Review: ‘A Town Called Mercy’

Picture the scene. It’s October 1993, and we’re in the middle of the first run of Red Dwarf VI. Already this is a show that’s past its prime; series IV and V have been wondrous, and VI is intermittently hysterical, but the cracks are already beginning to show. It’s still a few years before Chloe Annett springs forth from her parallel universe, bringing a wealth of “Does my bum look big in this?” angst with her, and in the meantime everyone is talking about an episode called ‘Gunmen of the Apocalypse’, in which the crew get chucked into a western.

For one reason or another, this is an episode that I don’t see: I am otherwise engaged and the video recorder is not working. It’s a pity, everyone tells me; it was hysterical, and the scene in the saloon was supposedly fantastic. ‘Gunmen’ goes on to win an Emmy, but it will be the summer of 1994 before I manage to catch a repeat. And when I do, I’m confused as to what all the fuss was about. It’s funny, in places, but it’s gimmick TV: sci-fi western with Cassandra’s dad from Only Fools and Horses, containing little in the way of decent gags, and a lot of general silliness as a substitute for an actual plot. It was as if Grant and Naylor thought Red Dwarf in the wild west would be enough, and while there are amusing moments the whole is infinitely less than the sum of its parts.

And so to ‘A Town Called Mercy’, Saturday night’s Who, and an episode that can best be described (as diplomatically as possible) as irredeemable shit. Not just substandard, or patchy, but dull, tedious shit. Toby Whithouse’s Who output has been of variable quality, ranging from the enjoyable dross of ‘School Reunion’ to the forgettable vagaries of ‘The Vampires of Venice’, but I’d thought – with ‘The God Complex’, which is in my top five post-revival stories – that he’d finally hit his stride. And then we get this: a collection of clichés by someone who admits that he’s never written a western before and thus felt it appropriate to drop in as much in the way of by-the-numbers scenes as possible. All the usual suspects are here – the sudden silence when the trio enters the saloon, the young man apparently destined towards a path of violence, the population sign with numbers crossed out, and the gleeful undertaker who’s never short of business. All that was missing was a whore with a heart of gold propping up the tavern bar, and a bunch of Mexicans firing their guns in the air.

Doctor Who has done westerns before, of course, even if Whithouse hasn’t. The First Doctor went there in 1966, but that was back in the cardboard set days. On this occasion he gets to go to Almeria, doubling for the town of Mercy. The Doctor eagerly strides into the local watering hole, and of course you could cut the atmosphere with a knife. The Doctor’s reaction is to adopt a third-rate Western drawl and order tea – “the strong stuff…and leave the bag in”.

Oh, that Doctor. Comedy gold.

This is not clever. Nor it is funny. When Rimmer walked into the bar in ‘Gunmen’ and asked for a dry white wine and Perrier, that was funny. This was gratuitously stupid. It more or less sums up Smith’s performance, which is wildly schizophrenic in a manner not seen since ‘The Twin Dilemma’: he’s either playing a dark and serious Doctor overwhelmed by moral choices and a sense of brooding anger (more on that in a moment) or a comedy Doctor who consistently fails to amuse. The script doesn’t help, but even when given lines that could have raised a chuckle Smith just isn’t trying very hard this week, assuming instead that the setting will be enough, when it frankly isn’t.

“Yeah, it was this big.”

“VOTAN!”

Smith may be second-rate, but he at least gets something to do, which is more than may be said for Gillan and Darvill – both abandoned, for the most part, to the sidelines. Rory’s job is to argue with his wife about ethical dilemmas and to run away a bit (essentially he’s Shaggy with brains). Meanwhile, Amy gets to be the voice of reason and conscience, and demonstrate that she really doesn’t know how to fire a gun.

It’s as if ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’ never happened. It is Amy who is left to acquaint herself with Kahler-Jex, a ‘doctor’ whose craft has ‘crash-landed’, allowing him to ingratiate himself within the community and develop something of a reputation as a scientist and miracle worker amongst a community anxious to protect him from the mysterious Gunslinger. Amy’s determination to help Jex is fuelled by what is possibly the worst dialogue exchange since ‘Doomsday’, just after she drops a blanket round his shoulders:

Jex: You’re a mother, aren’t you?

Amy: How did you know?

Jex: There’s kindness in your eyes. And sadness. And ferocity too.

Seriously, no one talks like this. Not in westerns. Not in prime time drama. Not even in Bonekickers. Amy asks Jex if he’s a father himself, to which the not-so-cryptic response is “In a way, I suppose I am”, which makes the rest of the episode – including its denouement – painfully obvious.

Kahler-Jex, formerly of Gosford Park

While all this is going on, the Doctor is out in the desert on a horse with two names – ‘Joshua’ turns out in fact to be called ‘Susan’, and we are told that “he wants you to respect his life choices”. This is the sort of clunkiness I thought we’d left behind when Davies finished his run – I’m all for jokes like this when they’re woven into the fabric with some sort of coherence, but this sticks out as an Obvious Statement like a sore thumb. We learn all this because the Doctor can speak horse. Well, of course he can. This is crying out for a tumblr page called Doctor Wholittle. (And if it gets made, I get dibs on the naming rights.)*

Oh, I was rolling around in my seat when he said “I wear a Stetson now”. It was even better than the Fourth Doctor telling K-9 to shut up. Unrivalled genius. Anyway, all this comedy is just a precursor to the moment where the Doctor gets to clamber on top of an enormous Kinder Surprise.

(Inside: a little plastic spaceship, in two parts, with a set of self-destruct stickers, and a website where you have to register your email address if you want to deactivate the mechanism.)

