This post is spoiler free! Just kidding. Spoiler Warning.
One of the stock modes of operation of Doctor Who is, of course, the collision of genres and genre elements. Sometimes this simply takes the form of colliding Doctor Who itself into another genre. Other times, the Doctor wanders in on two genres in the act of colliding.
A Town Called Mercy is, of course, a Western. It is also a space opera. The two are blended fantastically, with the warring aliens taking on roles out of a traditional Western, with the outlaw and the target of his anger. Then the Doctor shows up, and naturally takes the role of sheriff. So we have a Western, with aliens, actually set in the American Frontier. And then we introduce some plot twists and moral ambiguity. Pretty straightforward Doctor Who.
Except the plot twists and moral ambiguity are a little weak here. Sure, “the gunslinger is seeking revenge for evil visited upon himself and others” is a nice direction to take things. And the moral complexity of Jex functions at least well enough to provide a mirror for the Doctor (the parallel is made even more explicit by having Jex be called “the Doctor” by the townspeople). In general, there is a lot of potential in the moral dimensions of the story. However, Amy’s speech to the Doctor is heavy-handed, and Jex’ suicide was disappointing. Obviously the Gunslinger couldn’t be the one to kill Jex, but either companion could have done it, and the story could have been stronger for it.
Still, A Town Called Mercy is competently executed Doctor Who set in a novel (well, maybe not so much) setting. And it has Ben Browder. So clearly there is a lot here to like. However, there was one part that really got under my skin, and left me a bit unsettled for the rest of the episode: the Horse Named Susan.
Toby Whithouse may well have had the best of intentions with this line. But as I have said before, I don’t think intentions are an effective thing to talk about when we discuss whether something is problematic (for more info see Kinsey Hope’s excellent post on the subject). And this is a very problematic joke. On the surface (at least to a viewer not well-versed in trans issues), the joke seems harmless, even supportive. It even has the word ‘respect’ in it! Every indication here is, again, that Whithouse had the best of intentions with the line.
But the Problem of Susan is obvious when viewed in terms of actual transgender people and trans experience. First is the issue of pronouns. Most transgender people not only dislike being referred to by pronouns that don’t match their gender identity, they find it actively painful (strongly recommended further reading here). So, having the Doctor misgender Susan was cringe-inducing at the very least, and potentially very actively harmful.
Second is the phrase “lifestyle choices”. Just like sexual orientation, gender identity has been the subject of a debate over whether it is innate or chosen for decades. The phrase “lifestyle choice” here is, then, a political statement; it weighs in on that debate. Though the tone of the joke tries for supportive, its content is still regressive.
The overall result of this is that the line suggests that transgender identities are not legitimate. That while someone may change their name and say they are a woman (or mare), if that disagrees with what they were assigned at birth (or as is more commonly thought, “what their genitals looked like at birth”), then it is just a “choice” and there is no obligation to take it all that seriously, really. Just play along a little. As long as it doesn’t make you uncomfortable.
And this de-legitimization is a common theme in our culture. It is rooted deep. In many places trans people have to undergo (expensive, in some countries, and difficult to access in most) surgery, to make all of the “normal” people feel comfortable, before they can be legally recognized as the correct gender. Things that cisgender people take for granted, like using a public restroom, become sources of terror. Getting a drink at a bar is scary, because your ID is marked with the wrong gender and what if someone questions that?* It is a feeling of powerlessness.
So, this is the central problem with Susan: she isn’t treated like a legitimate mare. And by the Doctor, no less. And while, yes, this is just a throwaway joke about a horse, it relies on the existence of transgender people for its humor. It has been pointed out to me that a redemptive reading is possible: you could argue that Susan is genderqueer, and actually prefers masculine pronouns but a feminine name. But given the relative lack of cultural awareness about genderqueer identities, in the current culture this still makes for problematic storytelling without some explicit framing or explanation around it.
It was a pretty good episode, and I quite liked several bits. But for me, the shadow of this poorly executed joke hangs over it.
*As a note, I live in the US. I realize that the UK has a much more progressive process for changing gender markers, but even then you have to live with this as your operating reality for at least two years.