Show some Mercy please, Moffat

Co-written with the lovely Suzanne Walker. You can find her over at Cognitive Recalibration
SPOILER ALERT for Doctor Who series 7, episodes 1-3. 

September has arrived, and with it, a new season of Doctor Who. And it’s been great to have our beloved show back on the screen. We’ve liked these past three episodes. Really. They’ve been solid works of television. We’ve laughed at the funny lines, and enjoyed these last few moment of Amy and Rory. But we’re so used to Doctor Who being the the fandom of our hearts, to making us react viscerally, to sparking the type of passion that we always associate with our favorite stories. And that’s simply not there when we watch these episodes.

The big issue is, well, that the big issues aren’t there. That is to say, they’re beneath the surface. Seriousness is lurking behind the funny facade of each of these stories. But it’s either ignored, or treated quickly and dismissively, so that we can get back to saving the universe and do a good bit more running. And that’s not what our favorite show is supposed to be. We love Who so much precisely because it takes time away from the action to treat seriously and deeply with very real, emotional issues. It may not happen every single episode, but it is part of the new show’s legacy, and so far, this season has not shown signs of carrying on that legacy.

Asylum of the Daleks

When, at the end of the Pond Life mini-series, we discovered that Rory had left Amy, we were awestruck. We were sad. We were impressed -- with Steven Moffat, that is. It seemed a bold move, separating our two beloved characters before the season even properly started, and it seemed to promise some excellent character moments, and some phenomenal storytelling. The tension between a divorced couple, and the tension between them and the Doctor, could have been so brilliant. It could have provided so much conflict, so much plot, such a dose of reality for the Doctor. Because the Ponds have been living in the ordinary world, where there are misunderstandings, arguments, irreconcilable conflicts. And he isn’t always around to fix all the problems for his companions, and sometimes there are things he can’t fix.

Boy, were we disappointed. Forty minutes after appearing back in the Doctor’s life, they were back in love with each other, and it was as if the separation had never happened. Any element of reality that the show had ever tried to cultivate was squashed right then and there by the massive helping of happily-ever-after.

And that doesn’t even reach into the latest incredibly sexist plot point that Moffat has invented. We can almost hear people saying “Moffat, sexist?” and our answer is “Where have you been?” Because Amy’s life has, quite frankly, sucked. It’s been altered and manipulated beyond belief. Before we’d even really met young Amelia, an alien had accessed her house, killed her parents, and altered her thoughts -- none of which she knew about. And that was before she spent twelve years being told she was crazy for believing in a man with a blue box -- time that she also spent with a girl who she didn’t know was her daughter from a pregnancy that she didn’t know about or even got to experience, a daughter that she never got to know because the daughter was kidnapped directly after birth, and no amount of time she spends with that daughter as an adult is ever going to get those years back. And now, during that unknown pregnancy, when her mind was basically disconnected from her body, not only did they steal her child from her, they rendered her somehow biologically unable to have children. So basically, Amy has never had the power to make a basic decision about her life, her health, her mind, her body, or her well-being. And as gyzym has pointed out, that’s really fucking sexist. And therefore, the reason that she “gave Rory up,” a reason that was supposed to be so powerful to bring them back together so quickly, is rendered essentially bullshit.

Dinosaurs on a Spaceship

This was clearly supposed to be the fun episode of the bunch, and that’s ok. Really, it was fun. It was almost like a wild fan idea, where late one night at the pub some guy said, “Dude, wouldn’t it be cool for the Doctor to meet some dinosaurs?” and then his friend said “What if the dinosaurs were on a spaceship?” and then they sat down and wrote until 4 in the morning. The problem is, it felt like it was never edited, the way it stumbled along. The extra characters were great, but we wanted to get to know them, to see them really interact, but we never did.

We really loved Rory’s dad, and the way he went from clueless bumbling father to flying the spaceship that saved the day. And having him accidentally come along was a great idea -- a great idea that again, lacked in execution. It could have been a great opportunity to see how the Ponds are dealing with balancing their normal life with their Doctor life. It could have been a great opportunity for us to get to know Brian Williams. It could have been a great opportunity to really discuss how the Ponds feel about their lives -- but instead, all we get is a throwaway line about how it’s been 10 months since they’ve seen the Doctor, and an unanswered question about him “weaning” the Ponds off him. Sure, you could say the Doctor is doing what he’s always done, leaving companions behind before they grow old, but that’s not good enough anymore. That trope has been brought up again and again in the new series, and if you’re going to bring it up, Moffat, you deserve to give it some actual consideration and discussion. Forget the element of surprise -- we all know the Ponds are leaving. So use that point. Build on it, explore it, make it tangible and real. Don’t just slough it off. If you do, you’re going to end up with another hastily-written-in appearance like that of Mels’ upbringing with the Ponds. And we don’t need to discuss how messy and heavy-handed that was.

A Town Called Mercy

You know, we could pick apart the casual sexism thrown about again (“You’re a mother, aren’t you?...there’s kindness in your eyes” dear god gag me with a spoon), but that’s not where the real problem lay here. In its opening moments A Town Called Mercy looks to be a big romp, another “fun” episode even if it’s dealing with a town trapped by a one-eyed cyborg--but that changes the moment we find out about Jax’s past. Suddenly things become very serious--or at least, dealing with very serious themes: violence, justice, mercy, forgiveness. But it’s carried out so tritely. And I’m tired of Doctor Who dealing with these types of things in a trite way.

I’ve seen on Tumblr several gifsets comparing Mercy with Midnight--”give me a Dalek any day,” because humans are such awful, screwed-up creatures. The difference between A Town Called Mercy and Midnight, however, is that Midnight is given the gravity it deserves. It’s an episode about the Doctor, but it’s not really about the Doctor--it is, indeed, about just how terrible humans can be. And that episode fucked me up when I saw it, left me haunted for days. It deals with weighty, heavy themes, but gives them the time and respect that they deserve. It’s science fiction at it’s best: we’re given a mirror into our own humanity, and we’re not supposed to like what we see.

Here, however, we’re given a similar theme--just how far people can sink, into the depths of experimentation and genocide and playing with lives--but it’s not treated with the same respect. Rather, big, empty words like justic and mercy are bandied about by the Doctor and Amy, without any real meat or consideration behind them. It becomes a vehicle for the Doctor’s own self-righteous guilt and pain. I’m not denying that there’s a time and place for that, but it was not this episode. We’re given very serious themes, things that could fuck us up, things that should be deeply weighed and considered, but it’s lost amid the romp of a Western. And that leaves us deeply frustrated and unsettled.