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Wednesday, 30 of September of 2020

Doctor Who – “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” and “A Town Called Mercy”

“He who has a strong enough why can bear almost any how.”

Far too often, we as an audience come into a show with – or develop – very strict expectations of our favorite characters. Much in the way that we scrutinize celebrities, royalty, politicians, and other such limelight-plagued individuals, we tend to skew toward an idealistic view of characters. As much as we complain about characters who are too “perfect,” as much as we demand imperfections and all the realism they create, we tend to balk when characters “go too far,” even when the distance is warranted.

Being a character as old and beloved as he is, the Doctor is definitely subject to such a narrowed gaze. Everyone – based on when they first came to the show, what types of stories the show was telling at the time, and what Doctor they started with (you never forget your first Doctor) – everyone has a very specific and individual notion of who and what the Doctor is. That belief generally falls along a short scale containing such values as “good man,” “non-violence,” and, in the extremist case, “paragon of virtue.”

I missed last week’s Who episode because of a party (1920s costumes, murder mystery, and more delicious food than you could shake a flapper dress at), but I’m a bit glad of it. The past two episodes (and, in truth, even the first of the season) deserve to be viewed as a two-parter in theme, if not in plot.

Something we as viewers tend to forget is that the Doctor, for all his good qualities, is not perfect. He may preach non-violence and second chances, but that isn’t his final and complete being. Once the second chance has been blown, once the bad guy of the week has spurned the Doctor’s advances of kindness and kinder options, once he feels there is no other way, the Doctor can be a ruthless and dangerous man. We’ve seen it many times, we’ve cheered with it most of the time (“Take that, you dirty [fill in the blank]!”). The Doctor pointed it out himself at Demon’s Run – he is not a good man. Remember, this is the man who killed two entire races… a few times over, given Who’s convoluted notions of “forever” and “time-locked.” And he is constantly finding himself in life-or-death situations where the life and death at risk is not his own, but hinges on what he does or does not do. Having that kind of weight to carry around catches up with you eventually.

We see the Doctor crossing that line we’ve put him behind in both “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” and “A Town Called Mercy,” for similar reason but with different emotions.

The Doctor’s defeat of Solomon in “Dinosaurs” is very like the many other times he has outsmarted and outmastered the bad guy of the week, leaving them to punishment of their own devising. But there’s a difference in that the Doctor did not have to sacrifice Solomon to save himself, his gang, the spaceship, or anything on it. He could have saved Solomon, horrid man that he was, but the Doctor did not. And while I cheered as Solomon’s little ship exploded across the sky, there was a little voice of disquiet in me that the Doctor would be so callous.

That voice was a bit louder in “Mercy.” Who relishes putting the Doctor up against mirror images of himself, whether it be an opposite-land version as in Solomon, who committed genocide for profit, or Kahler-Jex, who did something close to the same for peace. The measure is always why and how; the story how much of both the Doctor is willing to accept. While the end result of Solomon’s actions were identical to those of the Doctor (namely, the death of entire species), his reasoning was entirely opposite. Jex, on the other hand, committed what are quite simply atrocities for the same reason that the Doctor did the same: to save lives. He turned people into weapons – a very telling observation by the Doctor, as he himself has been accused of doing the exact same thing. That makes Jex a much more potent foil for the Doctor, who sees in Jex the man he once was, that perpetual self-inflicted wound that will never heal.

And this is why the Doctor’s actions in “Mercy” are more outrageous and yet more justified. The Doctor, as always, first attempts to save everyone. But, when confronted with the truth of Jex’s past and the possibility (believed at least partially due to a momentary desire to punish Jex) that he might not be able to save the town, the Doctor snaps and sends Jex to his death.

Like so many – like the very nature of viewing that prompted this long-winded review – I was uncomfortable with this Doctor. I even mentioned as much in my notes on the episode. But in review, even as the episode continued, I warmed to the idea and the realistic path that brought the Doctor to such an “un-Doctor”-esque choice.

The Doctor, coming off a long string of painful experiences – choosing to die because he had to (even though he wound up not doing so), choosing to let the Ponds go (quite temporarily, it must be said) to keep them alive, failing Oswin, discovering the genocide of the Silurians – that Doctor had been pushed all the way to the line and was primed to step over. Discovering the horrid truth about Jex’s past after befriending and protecting him, thereby putting others at risk, was enough to push the Doctor past his limits. It could be argued that perhaps he wasn’t quite at that point yet, but the build-up of this season and the carry-over from the last supports the shift to a Doctor who would bodily shove someone into No Man’s Land.

