...a blog by Richard Flowers

Friday, September 04, 2015

Day 5354: DOCTOR WHO: Over the Moon


"A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals," as, well, Agent K puts it in "Men in Black"!

Thomas Hobbes put it a little less pithily but made substantively the same point when he wrote his potboiler on human nature: "Leviathan".

And if you think Seventeenth Century philosophy is an unlikely starting point for an episode of Doctor Who, remember there's a very literal "Leviathan" Moon Dragon here.

A Leviathan, yesterday

So I'm going to start at the point where Clara asks the Earth to vote on whether or not to, as the episode title has it, kill the Moon.

To my mind that is where the heart of what this moral dilemma is about stands. It's not just about the rights and wrongs of killing, or of killing a baby, or the one life versus many billions. It's about how we make choices like that.

I'm not dismissing those dilemmas. They are important choices. And the episode is driving you to taking sides on each of them.

And frankly it's almost impossible to overlook the "abortion" metaphor. Although in a way I suspect that writer Peter Harness probably did; it's very much there to be read into the text – it's a choice made by women whether to kill a baby that might threaten their way of life or even survival – but that really doesn't seem to be the point that he's making.

The point that Hobbes and K are making – to go back to that – is that asked to make a decision en masse people default to the self-interested choice. Individual acts of kindness and charity happen, of course they do; but look at the outcomes and you must admit that most people will do the least they have to or ask what's in it for me? It's the thinking behind the "Prisoner's Dilemma". It's why we have sayings like "no good deed goes unpunished". It's why referendums are actually a pretty bad way to make decisions. It's why we have Tory governments for that matter.

What accounts for the difference – individuals kind; groups selfish – is information and accountability.

Random people in a large group are unlikely to have expertise in a specific subject, and almost certainly not the time or inclination to spend resources getting themselves informed. So they will make simplistic decisions based on gut instinct and the limited information they have available which is usually "how will this affect me".

At the same time, no one is going to ask them to justify the choice that they have made. We see this time and again in post-election polling: more people say they voted for the winning side than actually did. Or in some cases more people say they voted for the "good" party than actually did.

We have a couple of ways of dealing with this.

One of them is capitalism. Utopian systems such as Communism require every individual to know and understand their place in relationship to the system so that they will not overuse resources, and will appreciate say what the "needs" of others are in order to fulfil the "to each according to their needs" part. Capitalism gets around that by not requiring people to be angels. "Market forces" just means setting the self-interest of one group to cancel out the self-interest of another group and achieve an overall fairness. (Even then a true market requires "perfect" information – otherwise one side can take advantage of, say, insider trading – and since "perfect" information is impossible we have an unstable system where one side usually has disproportionate power, which is why at the very least we need regulations to rebalance the equation, and in the longer term something else altogether. The strengths and failings of liberal capitalism being really a longer essay for another time.)

But the main one is representative democracy: We chose the kind of people we want to make decisions – conservative or progressive, liberal or authoritarian – and expect them to go and get themselves informed on the subject and then make the decision for us.

Hobbes is not a fan of representative democracy, which he largely sees as swapping a large rabble for a smaller one. He favours a monarch, someone in whom the maximum information can be focussed and who has the maximum accountability (which suggests Hobbes knew very little about actual monarchs).

We see this reflected in "Kill the Moon". (Yes, back to the Doctor Who episode.)

Yes, of course it's unbelievable that every single light on Earth would go out. We like to believe that ordinary people would be better than that. And people make excuses, say it's governments or Mr Burns-esque power company bosses making the decisions. Or protest that only a narrow arc of the Earth actually gets a vote (typically it's Western Europe, continent of privilege that makes it.) That isn't the point. Earth here is Hobbes's Leviathan, the people's choice being nasty brutish and short-sighted. (And yes, Leviathan is where that joke about the Sontarans comes from; you probably know that.)

Clara is the person who has most information – not only because she is on the scene but through her experiences from travelling with the Doctor. And she is also the most accountable person, if only to the Doctor. Or to Courtney, her one witness from "real life". But perhaps even more so to herself, because she’s in a position where she can’t just say ‘well I couldn’t make a difference’.

These factors combine to make Clara the right person to make the right decision. The monarch.

