September 17, 2012

House Calls #3: "A Town Called Mercy"

In the American 'old west', the town of Mercy is under siege from a cyborg cowboy that is holding the town hostage until they give up 'the alien Doctor'. Not our Doctor however, a different one - and one that has some upsetting secrets.

It's the Doctor Who western! We haven't had one since April 1966, so it's probably about time. Of course, budgets are a little more impressive for Doctor Who in the 21st century, so rather than recreating Tombstone on a small London soundstage we're on location in Spain using the same mocked-up western town set that Leone used for his spaghetti westerns with Clint Eastwood. As a result this episode is a treat for the eyes. Saul Metzstein (clearly the best new director on Doctor Who) hits every iconic western visual over the course of the episode, and Toby Whitehouse's script obliges with a lot of western scenes and dialogue as well. We've got the stranger riding into town, the showdown at noon, the saloon bar, the cowardly attempt at lynching a prisoner by the simple townfolk, and so on.

Of course what's really impressive is that all of the western elements simply act as backdrop to a morality play over crime and punishment. Kahler Jex, the alien doctor on the run from the cyborg, turns out to be the offworld equivalent of Josef Mengele. There are interesting questions raised over how Jex should be punished for his crimes, whether they should simply give him up to the cyborg, or rescue him from it. He can't be taken home to face justice: his side won the war, and as far as his own people are concerned he's a hero. The dilemma is enhanced marvellously by Adrian Scarborough, who gives a sensitive performance as a doctor somewhere between being a guilt-ridden victim and an inhuman monster. It's also a dilemma that pushes the Doctor right to the edge, where he winds up almost forcing Jex to his death at gunpoint.


So this is the third week in a row where the Doctor is acting out of character and cold-bloodedly trying to murder the bad guys - only this time Amy calls him out on it. It's a shame - I was wondering if they were going somewhere with this, like the Doctor still being infected by Dalek nanomachines from episode 1, but instead we seem to just be re-treading territory already covered with David Tennant's Doctor. The Doctor needs companions because they're what grounds him to his own humanity. I suppose that "The Runaway Bride" was five years ago now, and there's obviously a new generation of kids who probably haven't seen it, but it still feels as redundant as a Peter Davison serial where the Master apparently dies at the end.

The episode has other problems too. For one thing, the Doctor plays little part in resolving the narrative - in fact, the only significant change he enacts on the situation is that he gets the town sheriff (Farscape's Ben Browder) killed. This seems to go without notice. For another thing, Amy and Rory get precious little to do this week - although there is a nice continuing motion of easing their characters out of the series. I'm getting the impression that, like Martha Jones, they're going to want to leave the Doctor rather than be forced to. There's a nice scene between Amy and Jex about the fact that she's a mother. I do feel the series dropped the ball last year in regards to how Amy coped with pregnancy and motherhood, and this scene helped to redress at least a little bit of it.

For once the episode didn't feel rushed - it comfortably ran for its duration with a beginning, middle and end. This has been a perpetual problem for Doctor Who since 2005, and it's nice to see them manage to plot a story with sufficient length once in a while.

Overall it's a faulty but solid episode, with some great guest performances (particularly Browder and Scarborough) and some lovely dark material for Matt Smith to play with. Not perfect, but still rather solid - much like this season thus far in general. We're still at 100% good.

2 comments:

  1. I'm really liking the time gaps for the Ponds between episodes, and the fact that they are obviously growing into themselves as they move through adulthood. I like to think that between Ep 1 and here, there have been lots of glasses of wine and long conversations shared with River so Amy is more at peace with herself than she was.

    The little touches like Amy being a model in episode one, a couple of jobs later and not able to settle down in two (and worrying the Doctor is tapering off with them, to this one where it feels like she is the one letting go.

    Much though I love so many developments of the new show, I do think they've overegged the DRAMAH of the companion leaving story, and while I don't want to entirely return to the days of "I am holding Andred's hand, bet you didn't see that coming" I think there's a happy medium that can be reached by showing the companions growing out of the Doctor.

    Sadly I'm certain there will be Dramah and Tragedie in Episode 5.

    I've been listening to the old Charley Pollard plays on Big Finish and in "Neverland" she gives a spectacular speech about how the Doctor is basically Peter Pan, and that makes her Wendy, and she KNOWS how that turns out. Only she says it better.

    A little more bittersweet and a whole lot less 'trapped in other universe, brain erasures' would suit me down to the ground.

    Funny to think that we're this far into Moffat's third season and we haven't had any companion goodbyes yet (well, we've had several but they haven't stuck). At this stage with RTD we had said goodbye to Mickey and Rose and Jack and Donna (the first time) and were just getting the hang of Martha.

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  2. It's a nice progression, and I'm actually kind of hoping there isn't a cataclysmic drama that drives Amy and/or Rory away in two weeks. They *should* just outgrow him.

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