the tiniest, anorakiest, most there-is-no-continuity-in-Doctor-Whoable nit it is possible to pick from Kill the Moon, “this must be the biggest life in the universe” is an odd suggestion coming from someone who has met (and killed?) the living gas-giant in The Rings of Akhaten.


        • liminal fruitbat
          May 14, 2018 @ 1:02 pm

          You could, but two replies could be a) he killed Akhaten, so the dragon’s moved up a slot; b) Rings of Akhaten happened way in the past and Akhaten’s species are extinct.

          On the other hand, if you consider physical size to be a rather uninteresting definition of “bigger”, then the Osirians, Eternals, Guardians, the Devil, and the Doctor himself might outclass the dragon.


          • Aylwin
            May 14, 2018 @ 1:26 pm

            I know, but having seen one creature like that, one might reasonably imagine that there could be other things like it out there. And I was talking only about things Clara definitely knows about – if we were going for anything ever seen in Doctor Who, the sentient sun in 42 would trump them both, and raise no chronological problems.

            Anyway, i was basically joking.

      • Aylwin
        May 14, 2018 @ 2:30 pm

        Nervous clarification of the above impertinence to our hostess: this is in no way meant to imply any degree of invalidity or incompleteness in your stated views on the story or reasons for them. It just seems like another point of harmony with your general outlook.


      • Kat
        May 14, 2018 @ 3:31 pm

        “This is her first ride without the steering wheels, so no wonder she blows up at the Doctor (in another scene that I now see as wonderfully spiky and difficult). But at the same time it’s important to note that she deals with the situation very well. She’s absolutely capable of being a Doctor.”

        This characterization is what stands out the most in retrospect. I felt the emotional weight of that awful fight at the time, but it’s wonderful to see the way in which it became the central turning point of her entire story.


      • mx_mond
        May 15, 2018 @ 8:36 am

        You raise very valid points (and that was a very good Bible reference!). And yes, it’s absolutely essential to treat this story in terms of aesthetic – or, to put another way, as a story. And since the episode ultimately rejects applying real-world physics to it (even if, as was pointed out in the comments below, it possibly leads the viewers on too long in thinking that they should be applied), I think it’s a justifiable decision not to treat it as a real-world dilemma. If it were, I won’t pretend that I would definitely vote to let the moon dragon live at the seeming expense of all of humanity. But when we treat the story purely symbolically, it asks a question that seems vital to me: whether we should put humanity – our existence, our concerns, our comfort – above everything else. As you rightly point out, the moon dragon threatens much more than just humanity, but I’m sure 99% of the people voting would be concerned with their survival and animals do not think in terms of survival of their species.

        The story doesn’t map exactly to real-life situations, where it’s usually mankind vs. everything else on the planet (and of course ultimately putting our short-term concerns over the well-being of the planet is a double-edged sword for us), but that’s how it is with metaphors.


    • Przemek
      May 14, 2018 @ 8:43 pm

      Interesting. I kinda want to disagree with post-humanism here as “letting the nature take its course” implies that nature is benevolent (and, indeed, has any agency at all) which is very far from my views on the subject. But then again, this is “Doctor Who” we’re talking here. The universe is wonderful, mysterious and sometimes even miraculous. Perhaps unlike our own. But thank God it is.

      I just realized that “Kill the Moon” might be this show’s biggest refutation of the Lovecraftian worldview. “A giant space monster buried under the surface of the Moon” sounds like something Lovecraft might imagine after a particularly bad night, and in his universe the hatching of the egg would’ve killed us all. But in “Doctor Who”, it brings life.


      • mx_mond
        May 15, 2018 @ 7:21 am

        “”letting the nature take its course” implies that nature is benevolent (and, indeed, has any agency at all)”

        Well, no and no. Nature just is. Even in the episode it seems like nature (the birth of the moon dragon) might result in the extinction of humanity, that’s why choosing not to interfere is so hard. Of course, this being the Moffat era, the right choice is rewarded, so everything turns out okay. But the people in the story don’t know that.

        Neither does agency follow from the phrase for me. A runaway train doesn’t have any agency, but you can still choose not to interfere and let whatever is going to happen happen. Letting nature take its course means not interfering with the processes that we, for convenience, call nature.


        • Przemek
          May 15, 2018 @ 9:24 pm

          Okay, fair enough, I misunderstood your point. But if nature isn’t benevolent why on Earth would I want to let it take its course?


          • mx_mond
            May 16, 2018 @ 7:29 am

            Because every once in a while I like to contemplate the fact that we might not, as a species, have the authority to interfere. Of course, might makes right, and as a dominant species on the planet we do whatever we like, so I just hope that with time we learn to interact with a planet in a way that is less disastrous both for it and for us. But the idea that we could just stop and surrender ourselves to the natural world, even if it meant going extinct, holds a peculiar fascination for me. I like having that explored in fiction, even if I don’t advocate for Voluntary Human Extinction or anything like that.

        • Rodolfo Piskorski
          May 21, 2018 @ 1:02 pm

          “this being the Moffat era, the right choice is rewarded, so everything turns out okay. But the people in the story don’t know that.”

          Actually, I think Clara knows that very well by now. I think she sensed something would come up and save the day.


  3. Sloath
    May 14, 2018 @ 11:10 am

    considering your thoughts on Gareth I’m surprised you didn’t write at length about Peter Harkness as well considering he wrote Kill The Moon as an anti-abortion story


    • prandeamus
      May 14, 2018 @ 11:31 am

      “Harness has said multiple times that he wasn’t trying to write an abortion allegory” seems to cover that pretty well.


    • Elizabeth Edwards
      May 14, 2018 @ 2:57 pm

      Did you read the article? I mean, perhaps the ~750 words El spent on that exact point? Come now.


  4. S
    May 14, 2018 @ 11:46 am

    Is not the single biggest flaw in the episode the way it does the Star Trek thing of setting up a moral dilemma, then when the characters make the ‘right’ decision, absolving them from the consequences.

    If it’s a trolley problem, it’s one where, after the lever has been pulled, the trolley suddenly lifts off the tracks and flies into the sunset, so nobody has to die.


    • mx_mond
      May 14, 2018 @ 12:06 pm

      But this is a consistent aesthetic of the Moffat Era (in contrast to the Davies Era, where doing the right thing usually hurts, and it should be done despite the hurt it will bring). Why single out Kill the Moon for it?


    • liminal fruitbat
      May 14, 2018 @ 12:52 pm

      It feels to me more like Lord of the Rings: deliberate eucatastrophe rather than a bad Star Trek cop-out.


    • David Ainsworth
      May 14, 2018 @ 2:12 pm

      But it isn’t really a trolley problem, it merely looks like one. There’s no either/or choice here. The decision isn’t about having to save the Earth by rejecting the dream of the stars, or to save the dream at the cost of everything you’d leave behind. And that’s such a central and intrinsic part of the series that only someone who hasn’t watched it could believe you can’t have both. This is a show where (despite moments like lost Gallifrey or Amy and Rory) the nature of time means everyone is always alive and dead, always one TARDIS flight and a few steps away, or, with some vexing exceptions, one DVD or stream away.

      The Moon–this Moon, not the one in our own sky–can no more kill the Earth than we a character in a story can die. The story and the life are one and the same. This is the story of Earth and Moon, of Doctor and Clara, and it lives as long as there are watchers of Doctor Who to tell it.


    • Przemek
      May 14, 2018 @ 8:51 pm

      But that’s the whole point of “Doctor Who”. Just this once, everybody lives.


      • S
        May 15, 2018 @ 8:46 am

        It’s really not. Jan didn’t live.


