This story in a nutshell: A dusty town, a sheriff, a grudge, lots of guns and a face off a noon…can you guess the genre?
Nutty Professor: ‘It would be so much simpler if I were just one thing, wouldn’t it? The mad scientist who made that killing machine or the physician whose dedicated his life to serving the people of this town. The fact that I’m both bewilders you.’ Each episode brings fresh surprises with Matt Smith and I can honestly say that (unlike last year where I felt the character and the actor might have become a little too manic and clever-clever) I have had no complaints whatsoever so far this year. A Town Called Mercy devotes much of its time to giving the Doctor a moral dilemma to ponder on and Smith proves that he is no slouch during the dramatic moments, dumping the quiet menace and going for outright hysteria in some scenes (which, to his credit, he is not normally very good at). Every tic and remark and reaction feels distinctly Doctorish. To quote a song he’s got it, oh baby he’s got it! This is my eleventh Doctor and I love every second of his company in stories like this. He sees Keep Out as suggestions rather than instructions and rubs his hands with excitement at the thought of disobeying and seeing what happens. There is nothing more Doctorish than stumbling into a bar in the American mid west and asking for the strong stuff (tea, keep the bag in). Watching him being manhandled by the townsfolk was not only riotously funny but reminded me of Hartnell’s treatment in The Gunfighters. I love how he tries to run away from the Gunslinger and finds himself facing a handful of guns – as long as people are pointing guns at the Doctor you know he is doing something right. Within minutes of being in Mercy the Doctor has pieced together the various pieces of information he has been fed and figures out that the Sheriff is hiding an alien Doctor in his cells. When the Doctor rode off into the countryside in The Pandorica Opens I didn’t feel a thing because it felt like they were trying to make the episode feel epic. With a delicious Murray Gold score that accentuates the hero in him and the dust kicking back in Susan’s wake, this is a far more rousing gallop out of town and Smith just looks perfect straddling the magnificent beast (after Tracie he’s doing a lot of that these days!). The Doctor forces himself to look at the recorded images of Jex’s victims being tortured and the glint in his eye suggests that things are about to get very dark. That murderous rage that we saw bottled in the Doctor last week gets released this week and I’m glad that the writers chose to comment on his recent actions through Amy rather than simply ignoring it. Dragging a man to his death is not in the Doctor’s nature but you get the feeling of the weight of the horrors he has experienced in his long life and that people now have to be brought to justice. As Amy so succinctly points out he has to be better than that. I can imagine Paul Cornell fainting with shock when the Doctor not only brandishes a gun but cocks it and the camera rams right down its throat to stress the importance of the event.
Scots Tart: ‘Are you going to hunt down everyone who’s made a gun or a bullet or a bomb?’ Pleasingly, Amy is the voice of reason when the Doctor goes on a murderous rampage and pushes Jex into the path of the Gunslinger. He’s so unreasonable in his intent that she has to pull a gun on him and force him to save the scientists life. In a moment of blissful comedy (and by far the funniest thing Amy has ever done) she accidentally fires off two shots making a tense crowd even more nervous! There has been much discussion about how the Doctor’s companions are equals these days or how they even surpass him in terms of importance (a trend that has been pleasingly subverted this season) but this is one instance where he definitely needs a human intervention and it's one of the few occasions when Amy is the perfect companion for him. She reminds him of his core values. It's also one of the few occasions where I took Amy’s side over Rory’s who was happy to let the Doctor throw Jex to the wolves. When the Doctor travels alone for too long he grows hard and he needs his companions to keep him grounded in reality and to remember the cost of his decisions.
Loyal Roman: Despite a few action sequences Rory is almost completely wasted in one of his final stories. A shame since Amy is utilised so well here.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘He shoots peoples hats?’ – it was the delivery more than the line. This has made me laugh with every rewatch.
‘He’s called Susan and he wants you to respect his life choices.’
‘You cannot apply the politics of peace to what I did…’
- Simon loved the opening narration, the southern drawl and the poetic dialogue. Although I was initially disappointed that a historical episode should so quickly introduce science fiction elements without even having the chance to establish its atmosphere, it's beautifully realised with more impressive POV graphics that seem to be the order of the day in season seven.
