Under the dark of night, a man desperately tries to escape a massive cyborg, whose screen reads “Exterminate.” Make peace with your gods, puny non-cyborg man! “Once they were your gods, too,” he gasps. The cyborg’s programming identifies his distinctive tattoo. “Am I the last?” the man asks. “There is one more,” a distorted mechanized voice replies. “The Doctor.”
AHA, I thought it would be the Doctor! *gives self points* I can’t be too modest; there’s also the narrator’s ten-ton clue as she reminisces about her favorite childhood tale: a man who lived forever; “whose eyes were heavy with the weight of all he’d seen; a man who fell from the stars.” Let’s see, Doctor, Doctor, Doctor! :D Boy, it’s sure nice of the Toby Whithouse to make it so easy to — ah, CRAP! *loses all points* D:
Things aren’t as they seem! Okay! Rory, Amy, and the Doctor stand at a crude border of stones and wood, the Old West town called Mercy. Population: 81. A huge “KEEP OUT” sign signals danger. Luckily, the Doctor takes those as “suggestions more than actual orders, like dry cleaning only!” Oh, come on and admit it: those signs aren’t cautionary suggestions; they’re like Time Lord catnip!
The three stalk through the town, encountering your standard wary hiding townspeople. “That’s not right,” the Doctor says of a street lamp. “Anachronistic electricity, keep out signs, aggressive stares: has someone been peeking at my Christmas list?” he asks delightedly. Well, yes, since you mentioned it on the dinosaur spaceship!
Western movie tropes continue apace! Our heroes enter a saloon and conversation grinds to a halt. “What are you doing here, son?” the saloon’s owner asks the Doctor. “Son?” he exclaims. “You can stay!” While the town undertaker measures him for his coffin (Whithouse, you didn’t leave anything out!), a young whippersnapper asks if the Doctor’s an alien. “I suppose I am,” he allows. Everyone pounces.
The Doctor’s hurled across the boundary while the Preacher recites the Lord’s Prayer. In a lovely marriage of Western and Sci-Fi perspective, the Gunslinger cyborg fades in and out as he stalks/teleports closer, a visual hearkening to heat distortion surrounding approaching characters in Western flicks. Everyone draws to keep the Doctor out, until with a “You! Bowtie!” the Doctor’s ordered back by Isaac the Marshall.
What if he’s the Doctor the Gunslinger’s looking for, that wet-behind-the-ears whippersnapper asks. “You know it ain’t,” Isaac replies. They’ve been trapped for weeks, he tells the Doctor & Co. back at the Marshall’s. No supply wagons can cross the line; the townspeople get shot at (warning only) if they attempt to cross.
It’s all because the Gunslinger demands the Alien Doctor. “Why would he want to kill you?” Amy asks. “Unless he’s met you.” HA! /Krabappel-ing. Can’t be our Doctor: they were headed to Mexico to the Day of the Dead Festival (potentially cultural insensitivity avoided!) when someone got toast crumbs on the console (Rory, if exasperated Time Lord looks could kill…).
“Resident 81, I presume,” must be hiding at the Marshall’s, because that’s where the Doctor would stash himself. Introducing Kahler-Jex, all civilized mild-mannered alien physician to the cyborg Gunslinger’s outlaw savagery! The Doctor wrings his hand, full of compliments for the Kahler, an ingenious technologically-advanced race who could build a spaceship out of Tupperware and moss. Ew.
Isaac and the townsfolk saved Jex, pulling him from the wreckage of his spaceship. As thanks, he cured their cholera and turned his ship into a generator to supply heating and electricity. So. Why does the Gunslinger want him dead? “It don’t matter,” Isaac insists. America’s the land of second chances, and they called the town Mercy for a reason.
If only the rest of the townsfolk hadn’t changed the name to Brutality! “They’re scared, that’s all!” Jex insists compassionately. Isaac doesn’t agree; if he lets them hand Jex over, “we’re handing the keys over to chaos.” Fine, they’ll just help Jex escape and evacuate the town. “No crazy schemes?” Amy asks. “No negotiations?” Of course not, and for the record, the Doctor’s not curious about that mysterious space cowboy assassin, okay?!
Time for sleight of hand: Isaac dresses in Jex’s clothes, and since the Gunslinger won’t fire on innocents, he and Rory run like maniacs while the Gunslinger follows closely with his firing arm (literally his arm, a multiple barrel automatic). The Doctor, meanwhile, appropriates the Preacher’s transgender horse (“He wants you to respect his life choices!”) and rides. Say “she” if you’re going to be respectful, Doctor!
