Well look what snuck up on us while we weren't looking:
So here we are already at the third episode. The season opener, "Asylum of the Daleks", was pretty damn good as far as I was concerned. It had Daleks but not Daleks straight out of the Apple store dancing to stupid music or anything, it had proper menacing Daleks and insane Daleks and, at the very end, rightly confused Daleks. (The chanting may have been a bit much. I thought Moffat had already gotten that particular question out of his system with the previous finale.)
We were also treated to our first glimpse of Oswin The New Companion-To-Be. It may be too soon for the Internet to judge whether SHE'S REALLY AWESOME and/or BRING ON THE RULE 34 and/or SHE STINKS BRING BACK KAMELION, but I thought Oswin made a good first impression. She's like Ace with Sarah Jane's inquisitive mad skills crossed with Ace with Peri's fun-to-say name and spirited attitude (the better parts of it, anyway; Perpugilliam could be as annoying as Mel at times) crossed with Ace. She also seems to have stolen Christina Ricci's hair, but I don't know if Ricci is canon or not so let's give Oswin a pass for now.
Considering Oswin's departure in "Asylum of the Daleks", exactly how she's gonna pop back into the Doctor's life and/or timestream in the Christmas Special will make a dandy point of conjecture after The Thing What Happens In Episode Five. I have no qualms about her age; she seems to have handled the matter of age nearly as well as Matt Smith did when he first came aboard. Remember, when everybody was worried the kid would step out of the TARDIS in short pants and stuff? Yeah, well. Consider that if Zooey here ends up retaining any part at all of the Dalek she'd been stuffed into, she will become the most fascinating companion in the entire series. I mean, a Dalek is the last thing you'd expect the Doctor would allow in the TARDIS to get its greasy suction-cup mitt marks all over the console. Unless Big Finish or the comics did something with like K-9 being turned into a Dalek or something, I don't know, I hope they didn't, and now I've written Dalek so many times it's lost syntactical context.
Then we had "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship", the most accurately-named episode so far. It had dinosaurs! On a spaceship! The Doctor even says this in case we hadn't figured it out! It did what it said in the TV listings and was a darn good adventure besides. Rory's father, Arthur Brian Weasley Williams, was a wonderful character. His "Why thank you, Arthur C. Clarke!" rant was terrific, and his goggle-eyed, trembling reaction to an affectionate Triceratops was nearly a cartoon take. Brian's nicest moment, though, involved him watching the Earth from orbit, feet dangling from the TARDIS, happily having a meal just like Wilf on his hilltop. It was sweet and majestic and just what you would do, too, once you put faith in TARDIS magic to keep you from asphyxiating. And seated.
The concept of the Doctor's ad hoc gang, cobbled together to fill the Amy and Rory-shaped hole in his hearts (they were "taking a break" from having adventures with the Doctor when he suddenly swooped in and took 'em to the aforementioned spaceship with dinosaurs) was great. The two characters were colorful and enjoyable, even if it was pretty obvious that Nefertiti was going to end up with Jurassic Park Guy the moment they started arguing. But still! High concept, people! Mysteriously-disappearing Egyptian queen and Rupert Graves as a big-game hunter, both running around with the Doctor! It can't go all that bad! The only shame is that the characters were written as if they knew they'd only be in for one episode. We were given everything we needed from them. No more, no less. Can't have 'em back too soon. That'd just risk overkill and we've never had any of that in our science-fiction.
I also really liked the fact that the Earth agency governing space in the story's timeline was Indian. Not a racially diverse group with one or two Indian officers with one or two lines of dialogue, but a whole-cut representation of India and her space program. Big ups to the BBC for reminding us, especially those of us over here in the Walled Garden-States of America, that there's plenty of nations on Earth with space interests. I mean, the group could just as easily have been an American one, all Battlestar Galactica-like by the way they were waving their nukes around, but we were spared that particular ignominy for this week.
After watching the teaser for "A Town Called Mercy", I was struck with two thoughts: One, Toby Whithouse sure loves himself some The Jam; and Two, as with any Doctor Who episode set in America, it would either turn out incredibly awesome like "The Impossible Astronaut" or it would be insufferably terrible, like "The Daleks Take Manhattan" or whatever the hell it was called. There's no middle ground.
