“Frightened people. Give me a Dalek any day” – The Doctor
The Doctor heads West and we’re delivered the best episode of Doctor Who since The God Complex—which is funny, considering that both episodes were both penned by the same writer. Screenwriter Toby Whithouse, in his last couple of episodes, has been integral to digging into the Doctor’s psyche and allowing aspects of his inner demons to surface. Both of his episodes as well have had the Doctor identifying strongly with the pain and desperation of a misunderstood creature, forced into his current habitat due to a more powerful force.
The episode begins with our gang crossing town lines into a town called Mercy—an abandoned, ramshackle type of place, a place that inspires a sense of dread as well as the feeling of an old western film. (The episode has its Stetsons, its horses, and its guns, all it was missing was a tumbleweed.) As the trio explores the town they come across the townspeople, who upon learning that the Doctor is an alien to them, grabs him and hauls his back to the border where he waits for execution by the town’s Gunslinger. As the executioner approaches we realize that he is in fact a cyborg—half man, half machine—with a gun attached to his arm.
The Doctor is rescued moments from death by the Sheriff Issac, played by Ben Browder, who escorts him back into safer territory. The Sheriff brings him back to town where we have our first run in with Kahler-Jex, another type of alien Doctor. In the minds of the town he’s a man who has saved them from troubled times; he has cured cholera, created a source of heat, and has introduced them to electricity about ten years too early. It’s amongst this group, the Doctor, the Ponds, Jex and Issac that the decision to track down the Gunslinger is made and they devise a plan.
The Doctor runs out and commandeers a horse that we learn is transgendered and named Susan. In one of the episode’s best gags, Rory and Issac run amok trying to distract the Gunslinger from the Doctor, and Amy sits back with Kahler-Jex, keeping watch on the town. It’s halfway through this process that the Doctor does what he so often does and deviates from the original plan and instead of searching for the Gunslinger. Instead, he goes searching for Jex’s ship. Upon his discovery of it he realizes that it appears unharmed, and he decides to poke around a bit and ends up setting off the alarm. He slips in and searches through his computer records and discovers that Jex isn’t a good man and his usage of his skills have caused some horrible deaths. As he climbs out of the ship, fury-filled and ready to storm back to town, he sees the Gunslinger awaiting him. He tells the Doctor that the next person who crosses the town line will die, and it better be Jex.
Back with Amy they’ve heard the alarm and now Jex is panicked. He mutters about the Doctor not following the plan, angry and confused. Amy flippantly responds with “Welcome to my world.” This is old hat for Amy, the Doctor is always changing the course of her life due to his curiosity, he need to follow his own route an nobody else’s. However in this case the circumstances are more dire and as Amy turns around, she realizes that Jex has a gun to her head. Jex isn’t the saving grace we thought he was.
Just as Jex was about to use Amy as leverage, the Sheriff and Rory barge in, followed soon after by the Doctor who rushes over to Jex and shouts at him to sit down and talk. Jex explains that his world had been at war for nine years, nine long years, and they had been losing, in a constant turmoil. He devised a way of survival and victory. He would lure individuals in under the prospect of signing up to fight, and would instead use them as living guinea pigs, hoping to turn some of them into great and powerful war machines. And it worked for them, they won the war, but at what cost.
Jex says that casualties happened, some individuals died during the process, but it was what needed to be done. Jex likens himself as a savant, a dark angel of sorts. He says he can identify himself with the Doctor, with his solitude, his guilt, his rage; the difference in his mind is that he’s willing to do what needs to be done, no matter how difficult. He wonders aloud what would have become of his world if he’d let the outcome depend on the Doctor and his choices.
Enraged, the Doctor grows indignant and physical and rushes to Jex and drags him forcibly from the building and to the town line and instead of just pushing him over the line, he draws a gun and points it directly between his eyes. Will he do it, he doesn’t know, he’s lost that type of sensibility of right and wrong since standing before him is a man who’s so highly tested his limits and he’s willing to see what will happen.
However, Amy is shocked, scared and saddened by what she’s seeing. Grabbing a gun herself she fires a warning shot and directed at the Doctor. She asks him when he’s become the executioner, since when is death the first viable option to solving crime? She laments that this is not how they do things and he should know that.
The problem is he doesn’t, not necessarily. Amy has only been through moments of his life, fleeting and spare, though to her they’re monumental. But for him, this is one of the occurring moments where he’s had to deal with individuals who test his patience, his anger, his belief systems. Sure he doesn’t often direct the gun himself, but he’s allowed deaths, whether it be direct or not.
