Image courtesy the BBC.
I’ve been thinking about Toby Whithouse’s latest Doctor Who episode, A Town Called Mercy, since it aired back on Saturday. I suppose that speaks well of the episode. The truth of the matter is, it was a decent hour of television. It had everything we’ve come to expect from Doctor Who. It had performances that stood out, even among the high calibre that’s been set in the program. And it tried to do important things. It was a lot more satisfying than the previous week’s Dinosaurs on a Spaceship (which itself wasn’t a bad hour of television). But in some ways, it was also more disappointing.
I’ll explain more in the spoilerific review that follows this break.
So, the Doctor up and takes Rory and Amy on another adventure, before sidetracking to the American southwest (Arizona territory, perhaps? 200 miles north of Mexico) sometime during the 1880s. Sure enough, the Doctor’s spotted anachronisms in a town of exactly 81 people. We know the population of Mercy because it’s helpfully spelled out on the sign outside of town.
Actually, you know that old cliche in Looney Tunes cartoons where old west towns have signs which list their populations in the dozens, but continually cross the numbers out and drop them down as an illustration of just how lawless the town is? This is a subversion of that. The town of Mercy, Arizona Township, used to have a population of 80. Now someone has crossed out the “80” and very emphatically, and in gleaming white paint, put down “81”. I didn’t realize this until I typed out this paragraph. And if you think about the story that follows, it’s pretty clear who did this, how emphatic he was about doing this, and the message he was sending to the townsfolk when he did this.
Hmm… My appreciation of the story just went up over the course of this review. Good work, Mr. Whithouse!
But despite this subtle inversion of the trope, there are “Keep Out” signs all over the place, and a really, really small fence has been erected around the town to show where its limits are. When the Doctor and company enter, taking note of the electric streetlights (a decade before their time), everybody else in town is giving the Doctor the eye (and not in a good way). But a Doctor’s gotta do what a Doctor’s gotta do. Determined to get some information out of this dozen-horse town, he heads straight for the saloon and introduces himself as the Doctor. That gets people’s attention, and when one of the polite people in the saloon asks him, “are you, by chance, an alien?” he doesn’t demure. He owns up, and is immediately hauled out of town and dumped on the outside of the fence.
Writer Whithouse and director Saul Metzstein have a lot of fun both playing up to and completely subverting old west tropes. This, combined with the aplomb that Matt Smith carries the script, is a highlight of the story. It allows me to forgive Whithouse for choosing such obvious stereotypes in his characters — they break that stereotype through rational acts that shows there are real people underneath, and the effect is both comedic and enjoyable. Clearly, the folks living in the Town of Mercy aren’t a bad lot. They just want to be left alone to live their lives. They’re decent folk. But something has pushed them to the edge that they jump at the chance — upon hearing the words “alien doctor” — to haul a stranger out of town and leave him at the mercy (no pun intended) of a cyborg gunslinger (played by Andrew Brooke).
Fortunately, the Doctor is rescued by the town’s marshall, Isaac. Where the townsfolk seem to generally be decent and humble folk, he is the fire at the heart of their conscience. Everybody who comes to Mercy is worthy of a second chance, he says. Everybody who comes to Mercy gets to live in peace. And everybody who comes to Mercy gets his protection, and if any townsfolk has any objections to that, well then, Marshall Isaac might just have to get reeeeeally polite with that person and guilt trip them to the ground.
Isaac, by the way, is played by Ben Browder. If you could look past the facial hair, you might recognize him as John Crichton from Farscape. Even in a series that has consistently delivered a high calibre of acting from its guest stars, Ben Browder stands out. He delivers a performance that fleshes out his character as somebody fundamentally decent and determined to make others behave that way. He combines a weariness of seeing the world as it has been with a fierce determination that he will see it be as it should be. And though he doesn’t flaunt his skills, he is clearly the most intelligent man of a town of fairly intelligent people, and he intuitively understands the Doctor as someone who can live up to his ideals.
Indeed, if Marshall Isaac had been allowed to live, further guest appearances would have been welcome. I could see him becoming a second Brigadier to the Doctor — somebody so down-to-earth that they’re completely impossible to flummox. Sadly, it was not to be.