And the monarch having made the right decision, the people flourish (the Doctor's vision of mankind's future unfolding across space and to the ends of time).

If you still think this isn't the point, then Courtney – arguably the person with the second best information – is, the Doctor tells us, implausibly going to become President i.e. secular monarch.

What fascinates me – and for me makes the Doctor a real Liberal hero in this episode – is that he denies Hobbes and choses to absent himself from the role of monarch.

When Clara lashes out at the Doctor at the end, she has every right to be furious. Her best friend has just abandoned her to what seemed to her the most painful choice –

This isn't a difficult choice. Difficult choices – and that's not always a politician's excuse for doing the wrong but expedient thing – are when there are only lose/lose options.

The threat to Earth is largely hypothetical. (We are told about flooding that has happened.) But if the baby turns out to be a threat, there are other things that can be done.

Killing the baby Moon Dragon really is just choosing the easy thing over the right thing.

[This week, this could so easily be a metaphor about refugees.]

Clara knows this. She knows what is right. But everything seemed to be telling her that doing the right thing had too high a cost, possibly the whole of the Earth. And when she needed him to support her, to be there, to hold her hand, the Doctor was gone.

But she's also dead wrong.

He knows that he is absolutely the wrong person to make this choice.

He's made this choice before. At the end of the Time War. First time around he got it wrong (or – retcon – he spent nearly three regenerations thinking he got it wrong). When he ended the Time War, he chose to take away everybody's choices.

And in Doctor Who, from pretty much the beginning on, taking away people's choices, whether by possession, mind control or extermination, has been directly equated with evil.

So if he makes it for us now, he's doing the same thing over again, ending everyone else's choices.

He knows that the right choice here is "don't kill the baby". But if he tells Clara that… if he tells her what to choose… he's "killing the baby", where "the baby" is humanity's nascent moral standing in the Universe.

This is why the Time Lords have a policy of non-interference. This is what the Prime Directive really means. DO NOT BE THE DALEKS.

This episode divides people, not – it seems to me – in the way "The Caretaker" seems to have done, which is on the question of quality, but in whether they side with Clara or the Doctor in response to his actions in leaving her to make the choice, or whether they think Clara was right to "overrule" that vote.

There is also a bit of division between those who get the screaming ab-dabs at the use abuse of science and those who get as far as Moon Dragon and shrug. For all that it is dressed up as a piece of hard sci-fi, it's actually a whopping great metaphor. In some ways it's up to the viewer whether you take that to mean the Moon Dragon is a metaphor for Leviathan, or for the unborn child, or for an Engorgio ad Absurdum of the Brothers Karamazov dictum:

"Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last. Imagine that you are doing this but that it is essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny order to found that edifice on its unavenged tears. Would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?"

Cards on the table, I think this is one of the very best episodes of Doctor Who. Ever.

It looks gorgeous, as usual – the use of Lanzarote as a moonscape is inspired, and the effects are outstanding: the CG space shuttle crash, the spider-germs, the Moon Dragon itself. It's proper Hinchcliffe scary with real monsters – probably the series' best spiders yet. There are some lovely references, particularly to "The Ark in Space", from the use of the yoyo for gravity testing and mention of the Bennet oscillator to it being an Earth-space-satellite horror with an inspiring speech about the nobility of human nature! (Even if it shoots the continuity of "The Moonbase" into little pieces.)

And the acting is total quality throughout. Yes even Ellis George's Courtney who is supposed to be that annoying – a very Earthly child. Hermione Norris – "Spooks'" Roz Myers – as bitter, cynical, disappointed, let down by humanity abandoning space travel Lundvik, who still rediscovers wonder at the end. Lovely to see Tony Osoba again too. But especially Jenna Coleman who has transformed as Clara from the previous year's cypher into someone confident, bossy, caring, flawed, terrified, angry and totally human. And of course Peter Capaldi, as the Doctor. Impossible and alien. And liberal and right.

