This week on Doctor Who, we continued to get weaned off regular companions Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill) in another stand-alone adventure. This time we were hanging out somewhere in the Wild West. The Doctor’s (Matt Smith) Stetson wasn’t the only thing that returns, however; we also see a return of the ramifications of his traveling alone for too long.
Let’s take a closer look after the jump.
It was a pretty straightforward plot this week: a seemingly cold-hearted cyborg, The Gunslinger (Andrew Brooke), is on a mission to destroy his creators. The sole remaining creator, an alien doctor Kahler Jex (Adrian Scarborough), is currently hiding out in the aptly named town of Mercy. Since Jex’s arrival, he’s given the townsfolk electricity and cured many from cholera, so Marshall Isaac (Ben Browder) helps keep his cover. We find out after the arrival of The Doctor and the Ponds that Jex is actually a war criminal, responsible for callously killing other Kahlers and transforming them into the war cyborgs like one currently on a vengeance killing spree. And so, one of the fundamental dichotomies of the Western genre thus arises: Civil vs. Uncivil. Does the Doctor take on the role, once again, of judge, jury and executioner by giving Jex up to the Gunslinger in order to retain order? Do the townsfolk – hell-bent on a lynching – decide to sacrifice their doctor in exchange for their safety? This episode had every imaginable Western trope, right down to the Barmaid/Saloon girl, altruistic Sheriff, righteous Pastor and our fair share of tumbleweeds, yet ultimately the episode feels flat by failing to do anything new or exciting.
Despite the interesting idea of setting a moral quandary in this overtly Western setting, ‘A Town Called Mercy’ feels like it’s just ticking boxes and going through the motions. Marshal Isaac dies, saving Jex from The Gunslinger’s deadly blast, only to be followed by a demand of delivering Jex (at high noon and everything) or else The Gunslinger will kill the civilians. After some humming and ha-ing, Jex decides the only thing he can do is (predictably) sacrifice himself and face judgment in the afterlife for his crimes, thereby freeing The Gunslinger from his revenge mission, allowing him to use his powers for good by becoming a guardian angel/Marshal for the townsfolk of Mercy. In the end, it’s a nice little self-contained episode, but I still long for the Doctor Who days where we had constant questions building from episode to episode, only be given incredibly satisfying payoffs for sticking with it (i.e. River Song).
We still have Amy and Rory at The Doctor’s side but again, I feel like their use is just another strategy to further prepare the audience for their departure in two episodes time. Aside from Amy’s confrontation regarding The Doctor’s shifting morals, what other function does she serve aside from spoon-feeding viewers the exposition? And how invisible is Rory in this episode? Thankfully we aren’t explicitly told this week that some time has passed since the Ponds’ last adventure on the TARDIS (although it is implied). We do, however, get another refusal to continuing traveling when Amy refuses The Doctor after Mercy’s business is tied up in a nice little bow. I’d almost rather have a shocking departure of our faithful companions rather than this slow burn. We shouldn’t be able to see the companions fading away into uselessness – quite frankly both Amy and Rory deserve better.
The only saving grace of the episode is seeing The Doctor’s guilt of his actions past continue to plague him – something that we have yet to see take full effect in this Eleventh incarnation. Jex actually taunts The Doctor when he says:
Looking at you Doctor, is like looking in a mirror, almost. There’s rage there, like me. Guilt, like me. Solitude. Everything but the nerve to do what needs to be done.
There are obvious similarities between the two “Doctors” and the considerations of what both did in order to gain the upper hand in their respective wars, ‘A Town Called Mercy’ has the potential to tons of interesting directions. We get glimmers of that potential peppered throughout the episode, but ultimately the need to resolve the whole Gunslinger business prohibits the episode from being anything more (in fact it’s rather obvious after the parallels are established). Let’s hope this is just the beginning of exploring The Doctor’s unreconciled guilt.
Some other observations:
- Amy’s moral compass has always been solid, but what about Rory’s? Although his lines are limited, he is all for The Doctor throwing Jex out into The Gunslinger’s path in order to save his own hide. Perhaps Rory’s time off the TARDIS is affecting him as well?
- The Gunslinger’s 180 degree turn from vengeful killer to protector of Mercy is completely farfetched, as is the town’s acceptance of him. We’re told The Gunslinger avoids killing civilians at all costs, but when Jex evades him again, he doesn’t hesitate to say he’ll kill off every one of Mercy’s citizens in order to flush him out. He’s also prepared to kill Rory and Isaac before The Doctor sets off the Kahler spaceship alarm. I don’t know about you folks, but I sure as hell wouldn’t trust this guy not to go cray-cray and randomly begin killing everyone.
- Is it just me, or is The Gunslinger a dead ringer for ‘character actor’ William Sadler? Perhaps I’ve been watching Damages too closely this season?
- I rather enjoyed “Angry” Doctor – especially when he yells at Jex to “SIT DOWN” after he discovers what the other doctor has done. The rage he exhibits when Jex tells him that The Doctor can’t do what’s required for the proverbial “greater good” is quite interesting. This is a side of The Doctor that I want to see addressed in greater detail: an exploration of the idea that a companion is simply a band-aid solution to repress The Doctor’s true nature. Is The Doctor talking about himself when he proclaims to Jex, “You don’t get to decide when and how your debt is paid”?
What did you think viewers? Were you happy with this week’s standalone episode at the Doctor Who version of the O.K. Corral? How do you think the Ponds will depart us? Has anyone else noticed that the Doctor Who font in the credit sequence changes from week to week depending on the episode’s iconography (this week it’s wood)? Sound off in our comment section below.
Doctor Who airs at 9:00pm EST, Saturdays on BBC America and on SPACE in Canada