I’m skipping all over the place here. I haven’t yet mentioned Isaac, who is the gruff-but-decent Sheriff who you know won’t make it to the final reel, played with competence by Ben Browder, of Farscape and Stargate SG-1.

Isaac. A man of honour and integrity. Dead before the halfway mark.

Also present: Biggs Darklighter, no less, playing Abraham the undertaker.

“No, THAT’S NOT HOW THEY DO PANTS!”

The Gunslinger himself is your standard cyborg fare, with a stiff walk, a big gun, a voice box Stephen Hawking would kill for and a passing resemblance to Peter Weller, which can’t have been a coincidence.

“Stay out of trouble.”

He also has Terminator Vision, albeit with a touch of Predator about it.

But all this is basically leading up to the Big Scene where Amy shouts at the Doctor. A future YouTube favourite, this epitomises what’s happening between Pond and Doctor in this series: Moffat’s having Amy and the Doctor explore as many facets of their relationship as possible just before the final separation (terminal or not) in a couple of weeks’ time. J.K. Rowling did basically the same thing in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince with Harry and Dumbledore – as the two moved from father / son closeness through a series of reprimands, co-conspiracy and then outright anger, finishing as more or less equals. Having them go through the emotional wringer more or less signposted the inevitable ending of the book, and in the case of Doctor Who it’s clear that in series seven, one of the dominant themes is What Amy Really Means To The Doctor.

The other theme, of course, is darkness – the Doctor’s mercy or lack thereof being the prime example. The fugitive Jex is a Nazi war criminal trying to atone for his ‘sins’, except, as the Doctor says, “You don’t get to choose”. His decision to prioritise the bloodlust of the victim over the rights of the criminal edge the episode into social commentary area, but ‘A Town Called Mercy’ is too short to really make this work, and the result instead comes across rather like ‘Boom Town’ – in which the Doctor faced a similar ethical dilemma, and which featured dialogue of similar quality.

Critics have said this is “out of character”, but I think that’s kind of the point.

“This is what happens,” Amy tells the Doctor as he brandishes a firearm, “when you travel alone for too long”. And indeed, we’ve just found out that the Doctor is now 1200, a decision that was presumably made to allow for bucketloads of Big Finish material (although, as Gareth points out, they’ve managed to squeeze in dozens of Fifth Doctor / Peri stories between ‘Planet of Fire’ and ‘The Caves of Androzani’, suggesting that “this sort of thing doesn’t worry them”). Anyway, this new revelation about the Doctor’s age leads to a lengthy deleted scene in which the people of Mercy decide to give him the bumps.

There’s a bit of squabbling outside the jail, where the angry mob arrives to take Jex out of town to leave him for the Gunslinger to discover. The Doctor’s having none of it, of course. And the next time we see him, he’s in the middle of the square, and it’s High Noon, and as the Gunslinger appears it’s apparent that the Doctor has come up with A Clever Idea. We are spared the A-Team style montage of assembly or preparation, and we have to work out what’s going on at the same time as the Gunslinger. I’m guessing that behind the scenes, the conversation went a little like this.

Doctor: Right. Here’s the plan, folks. First of all, I want some black marker pens. And some Jammie Dodgers, but they can wait. Pens first. Then I want you to sit and copy out the design on the side of Jeks’ head. Paint it on some of the townsfolk. It’ll confuse the cyborg and he won’t know where to shoot.

Rory: Hang on, you’re ripping off The Three Amigos?

Doctor: What?

Rory: [produces iPhone, finds this video]

Doctor: Interesting soundtrack.

Rory: Sorry, it’s the only version I could find.

Doctor: Anyway. Fair point, but we don’t have time to debate originality. Now. Volunteers to be the bait.

Amy: [hand in the air] I nominate Rory.

Rory: Oh, thanks.

Doctor: Good work, Ponds. Look at it this way, Rory, the merchandising opportunities are limitless. We can do two sets of everyone in the town, with and without splodges. Right, next: I want all the townspeople to hide in the church.

Amy: Hold on a sec, isn’t that a rather obvious place to look? I mean, wouldn’t it be better to find a cellar somewhere? I’m sure the town’s full of them.

Doctor: No, because that’s exactly what he’ll be expecting. Instead, I want you all to wait in the church and be impossibly quiet so he can’t hear you. Oh, and put some hymn books and bibles right on the edge of the seats. And make sure you have the children sitting there. It’ll induce some dramatic tension.

“It’s no use; I’ve been scrubbing for three hours and it still won’t come off.”

It all ends in a hurried moment of crushingly obvious self-sacrifice, and then a scene in which the Gunslinger stands alone on a hill in the distance, playing with a shiny badge. Oh, and a fake gunfight between the Doctor and the Kid Who Must Avoid The Road To Violence, in another Worst Moment Ever.

Lame. Lame. Lame.

The Protector of Mercy. Alone, but never – well, yes, alone.

Seriously, Toby, how could you do this to us? I was able to endure this episode only under the influence of red wine, and that’s really not a good place for Doctor Who to be. I am assuming that series seven is following the Star Trek formula, in that the odd numbered instalments have been dull (by that rationale ‘The Power of Three’ should be a riot). The production values on this were fairly impressive, and with the right story and script, it could have been great. As it stands, it was hurried in all the wrong places and laboured in all the wrong places, with second-rate performances of third-rate dialogue, inadequate characterisation, an unsatisfactory conclusion…really, as Gareth pointed out, the only thing that wasn’t totally one-dimensional was the scenery. You couldn’t view it as a missed opportunity, or a story with potential. It was just a mess. It was forty minutes of my life that I’m never going to get back – and that, to be honest, frightens me more than anything that Moffat has managed to do since he took over the show.

* As it turns out, it already exists. Just goes to show great minds think alike.

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