...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, September 18, 2012



Jokes we wish we'd thought of a fortnight ago: a PARLIAMENT of the Daleks could also be a DIET of the Daleks, and THAT is why those New Paradigm bottoms have gotten smaller!

Oh, never mind.

Here's Daddy Richard's review of Doctor Woo and the Gunfighter. Note: Singular.

There will be spoilers.

If you'd stopped me halfway through watching this episode and asked me what I thought of it... I'd have refused to answer. But what I'd have been thinking was that it was good. Really good. Sadly, for me, the ending rather let it down with pat cliché.

There are two scenes in particular which are absolutely electric: the first where the Doctor loses it, tosses Kahler-Jex over the town boundary, leaving him at the mercy of the cyborg Gunslinger, and pulls a gun on him to keep him there, where Amy gets to deliver the possibly-series-defining line "This is what happens when you travel alone too long"; and the second was the "look me in the eye; end my life" talking down of bravo Dockery (Sean Benedict) by the Doctor, using only his words to persuade the young man that violence was never the way.

It's just a shame that the two scenes were so closely juxtaposed because they were completely at odds with each other. In the former, the Doctor is at his most wrathful, furious at what Jex has made him confront about himself and the consequences of his actions; in the second he's at his most Doctor-ish, doing the right thing even though it's the hard thing, determined to make people better. It's not that both of these personae are not contained within the Doctor's complex character. What was missing was a sense of why the Doctor has performed this emotional volte face.

It isn't what Amy says to him that turns him around. It ought to be, but – and actually I think it's a nice touch – his response is much more "Yeah, yeah, okay mom". It could have been the death of the Marshal, Isaac (Ben Browder, excellent but underused), but that comes across more as him being dumbfounded, lost for once for words. It could even have been one of those so-interesting conversations between Jex and the Doctor where the clever Kahler forces the Doctor to consider himself and his own questionable moral statue.

There needed to be a transformative moment when the Doctor admits, if only to himself, that Amy is right this time. And it's missing.

In a similar way, there seemed to be a missing scene where the Doctor explained why painting Jex's facemark on other people was a good idea. Bearing in mind, at this point the Gunslinger has declared his intention to come into the town and slaughter everyone until he gets Jex, why then provide him with plenty of potentially valid targets? Isn't this asking him to shoot first and not care that he's killed the wrong person again later? Of course, we later discover that the Gunslinger's compassion actually won't let him kill innocent people even to get his revenge. But at the point he's doling out the facepaint, the Doctor can't know that.

Like on several occasions this season, it seems that something has survived from an earlier draft when the necessary exposition has been pruned to fit the blockbuster to the forty-five minute slot.

But, to return to the point, there are, of course, three wars we are talking about here, and they're all metaphors for each other: the American Civil War; the Kahler Civil War; and the Time War.

Superficially, you can see why Dr Kahler-Jex, an affecting multi-faceted performance from Adrian Scarborough, would get the Doctor's back up: he's a scientist who has experimented on his own kind to create cyborg war machines with the aim of bringing a terrible war to an end. If that's not screaming Davros at you then you need to review your "Genesis of the Daleks". But, of course, he also gets under the Doctor's skin by being a (another) dark reflection of the Doctor himself – he ended the war but at terrible cost, and is now "the only survivor" trying to make a difference to the lives of others.

It's an ambiguity that the episode dances down nicely for a long time, but it falls off with the conclusion where Jex does "the only honourable thing" and blows himself up. As with the Doctor's moral handbrake turn, this isn't so much out of character as a reversal missing a necessary explanation. And if you're going to paint a character so closely as an analogue of the Doctor, do you really want to suggest that the only moral action he can take is suicide? Even if you do believe that some crimes are too big to be forgiven, where does that leave the Doctor after double-genocide?

And there's actually a better answer to be found in the episode.

Jex recounts the Kahler belief that the afterlife is a Sisyphean climb bearing the burden of the souls you've harmed.

The interesting point of this philosophy, of course, is that it directly refutes what the Doctor says about victims – the Daleks' victims, the Master's victims, all the rest. The burden of all the people who died because of the Doctor's mercy is not the Doctor's to bear; that weight falls upon the perpetrators of those actions, on the Daleks, on the Master, on Jex himself. What the Doctor is actually doing is trying to lay off his true burden, which is the weight of all those Daleks that he did kill.

But surely the opportunity was there for the Doctor to reply to Jex that after you're dead is no good; no, justice demands that you bear those souls while you are still alive.

Assuming that there can even be justice after war.

In a subtle and world-weary performance from Ben Browder, he manages to suggest that the Marshal has a secret past of his own, and that he's putting everyone's past behind them because it is charity not justice which is necessary if you're going to reconstruct after a war like the US Civil War.

I suppose it's inevitable that a Western would be another episode to laud the "noble warrior".

Jex, you'll notice, is a doctor, a healer, and so he perverted his gifts by using them to create the cyborg warriors. Obviously he has to die.

(And look! He keeps recordings of his victims screaming as he operates – because clearly he knows how to cure cholera but hasn't heard of anaesthesia. Really, that's a cheap trick to make him look "evil".)

Kahler-Tek of course was a soldier (and presumably made the choice to kill people before becoming a controlled cyborg, as well as doing so again after breaking his control programming). As a cyborg his "gifts" are "greater powers to kill". But since that's what he uses his powers for, that means his killing spree should be measured against "honour".

