I was really looking forward to this episode. It featured prominently in the first promos for season seven and it looked…well, awesome. The Doctor in the old west, battling a cool looking cyborg, that’s got to be great, right? Unfortunately, I have to admit that the episode was disappointing. However, I wouldn’t say it was a bad episode; there’s a lot of aspects to it that I enjoyed and/or appreciated.
The into to the episode was great. The cyborg has found his target and tells him to make piece with his gods before he dies. After the man is dying, he asks the cyborg if there are any more of them left to kill. The cyborg tells him that there is one more left to die: the doctor.
The set up leads you to believe that the cyborg is after *the* Doctor, as we see the TARDIS materialize in the old west. The Doctor, Amy, and Rory find a border of stones and wood laid around a small town, as well as a keep out sign. To the Doctor, this is, of course, an invitation. Upon entering the town, he realizes that the town has electricity about 10 years too early, which intrigues him even further. He enters the local saloon, and introduces himself as the Doctor. The townsfolk ask if he is an alien doctor. When he says yes, they grab him and dump him beyond the stone and wood border for “the gunslinger” (which is what they call the cyborg). The town marshal saves him, and the Doctor then meets the real alien doctor, Kahler Jex, for whom the gunslinger is searching.
As always, there are plenty of spoilers coming up, from here on out. First, the Doctor can apparently speak horse now too. He meets a male horse named Susan, which provides a bit of comic relief in what was really an episode dealing with heavy subjects. This episode also features the Doctor with a gun. He threatens Jex with one to keep him from reentering the town. I know it’s the old west, so what else would he use, but it seemed odd that the Doctor would use a gun so readily, when he has been so steadfastly opposed to them since the reboot of the series.
That’s probably enough random observations for now. What I’d really like to get into is the story itself. This episode is loaded with all the tropes of a western: guns, Stetsons, a small town in the middle of nowhere, a mysterious stranger coming to town, deserted streets, marshals, angry mobs of townsfolk, even a showdown at high noon. All of these really gave the episode the look of a great old western.
Unfortunately, the plot doesn’t match these elements. Everyone knows that fundamentally, the western is a struggle between good and evil. A great western has other levels to the story (like messages about loyalty, the struggle to tame nature, or the “wild” west vs. the civilized west), but the climax is always the big showdown between good and evil. The hero may be flawed, but facing evil usually helps to redeem his character’s past mistakes. The episode never really built to that kind of western climactic showdown because your idea of who the villain was kept shifting. Jex saved the town from a cholera epidemic and has been using his advanced knowledge of things to help the town since he arrived, so clearly the cyborg is the bad guy. However, then the Doctor learns that Jex is the creator of the cyborg and is responsible for turning innocent people into killing machines and then using them to end a lengthy war. Now, the gunslinger doesn’t look so bad. He doesn’t want to kill innocent people, he just wants to kill Jex in revenge for what he did. Suddenly, the Doctor takes his turn as the bad guy when he wants to turn Jex over to the gunslinger, but Amy persuades him not to. Who exactly is our bad guy now? It’s not clear.
I liked the exploration of all the shades of grey in our three main characters. The episode was also making a subtle comment on the Doctor’s own previous actions during the time war (although it’s never explicitly stated). He too, like Jex, has been forced to do things of which he’s not proud. The end of the story suggests that everyone has an opportunity to redeem him or herself, no matter what their past, if you show them mercy (hence the name of the town).
Unfortunately, this lead to a very anticlimactic showdown. It’s hard to have a showdown between characters when you don’t know which characters you’re for or against. I have to admit that I was similarly disappointed in Toby Whithouse’s episode last year, “The God Complex.” That had a real The Shining vibe to it, and I thought it dealt with deeper psychological issues, but I was let down by the ending.
I found it interesting that this episode came immediately after the Doctor showed Solomon no mercy in “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship.” However, that decision was very clearly condoned in the previous episode, so that seemed to contradict the message of this episode (not that I would argue that Solomon should have been shown mercy, it’s just something I noticed).
My other criticism was the neglect of basically every other character in the story. The character of the preacher seemed like he could have been interesting, but he didn’t have much of purpose in the story. Even Amy and Rory, especially Rory are on the sidelines of this one. Amy talks the Doctor into showing Jex Mercy, but then she and Rory sit out most of the rest of the story.
I know I’ve been dwelling on the negative, but I did find the episode interesting. It took a bit of a chance in dealing with issues of morality and redemption, which are great themes for a western, but I didn’t feel that they were successfully used to make the story work as a western. I did however, love the ending, in which the cyborg becomes the new marshall of Mercy. I thought maybe the story would have worked better if it had been about the redemption of the gunslinger, going from literally being a killing machine to regaining his humanity.
Next week’s episode, “The Power of Three,” sees the return of UNIT, so count me intrigued…