“Kill the Moon” – The Abortion Episode of Doctor Who

About twenty minutes into Saturday’s “Kill the Moon,” I began to feel a sensation of creeping, speechless dread that deepened throughout the episode until it settled in my stomach like a pound of lead: am I seeing what I think I’m seeing? Is this an anti-choice ad on Doctor Who? As it turns out: yes, I was, and yes, it was.

If I interpret “Kill the Moon” completely literally with absolutely no subtext or eye to metaphor whatsoever, I can admit that I enjoyed it. There have been some criticisms of the quality of the science, but that is never my hill to die on with regards to Doctor Who or basically anything. I admit that the idea of a creature hatching out of an egg and then immediately laying its own egg of almost exactly equivalent size is … a stretch, but I can handle it. If the story is well-paced and the dialogue well-written, if it pushes the characters in interesting directions, then I am happy to indulge in a little science-related hand waving.

And the rest of the episode did indeed meet those qualifications. Most notably, we got more time with and development of Courtney (aka Disruptive Influence), and we finally – finally – got the satisfaction of seeing Clara give the Doctor the verbal smackdown he has so richly deserved since the series premiere. So I wanted to like this episode. It was one of the stronger episodes of the series and if I turn my analytical brain off and squint just so, I can almost, almost like it.

But I can’t. Because it is simply impossible for me to consider “Kill the Moon” on a purely literal level. The metaphor here is so obvious and so overwhelming that any attempt to elide it would be – well, like trying to turn back the tides or defy gravity.

The basic plotline of the episode is this: the Doctor, a female astronaut, Clara and Courtney discover that the moon is actually a giant egg about to hatch into an unknown creature, whose birth and existence could prove dangerous or even fatal to Earth. The female astronaut has the nuclear capacity to terminate – I’m sorry, kill – the creature and save the earth, but the question is, should they?

This is an abortion story, pure and simple. I can’t imagine I would have to illustrate the metaphor, but just in case: the Earth is the mother, and the creature in the egg that literally revolves around the Earth and whose birth and existence may significantly threaten the well-being of the Earth, is a fetus.

I have seen some people argue that the claims of an abortion subtext don’t hold water because the egg was about to hatch; the creature was almost ready to be born, they say, so the story is about birth not abortion.This is fundamentally false.The story is set prior to hatching (birth); hatching is imminent, but until it occurs, we are still talking about is an egg (fetus). If you want to be technical, this story is about is the oft-discussed but extremely rare late-term abortion.

Late-term abortions are the most popular rallying cries for the anti-choice brigade, hurled as ammunition and condemnation against all women who demand right over their own bodies. They incite easy outrage. Late-term abortions are statistically rare; typically they only occur as a result of an unforeseen but extremely dangerous condition that will almost certainly result in a very short and extremely painful life for the child, or – in this particular case – if the birth poses a lethal threat to the mother.

“Kill the Moon” is is an abortion parable, so what is the moral or lesson Peter Harness wants his viewers to glean? I have seen people praise this episode for its evenhandedness, for it’s willingness to present “both sides” of the story. It’s true that both sides of the conflict between Clara and the Doctor are presented, and it’s true that the arguments both for and against termination are stated. However, probing a little deeper reveals that this supposed evenhandedness is superficial at best, and cheap manipulation at worst.

At a quick glance, Harness appears to check a number of progressive, seemingly pro-choice, and dare I say feminist-friendly boxes. An involved male party respectfully allows himself to be absented? Check. Women are given the ultimate power to decide? Check. The populace is polled but ultimately it is the wom(e)n’s choice to terminate or not? Check. This progressiveness and balance, however, does not bear up under scrutiny.

If this episode was truly about respecting a woman’s choice, both decisions would be presented as equally valid. It would be a matter of “What is the best, wisest decision for me/us right now?” Not, “What is the morally right decision?” Morality and rightness would not figure into the discussion. And do not be fooled – there is very clearly a “right” decision in “Kill the Moon” and it was always going to be to “choose life.”

Harness is priming viewers for this conclusion from the very beginning of the episode. When alluding to their dilemma in the cold open, Harness is careful to have Clara frame the issue by calling the creature “an innocent life” [emphasis mine]. After the credits, Clara explains to the Doctor the disastrous effect he has had on Courtney by telling her she isn’t special, and a distressed Courtney is on hand to prove Clara’s point. Aw, of course she’s special, the viewers are invited to reply. Isn’t everyone – or, to rephrase, every life – special? These emotional appeals – to protect innocence, to validate the uniqueness of every life – are designed to subconsciously align the viewer with the decision to choose life before we even know what the question is.

This episode is also loaded linguistic choices straight out of the pro-life handbook: referring to the unborn creature as a baby, uses the loaded verb kill right in the episode’s title, and even combines them by having Clara refer to “killing a baby.”