This can't be right, and even the gunslinger himself admits at the end that he's probably been a bit of a dick about this whole revenge thing.

It's supposed to be a "twist" that it's the naughty doctor who's the monster and the cyborg is the victim. But you know what, that guy who's a murderous vigilante – actually, he is a monster too.

The "cyborg as victim" trope has a long history as a metaphor for "war changes you". Everyone who comes back from war bears the scars, on the inside, if not the outside, and the cyborg externalises that in a very literal way, saying "look, they turned me into a weapon". It preys on our ancient fears of bodily violation while at the same time being a walking symbol of mutilation. (Doctor Who has a long and ignoble tradition of equating bodily imperfection with moral evil, from Magnus Greel to Sharaz Jek, and starting with the Daleks themselves, of course – coming so soon after the Paralympics this all might be in slightly poor taste.)

Oh, and if we're in the business of saying that it's wrong, evil even, taking away someone's self-will, turning them into a weapon, sending them out to destroy the enemy (even if it's to save your friends)... didn't the Doctor do that to a Dalek two weeks ago? The difference being, of course, the Dalek didn't volunteer. And the Dalek died. Er...

To me, the differences between Jex and the gunslinger are ones of scale, not of kind. But no one even suggests this, that going round killing people for the personal pleasure of revenge might be a bad thing to do, and the episode presents his fate as reward rather than penance.

Basically, he's got what he wanted – Jex and all the others dead – and it's left him unsatisfied. For which the Doctor gives him a pat on the head and a shiny star.

Really, the ending of this story should not have allowed the Gunslinger to get away with it. If Jex had to die, it would have been more honest for the story to have let Kahler-Tek take his final revenge, and then for the Doctor to have told him: "All those souls that Jex had to bear... they're you're burden now. See if you can figure out a way to earn their forgiveness. "

The biggest crime of disconnection, though, is that "A Town Called Mercy" does not feel as though it resolves the situation regarding the murder of Solomon that occurred in the previous episode (whether or not caused by the Dalek nanoswarm in the episode before that). Without actually alluding to it, it makes the series appear to say "Putting someone in the path of missiles is fine, but putting them in the path of a vigilante cyborg is a bit off". That's contradictory at best.

(Not that that's really writer Toby Whitehouse's fault, and on the whole I find his take on Doctor Who vastly more acceptable than the "Carry On Assassinating" version we got from School of Saward last week. No, the flaw is that we have to put the pieces together ourselves because the script editor, sorry "head writer", has chosen to make everything stand alone. I have to say, Chibnall may have an alarmingly different ethical stance, but at least he appear to have one; Moffat seems not to have even noticed that this episode needs to be stood up as a rebuke to the preceding one.)

Alex, insightfully, spots another, more worrying parallel: with the West's current preference for peppering enemy states with indiscriminate drone missiles rather than risking the lives of our soldiers. An old-fashioned kind of morality would see the Gunslinger as more noble because he can at least look his victims in the eyes before killing them. In a reversal of this, the difference between "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship" and "A Town Called Mercy" is that that while the latter sees the Doctor getting his hands dirty and so raises its moral outrage, the former doesn't even notice that a crime has occurred. Blowing someone up with missiles "doesn't count"; it's the video-game-isation of death.

Visually, "A Town Called Mercy" had a near dream-like quality. Westerns have almost always existed on the fringes of reality anyway, but somehow the bright sunlight – more alien to Doctor Who than any Dalek – gave this a feeling of the unreal. With the town boundary marked by a literal line in the sand, a line that the Doctor steps over – something he'll do so many more ways this episode – it was a surprise that this didn't turn out to be a realm of the Dream Lord, out to teach the Doctor a lesson about going too far.

(It would even have been a creditable excuse for the presence yet again of Amy and Rory, if they're "just a dream" too. Especially with them "on the way to the Day of the Dead" foreshadow, foreshadow!)

The Guardian seems thoroughly delighted that this was all really, really real, but to me naming the town "Mercy" for a story about the quality of mercy was a bit on the sledgehammer side.

The Gunslinger was an okay piece of design, possibly a little familiar to anyone whose seen any Red Dwarf or The Terminator or read any Judge Dredd, though his teleporting walk was inspired, not so much jumping from place to place as carrying his own heat haze with him to walk out of.

The direction, all Spaghetti Western by way of Back to the Future Three – yes, we saw that lightning bolt strike the clock tower, although the over-keen undertaker measuring Matt up for a pinewood suit made me think "Carry on Cowboy" instead – made excellent use of the location, and made Matt look great in all the clichés of the genre. And though they might be clichés, they're good clichés.

Nice use of the running joke about the Doctor speaking every language in the Universe, with his temporary equine companion. And isn't "A Horse Called Susan" good enough to be an episode title on its own?

Oh, and can anyone explain why an episode that otherwise looks this good appears to open with the world's clunkiest robot? (Yes, we're later told the Kahler are ingenious and can cobble together anything from anything, and that is clearly what has happened, but...) Is it just so we can have the Gunslinger hunting down and killing the BBC One ident?

Next Time...The World's been invaded by little black boxes. Rory's in his pants and Chibnall is back in the driving seat. Anticipate the villain to be Dusty Bin in "The Power of Three, Two, One". Or, you know, not.

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