The MOON is an EGG. This is why that matters.
I’ve wanted to write about the Doctor Who episode where the MOON is an EGG for some time now, really more or less since it aired. When I first saw it I thought it had something quite important to say — about Doctor Who itself, but also about our culture and society — and it’s something that’s become more important in the months and years that have followed. I haven’t actually watched the episode since it aired, so I imagine I’ll make loads of mistakes about the plot and characters and structure of the thing. Hopefully that won’t matter, but if it does you can feel better by shouting at me online.
I remember the basics of the episode, at least. In Kill the Moon, the Doctor, his companion and a little girl travel to the moon in 2049. There, they discover that unusual tidal activity caused by the moon has become a threat to humanity, and a group of astronauts has come to destroy the satellite with nuclear bombs. However, it turns out that changes to the moon’s behaviour have come about because — improbably — it’s really an enormous alien egg which is in the process of hatching. At the end of the episode the moon shatters apart as a giant, dragon-like alien emerges from it, an alien who — the Doctor says — will fascinate humanity so much that they feel they’ll have to go out and explore the universe again.
Below the surface, however, I thought Kill the Moon was about something else entirely. After the episode had first aired, I heard that people on the Doctor Who discussion forums had wondered if the moon from the 1967 serial The Moonbase was an egg too, and asked why no-one had ever thought to mention this at the time. This, I thought, is almost exactly the wrong question to ask about Kill the Moon, because the whole point of the thing is that the moon of 2014 is not the same as the moon of 1967. In the sixties, the idea that human civilisation would one day expand out to space was more or less taken as read: bases on the moon and inhabited wheels in space were things that could quite conceivably exist in the real future as well as the one the Doctor poked around in on-screen. Against this backdrop, the race to put a man on the moon is symbolic of a wider assumed future — and one which adults and children could both conceivably believe in.
Subtextually, I think Kill the Moon is about what happens when this future no longer seems real. In it, the weapons of the sixties — the Earth’s last ever nuclear bombs — are intended to destroy the imagined future of the sixties, here represented by the moon itself. Significantly, the episode portrays the moon as being a bit rubbish; grey, breaking apart, literally covered in cobwebs, coded as something from our past instead of our future. It’s there as the spent remains of what the future was going to be rather than what any of us now think the future really is, and there to remind us that the symbols of that future are not ones that hold real power or appeal for our society any more.
This, the episode has realised, presents something of a problem for Doctor Who. As a cultural artefact that is itself from the sixties, the future as a place where human expansion and exploration beyond Earth is something that actually happens is more or less hard-coded into the show’s DNA. However, Who has now been around for long enough that the future depicted in its earlier years is either already close to becoming the past — the 1967 serial The Enemy of the World, for example, is set in the distant era of 2018 — or is manifestly not going to become a reality in the years to come. Half the men who walked on the moon are now dead; it’s 45 years since a human set foot on the place. The expansion that seemed inevitable in the sixties has dissipated away, and the symbology of the future has stayed the same more or less through sheer inertia.
Kill the Moon, then, alludes to the simple fact that this state of affairs cannot continue. Post the 2008 financial crisis, it seems like the future is a place where we all work longer hours for less money in increasingly precarious ways, which isn’t really a recipe for an exciting series of adventures in space and time. This view of the future hasn’t changed since Kill the Moon aired in 2014. Indeed, if anything the future it portrays now seems over-optimistic: it seems rather less likely in 2017 that our future will contain global nuclear disarmament and a black, female president of the USA. Given this, what can a show whose stock in trade is showing us our future actually do? How can it find a way to be optimistic about what lies ahead, at a time where this seems to be ignoring the facts of reality?
Well, it can do it by changing the facts of reality. Apparently a lot of people criticised Kill the Moon after it aired because most of the things that happen in it are very unscientific. That’s true, but I’m not sure it matters — it’s a text about the way we conceive of the things that exist in the world, rather than one about what those things might or might not actually be. The episode says, in effect, that the future can only be reconceptualised — and by extension, can only be saved — if our perception of the universe changes in a radical way. It’s not enough to continue on with the same tropes around what the future is or what it means. Rather, we need to be able to inhabit a world radically different from the present in basic ways — such as coming to think of the moon as an egg, and the future as a place inhabited by fantastical dragons.
It all falls down, of course, when you ask what this radical new way of viewing things actually is. Here in the UK, I remember in 2015’s Labour leadership contest Yvette Cooper ran on a platform of saying young people needed to be engaged in politics in ways that were quite different to the ones stuffy old people were doing at the time. This is probably true, but an old woman at one of the party’s hustings punctured things by asking what these new ways of engagement might look like, exactly. I think the simple answer is that most of us don’t know, and in the end I don’t think Kill the Moon does, either — it asks the question “what, exactly, should the underlying narrative be for an optimistic view of the 21st century?”, then tries to convince us that the answer is “taking inspiration from a CGI dragon.” That’s not to say it isn’t saying worthwhile things — contrary to some, I think it’s fine and valid to articulate a problem you yourself have no solution to — but to say that it defines a new space for science fiction to be in rather than doing much within that space itself.
In 2017, however, I think we might be closer to articulating an answer. Just as it was impossible that a dragon could hatch from an egg, it was impossible for Donald Trump to become the president of the United States. Now that the second of these impossibilities is our reality, it’s worth thinking about how this was able to happen, and how some of the forces that enabled it could be used to bring about rather more positive changes. In the days after Trump’s inauguration, I found myself thinking about how those of us who were against him had reacted to his proposals to build “The Wall” — an unbroken barrier stretching over 2000 miles intended to close the border between Mexico and the USA. The Wall, we said, was a patently ridiculous idea, and in many ways it still is. But while I think we were correct to criticise the attitudes that would lead to The Wall being seen as desirable, I now think we were wrong to criticise the ambition. Just as we now don’t send people to the moon or expect ourselves to ever travel to outer space, we’ve come to believe that a public infrastructure project on The Wall’s scale just isn’t something people do anymore. Yet this science fiction is becoming reality: The Wall will be built, and the impossibilities that need to be put into place will become possibilities.
I think this sort of place is perhaps where hope of a kind can be gleaned. The dying future criticised in Kill the Moon is now surely dead; our immediate future is one of a fractured humanity on a single planet, not a united species headed towards the stars. In many ways, to me it’s the stuff of nightmares — the only comfort I can think of is that nightmares are built of the same material of dreams, and that in the sheer scale of what lies ahead we may allow ourselves to think in truly radical ways again. If we can actually achieve tasks like the construction of thousand-mile barriers and the negotiation of leaving the European Union, it surely follows that we can achieve things that match their ambition while rejecting their intent. And I think telling stories about that is crucial, too, because we need to set out visions of what our future can look like that draw from the stories and experiences of our lived present, and not from the desiccated husks of an aesthetic over half a century old. Real originality in fiction is needed to forge a reality that’s better than this one — I think that was the message of Kill the Moon, when boiled down to its basic form. Act and create, it says, and do it now– because we live in a world where the moon can be an egg, and we live in a world where the future can be saved.