To follow our ‘A Town Called Mercy’ commentary, James brings you his review of the episode. Don’t forget to let us know what you thought too.
With three episodes of the series shown I’m pretty comfortable calling this. This will not be a season to remember.
‘A Town Called Mercy’ is the Back to the Future 3 of the series. Back to the Future was all nostalgic cool, goofy and fun that had something for everyone, like Dinosaurs. Back to the Future Part 2 took a darker tack, like Daleks. Back to the Future 3 was really, really Westerny. Like Mercy.
This starts off as a proper, full on Western. No tricks, no messing, just a town under siege from a gunslinger, who happened to be a cyborg. The script left enough room for a couple of left field turns, quite a bit of character development from Kahler-Jex and The Gunslinger and still just about delivered on its initial promise of The Doctor against an inhuman killing machine on the American frontier. Between this and ‘Dinosaurs On A Spaceship’ the series is certainly trying to live up to the blockbuster episode format.
Sci-Fi Westerns are a pretty common conceit, but rarely feature the actual Western conceit. Cowboys vs. Aliens comes closest to treading the same ground, but is a more interesting premise than execution.
“Between this and ‘Dinosaurs On A Spaceship’ the series is certainly trying to live up to the blockbuster episode format.”
Doctor Who has the advantage that it can drop into the genre and in doing so send-up that which it apes. The high noon shoot out, the lynch mob, the teenage gunfighter, the noble Marshall, the mysterious stranger with a troubled past – all are played straight, sent up and then dropped. Just as ‘Curse of the Black Spot’ seemed more interested in the idea of pirates than the reality of pirates, Toby Whithouse never seems to want to write ‘just’ a Western. It’s meant to be a themepark ride through the American psyche, instead it just ends up as an episode in over-thinking it. I think that part of that problem is that, unlike Chris Chibnall, Whithouse always wants to do more with his characters. That’s great normally, but for this season seems a bit of a misfire.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not bad. Not really bad, anyway. It’s just not as good as it thinks it is, and certainly not as good as Sarah and Caleb say it is.
It’s a pretty average episode with a few good bits that get worse the more you think about them.
Lets begin with something I did like. It’s not something I’ve really mentioned over these last few episodes but Matt Smith and Karen Gillan are pretty brilliant. The Doctor has to do a lot of the heavy lifting in this episode, even more so than usual, especially compared to the last two weeks when he was a backseat driver to his own show or just one of an ensemble. There were a couple of big payoffs here, and his showdown with Amy over the fate of Jex and The Gunslinger was suitably epic. The benefit of dialling down the Tennantisms of overblown emotion (crying. every. single. week) is that when Matt Smith freaks out he has more weight. His meltdown over delivering justice for Jex’s victims was in character and actually explicitly drew out an assumption that had been made last week, that travelling alone is bad for him. It’s his companions that humanise The Doctor, that allow him to see the impact on individuals of the macrocosmic conflict he’s involved in. More than that, they help him to recognise that he can’t just do what he wants just because he’s The Doctor.
“The Doctor forcing a man to his death with a gun against his head, hammered home that this is no longer ‘the man who never would’”
This point was made lightly whilst the imagery, The Doctor forcing a man to his death with a gun against his head, hammered home that this is no longer ‘the man who never would’. Here was a side of The Doctor which turned his hatred of weaponry outwards, reflecting it back onto the ‘bad guy’.
Did it work? Not really. Of all the enemies The Doctor has ever faced and all the crimes they’ve committed these are the ones that he can’t let live? These are the crimes that push The Doctor to actively contemplate shooting a man? By the standards of Doctor Who a bit of weapons grafting is fairly common place. ‘The Age of Steel’ featured the weaponisation of communication devices, but The Doctor didn’t threaten to shoot Pete Tyler in the face for his role in that.
I’m glad that Amy called him on it, but again she was reduced to pointing a gun at him to make him stop. The solution wasn’t to reason with him, to try and talk him down. It was to pick up a weapon and threaten to shoot him as well. Forget all the non-Americans putting down their guns, can we just stop any main characters picking up guns whatsoever!* The Doctor’s plan to confuse The Gunslinger was more in character, and more entertaining than an actual shootout would have been. Especially since The Gunslinger has a gun attached to his arm and so would be unlikely to be outdrawn.
