Continuing its sort of travelogue through blockbuster film genres, DOCTOR WHO gallops into the classic Western, and ladles on all the familiar tropes it can fit into 45 minutes, from the showdown at high noon to the noble lawman to the overeager undertaker. About the only things missing were the kindly schoolmarm and a stagecoach or train.
I must admit that I did not have high hopes for this episode. I’m not the world’s biggest Western fan, and I wasn’t thrilled with the images of I saw of the Gunslinger’s makeup. Sadly, I was disappointed with this episode, but it was not nearly as bad as I feared. While this was the weakest of the first three, the episode was still charming, even if it was riddled with more plot holes than Swiss cheese. The best part was watching the Doctor wrestle his own moral code.
In 1870, the Doctor (Matt Smith), Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill) visit the town of Mercy, Nevada, which is populated by frightened citizens – and wired for electricity about 10 years too soon. It turns out the townsfolk are scared of the Gunslinger (Andrew Brooke), a cyborg who is hunting an alien doctor, Kahler-Jex (Adrian Scarborough). Jex and his companions crashed near town, and since then he has brought electricity to Mercy and cured a cholera outbreak, earning him the thanks and protection of the people. But the Gunslinger has grown impatient, and he wants to end his hunt, ASAP. And when the Doctor learns that Kahler-Jex created the Gunslinger through horrible experiments on living test subjects, will he help the Gunslinger to end his quest to destroy his maker?
The initial trope of the story hinges on the Doctor stumbling into an isolated settlement occupied by a physician from space, but as the tale unfolded, the Time Lord realized that he shared more with this new doctor than just a moniker and an alien pedigree. They were carrying similar burdens of guilt for taking extreme actions during wartime.
Ever since his ninth incarnation, the Doctor has agonized over his role in ending the Time War. Is he a war hero or a war criminal? No, he would never consider himself a hero, because the Doctor could never see war as heroic. He did what he had to do, what circumstances forced him to do, and now he lives with the consequences. Jex saw the guilt in the Doctor’s eyes, but unwisely accused him of not having the will to do what needs to be done in extreme circumstances. Which was precisely the last thing he should have said, because no one knows better than the Doctor the burden of being the one to step forward and make the decision that no one else will. He didn’t just perform hideous medical experiments on the living, he decimated two civilizations.
The Doctor was so furious at Jex that he shouted in the Kahler’s face and actually raised his fist in anger. Then the Time Lord stalked off to a corner to calm down. It was a wonderful bit of acting by Smith, who always seizes the opportunity to show he can perform with the best of ‘em. Smith also shined when Jex was talking about the afterlife; about his believe that his spirit will have to carry the souls of all the people he’d wronged in life up a mountain. When Jex said he feared death, the Doctor looked scared, too. Smith was masterful with his facial expression, trying to remain stoic while he narrowed his eyes… that gulp of air that wouldn’t go down smoothly – it all spoke to guilt and fear and uncertainty. The Doctor is definitely one of those heroes who has caused a lot of unintentional harm in his wake, and he’s afraid he will have to account for it someday. He managed to escape the punishment of many of those who felt wronged by him — the Pandorica — so the Doctor knows he hasn’t paid his debt yet.
Another of my favorite moments came when the Doctor argued that he should send Jex to his death at the hands of the Gunslinger. Amy looked horrified that his code of honor could change so much. “This is what happens when you travel alone for too long,” Amy scolded him; he becomes too alien. Since the Doctor claims to be 1,200 years old in this story, he has been traveling for 97 years of his personal timeline between last season’s finale, “The Wedding of River Song,” and this story. That’s a long time without a companion.
Which plays into one of the show’s deepest issues: Does the Doctor need companions to keep him from becoming too alien? To remind him of his human side? Recall that when the 10th Doctor (David Tennant) gave in to his mania and became “Time Lord Triumphant” during “The Waters of Mars,” he had been traveling alone for an unknown (but presumably lengthy) time.
This could be why he prefers to choose (usually female) humans as companions. Most of his recent companions — Rose, Amy, even Donna — each had an incredible capacity for compassion? While the Doctor is showing them the universe, the companions have been guiding the Time Lord back to his heart.
The Doctor hasn’t been to the Old West since he was in his first incarnation, for “The Gunfighters.” In that story, the Doctor was also mistaken for another doctor – Doc Holliday!
In addition to Baby and Cat, the Doctor also speaks Horse.
The Doctor was positively indignant that the Gunslinger would shoot a man’s hat!
The Gunslinger’s explanation for not teleporting into town and blowing away Jex was a cheap rationalization. If he really wanted to avoid humans getting in the way, why not sneak into town in the middle of the night? Why not herd all of the humans out of town, leaving Jex alone? The worst possible thing the cyborg could have done was to pen Jex inside a town filled with people.
Also, viewers clearly saw that the Gunslinger’s targeting system could differentiate between Kahler and human and wouldn’t let him fire on a possible wrong target, so the cyborg really shouldn’t have been so worried about it.
Quotes of the Week:
“I see ‘Keep Out’ signs as suggestions more than actual orders; like dry-clean only.” – the Doctor
“Anachronistic electricity, ‘Keep Out’ signs, aggressive stares – has someone been peeking at my Christmas list?” – the Doctor
“Tea. But the strong stuff. Leave the bag in.” – the Doctor to the barmaid
“Why would he want to kill you – unless he’s met you.” – Amy to the Doctor
“I’ve matured. I’m 1,200 years old now.” – the Doctor
“I speak Horse. He’s called Susan, and he wants you to respect his life choices.” – the Doctor to the Preacher
“That’s not how we roll, and you know it. What’s happened to you, Doctor? When did killing become an option?” – Amy to the Doctor
“Today, I honor the victims first – his, the Master’s, the Daleks’ – all the other people who died because of my mercy!” – the Doctor to Amy
“This is what happens when you travel alone for too long.” – Amy