Saturday, 4 October 2014

No-Win Scenarios

It was back in 1954 that Astounding Magazine published Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations", a short story in which a pilot shuttling essential medical supplies to a distant colony discovers a young girl has stowed away on the shuttle. With her on-board, the vessel will soon run out of fuel, meaning the medicine can never be delivered, at the cost of many thousands of lives. On the other hand, with no spacesuit on board, the only way to ensure delivery of the medication is to flush the young stowaway out of the airlock.

George R.R. Martin referenced this story in the first volume of A RRetrospective, by way of arguing that any either/or setup in a story has to resolve in you getting the either or the or. You can't get both and pat yourself on the back for your cleverness.  Not when you've worked so hard to establish no exit exists.

This is always my go-to thought whenever fiction offers up a moral dilemma. More specifically, I start looking for ways the story is setting up potential ways by which they can have their cake and eat it.

Because there is an art form in this. Martin is, I think, entirely correct that if you set up a situation in which only choices exist, both of them awful, you'd better damn well follow through. But that isn't the only consideration here. It can't be. Sometimes you need to come up with an ending which doesn't involve horror and blood. And frankly, Saturday night family entertainment seems like a pretty good time and place for it.

(Who spoilers follow)

This is all by way of saying that I can't find it in my heart to be bothered that a show aimed at children (not just at children, obviously, and screw anyone who argues otherwise, especially since they only do so because they want to defend a show without going to the trouble of actually arguing in its defence) decides to have its cake and eat it, which is clearly what "Kill The Moon" settled on.

But understanding, and even approving of, the need for a plot progression that proposes two shitty alternatives as the only ones available before revealing a third much better possibility doesn't mean the specific method by which this is enacted can't stink. And "Kill The Moon" stinks. Specifically, it reeks of careful deck-stacking.  First of all, a planet without tides would be horrifically disastrous not just for any society relying on tidal power, but for uncountable billions of animals, all of whom you would sentence to death by removing the moon. Yes, they don't get a vote - coastal bivalves historically having to get through life without access to electric lighting - but they sure as hell exist, and there's not actually any reason to believe the creature about to crawl from the moon's wreckage will be appreciable different from a limpet other than in mass.

The larger problem though is how easily the script lets Clara dismiss the completely reasonable fears of the moon's surface impacting against our planet by having her announce the moon is just an eggshell.  That's severely, painfully stupid. What, because the shell of a chicken's egg landing on our feet when we're making an omelette doesn't hurt, we've no reason to fear it? Holy Zygon dicks, is that stupid. The moon is made of rock. If it turns out that rock contains a developing life-form, it is still rock.  If even just the surface of the moon started raining down on us it would make the Tunguska Blast look like a passing shower. And hell, even if Armstrong and Aldrin hadn't brought back samples of the fucking moon fucking proving it was fucking rock, we'd still not have the slightest idea about the damage alien egg shells could wreak when it reaches terminal velocity and cannons into a city (try telling the Doctor that the Weeping Angels can't hurt you because statues are stone and stone can't want to grab you; see how far you get).

My point here is that the fix is in. The episode ignores the actual damage removing the moon could cause and insanely dismisses the nightmare scenario of being showered with moon-rock, so that it can frame Clara versus Lundvik in terms of whether they can afford to risk the motivations of the moon-beast being hostile. Because that's the easy choice. That's the terrain upon which, at least in fiction, "let's wait and see" is the obvious correct course. And, indeed, in doing so a new moon miraculously appears.  Which, as I say, I don't particularly mind; even without the continuity problems a lack of moon would cause, the resulting problems aren't something the show should be keen to saddle themselves with.  My issue is in how hard the script had to put its thumbs on the scale so as to present a single clearly correct choice.  If you're going to do that - which of course something like 99% of fiction does, in fact - that's probably fair enough. But don't try to frame the issue as some kind of moral dilemma that the audience is supposed to buy into. As someone once said about the final episode of the "Tenth Planet", being told it's been found and learning that's a lie is worse than than never hearing it had been found at all.

Being presented with an apparent moral dilemma to see it immediately reframed as a choice between selfishness and altruism is worse than just watching a standard story about the heroes being heroes and everyone else being dicks.

Which, of course, is ultimately exactly what we got.

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