Anyway, we got Manhattan.
It's a shame, too, because I could see where they really really really wanted to go with this. Continuing the string of high-concept episodes, we go from Dalek insane asylum to dinosaurs on a spaceship to The Doctor in his very own real live Western movie. It was even shot in Spain to give it that authentic Leone/Morricone flavor. Well now, you say, that should be awesome! The Doctor would totally be like all Doc Brown in Back To The Future III only less manic since he's not Tennant, there'd be a showdown at High Noon, and he'd take care of the bad guys without being a gunslinger. He'd totally fake 'em out at the gunfight and do something cool with his sonic screwdriver, yeah.
But by the time we got to the showdown at High Noon which indeed goes down as expected, the episode had worn out the Western genre by featuring nearly every Western film cliche you can think of, trotting them all out like a K-Tel compilation.
D-WHO PRESENTS WILD WEST TOWN! 20 ORIGINAL CLICHES FROM 20 ORIGINAL CLICHED WESTERN SCENES! THERE'S
- THE TOWN SIGN WITH HASTILY-SCRAWLED POPULATION CORRECTION!
- IGNERNT TOWNSFOLK A-SKEERD OF NEWCOMERS!
- A DRAMATIC MUSIC-STOPPING SALOON ENTRANCE!
- UNDERTAKER MEASURING A DOOMED MAN!
- CHARMING WAIF IN GINGHAM DRESS!
- EQUIVOCATIN' PREACHER MAN!
- NOBLE SHERIFF-TYPE WHO BUYS IT AT THE END OF ACT TWO!
The first ten minutes alone contained more situations than Bugs Bunny could hope to lampoon in one shot. So perhaps the Doctor has indeed fallen into a Western film, and I wish we could treat it like the B-picture it would be, because that would be fun. But "A Town Called Mercy" does something else, and it goes beyond Western cliches and slipping American accents. It fundamentally messes with the Doctor's character for one crucial moment and then, perhaps worse, writes it off completely.
Okay. So we've got a fugitive human-looking alien who has holed up in this Western town acting as their doctor (get it?) He's stalked by a Yul Brynner-alike, one cyborg assassin with powers of teleportation and a laser Gatling gun permanently attached to his arm. Our fugitive is the one who attached that gun; he's on the lam after committing atrocious crimes against his species, including turning ostensibly nice people into robotic killing machines. And you know what, after watching the entire Battlestar Galactica run this summer, I can safely say that when you start making robotic killing machines, your creations will eventually turn on you with a goddamn vengeance.
But our cyborg has been programmed with, or his human side has retained, some semblance of morality. He refuses to harm innocent people; he only wants to take the Fugitive. He's hunted down the other doctors the Fugitive had worked with and this one is the last. It's a fact that the cold opening tries to turn into a source of "OOOH I BET HE MEANS THE DOCTOR, OUR DOCTOR, OH NOS" tension, only to lamely discard it a scene or two later when we meet said Fugitive. I sense a theme of lamely discarding things here.
The cyborg's morality extends to his approach when the townspeople refuse to hand the Fugitive over, suddenly very accepting of their newcomer friend in spite of his weird green scar-like facial marking and not-so-stellar past. I think that's mostly because the Fugitive brought them the gift of Electric Light a few decades early and cured all their authentic frontier diseases, but also because he didn't quite tell them the whole truth.
The cyborg decides to wait it out. He encircles the town with a line of rocks, turning it into some weird kind of Western fairy circle, and lets nobody in or out. Apparently Mercy is so far away from civilization that passers-by haven't noticed the blockade and gone off to warn the Federales, or whatever, but maybe they explained that a little in the beginning while I was still reeling from the cliches. From what I saw, however, it appears that hole-in-the-hat warning shots do the trick just fine. Regardless, the fact remains that a line has been built in the sand and there it will stay until the Fugitive is dead, dead, dead.
Once the Doctor learns of the Fugitive's past, however, he goes bazonkers. Fugitive, who is also apparently an accomplished psychotherapist, suggests that the Doctor is furious at the Fugitive's casual attitude towards messing with species because he's furious with his own messing with species. It's a valid fact; the Doctor has indeed done some horrible things in his time including at least one count of genocide.