That speech of the Doctor's at the end, played with a sense of wonder as though this is a gift from the Universe to him for trusting Clara to get it right, is one of the great speeches of "Doctor Who", up there with "Indomitable" and "Do I have that right?" both of which are clearly influences on this episode. It was so good that, just weeks later, we had it quoted at our wedding:

"In the mid Twenty-First Century, humankind starts creeping off into the stars, spreads its way through the galaxy to the very edges of the Universe. And it endures ’til the end of time. And it does all that because one day in the year 2044, when it had stopped thinking about going to the stars, something occurred that make it look up, not down. It looked out there into the blackness and it saw something beautiful, something – wonderful, that for once it didn't want to destroy. And in that one moment, the whole course of history was changed."

Look up not down. See the wonder not the blackness. Discover; don't destroy. Make the right choice.

Above all "Kill the Moon" makes you think. It's clever and challenging and if you get into an argument about it, all the better.

This is what Doctor Who is for.

Next Time Throw Momma from the Train! If "Kill the Moon" is flying the flag for Doctor Who's "rad" tradition, next time things get about as "trad" as they can go. Period drama! Oak panelling! Living Mummy! Gothic futurism collides with sci-fi horror monster mash! Look out Janet Henfrey, time for another death-by-undead! There's a "Mummy on the Orient Express"!


Simon Fernandes said...

I see the point you're making - that this ep has a cynical view of humanity tempered by a last minute burst of optimism. Unfortunately I can't agree, because this is a dramatic cheat.

You seem to (perhaps unconsciously) recognise this yourself, referring to the ep's central dilemma first as a "moral dilemma" then an "important choice", then later saying "This isn't a difficult choice". The trouble being that the whole point of the drama, and everything it's built up to be, says that it is. Then cuts the rug right out from under that difficult choice, because the writer has decided there's a "right answer", and backs it up, against all probability and everything his own script has established, by making the "right choice" absolutely consequence-free.

The script does not downplay the threat to the Earth as "largely hypothetical"; on the contrary, we're told that already there've been tsunamis large enough to wipe out whole cities on coastlines, presumably killing tens of thousands. Later, when Lundvik contacts Ground Control, she's told, with typically English understatement, that things are "bad" - the expression of the actor conveying that "bad" in this context means "catastrophic". And that's before the "egg" has even hatched. Under those circumstances, I'm sorry, but however "beautiful and unique" one creature may happen to be, its one life does not trump that of billions. Lundvik made absolutely the right decision. The trouble is, Peter Harness had already decreed that it was wrong.

The dramatic cheat would be bad enough, if it weren't for the very, very obvious abortion metaphor. The script absolutely clubs you over the head with it - "it's just a baby", "you can't blame a baby for kicking", "it hasn't even felt the sunlight yet", etc. And Peter Harness has decreed, by deciding the "right answer", that abortion is wrong. Clara, being the "good character", knows this, and defies the will of all humanity to take a stance that wouldn't disgrace the Arizona Tea Party. And at the end, Harness has Lundvik, the only character in favour of the "abortion", turn to Clara and say, "thank you for showing me I was wrong".

So, however inspiring and well-written Capaldi's final speech may be, the ending of this ep leaves a very, very bad taste in my mouth. Not only does it cheat dramatically by presenting a "moral dilemma" for which there is a "right answer" free of any consequences, I really don't want a show as liberal and inclusive as Doctor Who presenting me with the argument that abortion is wrong no matter how severe the potential consequences. Abortion really is a difficult choice and a moral dilemma; this episode paints it as anything but.

Millennium Dome said...

Hello Simon,

You make the case for why this episode is controversial. Quite a lot of people have, and I understand that. It's one reason why I wanted to present an alternative point of view.

You describe the abortion metaphor as very, very obvious. And yet I never saw it that way. Because no one ever aborts a baby that is about to be born.

It seems much more to be about not being afraid of, and not killing, the other. The Doctor says so almost explicitly.

But let's take it that this is about abortion. The entire thrust of the episode is about Clara making the choice. She is clearly being pulled in two directions. She is plainly, bluntly, placed between Courtney who says "you can't kill a baby" and Lundvik who gives her all the practical reasons why she must. She prevaricates until literally the last possible second; tries to get help from the Earth (all of whom, incidentally, back Lundvik's position, so Lundvik is hardly the "only" person in favour of this "abortion"); her entire argument with the Doctor is because he doesn't stay to help her with her choice.

To read this as anything other than being pro-choice is to turn the presented evidence entirely on its head.