        • Przemek
          May 15, 2018 @ 9:34 pm

          I was being poetic, but alright, I’ll elaborate: for me the point of “Doctor Who” is to be the show about the horrors and the wonders of the universe and how encountering them can make us better people. It’s that sense of wonder and amazement, that crazy optimism that makes “Doctor Who” different from “Star Trek” and pretty much every other TV show in existence. The trolley suddenly lifting off the tracks and flying into the sunset is the essence of what this show and this show only can do: make us believe there’s always hope. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.


          • S
            May 15, 2018 @ 11:32 pm

            If there’s always hope, why did Jan have to die?

          • Przemek
            June 1, 2018 @ 10:13 am

            Because hope doesn’t mean nothing bad ever happens to anyone. It means something good might happen even when we least expect it.

  5. Lambda
    May 14, 2018 @ 12:46 pm

    The big problem with Kill The Moon for me, is that if you’re going to ask your audience a question, and expect them to arrive at a particular answer, which this one clearly does, it becomes far more important to think things through properly, because some of your audience will instinctively think hard about things when asked to make a decision, and this is actually a good thing and you shouldn’t alienate them because of that. And it hasn’t managed that.

    The best-case scenario which can be reasonably anticipated is that the creature hatches with low enough energy that none of its shell reaches escape velocity relative to what’s left, and collapses back in on itself to form a kind of dwarf moon. But (assuming it ends up in the same orbit, a change of orbit is likely to be even worse,) I think that’s still going to cause extinctions on Earth by messing with the tides. There are going to be plenty of creatures, amphibians in particular, which rely on nice large tides for their lifecycle. (I’m not certain about this, but it’s a reasonable conclusion for someone who’s watching TV rather than going off to do years of research.)

    So we have a relatively straightforward trolley problem, with one creature against some entire species (maybe just a few, maybe anything larger than a cockroach, but definitely some.) And that’s a terrible thing to write fiction about because it eliminates the most important observation about the trolley problem – these things never actually happen.

    At heart and in theory, morality is consequentialist. It exists for the purpose of stopping various bad things from happening to people. The reason you can’t just be straight-up consequentialist about things isn’t because there’s anything wrong with always choosing the best consequences, it’s because what will result in the best consequences has a nasty habit of being unknowable, and in particular, people’s calculations of it tend to be strongly influenced by their prejudices and what they actually want to do.

    So if you could ensure that you never tortured anyone when it wouldn’t stop a greater evil from happening, torture would be OK in those circumstances. But if you react in horror to that idea, then you’re quite right to do so, because that sort of situation is vanishingly rare, and if you say “torture is OK under certain circumstances”, what will actually happen will be mostly sadism which makes the people perpetrating it do their job more badly, and no benefit will be seen whatsoever.

    So the right answer is “in that hypothetical situation, the moon needs to die, but actually, because situations like that never arise, it’s good to be the kind of person who could never do it, so that hypothetical situation sucks.” And then the episode pulls out an entirely new moon which no viewer could reasonably anticipate.

    (Well, actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if some people did anticipate it. But they would have to be thinking along lines like “this is a Doctor Who story, killing the moon is obviously going to be written as the wrong answer, so it will be OK somehow”. But this is blind faith, it’s a very bad way to think. It’s the same sort of thinking which gives you “if we chuck all the foreigners out, this country will go back to being idyllic like it used to be” if you put that faith in the wrong thing.)


    • liminal fruitbat
      May 14, 2018 @ 1:11 pm

      The best-case scenario which can be reasonably anticipated is that the creature hatches with low enough energy that none of its shell reaches escape velocity relative to what’s left, and collapses back in on itself to form a kind of dwarf moon. But (assuming it ends up in the same orbit, a change of orbit is likely to be even worse,) I think that’s still going to cause extinctions on Earth by messing with the tides.

      If we’re going down that route, the Moon’s gravitational field increased to suspiciously like that at Lanzarote as the dragon prepared to hatch, so a resulting dwarf moon might plausibly have the same mass as the Moon originally did before the dragon pulled itself out of hyperspace/ideaspace/wherever. I think the weirdness of the science from the very start moves it away from being a trolley problem because no matter how much the evil philosopher insists there are only two outcomes you can just point at the clearly-multicellular giant spider-bacteria; the whole thing is an unknowable situation by any reasonable human frame of experience.


      • Lambda
        May 14, 2018 @ 1:31 pm

        Was it the entire moon? Changes in gravity at any one particular location should first be assumed a result of the creature moving around inside its egg so that most of its mass is getting in this case closer, no need to deduce that conservation of mass/energy is being violated just from that.

        In any case, if the situation with the moon is unknowable, the situation on Earth is still perfectly knowable, and then rather than there being two possibilities, for no extinctions to occur, all the moon possibilities are bad, except for one. (Which is physically impossible.) Even if there are unknowable elements to a situation, it’s still possible to think about the possibilities. And absolving people of the responsibility to do so would be a very bad idea.


        • David Ainsworth
          May 14, 2018 @ 2:22 pm

          The problem is in expecting that you can apply physics as part of the decision loop here. Why would you think that when all the evidence on the screen both in the larger series and in this specific story indicates that physics, as we currently understand it, is outside the context of what’s happening?

          I’m pretty certain that if you applied biology as we currently understand it, the situation is patently impossible.

          Faced with an outside-context problem, the only viable responses are either to expand the boundaries of what is known within the specific field of knowledge that concerns you, or to look for an alternate field of knowledge that can render the problem contextualized. The Moon as a hatching egg makes no sense from the contest of biology or physics, but in the context of a story it makes perfect sense. Doctor Who has repeatedly established that “we’re all stories in the end,” so it should be no surprise that this particular judgment requires accepting that within the context of the problem. Of course the story makes no sense if you reject it, but it doesn’t stop being a story for all of that.


          • Lambda
            May 14, 2018 @ 3:42 pm

            The episode wants me to make a decision. When I make decisions, I always assume the laws of physics are going to apply. I think this is a good policy, because I don’t think I will ever have to make a choice in a situation where they don’t. I have no interest in gaining any decision-making skills for situations where the laws of physics do not apply, because they would be useless.

            Story physics are for characters in the story. If you want to involve the audience, you need to bridge that gap.

            And anyway, the laws of physics were applying, for the most part. Nobody’s arms suddenly started detaching from their bodies and flying into the centre of Ganymede etc. In general, the laws of physics always apply in stories, including Doctor Who, there are just exceptions which come along from time to time. (And you’re generally not supposed to notice them, although this isn’t necessarily a problem). The idea that exploding a few nuclear bombs on a thing the size of the Moon would do anything noticeable to it is silly, but since the episode explicitly states that it will, I was able to factor that into the decision-making process. It was part of the premise, and you can do anything you want in the premise. It’s only the things which viewers will be trying to guess at or work out for themselves which need to make sense. But the episode never said tides would remain unaffected. It just didn’t anticipate a viewer who would think of that, probably because the writer didn’t think of it. There are a few ways for a viewer to not consider the tides a problem. They can not think of them in the first place, they can have blind faith and not even try to think, or they can be someone who happens to think in a way which is compatible with the writer. None of those applied to me, in the first two cases, I am proud of this fact, and the last is neutral.

            I think a lot of this comes down to “we’re all stories in the end” (no, that’s just completely incompatible with how I think of reality,) being a bad idea. Stories should be rooted in the real world, because the real world is the only thing a viewer can be guaranteed to have in common with a writer. With stories, there’s nothing wrong with people having totally contradictory and incompatible ideas about them. I’ve watched almost no American television or films for the past 15 years because I don’t tend to like them, I watch loads of Japanese stuff instead. There’s no reason for my idea of what stories are like to be at all compatible with the average British person. If you root your stories in the real world, this doesn’t have to be a problem.

          • David Ainsworth
            May 14, 2018 @ 11:25 pm

            “Stories should be rooted in the real world, because the real world is the only thing a viewer can be guaranteed to have in common with a writer.”

