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.