He turns on her, berating her about all of the lives, the lives of bad peoples—the Master, the Daleks—he has spared for at the cost of innocent people’s lives. He’s sick and tired of them being killed by his mercy. It’s one of the most powerful moments of the episode, if not the show. What an eerie philosophy. In Jex’s mind there is a gray matter. Did he do a standard good thing? No. But he believes he did a bad thing for a good cause. With the lives lost trying to save his planet, he saved thousands, millions maybe. We’ve seen The Doctor grow increasingly more un-hinged, risking lives for those he wishes to save. Here he demands the justice of a man who’s done so many wrongs in his mind, but is he allowed to determine when and where justice is delivered?
An increasingly worrisome aspect of Eleven’s run has been his staggering lack of character growth. The Doctor we first met as he ate his fish sticks and custard is essentially the same Doctor we know now. He is still eccentric, still as young and naive as he is old and wise, and still as recklessly ambitious, rushing head first into each and every situation. If we’re looking for depth we must dig deeper, look for the subtleties, because the vast majority of exposition has gone to the Ponds and River Song. Episode three, however, has finally acknowledged the Doctors growing detachment from the real world. He’s been companionless for far too long and as he says, he’s twelve hundred years old now. As lonely of a creature as he is, he’s fallen into a routine of intolerance, unable to deal with the individuals who lack virtue and morality.
This allowed Matt Smith to stretch his acting muscles. This isn’t to say that his humor and lightness that he brings to the screen is unappreciated, it is. He’s always managed to bring a slapstick sensibility to his performance and all the while being constantly lovable, rather than annoying. However, in past seasons, particularly six, there would be episodes where his demeanor was happy and aloof for almost the entirety of the episode before a moment where he would snap in a moment of outrage. The problem is that the anger wouldn’t stay; it was used more as plot point than a character moment. Whithouse allowed the Doctor to toe the line of manic anger this entire episode, so that we as viewers could see the tipping point coming. We could see the moment where he would crack because here is an individual who has been toeing the line of rage and peace for too long to stay stable.
The Doctor backs down, his conscience creeping up on him. He steps away from Jex, but it is too late, the Gunslinger is there pointing his gun. But just as he fires, Issac jumps out, taking the brunt of the hit. As he lies dying, he professes to the Doctor his belief about good men, and how they just simply forget it sometimes. He names The Doctor sheriff just before his last breath. The Doctor must honor him now and protect the town, protect Jex, or else he’s dies in vain. No matter, because once again an innocent, good man has died due to the Doctor showing mercy to an individual of questionable honor.
Overnight, he watches as townspeople come to kill Jex, to kill him to save their town, their children. The Doctor turns them away though, preaching about how violence will inspire only more violence. Hypocritical, since scenes ago he had been ready and willing too pull the trigger, the difference being that he sees himself as a damaged soul, a person who’s already done and seen too much violence. However, these townsfolk are untouched, still pure and he wishes to keep them that way.
The next day, a lot happens. The Gunslinger goes to town and this time it’s Jex who decided to change the plans and he heads to his ship instead of his creation. He decides upon his own judgment and self-destructs the ship while he sits inside, committing suicide to somehow equal the lives he’s taken. He made one last tough decision for what he thought could bring peace.
The Gunslinger, with no place in the world now that his creator is dead, decides he should self-destruct as well. However, the Doctor calls upon him to be a watcher, a protector and in time, a legend to this town.
The end of the hour is here and once again we have the Doctor rushing off to the TARDIS wanting a new adventure and all the Ponds want is to go home, to age naturally. Morality and the quarries of men have been brought to the forefront and the Doctor, who was on the brink of utter destruction, is now having to say goodbye once again to the Ponds. The Ponds, were the two people in the universe who added a bit of gravity to his life, as he floated amongst the stars.
I believe I was too hasty last week in giving the episode so high a score. It was good, but tonight’s was infinitely better. I think I was just so pleased that there was an episode I had so wholeheartedly enjoyed, an episode that I didn’t spend half the time nit-picking and lamenting the wasted talent of Smith under Moffat’s run. I should have thought it through a bit more. Because while tonight wasn’t perfect, it was great, and it was better than last weeks. It’s promising me a season where I may allow optimism regarding the show to seep back into my mindset. As of late I’ve gone into each episode expecting the worst, expecting to be let down. However, with the last two I’ve been pleasantly surprised with episodes that surpassed my expectations. They’ve big titles and premises, and yet managed to deliver the bigger blockbuster moments while tying together the themes of innocence and the loss of it, isolation and it what it does to a person, and the widening gap between the Ponds and the Doctor.
As we move forward what with what we know and with the promo for next week, we know things won’t be getting easier. The divide between them will grow. And while this week’s philosophical debate on war crimes—an allusion to the Frankenstein and his monster—pushed The Doctor to his wit’s end, it may be next week and the episode that follows, the one where the Ponds ultimately leave us, that we find the most harrowing. Because the Ponds bring a certain peace to the Doctor. And what is the Doctor without his peace and compassion that so many past companions have brought him.? Well, he’s simply a lonely, mad man, a mad man in a box.