Thoughts on: A Town Called Mercy

The thing I remember most about this episode from three years ago is watching the Doctor, in a fit of rage, drag a sweet old alien doctor through a Western town, throwing him across the town’s border and pointing a gun at the old man’s head, threatening to shoot if he tried to come back across. It was one of those explosive, mesmerising television moments you never forget, even if you forget the details of what had happened around that moment.

I’ve said before that I only became a proper fan of the show during the Matt Smith era, specifically during Series 6. I think watching this episode in 2012 was when it was truly brought home to me that the Doctor is not a superhero; not an angelic messiah; not Jesus Christ incarnate. I had formed the notion that the Doctor was like a kind of secular Dalai Lama with a time machine, so watching him throw a man to his almost certain death and load a revolver in his face was as confronting as it was thrilling.

So the episode’s questioning the Doctor’s morality like this was a bracing and compelling way of bringing home its stimulating exploration of themes of justice and mercy. It was easy to see an analogy in Jex’s atrocities in the Doctor’s own war crimes, which were certainly far greater and more horrifying than Jex’s. “War is another world. You cannot apply the politics of peace to what I did. To what any of us did.” The Doctor goes tellingly quiet after Jex says that. His subsequent violent outburst can be seen as as much a repudiation of his own ends-justify-the-means crimes as it was of Jex’s. We didn’t know it at the time, but this was very clever foreshadowing of the events of The Day of the Doctor.

The Doctor is truly scary, a fearful, terrible force, when taking out his indignation upon Jex. I’ve said it before, Matt Smith does anger really well. He’s good at conveying the sense of the Doctor being an unpredictable, volatile enigma. He’s larking about in stetson, the time travelling man-child, one moment, and the next he’s dragging a man through the street at gunpoint. You often get the sense that the Eleventh Doctor really is as emotionally mature as his physical age suggests, but at these moments you remember he’s 1,200 years old and has the jaded, withered soul of a 1,200 year old festering inside of him.

That it’s Amy who pulls the Doctor back from the brink is also very meaningful. “This is what happens when you travel alone for too long.” The show has touched on this theme before, that the Doctor loses his moral bearings when he’s alone for too long and doesn’t have a companion with him to rein him in and “make him better”. The Waters of Mars was a particularly frightening depiction of what the Doctor becomes without a companion. This series so far has shown different instances of the Doctor doing, or here almost doing, very un-Doctorish things. It’s an emphatic way to make the point that it’s the Doctor’s companions who make him what he is, that without his companions he might descend into something as terrifying as any of the monsters he fights. More oh-so-subtle foreshadowing of The Day of the Doctor here…

More generally this episode is a really successful narrative. It plays out like a movie, it has that absorbing quality of a feature film that sucks you into the story. I’ve found this is a distinct difference between Moffat’s style and RTD’s style of Doctor Who. I’ve found Moffat’s Who to be more cinematic, more engrossing visual storytelling. It’s easy to become absorbed and swept up in the ride of a Moffat-era story, forgetting to be critical of the episode, while I’ve found while doing these reviews that it’s easier to detach oneself while watching an RTD-era story and evaluate what one’s seeing.

The period Western set and costumes (and accents) were all gloriously sumptuous, another aspect of this episode serving to suck in and immerse the viewer in the narrative and the fictional world of the story. Plenty of de rigueur Western tropes were successfully employed, like horse-riding, a high noon showdown, the Doctor entering a saloon which promptly goes quiet for no particular reason, lots of guns, etc. The characters, too, were wonderful. Both Jex and the Gunslinger were engaging characters who captured the audience’s sympathies effectively. Isaac, too, was a fair-minded and charming voice of reason in this tense Western town, holding back the lynch mob and ultimately dying an untimely, selfless death to protect Jex, whom he insisted should enjoy a second chance, whatever he’d done.

Overall it was a stimulating and unique story. The compelling moral dilemma that dominated the episode made it something very different from Doctor Who’s standard fare, one of the more provocative stories of the series, and wonderfully absorbing. My only major criticism would be that Amy and Rory were pretty sparsely used here, especially Rory, and especially compared to how large their roles were in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship. Only Amy really got in on the action in a meaningful way, and only very briefly, when she talked the Doctor out of killing Jex or letting him die.

Rating: 8/10.

