The One about the

Secrets of the Moon

12-episode set
Region A/1
12-episode set
Region B/2
(Doctor Who Story No. 253, starring Peter Capaldi)
  • written by Peter Harness
  • directed by Paul Wilmshurst
  • produced by Peter Bennett
  • music by Murray Gold
  • 1 episode @ 47 minutes
Story: The Doctor, Clara, and Coal Hill student Courtney Woods join an expedition of astronauts on the moon in 2049. What has caused the moon's gravity to increase until it rivals the Earth's? What happened to the Mexican team that had built a nearby base? Will the astronauts' nuclear bombs be of any use in solving the crisis?

DVD Extras for this story include:

  • Audio commentary by director Paul Wilmshurst and first assistant director Scott Bates.
  • Behind the Scenes featurette (11 min.) with Peter Capaldi (The Doctor), Jenna Coleman (Clara Oswald), Hermione Norris (Lundvik),
    Tony Osoba (Duke), producer Peter Bennett, and executive producer Steven Moffat.

In-Depth Analysis Review

by Martin Izsak

WARNING: This review contains "SPOILERS", and is intended for those who have
already seen the program. To avoid the spoilers, read the Buyers' Guide to the season instead.

Though this tale does a good job of generating interest and intrigue early on, it is ultimately VERY disappointing for those of us who aren't willing to turn our brains off and chuck them out the airlock. Gravity may be the episode's biggest undoing, but there is a host of other problems as well, many of which have nothing to do with science.

There's really no way of getting around the great whacking flaws in the central concept of this story, so we'll have to give away the BIGGEST SPOILERS about the tale's primary mystery right off the top. If you've not seen the episode yet, stop reading now, because only by not knowing this can the early sections really remain worthwhile. You've been warned.

The entire threat to Earth, and indeed the only means by which Human beings know that there is something mysterious to be investigated on the moon, comes through the idea that the moon's gravity has increased enormously. That is a fascinating question, and had me hooked. But note that the entire mystery is now predicated upon science, so the episode MUST use science believably to remain satisfying.

I'm not sure to what degree production convenience weighed into the decision about how much the moon's gravity should increase, but since the episode is shot in Earth's gravity, nothing special would need to be done with the actors on set if the moon's gravity increased to about six times its normal factor, which appears to be the case. 600% is a HUGE amount, and we're definitely in that ball park in this episode.

So, anyway, this is sci-fi, and there could be many unknowns coming into play to make this credible, areas where writers have control and can exercise creative freedom. In actual fact, Capaldi's Doctor rattles off a few possibilities early on here, pretty much all of which would be more plausible than what is eventually revealed as the episode's "truth". Personally, as I watched, I kept in mind the fact that 21 years after this adventure takes place, the Patrick Troughton story "The Moonbase" (story no. 33) will occur. Not only will the moon be there, but it will also be home to a "gravitron", a device manned by Human beings to stabilize and improve Earth's weather. Were we about to discover some technology in this episode that would make the development of the gravitron easier, or more practical? Would such a device feed off of some unknown factor unique to this moon? I was intensely curious to discover a good, scientifically plausible answer, and that curiosity generated a good drive to the mystery.

Concepts of a hollow moon, and aliens living on the moon and staking claim to it, aliens sometimes described as insectoid, have also popped up before both in and outside of fiction. H.G. Wells wrote a book later turned into a film in the 1960's called "First Men In the Moon", which nicely encapsulated these ideas. Not bad concepts to revisit on Doctor Who, if this story had wanted to go in that direction.

Now the story's indigenous Human astronauts and the entire mission control team that sent them to the moon appear to be complete idiots in their attempts to deal with a gravitational threat using nothing more than a massive collection of nuclear devices. Such devices can't actually destroy much more mass than the few atoms at their core. All they can hope to do to the moon's mass is just break it up, irradiate it terribly, and send it in unwanted directions. All that really happens here is that the astronauts and mission control people totally fail as convincing characters who have earned their scientific positions.

Compounding this is the big kicker - the only answer to this gravitational mystery offered by the episode is that, unbeknownst to Mankind, our moon is actually an egg that is just now about to hatch after incubating for hundreds of millions of years. Well, we do know a thing or two about eggs. They don't maintain the same mass throughout their entire incubation period, and then suddenly increase in mass by 600% just before hatching. Typically, a freshly laid egg contains a tiny embryo and a ton of food for the embryo. During incubation the mass of the food is gradually converted into the mass of the growing fetus. In fact, there is probably a slight decrease in mass as some of it is used up in chemical reactions and the embryo starts to move around a bit.

We know the moon has had a fairly stable mass for all the hundreds of millions or billions of years it's been orbiting our Earth. How can we explain away the fact that in no more than a few decades it would not just double, not just triple, but multiply its mass by six, simply by being a giant alien egg? It's ridiculous. Without coming up with some outrageous new mechanism, like sprouting solar panel wings to convert the sun's energy into the creature's body mass (and even that is hardly credible to cover the amount of mass required in such a short period of time), the episode totally fails to answer its primary mystery satisfactorily.

Compounding this is the idea that it is merely the movement of the creature within its egg that causes Courtney to fly upwards in an apparently zero-G room, while the Doctor and company in the next room continue to experience Earth-normal gravity... on the moon. It's really badly laughable.

The second phase of science failure then proceeds. Now knowing that the moon is a living egg, the nuclear devices can serve to kill it and fuel the episode's moral debate. It's as if the astronauts and their mission control had a premonition about the debate in order to bring the devices along in the first place. What still doesn't work is any mechanism through which we can believe that killing the egg will somehow solve Earth's gravity problems. If the creature hatches and flies off, we could lose the moon's gravity and encounter problems. ...But we need to lose 5/6 of this new gravity anyway, don't we? If we kill the creature, the moon dies and stays intact where it is... but it's six times too heavy where it is now, so we know that's no good either.... don't we?