For the gunslinger wants the alien doctor. No not that alien doctor with the bowtie, the other alien doctor who arrived well before the Doctor and company and helped put up the electric streetlights. The gunslinger himself seems to have a strong moral code that prevents him from killing any innocent people. He’s somehow come to bow to the Marshall’s principle that, as long as the alien doctor is within the Town of Mercy, he is under their protection. This is why the gunslinger hasn’t gone storming in. It’s probably why there’s a really low fence demarcating where the Town of Mercy and its cone of protection ends (it was probably the gunslinger who put it there). The gunslinger seems to respect all that. So, until Mercy voluntarily releases his quarry to him, nobody at all is allowed to leave, and he won’t be nearly so polite to anybody who tries.
And who is the alien doctor? It’s Kahler Jex (played by Adrian Scarborough) (NOT Walter, played by Rob Cavazos, that I erroneously listed here — thanks for the catch, Cameron — I blame the late hour that I wrote this review at), a short-statured gentleman with a stylish tattoo on his face. He has a cloaked ship out in the wilderness (cloaked in burlap) and considerable skills as a doctor. Having helped the town of Mercy overcome a cholera epidemic, he’s become a well-liked hero. That is, until this gunslinger came and bottled everybody up inside the town as punishment for keeping Kahler Jex under their protection.
The rest of the story follows concisely and logically. There’s a mystery about Kahler Jex’s past that we have to solve, Marshall Isaac ends up accidentally killed protecting Kahler Jex from the gunslinger, and it’s left to the Doctor to contain the town’s fears and fraying patience, and decide what to do to end this standoff. It’s a fairly decent story, well told, and in all a decent way to spend an hour.
But it could have been more.
It took me all of five minutes, listening to Kahler Jex drop some hints about his past, for me to point at the screen and say to Erin, “he’s a war criminal”. And, sure enough, when the Doctor manages to get to Kahler Jex’s spaceship and download some convenient records, this is exactly what he’s revealed to be. And the Doctor, discovering this, flips out.
I’m willing to buy this, especially after the Doctor’s out-of-character treatment of Solomon at the end of Dinosaurs on a Spaceship. Connect the two together, and you have a character in the midst of a major descent that requires intervention from his companions (primarily Amy). Credit also goes to the acting of Matt Smith and Karen Gillan for carrying off the scene where the Doctor hauls Kahler Jex to the edge of town at gunpoint and threatens to leave him for the gunslinger — only to have Amy point a gun at him and tell him he is out of line. My only quibble is that this has happened too fast. It hasn’t happened organically. Toby Whithouse has told us this story, rather than let us see it for ourselves. Intellectually, I could see what Whithouse was trying to do, and I appreciated it, but I didn’t feel it.
It’s been suggested to me that Toby Whithouse tends to write stories that tell themselves well in fifty-minute increments. Forced to deal with Doctor Who’s tighter forty-two minute timeframe, however, Whithouse has to compress his tale at the price of plot elements getting lost or rushed. This story is probably apocryphal, although it does explain the somewhat incoherent ending to Vampires in Venice. A Town Called Mercy needed more time for us to get to know the characters as more than just genre-savvy stereotypes. The revelation of Kahler Jex’s war crimes needed to come in darker contrast to his demeanor and the work he’d done for the people of Mercy. And the Doctor’s decision to play judge and jury (leaving the gunslinger to be the executioner) needed to be an actual climax rather than just the midpoint of the story.
Considering the structure of this season, we have five episodes which are covering an arc about how companions grow apart from the Doctor, and how the Doctor suffers when he doesn’t have companions to hold him back. With A Town Called Mercy, we’re at the midpoint of this arc. Building off of the Doctor’s decision to leave Solomon to die, his decision to leave Kahler Jex to the tender mercies of the gunslinger (only to have Amy call the Doctor on this, also at gunpoint) should have been a real cliffhanger. Think of how much better A Town Called Mercy could have been if it were a two parter centred around this moment. The Doctor would be confronted with his change in attitude, forced to ask himself if this is the person he really wants to be, and it would have had a season-jarring impact.
I also believe that it would have enhanced the second part of the story, which plays off the tropes of the movie High Noon. Let’s not forget that the secret to the success of a number of Western movies is the use of suspense — the genre is gothic in its own way, and Doctor Who could have lapped that up. Slowing the second half down and letting the suspense build would not have been a bad thing.
However, I’m playing with could-have-beens and never-weres. The structure of this season calls for five episodes between the opening and the Christmas special, not six. Toby Whithouse had to work with what he was given, and I think he had a great story in his head. I also think that Whithouse did a good job of telling that story to viewers. I only wish I could have experienced that story more than I actually did.