Thoughts on: Asylum of the Daleks

Steven Moffat has gone for a dazzling blockbuster of an opener to kick off Series 7 featuring the Daleks as we’ve never seen them before. This was the first of the “movie poster” run of Series 7a, i.e. the first five episodes of the series, and it totally looks it. There are imposing scenes of the “Parliament of the Daleks”, spectacular views of the Dalek asylum planet, and every Dalek ever. It was as if the fanboys were put in charge of the show (Oh, wait…).  But one of this episode’s main triumphs was its portrayal of the Daleks. We hadn’t seen the Daleks for a full season, and Steven Moffat, in his first Dalek script, was determined not only to do something different with them, but to attempt that elusive feat of making the Daleks scary again. Given that the Daleks had progressively become less fearful a villain since Robert Shearman’s Dalek, having appeared more or less every year since the revival (sometimes twice), that was always going to be a daunting challenge, but I think Moffat pulled it off.

The “asylum of the Daleks”, where all the most insane Daleks are imprisoned, was a compellingly brilliant concept, and allowed Moffat to show the Daleks at their most terrifying. There were some genuinely scary moments in the asylum, where the Doctor, Amy and Rory encountered damaged and deranged Daleks, all that was left of some of which was their most fundamental, primal instincts: hatred and the urge to kill. I’m thinking of the wonderfully suspenseful “eggs…” moment where Rory clumsily awakens a long-dormant Dalek whose first urge is to “ex…ex…ex…ter…min…ate!” The concept of the planet’s nanogene cloud converting all organisms, living and dead, into Dalek puppets also gave the Daleks another terrifying weapon in their armoury, the sight of a Dalek eyestalk emerging from a human head was particularly gruesome.

It seems we can’t have a story about the Daleks these days that doesn’t also compare the Doctor to the Daleks, and the comparisons came thick and fast here. Well, perhaps not thick, but they were pretty obvious and heavy-handed. I’m not necessarily criticising, I generally find it exhilarating and compelling when the Doctor’s character is questioned by the show, or at least I do when it’s done well. The Dalek Prime Minister (*splutter* Prime Minister !?!) speculates that the Daleks’ adoration of hatred is why they have never been able to kill the Doctor. Thinking about it, that’s actually a very clever way to patch over that particular continuity hole, while also making a profound point about the Doctor’s character. They refer to him as the “Predator of the Daleks”, another cool title to add to the Doctor’s increasingly long list of cool titles, but which builds on a theme first established in Bad Wolf, i.e. that the Daleks, given their collective history with the Doctor, probably fear the Doctor now far more than he fears them. “We have grown stronger in fear of you,” Dalek Oswin pronounces.

Some might scorn the idea that the “mad man with a box” could have had such an intense impact on “the most advanced warrior race the universe has ever seen”, but certainly the Doctor’s triumphs over the Daleks have been so devastating and so traumatising for the Daleks collectively, that it should come as no surprise that the Daleks have developed this primal race memory identifying the Doctor as their eternal enemy and “predator”, and prompting them to instinctively fear the Doctor. It was very telling, after all, that the most “damaged” Daleks were the ones who’d survived the Doctor in previous battles. Who, honestly, seeing the Doctor murder a room full of Daleks without as much as a flinch of mercy, could say they doubt that the Daleks have reason to fear the Doctor, or that the Doctor really does hate the Daleks as much as they think he does.

This episode also boasted a strong character element, both with the melodrama around Amy and Rory’s deteriorating relationship, as well as Oswin’s shocking and confusing appearance. When I first saw this episode, I was genuinely worried that Amy and Rory were going to be separated permanently. I loved their coupling and couldn’t bear to see them apart. Watching Amy and Rory sniping cruelly at each other I just couldn’t stand. I found it excruciating. I should have known, that’s not how it works—Moffat would have had to contend with a lynch mob of angry fans (including this one) if he’d actually ended Amy and Rory that way. In any case, my reaction at least shows that the episode achieved what it set out to in this respect in making the audience care deeply about what happened to Amy and Rory on a personal level. Watching Amy forcefully repudiating Rory’s claim the he loves her more than she does him was really heartwrenching viewing, and simply sublime, powerful acting by Karen Gillan.

Oswin was a captivating, yet suspiciously enigmatic, presence onscreen while we thought she was a human. I was immediately enchanted by her as a potential companion, a girl-genius, with delectable sass and looks. Not to mention she was delightfully wacky enough to give even the Doctor a run for his money. Kind of like a modern Zoe. That made it all the more shocking when the bluff was uncovered and Oswin was revealed to be a Dalek with delusions of humanity. Her story was heartbreaking, and her final words, what would become her eternal words, “Run you clever boy, and remember…” truly make the hair stand on end.

Rating: 8/10.