Because none of this makes ANY sense anymore, there's really nothing left to do but throw our hands up and give up on any hope of thinking through this problem anymore. It doesn't really feel like there's any point to the main debate, since they have neither identified their real problem nor come up with a possible effective solution. It's all still moot. The main debate itself is revealed as a hollow contrivance on the part of the writers.

And at that point, we can correctly guess that the writers will take the lazy way out and reach for a great big reset button, which they do. All the broken pieces of the moon neatly pulverize themselves and vanish, and the creature is somehow miraculously at the correct point in its extremely long life span to maturely lay a replacement egg in just the right orbit with just exactly the right amount of gravity to suit us.

Bad character logic continues to hamper this story. It's a huge stretch to believe, no matter how large a crisis the Earth is feeling, that Clara suddenly has the whole world watching her one broadcast, AND that everyone in the midst of a dealing with climate disaster and weather emergency is about to forget what rescue work they're involved with to turn out their lights, AND that absolutely everyone on the Earth buys into the numbskull idea that killing the creature will fix the gravity, AND that they will all vote to kill it with their lights within 45 minutes. That is NOT the Earth I know. Four strikes against getting humanity's character right. Most people will be paying attention to themselves, their families, their friends, their own little hard-hit communities instead of Clara, and many who do hear her won't bother to vote, and those that do vote will be split. Good luck detecting any dimming of the lights.

In fact, it is probably yet another stretch to believe that widespread power outages hadn't knocked out most lights already. And using this method with a time limit of only 45 minutes, the half of the world still in daylight remains ineligible to vote.

I don't know how we are expected to believe that Clara and Courtney were the only Humans who wanted to spare the creature, and that this entire trip was some kind of destiny. Really silly.

Now considering this story concept from the angle that the big debate is the important thing to preserve, and to promote the concept that huge creatures spawning from moon-sized eggs are wonders of the universe to be respected and in awe of, the natural way to do this right seems to me to set the story on a distant moon around some alien planet far beyond the range of Earth's telescopes, where the writer has all the elements under his control and can exercise as much freedom as he wants. We could have stayed real with respect to gravity, and with the actual consequences to the planet. No reset button required. Even pulling this off with either Phobos or Deimos, the TINY moons of Mars, would have been a massive improvement in believability, with no need to immediately lay "the next egg".

And of course, the episode title is of similar bad taste to the ones I objected to back in season 32, so that deserves a change as well.

Of course, the Doctor doesn't get many points in this adventure for his character. His scientific credentials are as bad as anyone else's - though the primary mystery isn't bad for intriguing us audience members, we really don't get any worthy sci-fi protagonists as our proxies for taking us through a satisfying exploration of the phenomena. Courtney's "thingy" butchering of Neil Armstrong's speech about the big and small steps on the moon is a good epitome of this factor. And of course, the Doctor abandons the story during its climax, so he really is an utter failure at the two most important concepts of his character. That said, this is somewhat countered by the fact that Peter Capaldi himself seems to be putting a valiant amount of energy and imagination into the performance. Nice try, but done in the wrong story. Here the Doctor is not much more than a nutcase for Clara to try and manage.

And none of the other characters are really much better. Exactly how are they supposed to be impressive when demanding that the Doctor should be something other than the alien that he is? How impressive is the character Courtney to demand that an adult (and a complete stranger at that) tell her that she's special? I have to say, this adventure really didn't do anything to help me like the character of Courtney, or want to see her on any further adventures. "Big for her boots", scary, and not very nice - as actress Ellis George described the character herself in her interview for the previous episode, which is probably not someone I'd particularly want to be friends with, or to want to see on the TARDIS.

And the Doctor and Clara come out of this scene in a bizarre place in their relationship with each other, which finally allows Danny to make a worthwhile appearance in this episode as he comments on it and advises Clara. Maybe some fans like this as it's going to an emotional place that is rare for this show, but it feels primarily to me like the show is going off-course with this direction. I think I like all three of the season's leads less by watching them go this way, and I'm less likely to look forward to seeing more of them. I persevere, without excitement or hope.

I will say that in many ways this ending reminds me of very similar debates between the first Doctor and Barbara Wright in "The Edge of Destruction" (story no. 3), which worked much better for me. William Hartnell similarly went to a strange place, but the character was still much better balanced in writing and performance. Jenna Coleman and Jacqueline Hill both do equally well in standing up to a bad Doctor in their performances, but I find it easier to stay on side with Barbara than with Clara here.

Bottom line is that, as much as this story did pull me in, it spat me back out quite quickly and definitively, committing far too many serious errors in how it handled both science and character. Ultimately, it is even less effective on repeat viewing, when you can see the ludicrousness coming. Thumbs down on this one.

International Titles:

Français: "La Première Femme sur la Lune"

The French improved nicely on this episode's title, making it: "The First Woman on the Moon"

This story is available on DVD and Blu-ray:

Season 34 Box Set
11 stories in 12 episodes

NEW for
Dec. 9, 2014.

NEW for
Dec. 9, 2014.

NEW for
Nov. 17, 2014.
Blu-ray U.S.

NEW for
Dec. 9, 2014.
Blu-ray Canada

NEW for
Dec. 9, 2014.
Blu-ray U.K.

NEW for
Nov. 17, 2014.

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Read the In-depth Analysis Review for the next story: "Mummy on the Orient Express"

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