- There were plenty of moments when I was blown away by the breadth and imagination of Saul Metstein’s direction and the impressive opening crane shot over the town sign to land on the Doctor approaching suggests the cinematic splendour and adherence to Western conventions that was to come. There are glorious long shots of the town snuggled in the sun drenched hills that capture the feeling of space that all good westerns promote. The Gunslinger alone on a mountainous ridge is a memorably stark image. The Doctor galloping across the countryside could have skipped straight from a glossy western blockbuster and I really like the way the director always ensures that the sun is in shot whenever possible to accentuate the feeling of heat and dryness. He captures that golden glow of the American mid west that never seems to fade. The many angled approach to the Doctor trying to open the ship in the desert shows you the amount of effort the director is going to to keep this looking interesting – this could have easily have been a point and shoot in one direction job. The set up of the showdown at noon is one of my favourite set pieces, it's so beautifully shot to capture the essence of the genre (slow motion footsteps as the enemy approaches the town, the reverberation of the hands clanging towards destruction, the intense silence of the townsfolk waiting on the murder to come) and when the action kicks off it's as cinematic as we have come to expect – glass bursting from windows, clocks exploding, doors being blown off their hinges and a spaceship kicking up half the desert into the air with it!
- I was a massive fan of Farscape in the day and I’m one of the ten people that stuck with Stargate SG-1 until its dying breath and thought that the last two seasons saw something of a creative renaissance for the show and so the appearance of Ben Browder in Doctor Who is one of the items on my wish list ticked off. Whilst I would have loved to have seen him play a villain (in Farscape Crichton’s madness was so pronounced at times it was hard to tell if he was one of the good guys), he approaches the somewhat thankless role of the town Sheriff with a great deal of dignity and pathos. He’s very easy to like from the off and that is all down to Browder’s down to Earth approach to playing roles. I never get the feeling that Browder is acting, it always feels like the characters that he plays are real people. In what should have been an awfully clichéd death scene, Browder makes the moment count.
- Adrian Scarborough is an actor that seems to be getting a lot of exposure of late (although I can never quite shake his rambunctious appearance in Miranda out of my mind) and with good reason, he’s a consummate actor and makes up an impressive triumvirate of performers that bring this story to life so memorably (along with Smith and Browder). On first viewing I was suitably lulled into a false sense of security and didn’t suspect Jex for a second. On second viewing I wondered how I had managed to miss the manifest of hints to the contrary. What I really enjoyed about this character was what he exposed in the Doctor – that he doesn’t enjoy having to deal with villains painted in shades of grey and prefers to dish out punishment to the black or white variety. Jex can play the suave man who saved the town and he can also turn nasty on a sixpence and start pointing guns (Scarborough is equally convincing playing whiter than white and Mr Bad Guy) and it’s a mixture of virtue and vice that the Doctor simply isn’t used to dealing with. Last week it was easy to condemn Solomon because he was so loathsome in his attitude and his actions that his murder at the Doctor’s hands almost felt cathartic. Jex is a far more interesting prospect because he doesn’t fit into a stereotype and the dramatic meat of the episode comes from whether to hand him other to his death or to try and protect him. There are good reasons for doing both and that is why the Doctor is so conflicted. The horrors of what Jex has accomplished can be linked to the despicable acts of biological experimentation that took place during the World Wars, it’s a very emotive link to the past that is easy to react strongly against. It might feel like a cop out that Jex should take his life and sparing the Doctor of having to deal with him (although he has pretty much made up his mind to let him go at this stage) but it feels right because it allows Jex himself to find some inner peace. For a show that is about the Doctor finding his core beliefs again its rather telling that ultimately it is the villain who gets to make peace with himself. It feels like a cleansing act, taking his life to be amongst the souls that he slaughtered. They are the only ones who can judge him ultimately. Perhaps they will be kind.
