Doctor Who's quirky time traveler has often been accused of transforming human beings into weapons — most notably, Davros made this claim in "Journey's End." But last night's episode, "A Town Called Mercy," features another alien doctor who's literally made people into weapons — and meanwhile, it makes a strong case that the Doctor's companions aren't weapons at all, but quite the reverse.
In "A Town Called Mercy," there's an alien doctor named Kahler Jex, who experimented on some of his own people, turning them into cyborg soldiers as a means of ending a terrible, interminable war. Jex feels remorse and shame over his terrible experiments, especially because he believes in an afterlife where he'll have to carry all the souls of the people he's harmed up a steep hill. And now, he's living in the Wild West town of Mercy, working as a doctor and helping people — or using a town full of innocent people as human shields, depending on how you look at it.
And one of the cyborg soldiers, the Gunslinger, is hunting down the scientists who created him one by one, and Jex is the last on his list. The Gunslinger is basically a walking case of PTSD and Robocop-esque misery over losing his selfhood and identity to the cyborg experiments. Because once you've been turned into a weapon, it's almost impossible to be anything else. It's a neat way of looking at post-war trauma, as both the Gunslinger and Jex (and the Doctor) are wracked with suffering over their wartime experiences.
The town of Mercy, as Isaac (the always charming Ben Browder) tells us, is a place where everybody can start over and get a second chance — whether it's after the American Civil War, or some alien war in space. It's the American way, the blank slate.
The scenes between the Doctor and Jex are pretty fascinating, especially once Jex starts to show some steel and sheds some his "humble penitent doctor" facade. As I mentioned, both the Doctor and Jex are haunted by the things they've done, and Jex's barb about the Doctor not having what it takes to save his own people sticks harder than Jex could possibly know. Jex makes a strong case that sometimes, being ruthless actually saves lives in the end. It's sort of the atomic bomb theory of warfare.
So are the Doctor's companions a weapon, or a holster? When the Doctor finds out about Jex's past and decides to hand him over for execution, Amy says this sort of cruelty is what happens when the Doctor travels by himself for too long. He loses touch with humanity and human virtues. (And now I wonder if the Doctor had a human companion during any of the Time War.) The Doctor's been on his own rather a lot lately, between adventures with Amy and Rory, and I'm pretty sure this isn't the first time the show's suggested it's not good for him to be so isolated.
Is the Doctor going to go bad, once the Ponds are no longer in the picture?
Soon afterwards, Isaac gets killed, and the Doctor vows to protect Jex in Isaac's name, as the new sheriff. He stops the townspeople from handing Jex over after the Gunslinger gives them an ultimatum. Instead, the Doctor uses copies of Jex's face tattoo to confuse the Gunslinger, so Jex can escape. But instead, Jex blows himself up to atone for his crimes.
A few running things I noticed... First of all, this is the second story in a row to feature a confusion of doctors. The Gunslinger is looking for "the doctor," and we (the audience) assume he means the Doctor. Later, the townspeople of Mercy make the same mistake. Just like last week, we kept thinking Solomon knew the Doctor, when in fact he just was happy that there was a doctor around. It's like the show is teasing us with people not knowing the Doctor, to emphasize just how incognito he really is.
Another running thing: at the end of the adventure, the Doctor invites Amy and Rory to keep traveling with him, and they turn him down. They don't want to have to explain to their friends why they're aging so much faster than everyone else.
And a third thing this story has in common with "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship": at the center of it, there's a man with terrible crimes in his past, who gets blown up at the end. But we don't see a body. I couldn't help wondering if both Solomon and Jex survived, and if we'll see them both again. (This was more of a thing last week, when the Doctor goes out of his way to explain to Solomon exactly how the missiles will home in on him, as if leaving it up to Solomon to figure out an escape plan.)
To be honest, I was kind of lukewarm about "A Town Called Mercy," especially after enjoying "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship" so much the week before. For a few reasons:
1) It felt like a warmed over version something I'd seen before, like a Deep Space Nine episode transplanted to the Wild West.
2) The Doctor's sudden decision to send Kahler to his death half-way through the episode felt out of character and not in a "wow we're seeing a startling new side of the Doctor" way, but more in a "this episode was running short and needed to manufacture some conflict" way. The whole "Today I honor the victims" thing seemed jarringly stilted, in context. Like the Doctor had decided to run for Town Council.
3) The cyborg Gunslinger seemed way too Rube Goldberg — you're a supersoldier with (one presumes) incredible targeting systems. If you want to take out one man in a town full of innocents, you can easily wade into the town and take him out without harming anyone else. But instead, you draw a boundary around the town and announce that anyone who leaves will be shot — why not just let everyone in the town leave, so your target has no more human shields? It makes no sense.
All in all, though, this was a fairly neat episode for what it was — a hard look at war and what it does to us. And like most episodes of Doctor Who lately, it's really about viewing the Doctor through a brand new lens, by giving him a foil. This week, it's Kahler Jex, another alien doctor who harbors dark secrets and can never go home. The thing that separates the Doctor from Jex, we're told in no uncertain terms, is that the Doctor has always remembered the importance of mercy — usually because he had his companions around to remind him. (Although, on that note, you should watch this video I made four years ago about the Doctor's total lack of mercy. Apologies for the clunky video editing, I was still learning the ropes.)