“A Town Called Mercy” – Review: Redux

Doctor “Anachronistic electricity. ‘Keep Out’ signs. Aggressive stares. Has someone been peeking at my Christmas list?”

A Town Called Mercy

I’ve never been a fan of westerns. To be frank, I have a less than average amount of enthusiasm for movies at all, 90% of the time I would prefer small screen entertainment anyway, but even so, westerns have always left me little cold. I remember watching The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” after it turned up on some Sky Movies channel or other and it was jarringly bad. Yes, it was atmospheric, it had an iconic musical score, it was reasonably well acted, and it was visually dramatic but I couldn’t get through much more than 20 minutes before it all got too much. it  It’s one of those films that seems widely lauded as ‘best in class’ along with other examples of the genre like “True Grit”, “Unforgiven” and so on, but for me it just served as an excellent reminder to myself why I shouldn’t bother with the genre any more. Having said that, I’m sure there are quality tales out there that would appeal to me and I’d happily take some advice if you’re willing to proffer it, but I tend to get to the end of films like this with nothing but a numbing realisation that there’s two hours of my life that I’m never getting back. Even TV series with western settings used to bore me rigid, and I grew out of things like “The Lone Ranger”, “Bonanza”, and “Alias Smith and Jones” by the time I’d got to high school. So, when I heard that Doctor Who was dipping its toe in the dusty, scorching heat of Almeria to deliver us a wild west tale, I could almost hear the tumbleweed rolling past whispering “Meh!” as it went.

There was no pre-amble to “A Town Called Mercy“, with the Doctor, Rory and Amy just wandering up to the edge of town without so much as a by-your-leave and finding themselves embroiled in the adventure. After my niggles with the previous episodes after which I ended up wondering what was the point of dropping companions off at the end of episode “A” just to have to have them picked up again at the start of episode “B”, we now get the slightly peculiar feeling (following the lack of any introduction) of trying to establish exactly how and when the Doctor went to collect the Ponds. If nothing else, this effort feels like a long, drawn out affair just to get us used to the fact that they’re leaving.

I do think that this playing around with established process is quite good fun. Since the return of Doctor Who in 2005, we’ve had to get used to companions returning for extra episodes (Martha in the “The Poison Sky” and “Doctor’s Daughter“, Rose in “Turn Left“, etc) and the not-quite-companions (Wilfred Mott, Adam Mitchell, Brian Williams, et al), which collectively muddy the previously clear waters of (1) Companion joins TARDIS, (2) Companions has adventures, (3) Companion leaves TARDIS. There’s also been enough huge gaps established within the Moffat-era chronology for all sorts of off-screen adventures to be imagined in the intervening years. It all leads to a more organic realisation of what it must be like to move from the mundane to the fantastic and back again.

As I think about the three Series Seven episodes, especially after the previous wibbly-wobbly series arcs of Amy’s pregnancy in Series Six and the crack in the wall from Series Five, I find myself looking for linking themes or motifs that have some broader meaning. Each of the three episodes has a mention of Christmas. Each episode features flickering light-bulbs. The last two episodes have featured someone looking for the doctor (and a slight wink to the audience to make us think, erroneously, that it was ‘our’ Doctor they were after). Someone even pointed out to me that the title sequence is getting darker each time but I haven’t checked that out yet. [Edit: had a quick look and it does indeed seem as though the ‘tunnel’ is getting darker with each episode]. The point of all this being that the sledgehammer approach of previous arcs has either been replaced by a far more subtle one, or that this is just the production team having some fun, or, and I am reminded here of the words of the eighth Doctor, that we’re all seeing patterns in things that aren’t there. And that is never more true than with Doctor Who fans as we try to get our heads around these, essentially stand-alone stories. May be there’s no arc at all and we just have to accept that.

Anyway, back to this town called Mercy. The plot revolves around an alien called Kahler-Jex, portrayed with aplomb by Adrian Scarborough, who had been living among the townsfolk for ten years providing them with electricity, curing their ailments and generally being a gentle old chap who wouldn’t say boo to a goose. However, the town was taken under siege by a cyborg Gunslinger who demanded that the residents turn Kahler-Jex over to him. The residents though, were showing loyalty to their friend by refusing. However, rather than being the crash-bang-wallop cowboys versus aliens romp that may have been expected, what we got was a much more engaging morality tale in which the wild west setting was just the added layer over the core of the story.

It came as little surprise that the good guy/bad guy dynamic got turned on its head leaving us sympathetic to the cyborg and casting the alien doctor in the role of Nazi war criminal. The subsequent quandaries of truth, justice, sacrifice, vengeance and mercy were played out not only among the guest cast but also between the Doctor and his on/off companions. We have previously seen David Tennant’s incarnation going off the rails towards the end of his tenure as he travelled alone during his Time Lord Victorious period, and we again revisit these problems caused by the Doctor’s isolation from his companions. Last week we saw Eleven show a distinct, albeit arguably justifiable, lack of compassion when it came to sealing Solomon’s fate and in an even more cold-hearted and out-of-character way, we see him here take Jex to the literal and figurative edge, until being reminded of the right way of doing things by Amy, in a continuation of her Doctor-esque role established with Nefertiti and Riddel last week.

There were some good cameos in here too, especially from the young townsman who threatened the Doctor with a duel in the middle of the episode, before his wordless yet playful renaissance right at the end who, along with the Preacher and the Undertaker, collectively added a sense of immediate peril and realism. I think that Toby Whitehouse needs to be credited with creating a multi-layered tale that will be enjoyed time and again through repeated viewings and I have certainly found that both my initial concerns about the (lack of) pace and my apathy towards the western setting, were somewhat misplaced. Visually it ticks all the boxes that you could want from an episode set in an American frontier town and the soundtrack was, as ever, expertly composed from Murray Gold.

Highlight: The recreation of the Western atmosphere was impressive

Lowlight: The face tattoos

Talking Point: How do you feel about Matt Smith now that he’s in his third and (almost) final season?

Demon’s Run Rating: 16 out of 20

Original BBC1 Broadcast: 15th September 2012

Marathon Status: Nearly there, and the Anniversary is approaching

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