Doctor Who series 7 episode 3: A Town Called Mercy Review
Get off your horse and drink your milk.
Air date: UK: 15 September, 2012, BBC One
Every fantasy show from Star Trek to The Prisoner has tried a Western (and, let us not forget, Doctor Who had already been there, in 1966). The Old West, or rather the Old West as portrayed by Hollywood, was a genre where morality snapped sharply into focus; it was a tough land where (usually) tough men had to make tough decisions. The appeal to fantasy writers, whose characters often face similar moral dilemmas, is obvious.
It's fitting, then, that Toby Whithouse's deceptively simple tale, of an alien cyborg holding a town hostage until they hand over an alien fugitive hiding in their midst, should have been filmed in Fort Bravo in Almeria in Spain. The mock township was the backdrop for Spaghetti Westerns such as A Fistful of Dollars and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, which painted a much more amoral picture of the Western frontier. It's fitting, because in A Town Called Mercy, Whithouse crafted a brilliant script in which there were no moral certainties and which shone a harsh light into the darker corners of the Doctor's character.
It did this cleverly by subverting the tropes of the Western. Andrew Brookes' "mysterious space cowboy assassin" isn't a clichéd black-hatted villain (even though he wears one), and alluded to the moral code of Hollywood Westerns by not being able to shoot innocent bystanders. The kindly, attentive doctor Kahler-Jex (Adrian Scarborough, creating a whole alien culture through his performance) living in harmony with the townsfolk, wasn't all he seemed either, and the expected, climactic gunfight – at high noon, no less – didn't happen. Alright, the teaser scene's set up that the Gunslinger is looking for "the Doctor" was a rather obvious piece of misdirection (after all, there are children watching), but it still tied in with the theme that one man's war hero can be another man's war criminal.
The Doctor doesn't get off lightly here. Whithouse has always scripted number 11 more seriously than other writers and it brings out the best in Matt Smith. The trademark goofing about is still there – the attempt at an American accent and the laugh-out-loud malarkey with a transgender horse called Susan – but it's the serious moments that give Smith something to really get his teeth into.
Among the scenes he's riveting in are where he quietly and authoritatively faced down a lynch mob and ranted at Jex, "Justice doesn't work like that. You don't get to decide when and how your debt is paid." As Jex pointed out, in him the Doctor was looking into a mirror (again, just in case the kids missed it), and the man who's committed genocide on more than one occasion and, infamously, chose to forgive the Master and let him live, in the end has to help Jex escape; the Doctor just couldn't reconcile the moral complexities of the situation in Mercy as it highlighted the ethical contradictions in his own nature. Jenx doing the guilt-ridden "honourable" thing by committing suicide, as well as providing a big explosion for the finale, could be a grim foreshadowing of where this Doctor is going.
In spite of all of this, you don't have to be a Western junkie to fully embrace A Town Called Mercy, even though there was fun to be had spotting all the references to A Fistful of Dollars, The Magnificent Seven, How The West Was Won and even Firefly in Murray Gold's incidental score, the best he's come up with for some time. This is a well told, rollicking good adventure on every level, with some of the best cinematography ever seen in the series. The only slight downside was that the Ponds didn't have much to do, apart from the "this is what happens when you travel alone for too long" sequence. Still, it must have been a nice holiday for Karen and Arthur (the latter doubly so, as he hardly had to say anything).
A Town Called Mercy is grown up, mature drama with a cool monster and a great setting. After the ADD pace of the last two episodes, it's refreshing to have a Doctor Who story confined to one location so it can build a credible, exotic world through engaging characters given enough room to develop. After all, isn't that why the series became popular in the first place?
And can someone please make Toby Whithouse the next showrunner please? Thanks.
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