            I see the purpose of stories as diametrically opposed to that principle. I don’t accept the presumption that anything about the real world (accepting such a thing exists in an entirely unmediated way) is held in common between all people and that stories are a point of contact built upon commonality. I’d argue that stories are a means to bridge gaps between differing world-views and perspectives by creating a fictive place which acts as an intersection or middle-point which doesn’t quite match either the author’s perspective or the audience’s (witness Harness’ response to the anti-abortion elements in his own story).

            “The Moon is an egg” makes perfect “real world” sense in that everyone watching knows what the Moon is and knows what an egg is. But it’s an obvious, even outrageous, fictive supposition. Not as bad as “your nose is an egg,” perhaps, but still well past implausible. This is the realm of fairy tales, not physics, and the decision loop is very different there.

            But what I think is more interesting than this discussion is the implication of having it. From what perspective and using what criteria is any given viewer of Kill the Moon supposed to approach the titular event? The shape of the story calls for a single, specific response, but within the story itself we’re invited to see the choice that’s made as irrational, reckless, and predicated upon a set of principles that are arguably divorced from matters of the real world as sharply as the resolution turns out to be. Whether one reacts to that situation with pleasure or outrage does nothing to prevent the moment of contemplation and crisis produced by it. This episode is designed to change its viewers, even if the change ends up being their abandoning the program.

          • S
            May 15, 2018 @ 8:56 am

            I don’t accept the presumption that anything about the real world (accepting such a thing exists in an entirely unmediated way) is held in common between all people

            Well, gravity comes to mind.

          • mx_mond
            May 15, 2018 @ 9:17 am

            If we want to be pedantic, there are people (especially among the Flat-Earthers) who contest its existence and propose alternate theories as to why things fall.

          • S
            May 15, 2018 @ 9:23 am

            That kind of proves the point, though, in that despite their radically different view of the world they still have ‘things fall’ in common with all other people, to the extent that they have to come up with explanations for it.

          • Lambda
            May 16, 2018 @ 5:34 pm

            Certainly everyone has different, and often deeply incompatible worldviews. But those gaps are only bridgeable because every worldview is an attempt to process the same physical universe, so they inevitably contain all sorts of stuff which relates. Ultimately, any communication needs to bridge worldview gaps, even with a statement like “that is a tree”, people will have different ideas of what trees are. Stories are a form of communication which is particularly indirect and abstract, and which tend to make use of extra elements of special storytelling language. (Visual storytelling is almost entirely special storytelling language.) But they’re still ultimately a form of communication.

            I think the ridiculousness of the moon being an egg is overstated. I may be pretty certain that the real-world moon isn’t an egg, but it takes reasonably sophisticated reasoning for me to deduce this, and there’s still room for tiny amounts of doubt. Compare this to something like “conventional sound in space”, which it’s immediately obvious won’t happen so long as you know what sound is and what space is. But even if it is enough to establish that fairy tale logic should apply…

            Whenever stories are non-realistic in any way, it’s because the writer has something they want to convey to the audience. (Unless they just get it wrong, or expect the audience to get it wrong.) (I sometimes like to characterise art as being defined by how it chooses to diverge from realism, and insist this makes drawing and animation into more fertile media than photography and live-action because there are more ways to be unrealistic.) So fairy tale logic is actually “things will happen according to what the writer wants to convey”.

            And as a viewer, I don’t have anything I want to convey to myself about moon-killing. The only fairy-tale logic I can do is “guess what Peter Harness wants to convey”. And that just isn’t “my choice”. My choice is what I think. And I’m a scientist. If I were to write a Doctor Who story, it would be as scientifically realistic as I could possibly make it, because that’s just how I think. This isn’t a problem when I watch television, normally. It does not impede my love for something like The Mind Robber in the slightest. But if a story is going to tell me I’m wrong because that’s not the kind of story I create, then no, the story is wrong about that, there’s nothing wrong with being scientifically-minded.

            What it really needs to do is avoid specifying the right answer, have us never find out what happened in the aftermath. Try to change the viewer into whatever it’s right for the viewer to become, by giving them an interesting situation to think about, instead of trying to change the viewer into agreeing with the writer. If you’re going to insist, it needs to be about something objectively correct. “Don’t stop trying to make the world a better place” – yes, you can insist on that. “The moon must be symbolic of trying to make the world a better place” – no.

          • mx_mond
            May 17, 2018 @ 8:14 am

            “(I sometimes like to characterise art as being defined by how it chooses to diverge from realism, and insist this makes drawing and animation into more fertile media than photography and live-action because there are more ways to be unrealistic.)”

            I really like this observation! Tangentially, it brings to my mind something Scott McCloud wrote in “Understanding Comics” – because of the characters’ more simplified features, comics (and by extension cartoons) allow for greater degree of identification with character.

            As for your main point, I’m probably missing something, but if stories working according to the fairy tale logic require decyphering the intent of the author, why is it a problem that they demand that you change your approach?

          • Lambda
            May 17, 2018 @ 2:44 pm

            ‘Decyphering’ isn’t really the best word, illogical elements work mostly through the subconscious, if you’re thinking too hard about them, I think they’ve failed. (Another problem with asking the audience to think about them.)

            But as to the question. My mind works very different to Peter Harness’s mind. So thoughts in Peter Harness’s mind are completely different things to thoughts in my mind. If we are to communicate, then Harness-thoughts need to be able to somehow turn into me-thoughts. That’s what the story is for. Doing this with thoughts which aren’t easy to plainly state is hard, that’s why becoming good at meaningful storytelling (or more generally, art) is hard.

            But my approach is based on the way I think. For me to adopt a Harness approach, based on how Harness thinks, means instead of Harness-thoughts turning into me-thoughts, that Harness-thoughts would actually be happening in my brain. Which is just impossible.

    • Aylwin
      May 14, 2018 @ 1:34 pm

      In terms of viewers thinking through the likely consequences of the moon’s disintegration, I think it may be a problem that the story doesn’t just initially set up expectations that it is “hard sci-fi” before dropping that pretence, but continues to play the hard sci-fi game after the big reveal, through its quasi-scientific discussion of those prospective consequences. Rather than making a clean break into unabashed fantasy with “The moon’s an egg!”, it continues to operate in a register which invites viewers to think independently about the physical implications of that proposition, which is not where it needs to be.


      • Lambda
        May 14, 2018 @ 1:43 pm

        Yes, certainly the point at which I considered the tidal implications was almost immediately after someone said something about eggshell hitting the Earth.


  6. Scurra
    May 14, 2018 @ 1:25 pm

    “It’s a completely batshit premise that only Doctor Who could ever do.”
    And this is why I’ve been watching Who for forty years, and will continue to watch Who regardless of who is writing or running it. Because it’s a batshit premise to begin with, and everything just gets better from there, however people try to mess with it in their own individual ways.

    Once again, thank you for a wonderful essay about a story that, whilst I don’t love, I respect for understanding what Who is all about.


  7. An Egg
    May 14, 2018 @ 2:24 pm

    Elizabeth, fuck you for the line: “the moon’s not the only egg”! You made me laugh out loud.


    • Aylwin
      May 14, 2018 @ 2:36 pm

      Oh, hey, yeah, that paragraph wasn’t in the Patreon draft. Bonus!


      • Elizabeth Sandifer
        May 14, 2018 @ 2:46 pm

        Yeah, my most common thing fixed in revisions is that I slow down my conclusions. Often, especially with a longer piece, I find that in my rush to get to the right point I skip steps. In this case, I realized that actually making the parallel between the Mercury/Moon gender dynamics and the episode was important, and that I should make the first nod towards Whittaker. At which point I decided that the obvious egg joke should go in after all.


  8. Przemek
    May 14, 2018 @ 8:27 pm

    Thank you for this essay. I didn’t understand all of it, it’s too dense with theory and too steeped in mysticism for me, but as with all your best work, I feel like I understood the sum of the parts. The impossible, frustrating, life-giving nature of hope. Thank you.