Jex tells Amy he only ever wanted to end suffering, so he won’t leave Mercy, where he can start afresh and help. “You’re a mother, aren’t you?” he asks when she places a coat around his shoulders. He sees kindness, sadness, and ferocity in her eyes. “Not exactly straightforward,” Amy says, taken aback. “Seldom is,” he answers. Is he a father? “Yes. In a way, I suppose I am,” he replies, looking troubled. Uh oh.
On his way to the TARDIS, the Doctor pulls over with Susan. “Oi, don’t swear,” the Doctor exclaims while Susan neighs impatiently. He discovers the tubing transmitting Jex’s ship’s energy to the town and follows to the source. “Yes, good point, Susan! Where is the damage?” he asks as he knocks on the ship before Sonic-ing it.
The Doctor sets off an alarm, saving Isaac from the Gunslinger. In town, Jex realizes the Doctor’s gone rogue. “He’s not following the plan!” “Welcome to my world,” Amy says, overlooking Jex’s suspicious apprehension. Yay, Sonic Screwdriver alarm override from, “Abraxas Security Software: incinerating intruders for three centuries!”
Finding nothing on the Gunslinger, the Doctor orders Jex’s personal files. Sounds of people screaming in pain provide background to Jex’s calm voice noting the “names of deceased subjects”. Lovely yet horrifying moment encapsulating the banality of war: the data flashes by, seen only in reflection on the Doctor’s troubled face.
Amy turns to find Jex has a gun to her head. “Sorry, Amy. He really should have followed the plan.” Outside the town, the Doctor calls off the Gunslinger’s fire before he explains he knows who he and Jex are. They can put him on trial, he offers. “When he starts killing your people, you can use your justice,” the Gunslinger growls.
Jex plans to kidnap Amy as a safeguard; the Gunslinger tends to take innocent lives “only when it’s absolutely necessary.” “Color me reassured,” she says just as Isaac returns, his gun drawn on Jex. Over at the ship, the Gunslinger insists he’ll kill the next one over the town line: “Make sure it’s Jex.”
“Lying, every word,” the Doctor interrupts Jex’s excuses. “Sit down!” he roars (he just zips from zero to sixty these days). What is Jex? “A war hero,” Jex replies, defiant. The Doctor bitingly breaks it down: Jex created the Gunslinger, a volunteer for special training who was brutally experimented on, fashioned into a weapon.
“Our task was to bring peace,” Jex objects; using cyborgs, his team ended a nine-year war in a week. The cyborgs were “decommissioned” (should I be hearing “killed”?), but the Gunslinger, damaged in battle, launched a vendetta against the scientists. He’s killed them all, except for Jex.
While Rory, Isaac, and Jex bicker over Jex’s fate (is he war criminal, town savior, or something else?), the Doctor broods until Jex taunts seeing him is like “looking into a mirror.” They share rage, guilt, solitude, “everything but the nerve to do what needs to be done.”
Rising to the bait, the Doctor drags him away to the town’s boundary and tosses him across before aiming a gun on him. “You wouldn’t,” Jex says. “I genuinely don’t know,” the Doctor replies, angry and indecisive. Eeee, we’re only beginning to get the great payoff of this story in which nothing is straightforward or easy.
Amy shoots skyward, threatening to shoot. “Maybe I’ve changed,” she yells when the Doctor scoffs. “You’ve clearly been taking stupid lessons!” Crap, for a moment the episode jumps on the stupid lesson bandwagon: Amy mistakenly fires two more times to comic effect. Uh, Amy knows how to handle guns. *bonks heads*
“Everyone who isn’t an American, drop your gun!” Isaac bawls out. This is “not how we roll, and you know it!” Amy admonishes. But he wants to honor the victims today, all who died “because of my mercy!” “This is what happens when you travel alone for too long,” Amy says, insisting “we can’t be like him [Jex]; we have to be better than him.”
Amy’s reproving words are a great reminder of how much the Doctor needs his companions to help him act more humane. But it’s a troubling reference to how the arrangement with the Ponds doesn’t quite meet those needs anymore. The Doctor isn’t only distanced from Amy and Rory by gaps in time between adventures, but by the unspoken though increasing understanding that he’s ultimately on his own.
The Gunslinger materializes, gun to Jex’s head (and a visual reminder of his tattoo recognition tech). “Make peace with your gods,” Jex says, echoing the opening. Ack, Isaac intercepts the shot! The Doctor huddles over him as he dies, listening to Isaac’s exhortation to, “Protect Jex; protect my town.” Great, diametrically opposed missions! “You’re both good men,” Isaac says weakly. “You just forget it sometimes.”
The Doctor pins the Marshall badge on, telling the townsfolk, “You’ll have me to answer to,” if they harm Jex. He turns to tell the Gunslinger, “This has gone on long enough.” Okay, then, the Gunslinger proposes a solution which totally would mean Isaac died in vain: high noon tomorrow, hand Jex over, easy peasy lemon-squeezey!
