I really enjoyed A Town Called Mercy. I was prepared to hate it; for the first five minutes, I did hate it. But then it grew on me, it engaged me, and I enjoyed it.
Oh yeah, spoilers below…
Two things I did not enjoy both have to do with Susan. My first issue is purely technical, and was an issue with Stormageddon as well. The Doctor claims to speak horse, the Doctor claims to speak baby, but the TARDIS translates neither.
- When Rose leaves the TARDIS, it is still in her head, translating everything.
By this logic, it should also be in Amy’s head, translating everything, but she never has any “conversation” per se with baby Melody when they are together outside the TARDIS. She has no insight into who Melody is or how Melody perceives the world beyond what one would typically expect from a ~normal mother-daughter interaction.
- There are other occasions when the Doctor rides or interacts with horses in which he does not appear to regard them as sentient, or acknowledge them in any way other than as a convenient mode of transport (The Girl in the Fireplace, The Pandorica Opens). The Doctor also never draws any particular insight from baby Melody. The Doctor seems like he’s kind of in the habit of talking to other sentient beings, especially when they’re disregarded or ignored by others. One would think that, if he could talk to babies, horses, and whatever else, that he would totally use that to his advantage as often as possible.
Speaking to babies and horses for comedic purposes is cute, but it’s inconsistent. The Doctor only speaks horse or baby when there’s nothing more important to do, or when he feels sassy. That just strikes me as kind of weird.
The second issue, of course, is that Susan is trans-gender. The issue is not OMG TRANS-GENDER GROSS, the issue is that gender/ sexual identity is once again played for comedic effect.
- The horse is not a character whose identity really matters to the plot. It is not “representing” any person or minority group. Nothing is gained or achieved by establishing that the horse perceives itself as female. In fact, the only time it is relevant at all is at the reveal, when the Doctor informs the pastor of the horse’s preference. Even then, it only comes up because the pastor tries to tell the Doctor the name of the horse he was stealing. The entire exchange was unnecessary, and it once again reduced gender/ identity issues to a cheap laugh.
- There are actual transgender people in the world, whose actual lifestyles should be shown some respect. To my knowledge, there have been exactly zero transgender characters in Doctor Who, and approximately one non-heteronormative character (Captain Jack) whose sexuality was actually part of his characterization, rather than a cheap joke in passing (River, Oswin, Canton, Susan).
Pointing out people’s prejudices is good, but people are typically more critical of other people than they are of horses.
Also, I would have loved to have had Susan’s side of that conversation. Otherwise, I’m going to believe the Doctor is just making up excuses to talk to himself.
1) Out of curiosity, why were you prepared to hate it? I’ve had my problems with Moffat-era Who too, but Toby Whithouse (who wrote this episode) is generally a fantastic writer. (He wrote Vampires of Venice, The God Complex, as well as creating and writing for the original Being Human. The God Complex is one of my favorite episodes, and I’m a huge fan of Being Human, so I looked forward to his script a lot.) Also, Ben Browder is in it. (He was Isaac in this episode, but also played John Crichton on Farscape and Cameron Mitchell on Stargate SG-1.) So while my expectations are low for Moffat in general, they were high for this episode. I’m glad you ended up not hating it, though!
2) Regarding the Doctor’s communication with pre-linguistic beings, this reminds me a bit of the First Doctor serial The Web Planet. In it, he meets the Zarbi, which are basically giant ants. Being ants, their communication is a bit too simple to be considered proper language, and isn’t translated by the TARDIS, even though it clearly is a form of communication.
If you’re new to Doctor Who fandom, Doctor Who is a show that predates the concept of continuity. (lol.) In The Reign of Terror, the Doctor explicitly says he doesn’t speak French and can’t communicate in it. Also, he’s at various points called himself human (The Savages) and half-human (the 1996 TVM). So if you want continuity, you kind of need to work for it a bit.
My headcanon here is that the TARDIS doesn’t translate extremely simple or pre-language forms of communication, however the Doctor can gain an understanding of it—perhaps telepathically. (Note that Susan and Stormageddon aren’t even making noises most of the time.) Like, the Doctor forms a telepathic connection with the cat in The Lodger. Maybe this is just like, telepathy lite. The TARDIS can’t translate it comprehensibly because they’re not really words, so the Doctor paraphrases. Translation is an art, so he picks things (including names) that were roughly to the same effect as what they were getting at. I mean, come on, a horse can’t even pronounce “Susan.”
3) The Doctor does indeed converse with baby Melody—he tells her Amy is called “Mum,” not “big milk thing,” or something to that effect? Maybe Melody didn’t have a lot to say yet—she was a lot younger than Stormageddon, those few months make a difference—or maybe someone realized it would be creepy for the Doctor to have a heart-to-heart with the newborn version of his implied future sexual partner.
4) Just because the Doctor can communicate with babies/animals, doesn’t mean he would always choose to do so. He’s chaotic neutral, he does what he wants.
5) I think Canton’s sexuality was a part of his character and not played for laughs. There’s also Jenny and Madam Vastra, they were side-characters, but I don’t think it was a joke exactly? RTD’s era had numerous gay references just sprinkled in everywhere. Sky in Midnight comes to mind readily. Ricky (Mickey’s AU duplicate) was also in a gay relationship, though that ended up in a deleted scene, sadly. Oh and if we’re counting comics, canon lesbian companion in Izzy.
Also, I think the honor of first trans character on Doctor Who goes to Cassandra, with her casual “When I was a little boy….” comment. This is obviously not without problems (first/only trans character is not only a villain but a plastic surgery addict who basically mutilates herself? Ouch.) but, well, for what it’s worth, it’s there. :/
(ETA: I also just remembered that the Corsair mentioned in The Doctor’s Wife might qualify possibly? As the only Time Lord canonically mentioned to have both male and female incarnations? Whether or not this would be considered trans is a matter of debate, since it’s not known how he/she identified and if he/she ever experienced dysphoria, but I’d say that the same individual presenting as male and female alternately at different points in their life is at least some kind of queer. Sadly, the Corsair did not make an on-screen appearance, so whether this is “representation” could also be debated.)
I’m not defending DW in terms of queer representation, it screws up a lot and could really do a lot better. I’m just saying, it does have some. Often problematic and not enough, but some.
6) My problem with Susan isn’t so much that Susan was a horse. I mean, yes, I would seriously love some human trans characters. But I could live with a trans horse, even as a joke.
My problem was that if Susan is supposed to be a trans mare, the Doctor misgendered her. And then described it as “life choices.” I’d have much preferred if he’d said something like, “Her name is Susan, and she wants you to respect her identity.”
(Side-note: I was thinking of the 1996 Gulliver’s Travels miniseries, which has a talking horse in it named Mistress. Mistress is addressed with female pronouns, and treated completely as female, but is quite visibly played by a horse with a penis. Whenever people point this out as a production error, I’m like, “Who’s to say a mare can’t have a penis?” That awkward moment when a 90s miniseries did trans horses better than Doctor Who in 2012.)