    Today I can appreciate “Kill the Moon” a lot more than when it originally aired. In October of 2014 I was still recovering from a bad job experience while simultaneously struggling to make my rotten, decaying relationship work. And reading a lot of Yudkowsky, wishing I could become more like him. I was one of those people who couldn’t get into “Kill the Moon” because of the bad science and the abortion subtext. It left me cold and distant, annoyed at the stupid characters who couldn’t accept the only rational choice. Back then, I would’ve killed the Moon.

    But then, at the very end, the episode suddenly grabbed me by the throat with its crazy, impossible dream of restoring humanity’s utopian space future. It was my dream once too. I remember being deeply hurt when I read your essay about the Moon landing and I realized that you’re right, that it wasn’t a magical, hopeful event I believed it to be but a Cold War military operation and a dead end for humanity. It still hurts sometimes. But maybe you’re right yet again, maybe our utopias don’t need to be possible or even probable to be worth believing in. Maybe dead futures can still give us life.


  9. Ciaran M
    May 15, 2018 @ 1:07 am

    Given the stories Harness went on to write, I’m not sure I buy that any reading of the story as pro-life was accidental on his part. Sure, this is reading from the future, but he displays a tendency towards the crassly political in a lot of his work. Regardless, even if that reading of Kill the Moon was accidental, it was certainly avoidable in the conception of the story.

    Though I enjoyed it at the time, the only thing I still like about the story is Clara ripping into the Doctor, which was long overdue.


    • Elizabeth Sandifer
      May 15, 2018 @ 1:14 am

      I mean, at this point that claim requires you to actively call him a liar, as he’s explicitly denied it in multiple interviews and, for that matter, multiple conversations.

      I don’t think “his other scripts are political too” is really strong enough evidence to support that. People who write pro-life allegories don’t usually go around repeatedly denying it in public and private after, y’know?


      • Ciaran M
        May 15, 2018 @ 1:49 am

        Politcal in a way that is very on the nose and clearly designed to stir controversy. I don’t think Harness set out to write a pro-life story, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t write a story ignorant of its implications.


        • Elizabeth Sandifer
          May 15, 2018 @ 1:58 am

          I mean it obviously wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been let down by a Doctor Who writer I considered a friend but that’s pretty damn conspirarorial.


          • Ciaran M
            May 15, 2018 @ 2:14 am

            It beggars belief to me that he would’ve remained ignorant of the implications of his story until after the fact. And if he did, that’s not encouraging either?

            In many ways, your reading(and my initial reading) of this story feel like the inverse of Lawrence Miles’ reading of The Unquiet Dead; supported by the text, but unlikely to be assumed by the vast majority of the viewership.

            Also, I forgot about the casual racism of the story, but I’m assuming that’s more on the production team than on Harness.

          • Ciaran Magee
            May 15, 2018 @ 2:17 am

            Incidentally, I really enjoy this particular Eruditorum post!

            I’m just not sold on Harness.

          • Sean Daugherty
            May 15, 2018 @ 8:32 pm

            I honestly feel exactly the opposite as you do regarding Lawrence Miles and “The Unquiet Dead.” That story is entirely predicated on the Gelths’ status as dispossessed war refugees. Having them turn out to be malevolent makes it a perilously short hop to assuming the story is at least hinting towards a broader point about how refugees are dangerous. Miles put the problems with that concept into much better words than I’d ever have managed to do, but I’m absolutely floored that the consensus reading among fans is that of course it’s not something anybody could have expected Mark Gatiss or RTD or anyone else involved in production to recognized before broadcast. I’m still a bit shocked only Miles ever seemed to publicly pick up on it.

            When it comes to “Kill the Moon,” though, I’m more inclined to believe that Harness was genuinely unaware of the implications. I think a case can be made that maybe he should have been, but the central metaphor there is central in a way that “The Unquiet Dead” wasn’t. I can see how, by paying more attention to the intended meaning, Harness, Moffat, et al. missed the unintended one.

            But, more to the point, I find it surreal that critics continue to pile on to Harness for this (to the point where, elsewhere in these comments, someone was incorrectly claiming he’s admitted that the abortion metaphor was intentional) but seem inclined to give Gatiss the benefit of the doubt.

          • Ciaran M
            May 15, 2018 @ 9:19 pm

            Oh, I agree with Miles’ reading of The Unquiet Dead. But also, the premise is pretty generic, so the inherent conservatism comes off as a fault of the genre. Like, super hero films are kind of a Randian wet dream, but I don’t really blame writers for not leaning into that when they write a super hero story.

            I only really rip into Harness for this based on his later stories, and his apparent lack of care for the implications of his stories. This is the first and most obvious example of that.

          • Aylwin
            May 15, 2018 @ 10:10 pm

            I suppose there’s lso the fact that there had already been a less sharply refugee-coded version of the “aliens displaced by the Time War invade Earth” plot in Rose, so the relevant aspects of a Gatiss-written story were clearly framed within the requirements of a Davies-determined season arc in a way that blurred responsibility. The plot was not created from whole cloth by a single writer, but was one iteration of a recurrent pattern (which was itself only a subsidiary component introduced to provide a way into the gradually revealed Time War narrative) which tipped over too far into the dodgy territory potentially implicit in that broader template. That makes it easier to see how TUD could end up being something that none of the people involved quite intended, whereas the relevant elements of KTM were not shaped by such outside considerations, so people have been more inclined to hold the writer wholly responsible.

          • Lambda
            May 17, 2018 @ 4:12 pm

            They’re not implications, they’re just unfortunately good resonances. In the Unquiet Dead, you genuinely do have a load of beings who represent themselves as refugees and sympathetic characters deciding whether to give them refuge. In Kill the Moon, there’s nothing remotely like a pregnant person. Whether to help the Gelth refugees is a highly similar decision to whether to help the Syrian refugees. Whether to destroy a creature whose birth may or may not wipe out all large creatures on Earth tells you almost nothing about whether to destroy a creature which is currently in a parasitic stage of life within someone who doesn’t want it there.

          • Ciaran M
            May 19, 2018 @ 1:53 am

            There is an unborn creature whose development is having an adverse effect on its host, and whose birth potentially endangers its host’s survival. People then discuss whether or not to terminate the creature, debating the value of its life yet lived over the danger its birth and life present.

            Read the story any way you want, but there are very much implications.

            For resonances, we have a big button labelled abort.

          • Rodolfo Piskorski
            May 21, 2018 @ 1:22 pm

            The only reason why abortion is a complex issue is because women DON’T lay eggs. If women could lay eggs, abortion would be inconceivable, as there would be no reason to abort: the baby would be outside of the woman’s body, and thus outside of the woman’s bodily autonomy.
            The dragon in the episode is not the Earth’s child and does not depend on the Earth for survival.

          • Przemek
            June 1, 2018 @ 10:24 am

            A good point about eggs… but so what? The story doesn’t have to map 1:1 onto a real world issue to say something about that issue. The dragon does not depend on the Earth for survival but the dragon’s birth can possibly endanger Earth’s survival. That’s more than enough for the abortion subtext to emerge.

  10. Voxpoptart
    May 15, 2018 @ 5:36 am

    1. Obviously I’m pro-“Kill the Moon”, on balance, and loved this essay. After “the Caretaker”, I was all “I guess I’ll give this snobby asshole 12th Doctor one more chance”. This earned him another, which he redeemed, and had (as you say) one of the most marvelously batshit premises I’ve ever heard. I care about realism, sometimes; I admire a logical plot. I still enjoy the world’s loudest declaration that tonight we’re not doing that.
    2. But logic isn’t the only reason the story’s resolution is a cheat. I think its ethics, even on magical terms, are bad.

