The third outing of a very enjoyable series 7 opens with a voice-over of a woman with a Texas drawl saying, “When I was a child, my favorite story was about a man who lived forever, but whose eyes were heavy with the weight of all he’d seen. A man who fell from the stars.” As her words draw to a close we see it’s night in what looks like the old west. A man is being chased by what is best described as a cyborg gunslinger. Before the gunslinger kills him, the man asks if he’s the “last one” to which the gunslinger replies, “There’s one more. The Doctor.”
Our time traveling trio headed up by the Doctor were supposed to be going to Mexico to experience “Dia de los Muertos” (The Day of the Dead), but ended up on the outskirts of the Wild West town of Mercy, population 81. As with all good westerns, they head straight for the saloon where their arrival prompts the expected cessation of piano music and stares from patrons all around. One of the patrons asks if he’s an alien and he gives a roudabout way of saying “yes” then is promptly tossed out of town which is lined by a perimeter of stones and wood. Apparently the gunslinger kills anyone who crosses this perimeter and is looking to kill “the alien doctor” as one of the townsfolk put it.
The Doctor is saved by the town marshal (Ben Browder, perfectly cast as Marshal Isaac) who knows our Doctor isn’t the doctor in question because he’s got the other alien doctor staying in his office. Isaac tells how the perimeter showed up overnight about 3 weeks prior and nothing gets in or out, so the town is slowly starving for lack of resupply. Our Doctor quickly figures out the other doctor is in the marshal’s office and Doctor Kahler-Jex rises from the bunk in the jail and introduces himself.
Dr. Jex of the Kahler race crash landed at least 2 years earlier and has been the town’s doctor and electric lighting provider ever since. Some of the townsfolk want to turn Doc Jex over to the gunslinger to save themselves, but the Doctor has a plan to distract the gunslinger while he gets the TARDIS to move all the townsfolk to safety. Instead, the Doctor runs across Jex’s ship and finds out the true story behind the doctor and the gunslinger.
Turns out good ole Doc Jex and his Kahlerian team experimented on their own people to build an army of cybernetic killing machines. They did so to stop a 9 year war that had destroyed half of their planet, but in the process of experimentation had tortured and killed many misled volunteers. After the war, the cyborgs were decommissioned, but one stayed online because of a software glitch and began hunting down its creators. Now Jex is the last target and the gunslinger wants him dead.
The Doctor does a very un-Doctorish thing when he tosses Jex over the perimeter and puts a gun to his head. When he explains to Amy that he’s doing this because of all the people who have died due to his mercy, Amy sets him straight. She says that’s what happens when he travels alone too often and that they have to be better than Jex. The Doctor tries to get Jex to cross back into town, but the gunslinger appears and is ready to kill Jex. Just as he’s about to fire, Marshal Isaac jumps in the way sacrificing his life for Jex’s because of all the good Jex has done for the townspeople over the years.
Isaac’s dying words to the Doctor are to protect Jex and his town, saying he and Jex are both good men, they just forget it sometimes. Now it’s Marshal Doctor and the gunslinger gives him an ultimatum. They must give up Jex by noon tomorrow or he kills everyone. Later that night, some of the townsfolk want the Doctor to give up Jex to save themselves, but naturally he refuses and diffuses the situation with words and reason.
A scene that has become a Western staple is set up next. We have Marshal Doctor standing on the empty main street with a clock tower to his back reading a few minutes before “high noon,” we have the worried townsfolk nervously praying in the nearby church, and we have the gunslinger arrive as the bell begins to toll 12 times signifying the classic Western showdown.
As the twelfth toll sounds Marshal Doctor draws his sonic screwdriver instead of his gun using a high frequency to momentarily confuse the gunslinger. To further confuse the killer cyborg, we see several townsfolk running across streets and alleys all with the same facial design/tattoo that Jex has. This is a distraction to give Jex time to return to his ship and fly away. Jex indeed does return to his ship, but being a decent man at heart decides he can’t take the fight to another planet and endanger even more lives, so he activates the self-destruct and takes his own life to save the lives of the Mercy townsfolk.
Now that his final target is gone, the gunslinger chooses to self-destruct in the desert. He tells the doctor he is a creature of war with no role during peace, to which the Doctor replies, “Except maybe to protect it?” The gunslinger pauses in thought.
