Doctor Who has always been about the balance between its two realities—how much fun it is to be able to time travel with a clever, pacifist, fun-loving madman in a box; and the bleak actuality of being with a timeless, pacifist, ageless madman in a box. The best episodes address this head-on. This series (and some of last series) has shown our Doctor feeling the effects of the somewhat Sisyphean task of trying to keep the peace, especially when you're very old and have a temper. He's getting darker and darker.
How appropriate that the Doctor and the Ponds, in their quest for a Day of the Dead celebration, landed in an old-fashioned American one-horse town called Mercy.
The town had electricity a few years before it was supposed to, and it also had a menacing cyborg called the Gunslinger prowling its borders, looking for the "alien doctor." Side note: I always prefer cyborgs to full-on robots, both because I'm a RoboCop fan, and because I like the warring humanity-versus-technology inside of them. Plus the Gunslinger looked like an awesome villain right from the start. The town's Marshal was protecting the secret of Mercy, which is that it already had an alien doctor.
This alien doctor, Kahler-Jex, crash-landed nearby and had been treating the people of Mercy, as well as providing them with electricity, and was now under Marshall Isaac's protection. He was upset that the townspeople Jex saved would throw him to the cyborg so quickly. "The war ended five years ago," Isaac said, "but the violence is just under the surface."
This was an episode about war, and the products of war, and what fear does to people. It was about the actions people choose to take when they feel backed into a corner, or when they lack choices altogether. Sometimes there are no right answers. Despite the light moments here and there, it dealt with some pretty heavy stuff.
The Doctor managed to escape to find Kahler-Jex's ship, and learned the truth: Good-natured lifesaver Kahler-Jex was a war criminal. In order to fight his planet's war, he turned some of his own people into cyborgs whose only purpose was to destroy their enemy. It worked. One cyborg, the Gunslinger, survived the decommission process and was hell-bent on destroying his maker. So who was the villain?
Our Doctor was angry. When confronted, Kahler-Jex was somewhat defiant. "War is another world," he insisted. Kahler-Jex then made the mistake of comparing himself to the Doctor, noting their similar rage, guilt, and solitude, and boasted that, unlike the Doctor, he had the nerve to do what needed to be done.
Angry? Make that furious. The Doctor of two seasons ago would have laughed at Jex's attempt to get a rise out of him; this Doctor dragged Jex out and threw him to the Gunslinger. When Jex tried to move, the Doctor pulled A GUN (a gun!!!) on him, in one of the most gasp-worthy moments of this season thus far. Interestingly, it was Amy who brought him back from the brink, reminding him that this is not how her Doctor operates and prompting the following response:
"Every time I try to understand, well not today, today I'm going to honor the victims first. His, the Master's, the Daleks', all the people who died because of my mercy."
Like the cyborg, like Kahler-Jex, again we saw duality in the Doctor's function in the universe. All he wants to do is bring peace, and in the process, he often ends up leaving a trail of blood in his wake. And it's changing him. Amy was saddened. Without regular human companions, she murmured, this is what the Doctor does—he forgets his own humanity.
Jex rightly guessed that the Doctor would prefer his enemies to be all bad, and that he couldn't handle Jex being both a good doctor and a war criminal. More duality, more attention drawn to the Doctor being involved in conflicts with no clear "good guy" solution.
As we've seen in the past couple episodes, things are ramping up to the final goodbye between the Ponds and the Doctor, and more and more, it's my thought that it will be the Ponds' choice to say goodbye, and that it will lead to some very dark times for the Doctor before he brings on his new companion. Or perhaps he'll get tired of listening to his humanity, via the Ponds, and go rogue for a bit? This, to me, felt like the first real episode of the season, the first one to give us a real glimpse into all those stretches of time when we're not with the Doctor, all those lonely times when you could go anywhere and do anything, but it all seems to lead to more trouble.
This complicated and yet relatable emotional struggle is what's always kept me hooked on Doctor Who beyond the monsters. I cannot wait to the see the next two episodes.
Additional notes, thoughts, and questions
– This episode in particular was written by Toby Whithouse, who wrote last year's episode "The God Complex," one of my favorites.
– Did anyone else think the barkeep was River Song when they first saw her?
– "The horse's name is Susan, and he wants you to respect his life choices." That entire interaction was delightful.
– All of the Western nods in this episode were charming and well done—the tumbleweeds, the high noon, the Stetsons.
– The final monologue, about how the Gunslinger became Mercy's protector, a man-made weapon reappropriating himself for peace, gave me goosebumps. Good old Doctor Who goosebumps.
– The preview for next week's episode only echoes the duality in this one, but moves on to the Ponds and their two lives—"real life and Doctor life."