    Sometimes the Doctor claims that human beings are extraordinary; that there’s nothing more magical than an individual, ordinary human life. We know this is exaggeration and posturing, but we like to believe it is based on something real. When “Doctor Who” shows that no, it isn’t, I have problems.

    In “Kill the Moon”, the show takes the position that this moon-egg is important, extraordinary, wonderful — and emphatically declares, with it, that the viewers at home simply aren’t. It theorizes that our lives are in danger, and the issue isn’t that there’s one of the egg and 7,100,000,000 of us. The issue is that if it actually thought human life was incredibly valuable and wonderful, it ought to be questionable if it was one of the egg and, I dunno, 5 of us. And if it were five of us, and four of us voted to save our whole group, it would properly be sad about it, but it wouldn’t really condemn. Because as the Doctor likes to say, that would be five remarkable, unique, unrepeatable beings, worth protecting.

    This is hardly the only time “Doctor Who” fails on that score. Every time Craig or Danny is too remarkable, too loving to become a Cyberman, it’s a declaration that the rest of us, the easily converted, aren’t remarkable and loving; I hate that too. It often happens, as here, in stories that are great otherwise. But I wish it would stop.


    • Champiness
      May 15, 2018 @ 6:42 am

      I’d like to humbly suggest that by the show’s ethics – at least during this period in its history, and most specifically in this story – much if not all of what makes humanity charming and precious lies in its capacity to not kill the last Star Whale, whenever and however some version of that choice should arise. A failure to do so is by extension a failure to recognize humanity’s own uniqueness as something valuable, and while any individual such case certainly doesn’t condemn the species, a failure on this scale might have.
      Of course, we don’t know whether they exhibited that capacity here or not, since according to Harness the dimming of the globe was the result of world governments cutting power to override any votes in favor. Which seems fair to me, since the jury is very much out in real life as well.


    • liminal fruitbat
      May 15, 2018 @ 8:53 am

      It’s interesting you say that because I nearly always hate that kind of “humans are the best” speech – it’s very difficult for me not to read it as “we are better than the other” (possibly this is due to too much Star Trek at a formative age). I’m fine with Doctor Who saying “You know what? To hell with us. Save the not-we.” There should be more of it.


      • Voxpoptart
        May 15, 2018 @ 2:03 pm

        Obviously those speeches are dubious if you take them to mean “humans > all other species”. The Doctor doesn’t utter them in that context, and I take their value as “every thinking being is unique and precious”, with humans as the default “thinking being” because of the species demographics of British actors.

        I rarely like those speeches either, because their delivery tends to be trite — which is, I think, because they are insincere. They should be sincere, but in fact the Doctor only ever means “named Doctor Who characters with whom the Doctor interacts are unique and precious”. I mean, take “Rings of Akhaten”: the Doctor tells young Melody, the human sacrifice, how many billions of years to arrange her existence. And yes, of course, the Doctor will intervene against human sacrifice, and we want him to, but … the story never even implies the dangers in his overthrowing a system, without a plan, where the downside risk is billions of deaths of people who ought to be as precious as Melody.

        You know who isn’t a named Doctor Who character? Me. My kids (and their friends). My students (and their friends). My friends (and their families). My girlfriend (and her friends and her family and their families). Nor any hard worker at the Center for Disease Control or the World Wildlife Fund or the Animal Liberation Front. None of us have ever been told by the Doctor how special we are. Which would be fine, if the ethics of the show didn’t imply, in a pinch, that next to an infant moon-hatch beast, we are meaningless.

        I think Elizabeth is likely right that you can’t introduce a wonderful childlike premise such as “the moon is a hatching egg” and not then, as a storyteller, side with the egg. I get that. But by taking a side so strongly, it dehumanizes the rest of us, and delemurizes all the lemurs and debutterflizes all the butterflies, in the process.


        • liminal fruitbat
          May 15, 2018 @ 6:19 pm

          The Doctor doesn’t utter them in that context

          He kind of does, though? Certainly he does in Ark in Space. And arguably it’s always in that context, given that the show’s full of non-humans and how he keeps going on about how Earth is his favourite planet. (Plus, you know, every base under siege story.) The tension between the different meanings of “human” doesn’t always work well, and for me the more counterbalances the better.

          I agree with your thoughts on the “named characters only” issue, but to my mind that’s an unescapable problem of stories in general; Doctor Who will have to last a long time before the Doctor can get round to saving the day for everyone.


        • Przemek
          May 15, 2018 @ 9:52 pm

          “You know who isn’t a named Doctor Who character? Me. My kids (and their friends). My students (and their friends). My friends (and their families). My girlfriend (and her friends and her family and their families). Nor any hard worker at the Center for Disease Control or the World Wildlife Fund or the Animal Liberation Front. None of us have ever been told by the Doctor how special we are. Which would be fine, if the ethics of the show didn’t imply, in a pinch, that next to an infant moon-hatch beast, we are meaningless.”

          “Doctor Who” is not set in the real world. “Kill the Moon” does not imply anything about real people.

          As for the Doctor’s speeches in general, this show constantly alternates between “humans are wonderful”, “humans are monsters” and “humans are on the whole kinda lame and disappointing, aren’t they?”. This week humans are disappointing with a side of monsters while the Moon dragon is wonderful and special. Some other week we will be amazing and the space creatures will be the monsters. I fail to see how alternating between these views reflects poorly on the show’s ethics.


          • Voxpoptart
            May 16, 2018 @ 1:27 am

            The issue in a story like “Moon” or “Akhaten” isn’t “the Doctor doesn’t have time to save everyone”, it’s “the Doctor deliberately chooses to endanger everyone. Literally every life form on the planet. Because one girl, or one moon-hatch-thing, is special, which nothing else on the planet, apparently, is.”

            The point isn’t that the ordinary people I know or admire live on Akhaten or DW’s Earth, but that people roughly-speaking equivalent to us presumably do. And the point isn’t that the Doctor or Clara make the wrong choice, necessarily. It’s that their choice is presented as self-evidently right: that endangering billions of non-special life forms is trivial and oh by the way they were never in danger because look, look, the script came out that way.

            Plus those non-special life forms, apparently, prove their non-specialness by selfishly not wanting their entire civilization (and ecosystem) at risk of instant mass death. Well then. I disagree with that.

          • mx_mond
            May 16, 2018 @ 7:22 am

            It’s a bit like “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, isn’t it? The status quo depends on sacrificing one life (a mon dragon or a little girl). Is this sacrifice justified if it means the rest of the planet gets to live their lives in peace?

            In strictly utilitarian terms, no – but then at what point do the scales tip the other way? Is it okay to oppress a minority of people if the majority gets to live? Was Thanos right? Are we right to preserve the capitalist status quo where we live in relative comfort while masses of people in other parts of the world are being exploited if the upheaval of that would mean an increase in suffering, at least in the short term?

            The radical and idealistic answer – and I like my Doctor Who radical and idealistic, while knowing that radicalism and idealism never survive contact with reality, not fully – is that a society that depends on oppression, even if it’s one person being sacrificed to an angry sun god, does not deserve to survive. This being Doctor Who, and therefore fundamentally optimistic, the removal of this oppression means that that civilisation becomes worthy of survival, and so they do.

          • Voxpoptart
            May 17, 2018 @ 4:28 pm

            With apologies, because I doubt we’ll agree: “Omelas” never worked for me either. It’s a large city made happy by only torturing one child — where in our own cities, we torture children and adults in order to attain vegetables and fruits, new clothes, phones and computers; and we fill animal lives with literally nothing but torture in order to obtain meat. (I don’t eat meat, and usually only buy clothes and electronics used, but all it took to get me to buy a new phone last year, with all the slavery behind it, was a week full of long frustrating daily visits to the Sprint Store. Also, I eat lots of fruits and veggies, many of them picked by the exploited and miserable.)

