I’m sure I’m not alone when recalling Hinchcliffe moments in bygone Doctor Who. My very earliest memories include the Melkur, a staircase in what was probably The King’s Demons, bits of The Five Doctors, the end of Adric and the Murker. Yes, the pantomime horse thing from Warrior of the Deep, which someone really should have stopped much earlier. Same with Matthew Waterhouse really.
Perhaps my strongest memory from this era is being so Hinchcliffed that I ended up under a sofa. I started off lying on the floor in front of the fire and, as I grew more and more Hinchcliffed, shuffled backwards as the Doctor and Peri slumped under the red cloth and a hail of bullets. I was utterly Hinchliffed, and though I don’t know if the shit has literally been Hinchliffed out of Doctor Who fans (as apparently happened to a gentleman viewing the original broadcast of Ghostwatch) I bet some piss has been Philipped out of a few youngsters over the years.
What am I doing? I’m using the word Hinchliffe to denote the act or the fact of being scared. This was clearly what Steven Moffat intended when instructing Kill The Moon writer Peter Harness to ‘scare up’ the first half of Kill The Moon. He did a pretty good job and the visceral horror of the lunar spiders jumping on people’s faces felt like a real shift in the series’ tone and boundaries.
Doctor Who has been intermittently scary since its return, generally in Steven Moffat’s scripts (The Empty Child, Blink and Listen particularly) but also under Russell T Davies in Midnight and Neil Cross in Hide. Arguably some of the things that go unremarked on in RTD’s episodes – or under his leadership – are far more hideous but they tend to be played for laughs or glossed over. The living Hell of a life as a paving slab is not mined for its inherent bleakness, for example, but a blowjob joke.
The horror genre is something the series has only dipped a toe into, however, favouring more accessible tropes under both showrunners. Much is made of RTD’s everyday soap-and-chav-culture tropes and Moffat’s fairytale ambiance, but it’s been harder to figure out exactly what Series eight’s touchstone is.
So the deliberate detour into much darker territory should be interesting and it is – finally Kill The Moon felt like it was delivering on Deep Breath’s promise to give the series a mild reboot. But it’s interesting for what’s it is not rather than what it is. Hinchcliffing the shit out of the first half might mollify some fans who long for Yeti in tube stations or unspeakable horrors stalking stately homes, but it doesn’t last long.
As soon as the spiders are dealt with – you spray them with Flash liquid – we move on the actual plot and Kill The Moon essentially turns into a new story. The moon is an egg and once hatched any number of things could happen. So we get a morality tale instead that pitches Clara, a gobby urchin and a non-nonsense bitch in a spacesuit agonising over whether to kill a big space dragon or risk endangering the Earth. For what it was, I thought it was OK though I was ambivalent about Clara’s fit of pique (again, I was dismayed by Clara’s threat of slapping the Doctor) and largely unimpressed by yet another ‘it’s not a monster after all but something beautiful, old and wibble’ ending.
If Moffat instructed Harness to ‘Hinchcliffe the shit out of it’, what directive did he give him for the latter half? Because Kill The Moon felt into a familiar structure of diverting a narrative in an entirely new direction halfway through and finished with another Moffat trope – finishing with a happy ending that subverts the original set-up. Hide, Into The Dalek, Listen and Time Heist are four examples off the top of my head, but there are many more.
This suggests to me that Moffat simply doesn’t think relatively simple, self-contained narratives can work in the modern day. However, another reading is that he doesn’t have enough faith to let these stories stand on their own two feet – a recent article written for Doctor Who Magazine was interesting and instructive. Having been asked to give a speech to some film and TV students, Moffat found he couldn’t fulfil the appointment and wrote something on what goes through his mind when he’s writing Doctor Who instead. It basically amounted to: whatever I think will keep people watching.
This has become a hang-up for Moffat on Doctor Who and on Sherlock. Both series rely on frequent revelations, metatextual references, risque humour, big explosions and demanding, high-energy performances from their leading men. They’re emotionally exhausting, aesthetically violent, narratively tricksy and authorially unreliable. Does it keep people watching? Viewing figures suggest as much, but we have no indication of whether people would stop watching just because episodes of Doctor Who didn’t follow this template.
Kill The Moon flirted with a full-on horror story, but fell back into what I think of as bad habits, as if it didn’t have the courage of its convictions and didn’t really believe in them in the first place. Even writers other than Steven Moffat seem to be required to deliver episodes that are Moffatian – default positions that feel so very tired and familiar.
In 40 years’ time will writers be instructed to ‘Moffat the shit out of’ a new story? I suspect not but it feels like they are at the moment. For all of Kill The Moon’s visual style, Hinchcliffian motifs and moral parables it was wholeheartedly the work of a more recent producer.