Monday, 17 September 2012

On 17.9.12 by KieronMoore in , ,    No comments

A man who walks into towns, solves their problems and leaves without revealing his name; a man who saves many but is destined to be a lonely figure. The Doctor shares many traits with the quintessential Western hero. In this way, perhaps it’s a surprise that it took the revived Doctor Who seven series to do a Western episode, the first since 1966’s The Gunfighters.

Toby Whithouse’s A Town Called Mercy had the Doctor, along with Amy and Rory, strolling into a town under siege from a mysterious gunslinger - part cowboy, part machine, entirely dangerous. Their investigation led them to another alien doctor, Kahler-Jex, creator of the gunslinging cyborg and escaped war criminal redeeming himself by serving the town of Mercy.

Everything you’d want from a good Western was there. A saloon, a showdown, a stetson, and shot beautifully on location in Almeria, previously used for A Fistful of Dollars, The Magnificent Seven and many more classic Westerns. The episode certainly looked the part, with bright blue skies contrasting with bright orange sands. It was magnificently scored too, with a Western twist on Murray Gold’s usual incidental music making the episode really distinct and underpinning certain dramatic moments perfectly. OK, so a few of the actors overdid the American accents more than others, but Ben Browder made up for them and A Town Called Mercy very much felt like a Western.

But this was no ordinary Western, it was a sci-fi Western. The clunking beast of the gunslinger was a finely designed creation, mashing cowboy and robot into something intimidating and powerful. The plotline of a doctor on the run after his cyborg creation had turned against him, a futuristic Frankenstein in the Old West, did feel like it reused some plot elements we'd seen before but fit the setting strangely well, allowing for a series of tense confrontations.

But this was no ordinary sci-fi Western, this was a Doctor Who sci-fi Western. From the moment the Doc and co. walked into the town, the story looked at the typical Western tropes with a strong element of the typical British humour we’ve come to associate with Doctor Who. “Tea. But the strong stuff. Leave the bag in” the Doctor orders in the saloon, in a brilliant piece of comic writing.

Besides this, the episode was a very interesting character study. Though Amy and Rory, the focus of a lot of this series, didn’t have a lot to do, the episode, like Whithouse’s The God Complex last year, focused on a particular element of the Doctor’s character. This time it was his anger, as his frustration with always encountering death caused him to take up a gun and throw Kahler-Jex out of Mercy into the hands of his assassin. I’m not sure I like the direction the Doctor’s been going in this series, first with killing Solomon and now this. I liked the Doctor of series five, who occasionally had mad outbursts of rage, but only in defence of his principles and would never contemplate killing, but this Doctor seems to be becoming more ruthless, a characteristic I don’t want associated with the character. Amy attributed this to too long travelling alone, though I don’t see that as an excuse – that shouldn’t turn anyone into a killer, and besides, he seems to be visiting the Ponds and other friends often enough. Nevertheless, for actually exploring the anger in a well-written, reflective manner rather than last week’s Bond-esque nonchalant smarmy murder, Whithouse gets a lot more of my appreciation than Chris Chibnall. We've seen the 'enemy is akin to the Doctor' trope before, yes, but some of the dialogue was chillingly effective - “Looking at you, Doctor, is like looking into a mirror, almost. There’s rage there like me, guilt like me, solitude, everything but the nerve to do what needs to be done” taunts Kahler-Jex. And the Doctor flips. Perhaps understandably, though I’m not sure the Doctor as I know him should.

Whatever your opinion on the Doctor’s character arc, A Town Called Mercy really was an accomplished mix of Western, sci-fi, and that Doctor Who Britishness, in terms of humour and the prevailing “violence doesn’t end violence” message. Toby Whithouse’s scripts can be criticised for following the traditions of Doctor Who a little too closely, and indeed this episode’s use of well-worn tropes in Kahler-Jex’s story means that it’s not one of the very best episodes, but it is Whithouse’s best yet and one that this Whovian would be more than happy to watch again and again.

Plus, the Doctor rode a transgender horse and wore a Stetson. Stetsons are cool. I just wish he’d worn that gorgeous cowboy coat for longer.


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