That night, the Preacher visits Marshall Doctor and Deputy Pond to ask him to come outside. In the fine tradition of Atticus-Finch-ing a lynch mob, the Doctor refuses to “leave the keys and take a walk,” instead talking down that same young frontiersman with the itchy trigger finger. “He really worth the risk?” the kid asks. “Don’t know,” the Doctor says hoarsely. “But you are.”
“Frightened people!” the Doctor exclaims. “Give me a Dalek any day!” YOU THINK? The Undertaker brings the Doctor coffee so he can say he’s on his side (and measure him again for a coffin, oho!) The Doctor tries to ignore Jex’s insistence he’s horrified by his past deeds. “It would be so much simpler if I was just one thing, wouldn’t it?” Jex says derisively, but he’s not an easy fit for mad scientist or the savior physician.
The Doctor totally has Jex’s number: he chose Mercy as the place to perform his penance. Uh, not how justice works; he can’t decide “when and how your debt is paid!” Jex relates the Kahler’s belief that in death a spirit must climb a mountain, carrying the souls of everyone she or he’s wronged. “Imagine the weight I will have to lift”: the monsters he created, the people they killed, Isaac. That’s why he fears death.
There’s “no shame” in wanting to turn him over and perhaps play the hero, Jex observes shrewdly. But while he’s haunted by his past, he sees the Doctor’s haunted by his morality. “We all carry our prisons with us,” he says, a line that impresses the Doctor so much he repeats it. And “Ha!” He’s got a plan!
It’s five minutes to High Noon! While the Preacher and most townsfolk pray, and Amy guards Jex in his cell, the Doctor waits, hole-shot Stetson on his head, for the Gunslinger to step over the boundary. It’s all very stand-off-y, great confrontation stuff with simple sounds and thick tension. Both the Doctor and Gunslinger draw, but the Doctor’s got his Sonic Screwdriver! Oh, thank hell; it freaks me out to see him hold a gun!
High-pitched noise shatters windows and disorients the Gunslinger, who shoots randomly before he’s completely confused by people running to and fro, all with Kahler-ian tattoos on their faces. His tattoo recognition goes haywire while Jex runs undetected. “Error: Invalid Visual Match,” the Gunslinger sees. “Disengage,” he says aloud. “It’s a trick.”
Cue a boot-stomping spur-jangling march by the church, where an innocent girl knocks over a stack of prayer books. The Gunslinger aims at congregants and shatters stained glass until he’s jarred by the little girl clinging to the Preacher. He stands down.
Jex makes it to his space-ship, while the Gunslinger’s tech separates out images to detect the Doctor from his tattoo. Confronted, the Doctor yells Jex is gone; they’ll soon see the vapor trail of his ship. Meanwhile, get outta town! “This is their home,” the Doctor argues, “not the backdrop to your revenge.”
Jex uses his ship’s com to ask if the Gunslinger will return to their planet. No, because he’s a monster now. “So am I,” Jex admits, starting the incinerating-alarm countdown again: it’s time to face the souls he’s wronged. “Perhaps they will be kind,” he says fearfully as the self-destruction explosion rises to the air to end the Gunslinger’s vendetta.
“He behaved with honor at the end,” the Gunslinger says, “Maybe more than me.” He’ll self-destruct beyond the town’s limits because he has no role during peace as a creature of war. “Except maybe to protect it!” the Doctor calls after him. The Gunslinger halts.
The Doctor tells Amy and Rory the next stop: finding the real story of those monkeys and dogs launched into space! Aww, I like to think they’re living peaceably on a Monkey-Dog hybrid planet somewhere. But Amy begs off because “our friends are going to start noticing we’re aging faster than them.” Oh. That does bite. “Another time; no worries,” the Doctor says jovially. You’re fooling exactly NO ONE, Doctor.
The Doctor has a “got ya, pardner!” moment of finger-gun showdown with that eighteen-year-old dude. If there was one storyline we had to cut from this episode…anyway, they’re obviously both more childlike and playful as a result of having saved Mercy in the end. The Doctor salutes and leaves.
Mercy never needed marshals or sheriffs, the narrator says. They had “our own angel who fell from the stars.” The little girl walks beyond the inactive boundary to gaze up at the Gunslinger; he wears the Marshall badge. I love the misdirection’s resolution (easy to spot though it was): it’s so moving to learn it’s not the Doctor but the war-traumatized Gunslinger who became Mercy’s protector and featured in those favorite childhood tales.
Whoo-wee ahthooo phahooo! I’d love to hear your reactions to this ep in comments! Join me next week for New Who, “The Power of Three” — and before that, for recaps of previous-series DW this Wednesday and Thursday with the Ten & Martha Jones eps, “The Lazarus Experiment” and “42”!