Sunday, 5 October 2014

Review: Doctor Who -- Kill the Moon

[This review contains spoilers. For anyone who lives in one of those countries whose television companies weren't duped into paying an exorbitant premium for immediate screening of the new season of Doctor Who, please return after the show has aired. Trust me, you'll need to read something to help you endure your frustration.]

People have told me that I would enjoy the current Doctor Who much more if I didn't think about it so much. So that's what I've tried to do. I have a nagging feeling that back in the old days the stories were good even if I did think about them -- but, well, I'm not going to think about that.

If I enter a suitably imbecilic state -- and in Britain we're helped by a preceding 130 minutes of Strictly Come Dancing --  then "Kill the Moon" was great entertainment. They were on the moon. There were nasty killer parasites on the moon with them. The moon itself turned out to be a dragon's egg. There was a countdown to a massive nuclear dragon-slaying, and a moral dilemma in which the entire human race got to vote, and Clara and a plucky schoolgirl vetoed them. And Clara gave the Doctor a telling-off in which she said, "I'll smack you so hard you'll regenerate." All in all, a fine way to spend 45 minutes.

The episode taunted me with many things that I had to work hard not to think about. As a gravitational physicist, I had to work very hard indeed not to think about the sudden increase in mass of the moon. If it became so massive that it had the same gravitational pull as the Earth, wouldn't it have crashed into the Earth? Wouldn't it also have got somewhat bigger? A dragon's egg as massive as the Earth but the size of the moon implies some insanely dense amniotic fluid. And where did all this mass come from? Did a passing flock of the little birdie's ancestors pelt it with a three-month-long meteor shower of mountain-sized bacon cheeseburgers?

As a trained Doctor Who viewer of many years, I know that allowances must be made for limited BBC funds. A few throwaway lines are much cheaper than simulating low gravity.

Then there was the false moral dilemma of whether to save the dragon or the Earth. If they didn't detonate the nuclear warheads and kill the dragon, then its eruption from its shell would likely destroy all life on Earth. Well. Clearly human beings are old news, and a great whopping moon dragon is something you've just got to see, so really they just had to let it hatch. It was all too much for the Doctor, who buggered off to let them decide for themselves, and was able to be smug afterwards when the shell dissolved into dust and the dragon flew away, but not before laying a new moon to replace the old one.

If I don't think about this at all, and instead just bask in the undeniably cool shots of the moon exploding into a dragon, and perhaps also distract myself by wondering at exactly which bit of local Welsh coast they filmed the final scene, then it all makes perfect sense.

As with all of these Doctor Who episodes, it honestly was a lot of fun -- if you don't think about it.

But such a low level of brain activity is borderline fatal after 45 minutes, and after reviving myself with a shot of rum and a few tensor manipulations, I feel duty-bound to register a few complaints. Especially since in the last few weeks I've written about elementary misconceptions of gravity, and before that I wrote a post about Galileo that included that wonderful footage of astronauts dropping a hammer and a feather on the moon. Not to mention the movie Gravity, which was an accomplished piece of fiction, in direct contrast to the hackwork of much of the current season of Doctor Who.

I understand that in "science fiction", there are as many letters devoted to fiction as to science. Only the most tiresome scientists complain about errors in science fiction. No-one seriously objects that the wings were superfluous on the Star Wars X-wings, or that they used parsec as a unit of time. Who cares?

But it is one thing to cut a few corners for the sake of entertainment, and another to take a flamethrower to the textbooks.

Were there no voices of dissent in the writers' meeting?

"Can't we just say that the moon base has a gravity generator, like every other show does?"

"But we want to say that the increased moon mass causes catastrophic tides on Earth."

"But everyone knows that an egg doesn't get heavier when the chick grows."

Silence. Then finally one voice: "Really? Not even a bit?"

"No, not even a bit. And certainly not six times heavier!"

"We're not saying it gets six times heavier."

"Yes you are. The Earth's gravity is a sixth of Earth's. You work it out."

More silence. Some of the writers are counting on their fingers.

They finally reach a decision. "Ok, Professor Egghead, you're fired."

"What!? Are you nuts? You wouldn't commission an historical drama from someone who thought that Shakespeare wrote Tom Sawyer. You wouldn't take a globetrotting adventure story from someone who still thought the Earth was flat. So how can science fiction be written by people who would fail basic high school science? Who can't even multiply by six?"

"Security, take him away."

There was the basis of an excellent story. The idea of the moon as an egg was bold and original. The parasites were great. But again -- again again again! -- the writers are sloppy and flub it. Having the Doctor at odds with his companion is also a promising new direction -- but why can't Clara just once voice the question, "Why is the Doctor suddenly so bizarre?" A regeneration with a personality disorder is a fine idea, but it would be nice to be reassured that this truly is the intention, and it's not just poor writing. Because we certainly need reassurance!

For an alternative take on the story, I asked the opinion of my eight-year-old son, who is not yet aware of Newtonian gravity.

"It was cool," he said. "The moon was an egg."

"And who is better -- the new Doctor or the old one?"

"The new one. He's grumpy and complains all the time."

"That's good?"

"Yeah. He's just like you."

Other Doctor Who reviews:
Robot of Sherwood
Time Heist
The Caretaker
Mummy on the Orient Express
In the Forest of the Night
Dark Water
Death in Heaven


  1. the solution, methinks, would be to demonstrate to the beeb how it is possible to have a dr who script that is both entertaining and physics-ally factual - surely something you could turn out in the course of a few lunch breaks?

  2. But first: my campaign to win them over with praise...


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