OK, when Doctor Who wins its obligatory Hugo next year, I vote we give it to this episode. I thought that was stonking.
That said, I can see my Twitter feed is already a flutter with voices of dissent. I won’t pretend to know everybody’s reasons (people always take the trouble to tell me that it was for something different when I guesstimate), but US set episodes are always a slightly tougher sell. I know there have been grumblings around the blogosphere about catering to the growing US audience, but in all honesty, I can’t see why that’s a reason to complain. I mean, it isn’t like all the UK-based episodes aren’t catering to the UK audience. I grant you, ‘Daleks in Manhattan‘ was not the most successful of gestures in that direction, but Doctor Who has a long history of flirting with locations across the pond*. William Hartnell, the first doctor, even had a wild west story arc himself, in ‘The Gunfighters‘ (1966).
I also rather liked the touch of the Doctor saying that they were heading for a Mexican day of the dead festival (before someone spilled from crumbs on the console). Like so many science fiction programs, Doctor Who has always been limited in its realism by its centring on the country of its origin for its plots. Budget has been a big factor in this – I don’t suppose we shall see a Doctor Who episode set in New Zealand in the near future. Curiously, New Who has had, if anything, even more of a problem in this way than Old Who, setting unusually high numbers of episodes on Earth in an attempt to not scare away mainstream viewers, and consequently giving more time to Great Britain over alien locales. Exploring a bit of Earthly culture outside the European therefore seems rather healthy, to me.
But then, I spent a couple of years growing up in the US as a child, and have a longstanding affection for the wild west as a result. Perhaps I am biased because of this, but overall I thought this episode was tightly plotted, original, well-acted, challenging, and exciting. We were not tortured by the notoriously bad American accents that were one of the many flawed elements of the Manhattan based episode mentioned above. Moreover, rather than the recycling of old favourites that we have seen so much of, lately, we got a new (to my knowledge) alien race and a cyborg. (OK, so it is hitting a lot of the Ro buttons, but surely everyone likes cyborgs, right? Right?)
Minimally Spoiltastic Plot
The Doctor, Amy, and Rory arrive at the town of Mercy, somewhere in the US. The town is surrounded by a mysterious ring of rocks and wood, as well as a pointed ‘Keep Out’ sign, which the Doctor pointedly ignores. Almost immediately upon arrival they are challenged by the locals and when the Doctor confirms that he is both a Doctor and an alien, they unceremoniously evict him. In response to his crossing the ring around the town, an ominous figure, named by the locals as ‘The Gunslinger’ materialises in fits and starts, slowly getting closer to the Doctor, hefting a big gun.
At the last moment, the local sheriff, Issac (Ben Browder), declares that the Doctor must be allowed back in, and takes him aside to explain. There is, apparently, another alien doctor in the town, and the Gunslinger wants to kill him. The other doctor, Kahler Jex (Adrian Scarborough), has apparently done a lot of good. The sheriff mentions that the war he, Issac, fought in is only a few years in the past, and the experience convinced him that if a man wants a second chance, he can have one. Kahler Jex has done a lot of good to the town, and Issac is determined to protect him from the Gunslinger.
The Doctor agrees, but is naturally curious as to why it is that the Gunslinger wants this other doctor dead, and whether Kahler Jex is truly a man worth protecting, whatever he may have done for Mercy.
I felt like there were a lot of geek nods hovering around this one. You can’t say ‘The Gunslinger’ to me and not have me think of Roland of Gilead, who is so termed in Stephen King’s magnum opus, The Dark Tower. But I’m willing to concede that I’m super sensitive to such things. I also don’t know if it’s just me who found that the Gunslinger bore a striking resemblance to a warped version of Kryten from Red Dwarf, which, of course, had its own western episode. I dunno, maybe it is just me, but the black, bulky clothes; the waxy, cyborg face; the awkward stance and movements; the misshapen hands… it just felt familiar. On the other hand, I know that the Terminator font used for the cyborg-view writing that said ‘TERMINATE’ was intentional.
