‘This is what happens when you travel alone for too long.’ There’s a general rule (with a couple of notable exceptions: I’m looking at you Season 15) that each series of Doctor Who looks better than the previous one. This looks incredible, with some truly filmic moments and the kind of huge desert vistas that can only come from authentic Western filming in Spain. These are matched by some great character design – the cyborg gunslinger looks only very faintly rubbery, with puckered flesh and grafted metal seeming authentically nasty.
It’s a great backdrop for a story of second chances, where mercy triumphs over revenge, and where that mercy is as likely to be shown to the guilty as the innocent. The final pay-off, Kahler-Jex’s self-sacrifice, is as much about ending the gunslinger’s vendetta without him having to take a further life as it is about saving the townsfolk, and it’s foreshadowed by the Doctor’s own “look me in the eye, end my life” moment with Walter.
It’s interesting that this should follow the Doctor’s pitiless abandonment of Solomon in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship. Taken alongside some of the Doctor’s actions here (his willingness to contemplate forcing Jex to face his fate with the gunslinger), there are signs of the darkness explicit in Kovarian’s critique. Whether that’s really part of a longer-term character development is less clear – there are some hints of the twelfth Doctor’s “am I a good man?” introspection in the script (‘You’re both good men. You just forget it sometimes’), but the answer, “yes obviously”, is inevitably paid off in this episode, and it’s hard to see how the show could ever seriously handle its lead character turning Valeyard as anything more than a notional dark path avoided.
Given Westerns aren’t really my cup of tea, I enjoyed this for what it is: a simple morality tale with some good guest performances (including Farscape’s Ben Browder under an enormous moustache), a funny script and a hint of the Doctor’s new costume when he wears a frock coat in the finale. Amy and Rory might as well not have been in it, but that’s par for the course for a lot of Series Seven.
Next Time: The cPower of Three