The closing scene has our trio departing in the TARDIS while the voice-over from the opening scene resumes. The woman goes on to say that where the gunslinger came from didn’t matter because America is a land of second chances. We’re shown a little girl walking to the edge of town as the voice-over continues, saying her great-grandmother must’ve been a little girl when he arrived. The girl looks out to the mountains where we see the gunslinger standing vigilant over the town as the voice-over says that if you’re ever in Mercy ask why they don’t have a marshal or sheriff and the people will smile, “Like they got their own special angel watchin’ out for them. Their very own angel who fell from the stars.” As the voice-over finishes, the camera pans up the body of the gunslinger to show him now wearing the Marshal’s star with a look of peace and purpose on his face.
This installment focused on a theme we’ve seen the Doctor struggling with in recent series. And that is the guilt he feels over the many decisions he’s had to make in tough situations over his 1200+ year lifetime. This directly ties in with mercy, the reason the town was given the name, and how the Doctor’s mercy has often cost lives.
Early in the episode it’s obvious the Doctor is struggling with his past when he quickly decides to throw Jex to the gunslinger. He even goes against his own moral code by holding a loaded pistol to Jex’s head. You can see he’s tired and just wants this situation to be over with the least amount of lives lost. His moral compass takes the form of Amelia Pond who reminds him of how he really gets things done. The Doctor seldom takes the easy way out, but he always takes the right path.
The idea of what a “monster” is gets some examination, too. We’re not only told, but shown that monsters aren’t just the outwardly imposing creatures like the cybernetic gunslinger, but also people like Jex who abandoned their morals to do terrible things for what they thought was a good reason. While it’s a skewed point of view, in “Asylum of the Daleks” we learned that they called the Doctor “the Predator.” So at least to some beings, even our beloved Time Lord is thought a monster.
The setting of the untamed West of the United States in the mid 19th century turned out to be the perfect place to explore the themes of guilt, what constitutes a monster, and seemingly unresolvable conflict. Using Spain as a backdrop for the American West is a tradition begun by what were referred to as “Spaghetti Westerns.” These were Westerns produced by Italian studios that were typically shot in Spain on very low budgets. They were often faulted for the paltry budgets and less than stellar cast, but they were responsible for the launch of Clint Eastwood’s movie career so having that was a fun nod for those of us who grew up on those films.
The episode was written by Toby Whithouse who’s most famous for creating Being Human (The British version), although he’s done a lot of work outside that show. He’s written other episodes of Doctor Who, an episode of Torchwood, contributed to several other shows and is also an actor himself.
I’d also like to remind viewers that as promised the logo was customized to fit the theme of the episode. Notice the letters in “Doctor Who” and the BBC logo are textured in rough-hewn and weathered wood to give it a Western flair.
- “I see keep-out signs as suggestions more than actual orders. Like dry clean only.”
- “Anachronistic electricity, keep-out signs, aggressive stares… Has someone been peeking at my Christmas list?”
- “Why would he want to kill you? Unless he’s met you.”
- “I speak horse, he’s called Susan. And he wants you to respect his life choices.”
- “Two ticks. There’s something niggling me. Yes. Yes, it could be important. Oi, don’t swear.”
- “But that wasn’t the plan. He’s not following the plan.” “Welcome to my world.”
- “Everyone who isn’t an American, drop your gun.”
- “Frightened people. Give me a Dalek any day.”
- “We all carry our prisons with us. Mine is my past, yours is your morality.”
- “You know all the monkeys and dogs they sent into space in the ’50s and ’60s? You’ll never guess what really happened to them!”
Here’s the trailer for next week’s episode, the 4th of 5 scheduled for 2012 if you dosn’t count the Christmas special. This episode is entitled The Power of Three. When you watch, pay close attention to the last exchange between Amy and Rory where Amy says, “What do we do?” to which Rory replies, “Choose.” It’s not what’s said that got my attention, but some subtle differences in the actors’ appearances. They looked older. Watch it in hi-def (720p) with annotations off for a better view of the details I think I saw.
Maybe it’s just me, but their hair seemed different and there looked to be more lines under their eyes. I’m wondering if Amy’s claims that the Doctor’s visits are getting farther and farther apart will be explored with a flash-forward to the Ponds a little later in life. Could this also be the way the companion couple leave the show, by growing old?
This is just more wild speculation on my part likely left over from my earlier conspiracy article about Dai and Falling Skies, but my family agreed that they looked older in a very subtle way. We’ll know for sure next Saturday at 9/8C on BBC America while our good friends in Great Britain will be watching on BBC One at 19:30 (That’s 7:30 pm for you gun-totin ‘Mericans, except for our fine folks in the military who use this time standard as well!).