The long-running British sci-fi staple Doctor Who has quietly become one of the most pro-life shows on television. Under the tenure of showrunner Steven Moffat, there has been a strong pro-life subtext for several seasons of Doctor Who. Even before Moffat took the reins of the show, he wrote a pair of episodes called “The Empty Child”/“The Doctor Dances”(widely considered some of the series’ best) in which the climactic moment is a young mother saving the world by acknowledging her out-of-wedlock son as hers, and curing him of being a monster. As mother and child embrace, victims of a nanotechnology plague are unmasked and cured, and the Doctor says, overflowing with joy, “Everybody lives. Just this once, everybody lives.” The well being of children is the center of the show’s moral cosmos.
Now, a work of fiction can have a strong thematic preoccupation with children and procreation without necessarily being pro-life. But the choices Moffat integrated into his main characters’ stories highlight the sacredness of life in all stages of development. One of the Doctor’s companions, Amy Pond, undergoes a traumatic, unexpected pregnancy. It turns out that, thanks to time travel, her child is actually another main character, the mysterious time-travelling archeologist River Song. River’s birth and early life are manipulated by evil forces trying to use her as a weapon against the Doctor, but she overcomes these villains and establishes a relationship with her mother Amy. The show plays this relationship as an unambiguous good. Despite the trying circumstances of her birth, River is a blessing to her mother and to the universe. Moreover, River’s special powers stem from the fact she was conceived during her parents’ honeymoon on a time machine—suggesting she was, well, her, from the very moment of conception. Even with a non-linear timeline, identity stretches back to the womb.
Recent seasons have brought the pro-life message of the show to foreground. In “Kill the Moon,” the Doctor’s companion Clara Oswald, chides him for his callousness towards one of her students, Courtney Woods, a black fifteen year-old and self-identified “Disruptive Influence.” This Doctor, as played by Peter Capaldi, is an occasional curmudgeon. He’s upset Courtney by telling her she is not special. One thing leads to another, and Clara, Courtney, and the Doctor end up on the Moon in the year 2049, so that Courtney can become special by being the first woman on the moon.
But there’s another woman on the moon, and she’s on a mission. Astronaut Captain Lundvik has patched up earth’s single remaining shuttle to bring a hundred nuclear bombs to the Moon. The Moon has put on a lot of weight, wreaking gravitational chaos on earth, and Lundvik is here to solve the problem the way humans solve problems: by blowing it up.
The crux of the episode is a moral dilemma. The Doctor figures out what’s happening to the Moon. He delightedly announces, “The Moon’s an egg!” and summons up a hologram of what looks like a space-dragon curled up inside the Moon, getting ready to hatch. The Doctor speculates, “I think that that is unique, I think that that is the only one of its kind in the universe. I think that that is beautiful.” And Captain Lundvik stares him hard in the face and asks, “How do we kill it?”
At this point in the episode, I find it hard to imagine someone who is pro-choice not feeling at least a pang of discomfort. The Doctor’s response to new life is one of joy and wonder. It’s contrasted starkly with Captain Lundvik’s ruthless gray pragmatism. He says, “I think that that is beautiful,” and it’s followed by the abortionist’s response, “Doctor, how do we kill it?”
This is the moral dilemma the characters confront. Detonate those hundred nuclear bombs to end the Moon’s burgeoning, innocent life? Or risk allowing the Moon to hatch, with no idea what it or its shattering shell will do to the Earth? The Doctor acidly confirms to Lundvik that the bombs she brought would be effective, saying, “The gravity of the little dead baby will pull all the pieces back together again.” The bombs are set to go off in forty-five minutes unless stopped. The clock is ticking.
Recognizing that this choice belongs to humanity, the Doctor disappears in his time machine, leaving Clara, Courtney, and Lundvik to decide the moon’s fate. His parting words unavoidably connect their decision to decisions faced by so many earth-bound women in unplanned pregnancies: “It’s your moon, womankind. It’s your choice.”