- I have been harping on about there being no pure historicals since the new series came back eight years ago and this is one of the first instances where I have felt that the story would not have been able to maintain itself without a science fiction element. I’m not the biggest fan of westerns (which is odd because I adore both The Gunfighters and A Town Called Mercy but then I did have to study them in more depth than any sane person should at college) and I don’t think the principles of genres would hold up in a modern TV schedule without an extra element to draw the viewers in. Had this been a visually sumptuous feast about rivals towns at war I might have fallen asleep (even the classic series needed much comedy and song to keep things fresh) but add a stomping murderous android and a moral dilemma into the mix and the setting becomes little more than luxurious window dressing. Juxtaposing the past and the future works a treat here.
- A massive round of applause for Murray Gold’s gorgeous score for this episode which would have conjured up the feeling of a western had there been no pictures at all. There would be no mistaking the genre as he bangs the drums and strums his guitar. I can’t wait to get this score on CD since it is pacy, exciting and very atmospheric. The female vocals when the Doctor becomes Sheriff are silky smooth.
- The Gunslinger appearing just over the ridge that Rory is hiding in reminded me of the sequence in Pyramids of Mars where Sarah is tucked away from a murderous mummy that is atop a leafy ridge. Different location, different eras but both recognisably Doctor Who doing what it has always done. Providing edge of the seat excitement.
- ‘You’ve got until noon tomorrow’ spits the Gunslinger. Well of course he does, it wouldn’t be a western otherwise!
- I loved the sequence in front of the Sheriff’s office where the townsfolk and the Doctor argue about the fate of Jex. This is exactly the sort of dramatic scene that was completely absent last year because the show was jumping about from location to location being super smart. It might slow down the pace but it gives extra depth to the situation and puts a face on the people of Mercy. It might seem like the first scene for the chop if the story was overrunning but its essential to make the town feel like a realplace. More like this please.
- The Doctor waiting around in the evening for the shootout the next day. It's surprising to hear that the writer was warned of from watching The Gunfighters (sacrilege, darlings!) because these anticipatory scenes in the latter half of both stories feel very similar.
- The final shots of the Gunslinger protecting the people of Mercy is just about perfect. He has a purpose at last.
The Bad: I know I’m not the first person to say this but as impressive as he looks there are an awful lot of similarities between the Gunslinger and the Rogue Simulants on Red Dwarf. A minor complaint, probably by the cast of the that show given they were bitching and moaning about Doctor Who in the season eight DVD commentaries regarding any similarities. It's probably fair for them to do so, the BBC has pushed Doctor Who to the forefront of their schedule and budget and have all but forgotten that Red Dwarf ever existed. My one complaint about his character is that by the end of the episode I was bored of watching him power up his gun and then powering it down again. When he finally starts shooting I was cheering! Is it my imagination or is the title sequence getting darker?
The Shallow Bit: Jex dresses rather like Toad of Toad Hall. Look at him as he gazes out at town whilst the Doctor, Rory and the Sheriff are off risking their lives for him. He’s the spit of him! That really tickled me. I have to point out that Matt Smith in a Stetson provokes naughty feelings in Simon.
Result: In what feels like a throwback to the pseudo historicals of the Russell T Davies era, A Town Called Mercy is an excellent drama and the first episode this year with a sustainable narrative that doesn’t have to resort to smart tricks to tell a story. Saul Metzstein definitely has the ability to bridge the gap between the two eras; capturing the sumptuous, blockbuster feel of Moffat’s tenure whilst pushing the actors to the forefront and giving them time to strut their stuff which was so vital during Davies’ era. This director is quite a find and I hope that it isn’t long before we see him helming more episodes. It might seem like a fatuous comment to make but Matt Smith gets to do some real acting for a change, the Doctor can’t hop about through time or set up the plot via a myriad of locations. He’s stuck in one place in a difficult situation and is forced to think through his actions and morality. It's such a refreshing change of pace and as a result it is one of Smith’s most impressive performances in the role; funny, thoughtful and dramatic. It's one of the rare occasions when Amy feels like the perfect companion for the Doctor as she gives his conscience a good rattling too. The episode playfully obeys the conventions of a western but puts a pleasing science fiction spin on most of them and almost uniquely in Doctor Who these days there is more intelligent dialogue than there is spectacle. Blissfully shot locations, a foot tapping Murray Gold score, drama, excitement and memorable performances from Browder and Scarborough; this is my favourite episode of the show since The God Complex last year: 9/10