By Danny Nicol
“A Town Called Mercy” (2012) is a Doctor Who adventure set in an American frontier town in the nineteenth century. In it, the Doctor forces an alien war criminal, Jex - at gunpoint - to face a cyborg called The Gunslinger who intends to kill him. The Doctor’s companion, Amy Pond, grabs another gun, and threatens to shoot the Doctor if he continues to do this, arguing “When did killing someone become an option? … We can’t be like him, we’ve got to be better than him!” After Amy hamfistedly allows her weapon to discharge into the air the town’s sheriff, Isaac, hollers: “Everyone who isn’t an American, drop your gun!”
|The Doctor points his gun at Jex|
Doctor Who isn’t just science fiction. Since 1963 the programme has also strived to define Britishness as part of the British Broadcasting Commission’s mission to contribute to a sense of national identity. According to Jean Seaton the BBC must sort out what the nation is, expressing worries about the British whilst trumpeting their virtues (“The BBC and Metabolising Britishness” in Andrew Gamble and Tony Wright (eds) Britishness: Perspectives on the British Question, Wiley-Blackheath 2009).
In this regard the show repeatedly defines Britishness by what Britishness is not. Here, it pokes fun at the American “Other” and more specifically at American gun culture, as encapsulated in the US Constitution's Second Amendment
Many British people find the “right to bear arms” shocking and puzzling. In our own country, horror at the Hungerford massacre of 1987 and the Dunblane school massacre of 1996 led to immediate gun control legislation. With scant public dissent
sovereign Parliament, which can famously “make or unmake any law whatsoever”
unimpeded by a written constitution, clamped down on gun ownership without
|Hands up! The Doctor is confronted by American gunpower|
in the Oval Office, in "The Impossible Astronaut"
Cocking a snook at the Americans is, however, nothing new for Doctor Who. In “The Impossible Astronaut”/ “Day of the Moon” (2011) British brainpower is rather pointed counterposed to American firepower in the context of an adventure featuring President Nixon. In “The Christmas Invasion” (2005) the British Prime Minister Harriet Jones instructs that the President of the
be told that he is not her boss. And
“The Sound of Drums”/ “Last of the Time Lords” (2007) features an arrogant US President-elect
being assassinated at the behest of the Master.
In an essay entitled “Tardis at the OK Corral”, Nicholas J. Cull argues that post-war
Britain’s relationship with the United States
is a pervasive theme both in terms of the old-show Doctor Who’s rise and fall and as a regular passing reference
within its storyline. The show had to engage
with fears of American domination and American-style capitalism. Cull contends that the triumph of brains over
brawn in the Doctor’s adventures signifies the British belief that we can keep
muddling through without John Wayne style gunpower (John Cook and Peter Wright
(eds) British Science Fiction Television IB
Tauris, 2006). These themes are evident
in “The Tenth Planet” (1966) and “The Tomb of the Cybermen” (1967).
|Bombastic American General Cutler tries to reason with an|
early Cyberman in "The Tenth Planet"
However, one must observe a degree of British humbug. In “A Town Called Mercy” the Doctor (a Time Lord, not a human, but definitively coded as British) does actually use a gun, as does Amy, though neither kills anyone. Recurring companion Professor River Song (also coded as British) relishes firearms, not least in “Day of the Moon”. Moreover the Doctor can resort to weapons of mass destruction as he does in destroying Skaro in “Remembrance of the Daleks” (1988) or a Cyberfleet in “A Good Man Goes to War” (2011). And as Davros, creator of the Daleks, observes in “Journey’s End” (2008) the Doctor can fashion his companions into weapons, transforming them into murderers (for instance Rose Tyler destroys a multitude of Daleks in “The Parting of the Ways” (2005)). The uneasy notion that the British are actually just as aggressive as their American cousins has been a persistent undercurrent of the post-2005 show, reflecting the country’s rather-frequent interventions in other countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. If Amy’s comment had been directed towards the Americans – “we can’t be like them, we’ve got to be better than them” – then perhaps Doctor Who sometimes serves to remind us that the British and the Americans are not so different from each other.