Doctor Who complete reviews: A Town Called Mercy
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
Moral quandaries perplex what might have been a routine genre-rip...
Spoilers etc (copyright, River Song, 1968)
Howdy, folks! How's about we mosey on down to our destination. Stroll on past the barn containing a skeleton with a wig in charge of them there dancing waxwork dummies, and you'll come to the No Chance Saloon. The pardner in charge even speaks horse language.
Yes, you've arrived at A Town Called Mercy, a destination far removed from the Day Of The Dead festival in Mexico. It's a locale that contains every Western cliché under the sun. A typical bar in which you too can order a cup of the strong stuff; a law-abiding marshall, a Bible-clutching preacher man, and an undertaker eager for his next commission. It's been a fair while since we had a Western story – The Gunfighters, in fact, from 46 years ago. If you've had a look at my review of The Gunfighters, then you'll know that Westerns are not my strong point – they're up there with musicals and courtroom sagas as genres I'd like to put in jail for eternity. So, naturally, I wasn't exactly expecting great things from the latest episode.
But there's two main differences between The Gunfighters and A Town Called Mercy. One is that the 2012 ep throws lots of sci-fi elements in the mix, including a grunting Cyborg, a wrecked spacecraft and anachronistic electricity supplies. The other is that all the Western trappings are used as background window dressing for a morality play which looks at the ethics of mercy.
The funny thing is, on paper, A Town Called Mercy looks like a script that could have slotted into the latter part of David Tennant's run. We have lots of talk about how The Doctor's less of a second chances man, and more to the point, how travelling alone has blurred the Time Lord's vision of fair play. In this adventure, The Doctor also gets to shout a lot, far more than of late – in fact, this is one noisy adventure, what with The Doctor's outraged bellowing, the humming and silly voice of the cyborg, guns, explosions, and also an unwelcome return for Murray's Pompous Choir. Thought I'd heard the last of 'em, but no, they're like The Master, in that they will always come back, no matter what.
This more vengeful take on The Doctor carries on from last week, in which he left hoary old goat Solomon to the tender mercies of oncoming missiles. This week, he's prepared to hand over an apparently genial chap called Kahler Jex over to the dreaded Gunslinger, the grunting Cyborg who's kept the quaking population of Mercy in their homes for fear of getting fatally shot. It's a neat sleight of hand, that. From the opening pre-credits teaser, in which some random grunt is bumped off, it's a fair bet to assume that The Gunslinger is the main protagonist. There's no reason to indicate that Kahler Jex is the root of the problem. After all, he's a member of the Kahler race, a race of people who can “build a spaceship out of Tupperware and moss”. Since crash landing his ship, Jex has repaid the town by ending an outbreak of cholera, and has even rigged up some handy, ahead-of-its-time electricity. Jex is also a quietly spoken, amiable sort, who looks like he wouldn't even say boo to a goose. So why should The Gunslinger want Jex's head?
Genial sorts are always too good to be true in Who – a point proven when The Doctor has a quick peek at Jex's spacecraft. You would have thought that Jex would have erased any incriminating evidence against himself, but no – the truth is there for all to see. In fact, Jex has been helping his home world's war effort by deadly means. Along with a number of scientists, he has been experimenting on hapless volunteers and turning them into cyborgs, leading to a long path of death in their wake. No wonder Jex looks suitably alarmed when The Doctor doesn't follow the plan – in fact, The Doctor's absolutely furious with the rattled Jex, to the point where he practically picks the scamp up by the scruff of his neck, to thrust him at the boots of The Gunslinger – one such result of Jex's handiwork.
Jex, in a way, is the flipside of last week's Baddie Of The Week, Solomon. Both men are responsible for many deaths. Both men see ends as ways to justify the means – in Solomon's case, the destruction of Silurians was a way to help him increase his bank balance; in Jex's case, the destruction of lives was to help win the war. And both men also feel the wrath of a certain Time Lord. In Jex's case, however – unlike Solomon, who couldn't give a toss about the loss of life – he carries a big burden to bear. Jex has the one thing that no amount of money could ever buy Solomon: A conscience. It's that conscience that tortures The Doctor in his dreams with the screams and pained faces of the dying. The end game is that Jex's death is identical on the surface to Solomon's: Both men are blown to smithereens in their spacecraft – the difference this time, is that it's Jex who makes the self sacrifice in order to save the lives of the quaking Mercy folk, and gain his redemption.
The Doctor's reaction is interesting though, and carries on this NuWho theme of how it's the companion that brings him back down to Earth. Rose brought the Ninth Doctor back to reality after he pulled a big gun on a Dalek. The Tenth Doctor quickly found that he made reckless decisions while travelling alone. A number of fans have already pointed out how, in a sense, the moral power play of Genesis Of The Daleks is echoed in A Town Called Mercy – except that the companion is now calling out for a peaceful solution rather than murder. “You've been taking stupid lessons,” notes Amy as the angry Time Lord prepares to throw Jex into the path of the Gunslinger. “This is what happens when you travel alone for too long.” The older The Doctor gets, the less tolerant he gets. It's like us mortal humans, who start off as juvenile rebels and then end up as scowling old gits who moan at young whipper-snapper for playing their MP3 players at too loud a volume on the bus.
