After so far encountering Daleks and dinosaurs, in this week's episode the Doctor arrives in the American West to find a town cursed by a maniacal cyborg called the Gunslinger. When caught between protecting the town and protecting an alien on the run, hard choices have to be made.
The Doctor with no name
The western is a genre not touched in modern Doctor Who, mainly because it's old fashioned and intrinsically American. Recent features like True Grit and 3:10 to Yuma show the genre is back in vogue, and this episode's story of a cyborg out looking for revenge blends the western with science fiction in a very similar way to last summer's blockbuster Cowboys and Aliens. Another reason a western episode hasn't been made until now was because it would cost more than a fistful of dollars. Here the production team cleverly shoots in southern Spain, famous for Sergeo Leone's spaghetti westerns. The episode matches Leone's filmmaking style, juxtaposing close-ups and wide shots to create tension, and featuring a musical score reminiscent of Ennio Morricone.
The Good, the Bad and the Cyborg
Despite the sun-scorched backdrop of Andalusia giving the episode a cinematic feel, the story itself is quite intimate and low-key. The people of the town of Mercy are trapped inside their houses by the gunslinger. Similar to classic western High Plains Drifter, the cyborg is a manifestation of guilt over past crimes, here attributed to alien on the run Kahler-Jex. Whilst the rest of the town would only be too happy to see the last of the mad scientist, Isaac the marshal is adamant that as a citizen of the town he should be protected.
The western genre at its heart is about the establishment of law and order to the uncivilised world. Isaac has tried to avoid the town descending to barbarism by protecting Kahler regardless of past crimes he might have made. The Doctor is a similar figure to the marhsal, a solitary upholder of justice in the universe. The overt symbolism of this role is shown in the fact he travels in a shiny blue police box. But the Doctor struggles to uphold his moral code when the lines between good and evil become blurred.
"Violence doesn't end violence, it extends it"
Acting like a lynch mob, the cyborg threatens to obliterate the town unless Kahler is handed over to be killed. But the decision isn't easy as the alien is no ordinary villain. Since coming to the town he's used his advanced knowledge to light the streets with electricity and prevent an outbreak of Cholera, and he spells this moral dilemma out to the Doctor:
"It would be so much simpler if I was just one thing wouldn't it? The mad scientist who made that killing machine, or the physician who's dedicated his life to serving this town. That fact that I'm both bewilders you."
The ending of last week's episode 'Dinosaurs on a Spaceship' felt wrong because the Doctor elected not to save villain Solomon from the incoming missile, thus ensuring his death. This decision still plagues the Doctor's mind as exasperated he shouts to Amy, "Today I honour the victims first. His, the Master's, the Daleks', all the people who died because of my mercy".
Amy is the Doctor's moral compass who says to him, "What's happened to you Doctor? Since when did killing someone become an option? See this is what happens when you travel alone for too long." The Doctor learns in this episode that the mercy he has shown to his enemies in the past is not a weakness but his greatest strength, and that to resort to violence would be to stoop to their level. As he notes outside the jail: "Violence doesn't end violence, it extends it".
With the Doctor taking the deceased marshals' badge and vowing to protect both the town and Kahler, the episode finishes in true-western style with a showdown at high noon. The finale where Kahler accepts his past crimes by killing himself is a contrived ending but one that has the nice touch of the Gunslinger becoming the marshal and protecting the town forevermore. Whilst the people of Mercy are saved, the same can't be said for the travelling trio.
"We all carry our prisons with us"
Kahler notes to the Doctor that to live with his guilt is a punishment, saying "We all carry our prisons with us". The same could be said of the Doctor. The Tardis, rather than a magic box that can transport you across the stars, can be seen as a prison ship for the Doctor, a solitary life paid for his role in killing all Time Lords and Daleks in the Time War. What's evident from his erratic behaviour in the past couple of episodes is that the Doctor needs Amy and Rory more than they need the Docto, and from the look of next week's intriguing episode, 'The Power of Three', it appears the Ponds will have to decide whether they still want this life with the Doctor.