"Doctor Who" — "A Town Called Mercy": A Fistful of Time-Space
I enter each episode of Doctor Who with what I would speculate is an unusually large amount of nervousness about its quality compared to other viewers. With decades of programming in its history, there are bound to be hits and misses, and this show certainly has its share of misses, made all the more painful by the heights achieved by the best episodes. Childhood nostalgia and love for those greatest episodes emotionally tie me to the show. Enjoying an episode causes me stress when I consider other Doctor Who fans that generally appreciate the show just as much as I but not might like that particular one. Basically, this show — so unlike everything else on television — is one in which I have a rooting interest. I want it to succeed, and I want all the viewers to enjoy it every week.
My apprehension amplifies when it seems there is a particular gimmick to the upcoming adventure. In the case of “A Town Called Mercy,” putting The Doctor back in that Stetson and hurling the most familiar western movie tropes at us seemed gimmicky enough. While this episode does not qualify as one of the greats, the good news is that it was certainly good enough for this week’s worries to be needless.
Toby Whithouse (“School Reunion,” “The Vampires of Venice,” “The God Complex”) penned this tale that finds The Doctor, Amy, and Rory stumbling into an 1870 Old West town with a problem. An alien cyborg that conjures images of the Terminator and Yul Brynner from Westworld is intent on killing the alien physician that has taken refuge inside the city limits and has provided reliable healthcare to the residents. It is up to The Doctor and the Ponds to help the physician escape from the cyborg and to protect the town’s residents from any collateral damage that the conflict causes.
The proceedings have some twists. The physician is not entirely what he seems. He is an escaped war criminal, and the cyborg - rendered as a product of unethical testing on residents of his home planet - was one of his experiments that helped win the war. The cyborg has its own special brand of justice to which it adheres in terms of avoiding killing innocents, but its top priority is killing the man responsible for turning it into the monster it became.
The most notable twist: The Doctor brandishes a firearm and comes dangerously close to using it in a moment of fury. Amy brings him to his senses, but the incident points out that The Doctor has become imbalanced in his lonely travels taken since officially leaving Amy and Rory behind. The Doctor’s temperament is less inclined to offer mercy to those that have committed the grievous wrongs that he has encountered throughout the universe far too many times over the years.
This development builds on his choice made at the conclusion of last week’s “Dinosaurs On A Spaceship” to let the antagonist die. Such an action - though it might still be deemed unlikable by Doctor Who fans - should seem less out of character now as presented. (I still believe, however, that “Dinosaurs On A Spaceship” as a self-contained adventure becomes tonally uneven with that dark choice juxtaposed with the adventure’s lightness.)
The way that “A Town Called Mercy” succeeds is in its philosophy. Acting as a morality play, we are confronted with tough questions and no easy answers about the concepts of justice, revenge, forgiveness, and redemption. The episode finds the high point of this exploration in a verbal showdown between The Doctor and the imprisoned physician. In the question of whether or not to turn over the physician to the cyborg, there is no pure evil or pure good here. Although the climax gives us the familiar high noon showdown of the genre, it does not settle these issues. One is left wondering how our past and present actions define us and what productivity (if any) is found in any given cycle of violence. These questions certainly are not revolutionary territory, but in the context of a kids show like Doctor Who and delivered through the performance of Matt Smith, they prove refreshing.
The episode offers a relatively clean solution to its moral grays in its fates for the physician and the cyborg. It also sidesteps keeping The Doctor away from actually pulling a trigger (in the most obvious way possible). The impact of the questions is not lessened, though. This episode has its moments of levity (see: Susan the horse), but thematically it is a little heavier than most. I thought about how I would have felt viewing this one through my childhood’s eyes. Perhaps the message would have gone partially over my head, but I do appreciate the effort. With its creative problems and mostly unexpected solutions, Doctor Who continues to succeed.
In terms of what’s on the horizon, we are left wondering if The Doctor is going to flip out soon and cross a line previously unseen. Perhaps Amy will again keep him from the brink as she did in this case. Next week we have “The Power Of Three,” and we only have two episodes to go in this brief run.
“Why would I be curious? It’s a mysterious space cowboy assassin. Curious? Of course I’m not curious.”
“I speak horse. He’s called Susan, and he wants you to respect his life choices.”
“Everyone who isn’t an American, drop your gun!”
“Frightened people…give me a Dalek anyday.”
“Justice doesn’t work like that. You don’t get to decide when and how your debt is paid!”
Classic Doctor Who Bonus:
Back in the day when my Doctor Who viewing consisted of Tom Baker and Peter Davison only, I constantly referenced a book celebrating the twentieth anniversary of Doctor Who. That book singled out William Hartnell’s “The Gunfighters” (1966) as one of the worst in the program’s history, and it would be a long while before I actually saw it, but that distinction always stuck with me. “The Gunfighters” does have its weaknesses, but I do not believe it is as horrible as the reputation it has accrued over the years.
Yes, the actors have suspect American accents. Yes, the song written specifically for the episode (“Last Chance Saloon”) receives far too much play in the scene transitions. Yes, it has questionable historical value in its retelling of the Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday O.K. Corral story. Still, it does have some entertainment value.
The Doctor, Dodo, and Steven wander into Tombstone, Arizona, at the fateful moment in history of the Earp and Clanton showdown. The Doctor has a toothache and ends up in the dental chair of Doc Holliday. A misunderstanding follows (purposefully exacerbated by Holliday himself) that leads the Clantons to believe that The Doctor is Doc Holliday. This places The Doctor and his companions in mortal danger throughout.
It has been so long since I watched Hartnell episodes that I do not recall if he was always this passive, but perhaps that should be counted as a flaw too. The episode functions as more of a historical retelling than it does as a chance for The Doctor to take an active role in solving any problems. He accidentally discharges a firearm (and disarms one of the Clantons in the process), but beyond that his primary actions are worrying about Dodo and Steven and offering unheeded advice to Wyatt and his comrades.
Highlights of “The Gunfighters” for me included a showdown between Dodo and Doc Holliday in which he lets her think she has the upper hand and a much more serious showdown between the villainous Johnny Ringo and an unfortunate bartender. Although I cannot recommend this episode as a superb example of Doctor Who, I did enjoy it for its time capsule value. The show certainly has changed in 46 years. After bad reception for “The Gunfighters,” the program stayed away from the direct historical references of famous events and people for many years.
C. Robert Dimitri will be the TARDIS’s huckleberry if the spaghetti western includes a plate of actual spaghetti.
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