I’m starting a Masters in Screenwriting next Monday so have been reading a lot of books on the art of story-telling to get myself in the mood. One fairly reliable tome on the topic is Robert McKee’s “Story” which outlines what a writer must give to a story to make it turn, and how the characters therein should act and react.
One of the points that stuck with me first time round and in this re-read was the concept of doing the right thing. To put it bluntly, at all times in all situations all people will do what they perceive to be the right thing. It may sound antithetical to good story, as story requires conflict. But good conflict only arises when both points of view are not just adequate but logical. We all do what is right, but sometimes we don’t know or don’t accept that it is objectively wrong.
And sometimes, there is no objectively wrong.
Good to see Toby Whithouse back in the mix, then. The creator of “Being Human” has dipped in and out of Who over the past few years, generally bringing stories that are bankably layered. Season 5’s “The Vampires Of Venice” was an enjoyable romp and introduction to Rory, while last season’s “The God Complex” represented a turning point in the relationship of the central trio and also some hell-ass creepy nemeses.
This week’s episode sat somewhere in the middle, being entirely standalone and yet touching thematically on some areas that continue to weigh on the Doctor as his journey progresses.
But one gets ahead of oneself.
Mercy is a small Western town, population 81 (that “1” is important) that has been under siege from a mysterious – and robotic – Gunslinger for the past few weeks. The Doctor arrives with his two companions in tow (they’d been aiming for Mexico and Day Of The Dead, but these things happen) and begins trying to unfurl just what happened in this very unusual town.
After criticizing last week’s hyper-simplistic plotting it was nice to see Whithouse dispense with the obvious calling cards – Evil cyborg! Mysterious town! It’s a Western episode! Stetsons! – quite quickly in order to push the plot forward.
In the first minute we’re lead to believe the cyborg is after our Doctor, but it’s quickly revealed that a mysterious alien has been staying in town for the past few years, and being quite nice about it. He’s helped with an epidemic of cholera, wired up a primitive electrical system, and acted as physician to this little slice of the old West.
But again, things aren’t what they seem – and by episode’s end it’s revealed that Doctor Khaler-Jes was involved in vicious medical experiments on his home world, and the mysterious Gunslinger is his last surviving victim on the hunt for revenge.
So a lot happening, and rightly so. It’s interesting to see how Whithouse has designed the episode as a consistently evolving set of characters and plot points, but all under the theme of mercy. Even from the get-go the Gunslinger shows a sort of mercy, telling first victim Kahler-Mas to “make peace with [his] gods” before killing him, and refusing to shoot if innocents could be harmed. Then the story turns on whether to be unmerciful in sacrificing the good physician to save the town, then on what that sacrifice would mean when he’s been exposed as a war criminal.
The town itself turns and breathes over the course of the piece, and while it’s unfortunate that Amy and Rory were sidelined for much of the episode it was worth it when this was the result.
In the end, Kahler-Jes sacrificed himself in a combination of mercy and regret: self-destructing to save the town was a natural moral move, but was also one driven by his regret at the things he’d done. As with many things in this episode, he refused to be just one thing.
It was also refreshing to see Ben Browder of Farscape and Stargate back on our science-fiction screens, his town sheriff offering a nice counter-point to the Doctor, but one that had his own internal sense of logic going on.
I suppose that’s what really struck me about this episode: its restraint when it came to character morality. At any given point two or three people could be on opposing sides of a debate, but nobody became caricatures of their argument and nobody acted illogically. When you have a show like Who there are often times when characters act as plot devices, so it was just nice to see everyone acting like human beings for once (even if many of them weren’t).
The scene where the Doctor faces off against the townspeople is a prime example of this – an angry mob trying to take Kahler-Jes by force makes sense, but it also makes sense that an eighteen-year old man wouldn’t be thrilled to kill someone in cold blood. This goes doubly when you respect the established narrative that Kahler-Jes has been a heroic figure in this town for several years.
It turned on two sets of morality, pointed out by the Doctor in this scene: situational morality and personal morality. In this situation the most moral thing to do may be to sacrifice this man, but to actually kill is a burden that will weigh on the participants for longer than this. It’s an interesting idea – morality in context of the moment and morality in context of the participants – and Whithouse plays it just right.
In the end, perhaps it was too narratively convenient for Kahler-Jes to take his own life rather than leaving it up to the principals, but it still felt right after the episode had gone to pains to show how many different sides there were to this character.
The Gunslinger, Kahler-Jes, the Doctor, the Sheriff and the town were rendered three-dimensional, and I’ll take that over dinosaurs any day.
– Stetsons are cool.
– I liked the reference to Amy being a mother. They haven’t forgotten.
– I did not at all like the repeated trope of someone knowing the internal workings of a character from a quick conversation. See above.
– Some of those American accents were dodgy, right?
– “Two alien doctors? We’re like buses.”
– The Gunslinger bore a striking resemblance to the always lovely Rutger Hauer.
– “He’s called Susan, and he wants you to respect his life choices.” Striking a blow for equine trans rights, there.
– “Our friends are going to start to notice that we’re ageing faster than them.”
– Next week we have the hotly anticipated (by me) “The Power Of Three” which marries time spent with the Ponds on Earth and my personal favourite plot line of “what the fuck are these and are they dangerous”, as mysterious black cubes start appearing all over Earth.