Furious, the Doctor marches the Fugitive up to the line of rocks and prepares to toss him over for the cyborg. This could be the setup for a good old-fashioned Doctor fake-out, but it's not. To make matters worse, he even holds a gun on the Fugitive and makes it clear in no uncertain terms that he's willing to shoot this no-good varmint himself. It's up to Amy and Rory (they're in this episode, too) to convince the Doctor that mmmmaybe violence isn't the solution here, and after a bit of soul-wrasslin, he relents.
Hogwash. The Doctor is like Batman. He does not kill with guns. It's one thing to shoot out the lights and make your escape, or shoot the chandelier rope and send the lights crashing down on the bad guys; it's another thing entirely to consciously decide to blow some alien Mengele's head off. Even if the guy is an alien Mengele. It's not fair to the character and it does not make sense. It certainly doesn't make sense when, a scene or two later, the Doctor himself convinces an angry lynch mob (minus the torchwoods and pitchforks) that mmmmaybe violence isn't the solution here. I don't care if this was done to reinforce that he's learned his lesson and is sticking to it. That there's a mood swing even Ten wouldn't have taken.
Hell, considering the lynch mob happens so soon after the townsfolk are more than willing to protect their doctor (something about the cyborg finally announcing he'd kill them all if they didn't bring the dude out by High Noon), people's opinions and loyalties shift a lot more in this episode than they should have.
The story could have easily done something else than have the Doctor flip the hell out and do the whole "nobody move or the geneticist gets it" routine. Crammed some more cliches in, perhaps. We didn't get any authentic frontier gibberish, the dance girl with the heart of gold didn't do the Can-Can, nobody went that-a-way, and neither was anybody cut off at the pass. Any of these things could have filled the few minutes when the Doctor's character took a quick break. I would have preferred the Can-Can with authentic frontier gibberish. That way, when the Doctor does his non-violence speech, and later, when he has the aforementioned Showdown at High Noon and pulls his sonic screwdriver instead of a gun, it wouldn't seem so gosh-darned rassinfrassin hornswogglin sidewinderish. It also would have been a hell of a lot more sincere.
And then we have the Nobly Dying Sheriff, called Marshal in these here parts on accountin' that "Sheriff" was just a little too much. The Marshal exists mostly to give much-needed exposition at the start, keep peace and order until the town accepts the Doctor as a good guy, and then--lying on the ground, breathing his last--pass his shiny golden star badge to the Doctor after getting in between the Fugitive and a laser Gatling gun blast. His sacrifice is empty as hell, since the Fugitive blows himself up a little while later after realizing yeah, maybe he ought to atone for his sins after all. I guess he figures he's done enough to help the town, including giving them the electric light. That wouldn't mess with any timeline stuff, no siree.
The Fugitive does get a lovely moment of world-building before he goes boom, however, when he explains that His People's beliefs in the afterlife involve a large mountain which you must climb to your eternal reward. You do so weighed down by the souls of everybody you wronged in your life. This promise of guilt and impending atonement apparently didn't stop him from doing the whole war-cyborg thing, but it creeps back in at the end when necessary. I liked the concept nevertheless. It could very easily spring from any faith-based culture, and was probably put in the story by somebody else.
I think that's all I can write about this episode. I am tired. It was made with the best of intentions, but someone let the irrational loose and it took over. A pity since the sets were lookin' good, the mountains around them even better, and the bombastic score had a reason this week to be bombastic. Yet, as they said after the first unsuccessful guillotine test, it was a great idea but bad execution.
NEXT WEEK: Amy and Rory have a Crisis. There is havoc. I am leery.
1. Ha ha ha, like it's ever been too soon for the Internet to judge! Hee hee hoo!
2. Ha ha ha, like the Internet isn't already on it! Hee hee oh god damn
3. I know that sentence looks weird but the fact of the matter is that The Jam is, was, and always will be The Jam, and not Jam when it's convenient.
4. Oy vey.
5. Ten wipes out the Racnoss in the Christmas special The Runaway Bride by more or less drowning them in the Thames. Happy birthday, Jesus!
6. Looks like the undertaker was measuring the wrong guy all along. To quote Gravity Falls' own Mabel Pines, WOMP WOMP.