Sunday, 16 September 2012

Review - "A Town Called Mercy"

"Doctor Who" and the Western met once before - in the 1966 story, "The Gunfighters" which, admittedly, wasn't one of the show's finest moments. It was a brave decision to have another go at something that British tv doesn't really do very well. Most of us seemed to expect some sort of rip-roaring, gun-toting "west-fest" but instead we got a more slow paced, character driven story. A disappointment? No. Quite refreshing, in fact.

"A Town Called Mercy" may have had a relatively straight-forward plot, heavy with classic Western tropes such as the "High Noon" moment, but the dialogue, characters, setting, photography and direction absolutely sparkled. From the opening scenes with the Gunslinger tracking down and killing one of his targets to the final scenes with the little girl, it was a visual joy.

So, the plot. War criminal hides out in a Western town after his ship crashes and gains the trust of the townspeople by helping them out in all manner of ways - from curing Cholera to giving them electricity. The war criminal is hunted by a cyborg he created who tries to force the town to give him up. That's the basic premise - fairly simple and straightforward. However, the characters were the strength here together with a few nicely drawn parallels.

Following the pre-credits death, the episode started very lightly - the Doctor, Amy and Rory's arrival with the "I see Keep Out signs as suggestions more than actual orders. Like 'dry clean only'." and quite wonderful scene in the saloon. This lightness was very much needed because we were very soon flung into the darkness of the episode with what the Doctor is really very much capable of doing. We were into very dark territory when the Doctor discovered that Kahler-Jex - who HAD seemed like such a good little chap up until then - had carried out quite horrific experiments on his own people. Obviously, we didn't see this - but it was more than enough for us to hear the screams and put two and two together by seeing the despair and anger on the Doctor's face as he witnessed it. This scene also turned the story rather on it's head because again, until that point, the Gunslinger was supposed to be the out and out villain of the piece.

This is where we get the parallels. The Doctor could see himself in Kahler-Jex and, to a certain extent, the Gunslinger. We know the amount of self-loathing the Doctor carries around and his anger against Jex was a reflection of his own anger towards himself. Both did bad things in a time of war - and both are trying to atone in their own way. Jex's comment of "we all carry our prisons with us" definitely struck a chord with the Doctor but when he confronted Jex with his crimes...that's when the Doctor really loses it. Jex pointed out the parallels between them and that tipped the Doctor over the edge. We've seen Eleven shout before - but always regain his composure shortly afterwards. We've never seen THIS kind of deep anger from him before. It was chilling. From when he shouts at Jex to sit down - causing most of the audience to jump with shock - to running him out of town and pulling a gun on him.

It was a quite brilliant scene with the Doctor giving vent to his feelings - every time he shows mercy, every time he gives people another chance, they only go and do worse. The Doctor blames himself - he always has done. He's always thought there could have been a better way to resolve a situation. He never feels he's done enough. There's also another point. Amy says "this is what happens when you travel alone for too long" - which is true. He mentions in his episode that he's 1200 years old. In the previous episode it had been 10 months for Amy and Rory since they'd seen him - but how long had it been for the Doctor? I believe he was around 1106 in "The Wedding of River Song" - that's a lot of years. A lot of years for it to go around and around in his head - with nobody on board the Tardis to distract him, nobody to stop him and nobody to say no. Amy pulls him up on this - and it gives him pause for thought, it puts a cap on his anger and he doesn't go through with his threat against Jex. I'm not so sure however, that this was really what turned the Doctor around. It made him think - but I rather think that Isaac's dying words of "you're both good men. You just forget it sometimes" was the real turning point. When was the last time someone said something like that to the Doctor?

It was that line that, I believe, gave the Doctor that tiny bit of belief back. The belief that he IS ultimately a good man - how long this belief will last...who knows? How long will it be before the Doctor's demons take hold again? In this episode, those words enabled him - in a neat parallel with "The Happiness Patrol" - to talk a boy out of shooting him. "Violence doesn't end violence - it extends it". The scene was electric and tense - and quite superbly played by Matt Smith and Sean Benedict - and was very much an "it's okay...the Doctor's back" scene. Immediately following this we had another terrific moment between the Doctor and Kahler-Jex - and when Jex said about his culture believing that "when you die your spirit has to climb a mountain carrying the souls of everyone you've wronged in your lifetime", the immediate thought was "think of the thousands the Doctor would carry" - and you could see that reflected in his eyes.

Following the "High Noon" showdown, Jex ultimately sacrificed himself - not just for the townspeople of Mercy but for everyone. The Gunslinger would never stop chasing him - others would die protecting him. Of course, once Jex had died - what would become of the Gunslinger? He had already proved that he doesn't kill innocents - Jex was his only target. It was a lovely touch to have him installed as Marshall - as the protector of the town.

"A Town Called Mercy" was ultimately a Doctor story and, as such, kudos to Matt Smith who gave us everything from physical comedy - the toothpick in the saloon - to a dark, angry Doctor that sent chills down the spine. Adrian Scarborough as Kahler-Jex was a revelation to me as I'd only seen him previously in "Upstairs Downstairs" - he convinced as the crashed, benign and harmless seeming alien and then turned it completely around when he "taunted" the Doctor. The Gunslinger - played by Andrew Brooke - looked fantastic and was much more than the stereotypical "cyborg gone wrong". My only real complaint regarding the characters would be that Amy and Rory were given precious little to do - apart from Amy pulling the Doctor up on his willingness to sacrifice Jex. Rory especially may as well have not been there. It was quite brave to kill off Ben Browder's character so early on as well - especially as he'd been one of the main marketing aspects of the episode. Hats off too to Director, Saul Metzstein who made the Western setting work to great effect and, of course, writer Toby Whithouse whose dialogue just sparkled.

Now - a few things to note. First off, the lights. We had flickering lights in "Asylum of the Daleks", problems with light fittings in "Dinosaurs in Space" and flickering lights again in "A Town Called Mercy". We also have Christmas mentioned three times in three episodes by the Doctor - the last two episodes have specifically mentioned his "Christmas list". Does it mean anything? I don't know - but theories abound including flickering lights being connected with Weeping Angels and a possible time issue. The time theory is that maybe we're seeing everything this season from the Pond's viewpoint as opposed to the Doctor's. Has the Doctor already experienced the events in the upcoming episode 5? Food for thought.

Episode Rating: 9.5 out of 10. Better than "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship" but not quite up there with "Asylum of the Daleks"