            So, I think humans should be a whole lot better. I can understand dismissing the lot of us awful, even. But I also thinks humans do so many marvelous things (such as creating “Doctor Who”, for one thing) that, as ideals go, saying “We don’t deserve to live, even if we were to become far less collectively cruel than we have ever been” doesn’t appeal to me.

            Omelas is a goal to strive towards; it’s one I take seriously, and never expect to see fulfilled. Fury at it not being better still, although 100% understandable, seems to me a philosophical dead end. Especially with the Doctor willing to take down the rest of a planet’s life forms with us.

          • mx_mond
            May 17, 2018 @ 8:15 pm

            No need to apologise, as you present your counter-arguments in a peaceful and respectful manner (I hope I do, too, in my comments).

            I think we should should strive towards absolute perfection, while bearing in mind that it might be unattainable. It’s like that saying: “if you shoot for the moon, you might end up on the roof of the house. But if you shoot for the roof, you might only end up halfway up the stairs”. The moment we start to consider something impossible, we limit the scope of what we can achieve. So while Omelas would be quite an achievement in comparison to our present situation, if we only strive for Omelas, we might end up shorter of it than we would if we strove for a world where no one has to suffer.

            And, for what it’s worth, I don’t think the Doctor would raze the planet down if humanity (well, the three wise women on the moon, really) killed the moon dragon. It would just be a disappointment that they all would have to live with. Humanity wouldn’t be special that day (without precluding the possibility of it rising up to some other occasion). Sometimes we can receive a gift that we are unworthy of. But in Kill the Moon, we became worthy of the gift of life because we were prepared to risk it.

            (And while I appreciate the argument that Earth is not just humans and many other kinds of beings would die had the hatching of the moon turned out harmful, I tend to assume that in the story the planet is just a metonym for humanity, so it’s an opposition between human life and non-human life, but with non-human life moved to the moon for starker symbolic contrast. And, well, I think a lot of humans would only think of the planet in terms of themselves.)

          • Rodolfo Piskorski
            May 21, 2018 @ 1:32 pm

            “the Doctor deliberately chooses to endanger everyone. Literally every life form on the planet. Because one girl, or one moon-hatch-thing, is special, which nothing else on the planet, apparently, is.”

            That is related to the ethical dilemma in Snowpiercer, isn’t it? By saving that one child, the protagonist condemned the whole train to die. But I think he concluded that they didn’t deserve their survival if it depended upon that scale of child exploitation.

          • Rodolfo Piskorski
            May 21, 2018 @ 1:33 pm

            I think the point of the Doctor’s scepticism is that the bombs were certain to kill the moon dragon but the moon dragon and the lack of a moon weren’t certain to kill humanity.

  11. Douglas Muir
    May 15, 2018 @ 9:20 am

    [raises hand]

    Do you see any connection between your reaction to this episode and your status as a trans woman? I mean, in addition to the various takes on femininity and gender that you’ve mentioned above, the whole episode hinges on a literal metamorphosis. The transformation of the Moon is unexpected until it happens, and then it’s complete, and everything changes.

    Truly not meaning to offend here — I’m sincerely curious.

    Doug M.


    • Elizabeth Sandifer
      May 20, 2018 @ 11:04 pm

      It’s a reasonable suggestion, but it ultimately hinges on “was I in any meaningful sense a trans woman in 2014,” which is a question of impressive complexity that comes up a lot in therapy.


  12. Joseph
    May 15, 2018 @ 1:10 pm

    “It’s not that abortion isn’t an issue in the British public mind—it would be hard for it not to be given that Ireland is currently in the midst of a referendum on it.”

    ehhhhh… I think you’re being very optimistic about the British here. I’ve got a lot of Irish and British friends on facebook. I know now that my Irish friends are pro-repeal (and hence pro-choice), because I’ve seen a lot of what they share (Repeal the Eighth, In Her Shoes, etc). I’ve not seen a single interested British person, on either side. I don’t think I’ve heard it on the BBC, not even on Women’s Hour, I don’t notice it in the I or any other paper. The British consistently do not care about what the Irish do, to the point that a significant number did not know that Northern Ireland has its own political parties until the DUP/Tory alliance forced that knowledge on them. May might be an extreme example of this blindness, with her “We’re bigger!” comment to Tusk, but she’s not unique at all.


  13. Voxpoptart
    May 15, 2018 @ 2:08 pm

    Thinking more… the literal Trolley Problem, in which we know the exact effect of our actions, is a fiction. That’s also not what happens in “Kill the Moon”, where the three women have to decide between two sets of lives with uncertain consequences. That’s the realest thing in the world.

    Arguably, Trolley-Problem-with-Uncertainty is at the core of all idealistic politics; I’m not sure I want to make that argument. But TPwU is definitely at the root of all decisions about idealistic violence. The American and French Revolutions? The USA invading the Confederacy? England and the USA intervening against Hitler? The wars we did fight in 1990s Kosovo and against 2015’s ISIS, and the ones we didn’t fight in 1990s Bosnia and 2000s Rwanda and Darfur? All decisions about “who may we kill in the hopes of sparing whom?”

    Even if you take a hardline pacifist stance (which I have more and more sympathy with as I age), you’re just solving the Trolley Problems with a uniform rule; you’re not making them go away. Elizabeth Sandifer is not a hardline pacifist. So… I guess I can’t help relating “Kill the Moon” to reality after all. As Aylwin said, it asks us to make a choice; that gets in the way of the fantasy.


    • Aylwin
      May 15, 2018 @ 5:49 pm

      As Aylwin said

      I think that was Lambda.


      • Voxpoptart
        May 15, 2018 @ 6:02 pm

        Ah! Apologies. Both of you said things I liked.


  14. Richard Melvin
    May 15, 2018 @ 4:51 pm

    I’m going to go against the train and say the episode actually makes more sense as hard sci-fi than as metaphor.

    The line that throws people off is of course ‘the moon is an egg’, but that’s not because the moon isn’t an egg. It’s because eggs don’t increase in weight as the chick inside them grows. Instead they actually lose about 10% of their weight, mostly by emitting water vapor and carbon dioxide.

    The difference between eggs and a rock is that eggs are warmer; they have an internal source of heat energy. You just have to make the mental leap to realise heat -> gravity.

    The script tries to help:

    CLARA: Do you know what’s wrong with the moon?
    DOCTOR: It’s put on weight.
    LUNDVIK: How can the moon put on weight?
    DOCTOR: Oh, lots of ways. Gravity bombs, axis alignment systems, planet shellers.

    And obviously Who has featured many examples of anti-gravity, or other gravtech. But still, logical thinking based on sci-fi premises is rarely rewarded, so rarely practiced by viewers.

    So, in sci-fi terms, we have a hypertech or gravo-biological system that the even Doctor explicitly doesn’t understand. So the choice is either to let that work as intended, or break it. No-one can predict the effect of either.

    So the moral choice here is not the trolley problem, but the prisoner’s dilemma. For the human side, breaking the system is defect, letting it develop as intended is cooperate. For the alien, breaking the planet is defect, letting it live is cooperate.

    Everyone cooperates, everyone lives. Everyone defects, everyone dies. Cooperate with a defector, and your killer gets to live, and likely kill again.

    Communication is impossible.

    What do you do?


    • liminal fruitbat
      May 15, 2018 @ 6:20 pm

      Oh, I like this.


    • S
      May 15, 2018 @ 11:37 pm

      For the alien, breaking the planet is defect, letting it live is cooperate

      Excuse me? What reason is there to think the alien even notices the planet as it flies off to find another disposable planet to use to incubate its next offspring?


      • Richard Melvin
        May 16, 2018 @ 10:02 am

        The fact that it creates a replica moon egg that leaves the planet below as it was.