So what were all these references (or putative references) doing? I’m not entirely sure. They might have been just nods. However, this episode was particularly concerned with exploring the themes of warfare, justice, law and order, and the impact of the past on the present, as well as whether an individual can change. The responsibilities and changeability of the individual is a frequent question where artificial intelligence is concerned. Dave Lister, in Red Dwarf, is constantly trying to get Kryten to change as a way of enabling freedom by defying his programming. This is positive freedom, and yet could also be seen as a restriction of Kryten’s negative freedom to simply be who he wants to be. Kryten seems to enjoy the positive freedom that Lister grants him, yet he is also frequently wracked with guilt over the minor transgressions Lister persuades him to because they are in conflict with an existing moral code that Lister is not entirely successful in providing him with reasons to reject. I’m not saying Red Dwarf has any especially in-depth discussion of these things, but it is a feature of debates about artificial life that they always bring with them questions of responsibility and freedom. Programming is taken as restrictive – yet arguably, we are just as predetermined by the laws of physics and our circumstance. Can programming free one from responsibility? If a choice is unavoidable, does that mean it was not chosen? Was it really as unavoidable as we like to tell ourselves it was? And if we create life, are we not responsible for the actions of that life? Or does accepting such responsibility deny the power over its own life that each individual has?
These are questions that the Terminator movies (especially Terminator 2: Judgement Day) are more overtly concerned with. Questions of responsibility and freedom stem from both the AI plot elements and the time travel ones (another shared theme with this week’s Doctor Who. John Connor’s message to himself, via Kyle Reese and his mother, is that ‘The future is not set. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves’. It’s a bastardisation of a quote from Sartre’s seminal paper, ‘Existentialism and Humanism‘**:
Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself… man is, before all else, something which propels itself towards a future, and is aware that it is doing so
Terminator 2 is all about choices, and I’ll restrain myself from getting too deep into my thoughts on T2***, but I hope this is sufficient to show the connection. Anyway, ‘A Town Called Mercy’ is also about choices and the weight of responsibility – the weight of the past. The Doctor is a man who has tried to wipe his past away – a thing that might feel like freedom, but must also be dangerous, especially for a man with a past as weighty as the Doctor’s. Here he is confronted by a number of mirrors: the sherif, who has responded to his experiences of war with kindness, and a resolution to judge all as though their crimes can be written off if they can prove themselves valuable members of the community. The other doctor, who has worked hard to atone for a murky past, but whose past has followed him, anyway, and now threatens others because it has been ignored. And the Gunslinger, another dealer of death, who is bitter and full of anger for the role that has been thrust upon him, yet who follows a certain code nonetheless. The nature of morality and when and whether it is ever right to kill is constantly challenged and interrogated from a number of angles. And hanging in the background, addressed with a subtlety that New Who has sometimes lacked in the past, is the issue of the Doctor’s own past, of his war-crimes, of his status as a warrior, and whether he even has the right to call himself the ‘Doctor’ and not the ‘Predator’ or something more ominous.
One senses that the Doctor can never truly resign himself to the passive role of healer. The clean slate that Issac wants for others (and tacitly for himself) is perhaps an ideal that cannot be attained precisely because the history of our past actions frames our present and our future. The Doctor was always more the sort of doctor who searched after knowledge than who stopped to attend to the less exciting business of tending to the sick. He has helped people, countless people, but he has also left a wave of destruction in his path. The ‘Oncoming Storm’, if you like. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: ‘He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy‘. Or perhaps, he’s a little bit of both.
The Doctor is one of the more interesting heroes – one of the most enigmatic, charismatic, and magnetic – precisely because he is both darkness and light. Even before this episode aired certain corners of the Interwebs were muttering about the Doctor handling a gun and behaving in a morally questionable manner. But he’s always been a bit morally questionable. He’s not a comfortable hero, and his value lies precisely in that, because he makes us question ourselves. He’s makes us question whom we choose to idolise, and whether people can be fitted into neat categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Not a lot of television shows suitable for children dare to muddy the waters in this way, and yet I think it’s a thing that children respond well too. It’s an important lesson, not only that good people can do bad things, but that bad people can do good, and that maybe the distinction between the two is not as clear as our parents might like to pretend when they tell us that ‘No – don’t do that. That’s wrong – only bad children do that’.
This is a challenging and nuanced look at morality and responsibility all packaged up in a great ball of fun filled with aliens and cyborgs and the wild west. What’s not to love? I might just go watch it again.
In the mean time, and because I cannot resist it, I just have to post this glorious video again, as a reminder of the Doctor’s darker side…
*He-he, I said ‘pond’.
**The literal translation is ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’, but the title is usually rendered in English as ‘Existentialism and Humanism’.
***Give me enough time and freedom and space to write in and I will almost always end up talking about existentialism and Terminator 2 – it’s like monkeys and Shakespeare.