So the fate of the Moon, and the world, rests with three women: a driven professional, an underpaid teacher, and a black teenager. Three women who, in many circumstances, would face the social and economic pressures that make abortion seem like an attractive option. They are hotly divided on the issue. Courtney wants to let the creature live. Lundvik scoffs at her. “Look, when you've grown up a bit, you'll realize that everything doesn't have to be nice. Some things are just bad.” It’s a common pro-choice opening gambit: the claim that only people on their side of the argument are able to see moral complexity.
In fact, this segment of the episode uses so many of the clichés associated with the abortion debate, I have to assume the writers are intentionally evoking it. For instance, the terminology: is it a baby? Or just a parasite? Lundvik compares it to “a flea, or a headlouse,” but Clara remains adamant, “I’m going to have to be a lot more certain than that if I’m going to kill a baby.”
The women decide to let Earth make the decision: they’ll broadcast a message to Earth explaining the dilemma, and asking people to leave their lights on if they want the creature spared or turn their lights off if they want the bombs detonated. Slowly, the lights of Earth go out. The people have spoken.
But at the very last second, Clara and Courtney together veto this. They disarm the bomb. Ironically, the word “ABORT” flashes in red letters across the console as they halt the detonation. Instantly, the Doctor is there to whisk them down to earth.
They watch in awe as a majestic space dragon takes flight, and the lunar eggshell disintegrates harmlessly. The Doctor shares the consequences of their decision: inspired by their cosmic neighbor, humanity will now start “creeping off to the stars,” exploring the universe and enduring till the end of time:
And it does all that because one day in the year 2049 when it had stopped thinking about going to the stars, something occurred that made it look up instead of down, it looked out there into the blackness and it saw something beautiful, something wonderful, that for once it didn’t want to destroy, and in that one moment the whole of history was changed. Not bad for a girl from Coal Hill School and her teacher.
It wasn’t a parasite or an invasion after all: it was our future. The dragon leaves behind another egg: a new Moon, unmarked by craters. Captain Lundvik resolves to restart the space program. It seems that through Clara and Courtney, mankind has passed a cosmic test, and avoided the terrible stagnation of being trapped on an Earth orbited by the body of its greatest victim.
The point of the episode is driven home by a throwaway line in the dénouement. The Doctor lets slip what he knows about Courtney’s future: “First woman on the moon, saved the Earth from itself, and, rather bizarrely, she becomes the President of the United States.” Casually ascribing this fate to a “disruptive influence” (who worried she was not “special”) extends the pro-life message from the fantastical creature within the Moon to, well, all of us. Human life is also sacred and replete with potential. We’re all unique, we’re all the only one of our kind in the universe, and we’re all beautiful.
The central decision of the episode is a metaphorical abortion that is deemed a military necessity—a medical operation to save the life of humanity. Nonetheless, “keeping the baby” is treated as the noble and correct decision, even in the face of universal opposition. The episode proposes something like a moral absolute: deliberately ending a nascent life can never be justified, not even by widespread popular consensus. Moreover, it suggests that the contrary choice (namely, abortion) is an evil on a world-historical scale. “It won’t be pretty,” says the Doctor when Lundvik first suggests killing the Moon. “An enormous corpse floating in the sky. You might have some very difficult conversations to have with your kids.” The Moon’s corpse, we’re lead to imagine, would fill future generations with guilt and shame, cutting off space travel and innovation. It is the blood of Abel crying out from the sky.
“Kill the Moon” doesn’t just say that new life is beautiful and worth saving. It suggests that embracing the unborn is a requirement for humanity as a species to rise to the moral challenge of our time. The rules of Doctor Who are constantly being rewritten. The way time travel works changes from episode-to-episode as the plot requires. What remains constant—what seems built into the underlying logic of the program—is the way Doctor Who’s characters keep meeting their ancestors or descendants. In this show, human genealogy is the fundamental force of the universe.
Alexi Sargeant is a junior fellow at First Things.
A longer version of this piece was a winning entry in the Vita Et Veritas student essay contest.