But perhaps the most telling instance of this manipulation occurs after the decision has been made. At the end of the episode, the Doctor reassures Clara that she’s done “the right thing” and that he had faith she would always make “the right choice.” But part of the reason Clara is so angry at the Doctor, she explains, is because she “nearly got it wrong.” Clearly there are not two equally valid options here; there is a right choice and there is definitely a wrong one.

And look! Everything worked out just perfectly in the end, conveniently validating the “right” choice with not a single negative consequence.In fact, the results of the decision to choose life are overwhelmingly positive: it ushers in a glorious new age of space travel and discovery!

So what is my point? Should every question of whether or not to abort be answered in the affirmative? Of course not. If Clara had made the other choice, would that have made me happy? I would have been happier had Harness actually presented issue in good faith, but even then no, not really.

Frankly, despite all its surface-level merits, I do not believe this episode should have been made. Which is not to say I don’t think a story centered on abortion has a place in broad-appeal or even family-friendly television. I simply do not believe that a) this was a well-written, thoughtful or balanced iteration of such a story; and b) that an abortion story is appropriate for this show, with its focus on the wonders of the universe and the specialness and importance of every life. In such a show, termination can only ever be presented as a negative decision, the wrong choice.

I also think it is wildly, obviously, and (if it didn’t hurt so much) laughably inappropriate to stage a television morality play about abortion that is written, directed, and produced by men.

It seems, perhaps, that someone at the BBC shared some of my concerns, or at least feared others might: Harness has apparently deleted his Twitter account shortly before the episode aired. This easy duck-and-cover move only confirms my beliefs about his cheap tactics. Frankly, I am also disappointed in both Doctor Who and the BBC for all the decisions that went into making this episode.

I never thought I’d have to spell this out, but just for future reference, let me be very clear: I am fine with the Doctor using his TARDIS to travel throughout all of time and space, but keep Doctor Who the hell out of my uterus.

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Rave: Only Lovers Left Alive

LOVERS

 

Only two minutes into Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive and I was already thinking, How did it take me this long to see this movie? Before the credits even finished rolling, I messaged one of my close friends to breathlessly recommend it. “Two delicious hours of pale, listlessly beautiful androgynes brooding and twirling and erotically touching hands while making literary references” was my initial assessment and I honestly can’t think I can do better than that. If that doesn’t appeal to you, the film probably won’t either. If it does, I promise that in Only Lovers Left Alive you will find a goddamn treasure.

For starters, Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are perfection as the titular lovers. Swinton plays Eve, a voracious reader and wise, warm optimist. Hiddleston is her husband Adam, a reclusive musician and electrical engineer. Like his old pals the Romantics (“Frankly, he was an asshole,” Adam says of Byron), Adam is a brooder. In fact, he’s suicidally depressed, which leads Eve to leave Tangiers to come visit her husband in Detroit.

Unlike most of his fictional vampire brethren, Adam’s depression does not result from his impossible love life (ahem, Angel) or his tortured morality (AHEM, Angel). No, Adam is depressed because of humans’ relentless destruction of the environment and their perpetual vilification of scientists and progressive thinkers. You know, the sort of things you might actually expect someone who has witnessed centuries of human history to brood about.

It’s a cliche to talk about a setting as a character, but the cities of Tangier and Detroit play vital roles in Only Lovers Left Alive, especially the latter. Eve and Adman prowl the desolate Detroit cityscape throughout much of the film. This your wilderness, Eve says. She believes the city will rise again. They both find genuine magnificent beauty in this place and the film insists the viewer does, too.

Only Lovers Left Alive is a treat for the senses, both visually and aurally lush. The music is hypnotic, sexy and straight-up cool. Like a Renaissance painting of an abandoned warehouse, the aesthetic is rich yet stark, The cinematography is gorgeous, and the film’s slow-mo actually makes you swoon, not snort. Hiddleston and Swinton are, of course, works of art in their own right, all draping sinewy limbs, milky skin, and enormous hair. And let’s not forget the cheekbones. Oh dear god, the cheekbones.

But for me the most delightful aspect of the film (well, aside from the cheekbones) is how functional and normal this couple is. Throughout the film they deal with significant but commonplace issues, like the loss of cherished friends, unwanted visits from dysfunctional family members, and even what a drag it is to fly.

So many writers use explosive arguments as a shorthand for “passion”; it’s lazy, trite, and frankly dangerous. Jarmusch avoids this trap completely. Eve and Adam aren’t “tempestuous,” they’re tender and genuinely romantic. Their relationship is erotically charged, but also intimate and lived-in. The film also gives equal attention to the palpable intellectual connection these two obviously intelligent people share. Basically Eve and Adam feel like an old married couple in the best possible way.

That is the real charm of the film, for me. Only Lovers Left Alive is like the vampire love story for grown-ups I’d been waiting for – luscious, campy, and cerebral, with a literary sensibility and a pair of sexy, surprisingly well-adjusted lovers at its heart. In Adam and Eve, I finally found a vampire couple I can swoon over and root for.

Goodness vs. Rightness: “Am I a Good Man?”

“Am I a good man?”