The point about being pro-choice is that the mother does not have to choose abortion in every circumstance. She has the freedom and autonomy over her own body. The opposite of pro-life is not pro-abortion. And just because Clara makes a choice does not say that choice itself is wrong.

Millennium Dome said...

And here's the thing, if you want to force this metaphor to be about abortion, and it's really straining this already stretched metaphor to have to accept Clara as somehow a mother Earth figure, then you can't resort to the seven-billion lives versus one argument. Because an abortion is only ever going to be about the mother's one life versus the child (possibly children). You've suddenly introduced seven billion otherwise unconnected people and the metaphor comes crashing down.

But let's look at the "one life versus seven billion" argument as well.

To say that Lundvick is right because "one life trumps billions" is to make the decision based on the same false premise that she does. Because Clara saves the one life and look the billions live too. I'm sorry you feel that the episode has to cheat to do that. But that's the evidence on screen.

You are correct to point out that I made a choice to gloss over the references to the damage that has already been caused to the Earth. I had not forgotten it.

Now, if you want to be as harsh as Lundvik, then killing the baby will not bring those dead back to life. So that cannot play a part in your choice. They stay dead either way.

But it's worse than that. The cause of that damage is the enlarged moon having a greater gravity and exaggerating the tides. If you kill the baby, then that problem persists. Kill the baby and you continue to kill millions. Peter Harness doesn't spoonfeed this to you, but it's hard to see the evidence pointing any other way.

So people making the "simple" moral calculus of one life versus billions – they, I'm afraid, are making the "gut instinct" decision, not the rational one. The Tea Party "we are many so we must be right" decision. Not the one that Clara is asked to make by the Doctor.

The choice is absolutely not save all the people on Earth. It is whether to continue in a state that is already devastating the planet (and will, if it continues, probably kill everyone) or do something that might kill everyone or might resolve the situation.

Lundvik is presenting a quick fix solution that won't actually solve the problem. Clara, to her credit, discounts this argument and instead concentrates on the gamble of whether the baby being born creates an even greater hazard. In the end she does make the choice on instinct. But her instincts are based on experience and thought and turn out to be good.

I could have said all this in the review above. But actually, I thought that the abortion metaphor was really boring and, if you'll forgive the phrase, done to death already.

That's why I described that choice as the one that isn't difficult.

For me, the moral question is about the Doctor's actions, not Clara's: whether he was right to do the non-intervention thing of leaving her to make the choice (choice again) on her own because he had no right to interfere; or whether she was right to say that he had a duty to stay and support her in making her choice. Not to make the choice for her, but to be there with her as she made it. Those two perspectives, one the lofty Time Lord, the other very human, are – for me – what define the episode.

Mike Taylor said...

Meanwhile, I hated this episode with such a passion that it was the only one in Series 8 that moved me to blog about it. It was DOctor Who taking leave of its senses, and that is never acceptable. Hollywood morality at its worst. "Yes, I know that if I give him the Everything Gun he'll use it to destroy the universe. But I have no choice! He threatened to hurt my girlfriend if I don't!"

Millennium Dome said...

"Yes, I know that if I give him the Everything Gun he'll use it to destroy the universe. But I have no choice! He threatened to hurt my girlfriend if I don't!"

That would be... "Genesis of the Daleks" you're thinking of there.

(That almost perfectly describes the scene where Davros tortures Harry and Sarah Jane for the Doctor's knowledge.)

But though actually quite common in Doctor Who (see also "Earthshock" various Master stories etc etc) that "villain exploits hero's compassion" trope does not appear in "Kill the Moon".

Also I have to say again that "The life of one being against those of seven billion humans" is simply wrong.

In your review you say: "If you’re rational, you kill the one alien without a second thought."

Well for starters to be rational you do need to give it some thought.

And the evidence presented is that not killing the Moon Dragon does not kill the people on Earth. It is a false dilemma.

Your conclusion is therefore demonstrated to be the wrong choice.

I realise that the science is all completely screwy. And that you may not get past that. Basically, either you can overlook it or you can't. But what you cannot do is appeal to science to claim "things would not have worked out like that".

Science says you have to look at what actually happened. If your theory says that's wrong - then you've got the wrong theory.