        There is no need for free will or choice to be involved involved; either it is or isn’t the kind of creature that destroys inhabited planets as part of its lifecycle. In which case it deserves to be nuked, if only to save the planets that would be destroyed by its descendants.

        And if it isn’t, then it doesn’t.


        • S
          May 16, 2018 @ 11:33 am

          What has that got to do with the Prisoner’s Dilemma?

          The prisoner’s dilemma is:

          You have two players, A and B.

          Each of them has two choices, 1 and 2.

          Each wants to maximise their outcome.

          For each player, outcomes are ranked according to the following:

          Outcome (they choose 1, other chooses 2) is best

          Outcome (they choose 2, other chooses 2) is next

          Outcome (they choose 1, other chooses 1) is next

          Outcome (they choose 2, other chooses 1) is worst.

          So for this to be a prisoner’s dilemma, there have to be four outcomes for the alien, which can be clearly ranked in order of its preference.

          In the classic prisoner’s dilemma, these are gaol sentences of varying lengths. This allows for simple and clear preference ordering (shorter sentences are better) as well as making the problem easily symmetric (both A and B care about prison sentences).

          But it doesn’t have to be prison sentences; the only important feature to make it a prisoner’s dilemma are

          (a) four outcomes

          (b) a clear preference ordering

          (c) that the outcomes depend on both player’s choices according to the schema I gave above.

          So what are you suggesting the four outcomes are here, from the alien’s out of view? Presumably one outcomes is ‘it gets to fly away’ and one outcome is ‘it gets blown up’ but what are the others?

          Or is this not, in fact, a prisoner’s dilemma?


          • liminal fruitbat
            May 16, 2018 @ 3:49 pm

            The Doctor asserts that the dragon wouldn’t destroy its nest, implying that it needs something more than just a large gravity source for its egg to orbit. Which implies:

            Outcome a) Both cooperate; the dragon hatches and its offspring has a suitable environment in which to gestate.

            Outcome b) Humanity cooperates, dragon defects; the Earth is wrecked and humanity dies but the dragon doesn’t care because its egg only needs something to orbit.

            Outcome c) Dragon cooperates, humanity defects; the dragons’ hatching would not harm humanity or damage the Earth but this is moot because it’s killed before it can hatch.

            Outcome d) Both defect; the dragon’s hatching would wreck the Earth and kill humanity, but this is moot because the dragon is killed before it can hatch. (Alternatively, it’s killed partway through hatching, the Earth is damaged, and lots of people die.)

            The dragon is, probably, precommitted to cooperate by default, so I’m not sure if that disqualifies this from being a prisoner’s dilemma, but it looks close enough.

          • liminal fruitbat
            May 16, 2018 @ 3:51 pm

            (for those who care, yes this is the same liminal fruitbat as before; I just mistyped my email)

          • S
            May 16, 2018 @ 4:02 pm

            That doesn’t work because from each player’s view the four outcomes have to be distinguishable in the clear sequence outlined.

            Of the four you postulate, from the alien’s point of view (c) and (d) are definitely identical (it’s identically dead in both) and (a) and (b) are also identical (in both cases the alien identically lives).

            Therefore it can’t be a prisoner’s dilemma, as that requires each player to have four distinct outcomes in a consistent and clear hierarchy of preferability.

            The dragon is, probably, precommitted to cooperate by default

            If you know that the other player is bound to co-operate (which I think translates in the classic prisoner’s dilemma example to ‘keep silent’?), then you must always play ‘defect’ (ie, confess in the traditional formulation), as is always the best possible outcome for B (in the traditional example, it results in B being set free instantly).

            The dilemma is only interesting if you don’t know what the other player will do, because then neither of your two options is strictly better than the other.

          • S
            May 16, 2018 @ 4:10 pm


            ‘you must always play ‘defect’ (ie, confess in the traditional formulation), as <A stays silent, B confesses> is always the best possible outcome for B (in the traditional example, it results in B being set free instantly). ‘

          • S
            May 16, 2018 @ 4:25 pm

            (If your formulation, for example, from humanity’s point of view, humans must always blow up the alien because the expected outcome from that action is always at least as good as or better than the other [blowing the alien up involves no risk to the Earth; letting it live might mean the earth survives, but might mean the Earth is destroyed; hence, blow it up and save the Earth], regardless of what the alien does. It is therefore uninteresting as a game-theoretical problem, because there is a trivially winning strategy.)

          • liminal fruitbat
            May 16, 2018 @ 8:04 pm

            Is it a one-shot prisoner’s dilemma or an iterated one, though? I screwed up by using “humanity”, but I’m assuming the dragon’s behaviour is evolved and instinctual, and that it’s not one dragon playing against/with one world but the space dragon species playing against/with planet-dwelling life, and the preferred strategy in the iterated prisoner’s dilemma is cooperation.

            Also, letting the dragon live is better than blowing it up; that’s the whole premise of the ending of the story. Outcome a) is best for both players.

          • S
            May 17, 2018 @ 9:03 am

            Outcome a) is best for both players

            Then it’s definitely not a prisoner’s dilemma, because the whole point of the prisoner’s dilemma is that whichever outcome is best for player A is worst for player B, and vice versa.

            If there were a way for both players to get their best outcome, it wouldn’t be a very interesting problem, again, because then obviously both players would independently decide to do the thing which, when they both did it, got them their best outcome, knowing that the other player, being rational and following the same thought processes, will do the same.

            the preferred strategy in the iterated prisoner’s dilemma is cooperation.

            Is it? Why? Justify that.

          • David Anderson
            May 19, 2018 @ 2:26 pm

            As I understand it, the point of a standard Prisoner’s Dilemma (non-iterated) is that whatever the other player does defect is always strictly better for you than co-operate. And yet, co-operate/co-operate is better for you than defect/defect is. (The other player defecting hurts you more than you or they gain by defecting.) It’s of interest because it means that two players each playing the game-theoretic optimal strategy do worse than two players playing the same suboptimal strategy.

            In an iterated Prisoner’s dilemma you can employ a tit-for-tat strategy that plays co-operate unless the other player defected in the last round: in that case, the other player’s expected payoff from always co-operating is greater than the payoff from defecting.

  15. Przemek
    May 16, 2018 @ 10:20 pm

    Thinking about it all those years later, that powerful scene at the end with Clara finally getting fed up with Twelve’s behaviour is what convinced me that this Doctor might be redeemable after all. Like I said before, by the time “The Caretaker” aired I was really, really tired of this abrasive, unpleasant guy who insisted on calling himself the Doctor while acting like a dick. And so when she finally got to tell him “respected is NOT how I feel”, I was relieved. Clara’s anger in that scene was my anger. He crossed the line and he knew it, and so he could start becoming the Doctor again.

    I still think that’s one of the best scenes in the show.
    “Get back in your lonely, your lonely bloody Tardis and you don’t come back”… Shivers every time.


    • quicksilver
      May 17, 2018 @ 4:19 am

      The last scene was phenomenal. I am so glad they did not have the usual weak companion-Doctor confrontation where he gets slapped or gets an exasperated “Doctor” and then he comes to his senses within 2 seconds or have some other indirect way in which his hubris is cut down.

      It highlights a larger story about consent and the power that comes with the skills, knowledge and experience that the Doctor has. For example, anytime you have to sign a consent form, say at a hospital, and the doctor leaves you after prattling about risks of various procedures, or in a legal situation, unless you are already predisposed to a particular action, there is this overwhelming sense of powerlessness and lack of control that a patient or an accused or a victim feels, which only gets mitigated when someone else is with them (a knowledgable friend, a social worker or a lawyer on your side in my examples).

      Clara being Clara immediately recognizes how the Doctor gave her control in name only when he abandoned her without providing the supportive environment in which she could have exercised that control. This episode came after Deep Breath and Robot of Sherwood and Listen where Clara had already shown herself to be extremely capable in wresting control and making tough decisions when push comes to shove. But here, the Doctor himself shoved her into the conundrum, without her consent.