The Doctor is not perfect. That’s one of the things that makes him so fascinating and so fun to watch. He makes mistakes. He can be ruthless and deadly and unforgiving when pushed far enough. The fact that he backtracks as quickly as he does in “Mercy” supports that he had been pushed pretty far, yet didn’t so much step into dangerous territory so much as take a flying leap into it. He was angry and he felt betrayed, but what really sent him into sacrificing Jex was his own guilt. The stain of the Time War was too similar in shade to that of Jex’s own battle. His recent encounter with the Daleks and Oswin was clearly on his mind, too, as he mentions the Daleks when explaining his reason behind giving Jex up to the cyborg.

The Doctor is tired of innocent bystanders paying the price for the second chances he so freely gives. That the town is called “Mercy” is a nice touch. Mercy is so often what the Doctor shows to others. It is, in this case, what he is afraid will once again backfire on him. The choice he makes to avoid that possibility with Jex is one born of anger and guilt, but also of frustration. No matter how hard he tries, people still die. That Amy is so easily able to talk him down shows that the Doctor had not travelled to a point of no return, but merely taken a short detour.

He’s still the Doctor, with all his wonderful quirks and flaws. And any man pushed in the right (or wrong, depending on your viewpoint) ways may make choices that seem on the surface to be uncharacteristic. The Doctor is no exception.

Aside from the moral journey of the Doctor, I found “Dinosaurs” to be delightful fun, but was left a bit unmoved by “Mercy.”

“Dinosaurs” is an old-fashioned Doctor adventure from the very beginning as we jump right into the action with the Doctor. I appreciate standalone episodes as much as I appreciate getting to see glimpses of the Doctor’s life outside what we get on the show. He has friends all over the place (and time)! We get to see more of his enemies, usually, and it’s nice to have some new and exciting faces along for the ride.

Nefertiti and Riddell, while not Ponds, are excellent characters in their own right. I enjoy the change in dynamic from having them along. And for some reason, the idea of an African big game hunter and an African queen just pleases me to bits. And Rory’s dad! Who’s a Pond because of course he is! I love Rupert Graves and Mark Williams and they are used to perfect effect in this episode. And David Bradley! So nice to see him, even if he was playing a right beast of a man.

I love the entire concept of a Silurian ark and having dinosaurs on a spaceship. And even though the whole bit with the triceratops might have been a bit kitschy, it sure as hell was cute and fun. You know, up until it was heartbreaking (poor Tricy). And it gave us the Doctor cooing over a dinosaur (which was the best) and Riddell and Amy tasering velociraptors (sadly, no “Clever girl”s to be had). I even love the robots, despite (or maybe because of) the fact that they reminded me of nothing so much as the robot protector guys from The Fifth Element.

The image of Brian having a box lunch in the doors of the TARDIS while floating above Earth as Rory, Amy, and the Doctor look on was a nice end to the episode. And a nice moment for later in the show, as it is no doubt a set up for the Ponds’ departure.

“Dinosaurs” was fast-paced, funny, and fun. “Mercy,” on the other hand, felt a bit too staged, too almost saccharine for my taste. Even the music, by and large, seemed purposefully overwrought and emotional. I found it distracting, to be honest, though there was one cue just before a commercial break, one cue with some fiddle in it that I really liked. I even made note of it, which is humorous considering that all my music notes thereafter were about how much I didn’t care for the music.

And after all the excitement about Ben Browder making it onto Who – and in a Western-themed story, no less! – this episode felt like a waste of him. I wanted him more involved in the story, more face-time with him. In many ways, his character and story felt like a hollow shell, a structure that existed for the sole purpose of setting up the Doctor’s (and Jex’s) choices, and not so much as a character and story of its own. Which is a damn shame, because this role was tailor-made for Browder and, good as he is with what he was given, he could have knocked something meatier straight out of the park.

“Mercy” is by no means a bad episode, or even a very weak one. It just needed some shoring up to be in the “excellent” category.

 

Other thoughts:

  •  I am still extremely pissed at how they “handled” the Ponds’ “break-up.”
  • “You get to see my awesome nursing skills in action for once.” And that, ladies in gentlemen, is called “hanging a lantern.” (But, yes, it’s about damn time we get to see Rory’s skills.)
  • “I’m flying a spaceship! Rory, we’re flying a spaceship!” I love my Pond boys.
  • The opening credits for this episode are really pretty. I’ll admit I didn’t pay close enough attention to the two earlier episodes to know if these are new starting with “Mercy” or new to the season. Either way: ooooo.
  • BEN BROWDERRRR. With a gun. And a gold star. And crazy hair. And a thickened accent. EEEEE!
  • Seriously. I need more BB on my television AQAP.
  • “No, he isn’t. I speak horse. His name is Susan and he wants you to respect his life choices.” <3
  • “Oh my god, you’re the marshal.” “Yeah, and you’re the deputy.” Sing it with me! ~I shot the sheriff…~
  • “We all carry our prisons with us.” Oh lord, yes.

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