I’m becoming more and more sold on the (quite brilliant) internet idea that exposure to nanotech of the Daleks in the first episode is slowly removing The Doctor’s capacity for mercy and love. That theory absolves The Doctor of his actions whilst also making the Daleks a credible threat and is thus definitely not going to be the case at all. But it would work a lot better than “He has no friends, so now he kills people” which is what Amy’s argument boils down to given enough time. Having reduced The Doctor, someone who empathises with everyone and everything, to the point where he can no longer tell whether allowing someone to be killed off is cool or not just because he hasn’t had enough time with a human recently cheapens the character, and certainly doesn’t justify anything. Solomon and Jex may have deserved death, but The Doctor should not be the one to deliver that.
Meanwhile The Gunslinger, an actual in character executioner, went through so many changes of heart throughout the episode as to be barely coherent.
He can shoot a hat off the head of a man (leaving a bullet hole, despite his oversized energy weapon), but can’t just kill Jex until they’ve had a conversation. He won’t shoot if there’s danger of harming an innocent, until he decides he’s prepared to slaughter everyone.
These contradictions are never really explained, and they ultimately harm a character who becomes neither unstoppable assailant (Terminator, Robocop) or honourable warrior (every White Hat in Western Films). I think this is probably what Whithouse is going for. Each of the main three antagonists in the plot is a flawed character, broken by war, and that’s the point.
“Each of the main three antagonists in the plot is a flawed character, broken by war, and that’s the point.”
Jex is a sympathetic saviour to Mercy, who sacrifices his life (out of guilt and a need to resolve the plot without The Doctor or Gunslinger killing anyone else), but also had a career grafting guns onto people. The Gunslinger is a tortured innocent hunting down those who experimented on him, like a robotic V. Neither (or both) are traditional villains. Of the two of them it’s harder to sympathise with the Gunslinger, especially once he murders the wonderfully dishevelled Ben Browder, who along with Amy is the episodes true hero.
The Doctor meanwhile is haunted by those he could have saved – the victims of his enemies schemes, killed because he didn’t act. Except that this isn’t really an explanation – after all, he’s hardly planning to kill The Master or Davros here. If anything, the real threat to life in Mercy is still The Gunslinger.
To translate it into my new go-to analogy for The Doctor, this isn’t Batman arguing about whether to kill The Joker to prevent him committing further crimes. Jason Todd, the second Robin, murdered by the Joker and later revived as the Red Hood put it like this:
“Ignoring what he’s done in the past. Blindly, stupid, disregarding the entire graveyards he’s filled, the thousands of who have suffered, the friends he’s crippled. You know, I thought… I thought I’d be the last person you’d ever let him hurt. If it had been you that he beat to a bloody pulp, if he had taken you from this world, I would’ve done nothing but search the planet for this pathetic pile of evil death-worshiping garbage and sent him off to hell. ”
Why, based on everything he’s done in the past, don’t you just kill him? Not because he’s a potential future threat (the Joker is, Jex certainly isn’t). This isn’t a preemptive action to save lives – it’s about revenge for past actions. Like Batman, part of The Doctor’s creed is that he doesn’t kill. He might not save you, and you may wind up being killed by your own scheme, but you don’t usually have to worry about The Doctor finishing you off himself. Except now you do, and it doesn’t seem enough to say that he’s been without the calming influence of his friends. Having that conversation isn’t enough to justify it.
If Jex and the Gunslinger are meant to be two sides to The Doctor, the war criminal past that he’s trying to make up for and the man who hunts down those responsible for atrocities it marks a huge step backwards, for the series and the character, to Christopher Eccleston’s ‘haunted by the Time War’ persona.
I get what they’re going for – war is hell, nobody comes way unscarred, what is justice anyway, and all that. I just wish they hadn’t. I’m faced with the exact opposite problem in this episode as I was after Dinosaurs, it wants to be more than ‘just’ a Doctor Who Western, and that’s not necessary. Stop trying to make me think and have Doctor Who fight Yul Brynner in Westworld already.
*The exception to my no-guns rule; dark future/ alternate world versions of any character, or guns that are bigger than people.