      Clara calling him out on his condescension (“respected is not what I feel”) with heartfelt anger and with some fantastic acting by Jenna Coleman was jaw-droppingly great and just what the show needs from time to time. It was the first time in DW and was the last time to date. There were so many opportunities in S10 where I would have liked Bill to similarly challenge the Doctor: in Lie of the Land after the Doctor played that cruel joke on her, in the Doctor Falls when he tells her she does not have the luxury of anger. Well, at least we got it in KTM.


    • Rodolfo Piskorski
      May 21, 2018 @ 1:48 pm

      It is SO well-acted, Coleman is definitely one of the best actors DW has ever had!
      And her scenes with the Doctor have always been very well scripted. They’re always very insightful, psychologically interesting, and unpredictable.
      When Clara is asking the Doctor why he travels and she goes
      “So it is like… an addiction?”
      I was like “WHOA did NOT see that coming!”


    • Rodolfo Piskorski
      November 20, 2018 @ 12:46 pm

      “you walk our earth, you breathe our air”

      These 8 words are better writing than the whole of series 11 so far.


  16. Kit
    May 18, 2018 @ 5:56 am

    often felt like over the top plot twists from trashy television shows. (“What do you mean he masturbated into a potted plant?”)

    To be fair, this one detail was indeed a twist that misrepresented Weinstein’s actions on the night in a way that aimed for incongrous gasps, while drastically reducing an example of Weinstein’s repugnant disregard for other humans and the concept of consent.

    (Whoever first distorted it presumably did so inadvertantly, presumably due to being unfamilar with kitchens: in contemporary reports, Weinstein grabbed a nearby cooking pot to ejaculate into, rather than leaving the object of his assault to find a standing plant outside the room.)


  17. Hollow
    May 19, 2018 @ 3:02 am

    The first time I watched Kill the Moon I felt queasy. I was one of the many for whom the abortion parallel felt so blatant and obtrusive that it curdled the episode. I was surprised and saddened that Doctor Who, of all shows, seemed to be dabbling with pro-life propaganda. When I learned much later that the abortion analogy was (according to Harness) unintentional, I was somehow sadder still – it implied an entire creative team so tin-eared and insulated from basic female experience that it never occurred to them how a large part of their audience might read the episode.

    In the early days of email, a friend once forwarded me one of those weird chain letters. It argued something like: imagine a poor, pregnant, syphilitic woman with eight kids, most of whom are blind, deaf or mentally retarded. Would you recommend an abortion? If so, congratulations, you just murdered Beethoven. I asked my friend why he sent me this; he shrugged and said it was an ‘interesting thought experiment’. I felt a similar queasiness then.

    I’ve rewatched the episode since reading your thoughtful, well-argued defence, but I think no better of it. I wonder why I’m moved by similar ideas in Beast Below and Thin Ice, but left cold here. (The cheap answer is ‘the writing’ – politics aside, I find KTM poorly written and poorly paced. The coda is the only salvageable part for me.) Those episodes feel to me to come from an argument of empathy and respect, whereas Kill the Moon seems more in the ‘interesting thought experiment (with convenient disregard for context)’ camp. For those unable to get on board, what you read as the glorious liberating ‘fuck you’ of the moon egg premise can be less charitably read as hacky, lazy writing. I don’t like to be uncharitable, but in the end I think I trust my queasiness here: KTM raises my hackles because for me it shares a family resemblance to the bullying, set-the-narrative tactics of the pro-lifer email. If you choose to kill the moon, if you are pedestrian enough to place the safety of the living ahead of an unborn, magical spacebaby, then you are anti-imagination, anti-space-travel, anti-life. You just killed Beethoven. I would have to ignore too much context to get to a place where that isn’t a disturbing argument.

    Anyway, thanks for the lovely blog, and apologies for the sourness.


    • BeatnikLady
      May 19, 2018 @ 6:55 pm

      I think the difference here is that the Moon creature exists only in potential at the beginning of the story, while other stories using similar ideas (Thin Ice, for example) show a creature already alive and suffering. In Kill the Moon there is the danger that humankind will die if no action is taken – and no one has chosen to have a Moon egg near them, so it seems unfair to pass judgement on those who want the ‘abort’ option. I assume the ‘kill/don’t kill’ situation was set up because it would hopefully provide a suitable degree of drama for a 45 minute episode, but yes, not seeing the implications of the setup is unfortunate. Would a female writer have come up with something different? Hard to say.
      At least Clara does have strong words with The Doctor. It’s taking too long for this version of the character to develop.


    • Rodolfo Piskorski
      May 21, 2018 @ 1:53 pm

      I think the very important point is that we – as the recipients of that e-mail – are not to make that decision. That is a decision for the syphilitic woman to make.


  18. Citizen Alan
    May 21, 2018 @ 2:37 am

    Probably too late to join in, but …

    I never picked up on the abortion angle at first because I was too gobsmacked at the absurdity of “the moon is an egg” to process it metaphorically.

    That said, my biggest objection to the story is the even greater absurdity of Clara’s proposed “vote” (the results of which many viewers use to condemn humanity for perceived selfishness. She asked people to vote by turning off their lights if they wanted her to kill the creature. And then all the lights went out … at once, across entire continents. It seemed so transparently obvious to me that the world leaders all got together and said “It seems there’s a mad woman on the moon who’s going to kill us all unless we can get all the lights off in the next half hour or so” and then they just ordered all the power grids to be shut off. In fact, I was so certain this would be the case that I actually expected all the lights to come back on just before Clara could kill the creature followed by her getting the message that most of the people were on her side and had stormed the power plants to get the power back on.


  19. Rodolfo Piskorski
    May 21, 2018 @ 11:36 am

    I agree, I never understood why the moon’s being an egg is supposed to be so preposterous. I actually find it quite interesting, as moons and eggs are things that exist and that we understand. I find it much less preposterous than a giant monster bats that come out of the sky to eat temporal ripples or the actual devil living in a pit somewhere in space.


  20. Rodolfo Piskorski
    May 21, 2018 @ 1:27 pm

    I think this episode is about the stupidity of referenda.


  21. Chicken Chuckles
    June 1, 2018 @ 6:44 pm

    “But the moon being an egg is more than just not in any way a violation of Doctor Who’s narrative rules; it’s fucking brilliant. It’s a completely batshit premise that only Doctor Who could ever do”

    We just going to ignore the fact that The SuperFriends did it in 1980 then?


  22. maksromanov
    June 23, 2023 @ 3:59 am

    In our modern world, writing plays an important role in conveying information and expressing thoughts. It is especially important to be able to write an essay, as it is a form of communication that requires analysis, organization and argumentation of ideas. Writing an essay alone, without outside help, is a difficult task. It requires not only a deep understanding of the topic, but also the ability to structure your thoughts, maintain a logical chain and use appropriate language expressions. The lack of outside help raises the demand for independence and creative thinking, which makes essay writing even more challenging and challenging.


  23. samsoncurtid
    June 23, 2023 @ 4:08 am

    th for information


    • kenziie bee
      February 6, 2024 @ 3:51 am

      i really cant read this episode as not being about abortion one way or another i absolutely dont think it’s a 1:1 thing where Clara explicitly chooses “pro-life” but if “its your moon, womankind” hadn’t already got me there, the big fat ABORT button would have forcibly grabbed me by the nose

      and actually i like this episode better under that lens, especially including Clara ripping the Doctor a new one at the end, because it so fits the critique of him here. a patronizing [man] ally who thinks standing back and shoving the save the earth [or abort the moon] debate into the hands of beleaguered human [women] is the best he can do. as if absolving himself of the decision when it comes down to the clutch is at all helpful. You walk our earth, you breathe our air [you gaze at our bodies, you claim to respect us]


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