"What's great about this episode is that there's no clear cut definition between right or wrong"
But in a sense, Jex is a chap who's a bit too close to home for The Doctor's liking. Jex can see a lot of The Doctor's persona in him, and vice versa. Both are men who help others, but whose past actions have still resulted in the loss of lives. “You don't see how I can be more than just one thing, and that confuses you, Doctor,” notes Jex. And it's true – bung a DVD of your choice in the player, and you'll also wonder at the dichotomy at the actions of a man who can help save lives and entire races on the one hand, and cause the deaths of countless lives on the other. John Bensalhia">Boom Town saw The Doctor shift uneasily at Margaret's home truths, which quickly proved correct in the next adventure, as many lives were lost on board the Gamestation/Satellite Five. Davros also crowed his accusations at a seething Doctor in Journey's End, followed by a long compilation of untimely demises. It's that feeling of guilt that continues to hang over The Doctor – a point further proved in A Town Called Mercy, when Isaac, the town's marshall, takes the bullet instead of Jex.
The moral question of whether the end justifies the means runs through the story like a man on the run from a hungry tiger. There's that feeling of mob mentality when the townsfolk gang up on The Doctor and his companions, demanding Jex's head in return for their safety. That's the problem with people in big groups – mob mentality tends to take over, leaving all sense of reason at the door. As The Doctor explains in this case, though, “Violence doesn't extend violence – it extends it” before declaring that he'd take on a Dalek any day over large groups of frightened people. What's great about this episode is that there's no clear cut definition between right or wrong. The Doctor's actions clearly cross the line – but then he's crossed the line in stories like The Waters Of Mars. Did he learn anything from that story? If you tuned into A Town Called Mercy, then you could argue that the answer's no. With Jex, he vigorously defends his actions by helping to win his race's war, but at the same time, he's constantly haunted by the people that he's killed in the process. It's up to the viewer to make up their own minds as to who's in the right and who's in the wrong, and that's a sharp bit of writing.
Morals and ethics aside, A Town Called Mercy, again, isn't quite perfect. Because the moral debates tend to dominate the story, there's the feeling that there's not enough threat present in the story. The main protagonist, The Gunslinger, is well designed and realised, but he's a right old hokey bit of walking cliché: “I will find you!” he bellows at the AWOL Jex. “If I have to tear this universe apart, I will face you!” Just one of the long list of predictable lines that The Gunslinger roars out at the top of his voice. What makes him even sillier is the fact that he has the voice of John Bensalhia">The Garm from 1983's Terminus, and heaven knows that that voice was daft enough. It's possible that Jex crossed paths with the great big lumbering dog thing, and somehow cannibalised him for a handy voicebox. Poor old Garm.
"The Doctor's visits to the Ponds are getting less frequent, by the sound of it, again, setting things up for the last story of the current five-episode run"
The ending of the story is also heavily signposted. War criminal with a conscience. Self-destruct mechanism on board the ship. It's like working out two plus two. And inevitably, Jex does the right thing and blows himself up. So, in effect, the script is just whiling away the minutes before the inevitable happens. The clumsy kid who knocks over a pile of books in the local chapel may attract the attention of the vengeful Gunslinger, but it's such an obvious plot cliché that's been used many a time before.
Fans of Amy and Rory, I'm sure won't be quite so happy either – while Amy gets to act as The Doctor's conscience this time around, poor old Rory hardly gets anything to do except play a deadly game of Follow The Leader. The Doctor's visits to the Ponds are getting less frequent, by the sound of it, again, setting things up for the last story of the current five-episode run. Who aficionados may like to speculate on the dodgy lighting for the third week in a row – any connection with those pesky Weeping Angels, I wonder?
Even with these problems, A Town Called Mercy still looks a million dollars. Some great direction from Saul Metzstein brings the story to life – in particular, the overseas location shoot which is very classy indeed. Good POV shots for the Gunslinger, too – it's been yonks since we've had good POV video effects and the ones in A Town Called Mercy don't disappoint. There's also good performances from a solid cast. Ben Browder is very good (if a bit underused) as the doomed Isaac, while Adrian Scarborough (another of those actors who turns up on everything these days – he bloody loves crisps as Tilly's friend in Miranda, for example) steals the show as the conscience-stricken Kahler Jex. And hey – there's Garrick Hagon from 1972's Mutants episode in a neat cameo as the undertaker. His indiscreet sizing up of The Doctor with his tape measure is especially amusing.
Moral debates in Doctor Who can get a little heavy handed from time to time – that can be the fault of unsubtle dialogue or over-earnest speeches handed to uncomfortable looking actors. That's not really the case with A Town Called Mercy, which poses a number of ethical scenarios to the viewers in a mature and well-reasoned way. Back those debates up with a classy production, superb location filming and strong acting from both the regulars and the guests, and you have a Town that you'll want to revisit time and again.
John Bensalhia limbered up for his Shadowlocked writing with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work here. His Twitter feed is @JohnBensalhia.
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