It’s the tagline for the new season of Doctor Who, and by extension, for the new Doctor as played by Peter Capaldi. Presumably this question meant to to intrigue the viewers – who is this new Doctor? What is he like? How different is he from the man we once knew? Frankly, it doesn’t intrigue me; it irks me.

When the Doctor asks Clara this, to her credit she does not stroke his ego. “I don’t know,” she says honestly. What I wish she’d said is, “You tell me.”

Because that is, of course, a question only the asker can and should answer. You want to know if you are good? Interrogate your actions. Be good. Do good things. Act in a way that is ethical, compassionate, just, and kind. This answer, however, presumes that the asker really cares. In this case, I’m not so sure.

When it comes to goodness, we can agree that actions speak louder than words. The Doctor asks if he is good, but his actions show that what he really cares about being is right. An obsession with rightness has long been a part of this character, but with this new series and this new Doctor, it seems to have reached a fever pitch.

In “Into the Dalek,” the Doctor comes into contact with Rusty, a Dalek who has seemingly been made “good” by damage to its wiring. A good Dalek is impossible, he decides, even though the evidence of it is right in front of him. It doesn’t matter; he doesn’t want to see it. The would rather be right than hopeful; he would rather have the limits of the world as he knows it reaffirmed than to open himself to possibility. He would rather be right, even if that means his death and the death of those around him, including Clara.

Later, deep in the belly of the Dalek, Journey Blue – who is grieving the brother the Daleks just killed and has just watched one of her fellow soldiers sacrifice himself – asks the Doctor if her fallen comrade’s remains are among the half-digested human detritus through which they are trudging. “Yep, he’s probably the top layer here!” the Doctor chirps glibly. Let us be clear. This answer is not cute. It isn’t adorably alien or even thoughtless or grumpy. It’s callous and it is repulsively cruel. Is he right? Probably. Is he good? Absolutely not.

The Doctor’s obsession with rightness continues into “Robots of Sherwood.” He asks Clara where in all of time and space she wants to go. Her answer? To see Robin Hood, a man she has idolized since childhood. The Prince of Thieves, an outcast hero who always fights for what is good even if sometimes he does it by questionable means. The Doctor should be flattered by the obvious parallels, but he can’t see them. He can’t see beyond his own desire to be right.

You see, Robin Hood doesn’t exist, he says. And for the rest of the episode, he sets about proving it, even at the expense of dampening the one experience Clara has asked for – Clara, who, let us remember, he recently begged to continue travelling with him, and who has literally saved his life dozens of times. It doesn’t matter. He doesn’t see Clara’s beautiful, giddy thrill at meeting her hero. His rightness, his supreme correctness, is more important to him than her joy.

***

The Doctor has never been my favourite parts of the show – I’ve always preferred the companions, the recurring characters, and the memorable one-off guest stars. The number one reason I’ve given for this preference is that I consider the Doctor a mansplainer. Many people will groan at that term and write me off as a feminist harpy (you’re half right). But the term is a useful shorthand for many women; when I say mansplainer, the Doctor – especially this Doctor – is exactly the kind of man I mean.

The mansplainer is usually not someone who is deliberately oppressive, violent, or otherwise villainous. Sometimes he is someone who genuinely means well. But he is always someone who arrogantly assumes he knows exactly how the universe and everyone in it works. Who believes that he is right and who has a desperate need for that belief to be re-affirmed over and over again, even if it means steamrolling over other people’s feelings, perspectives, and truths. Who, when challenged, has the gall to turn around and plaintively ask, “Am I a good man?” Aren’t I a Nice Guy?

I see this myopic, defiant obsession with rightness in our culture all the time; most recently, of course, in the refrain of “Well, if you/she didn’t take nude photos, then they wouldn’t be hacked!” Is this right – as in, is it correct? In the narrowest, most technical way possible, sure. You cannot steal and publicize what is not there. But those who repeat this are concerned with being acknowledged as right, not with being just or compassionate. Not with being good. They are not nice guys, and they are certainly not good men.

***

I do not know in what direction the Doctor Who writers will take this series. I am hopeful that since we have seen the Doctor proven wrong about both the good Dalek and Robin Hood, his obsession with rightness will pay off narratively in the form of a lesson. I hope that that lesson goes further than “you are not always right”; I hope the real lesson is “sometimes, you need to let go of being right in order to be good.” I hope we actually get to see a good man.

I do not want the young men – or young women or anyone, frankly – who watch this show to think that “good” is a thing you just are, permanently. Goodness is a thing you enact. It is a thing you practice. It is hard, and more often than not, you will fail at it. Goodness means trying your best, but it also means allowing space for mistakes (yours and others’) and responding to them with grace. Goodness means being willing to open yourself to different points of view, even if they threaten and challenge you. It means treating everyone, regardless of their background, as people with real feelings and ideas that are just as important as yours.

Goodness, then, it is not a credential; it is a responsibility. But more excitingly, it is an opportunity. Because there is always time to be good. It is never, ever too late to start being a good man – or in this case, to start again.