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"Doctor Who" — "A Town Called Mercy": A Fistful of Time-Space

By C. Robert Dimitri | TV Reviews | September 17, 2012 | Comments ()


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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!"

"Marshall...ma'am...fella."

"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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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • bleujayone

    Okay folks sorry I'm late...here we go,

    1. I like the locations they used and it was kind of neat that the sets were used from many a spaghetti western. Very little has changed in that time. No other reason to mention other than it was a great use of film history.

    2. I really wish if nothing else, they had given a couple of smart-ass lines to Ben Browder as a way to reward him for killing him off so soon. I mean he's John Crichton/Cam Mitchell, I think it's a contract requirement that he have a quip that brings the house down.

    3. I think it would have been more humanizing if Gunslinger aka Tek had a moment of regret that he shot the Marshal down. Like he was so upset at killing an innocent that he sounded more like his original self for a moment. Instead he just sounded like an annoyed Terminator. Also I would have rather he had decided to become the town's protector not because he sought a new purpose but because he like his creator before him sough atonement for the killings he did. It would have made the story more full circle. That he didn't want to go home not because he had become a freak but because he felt he didn't deserve to for what he did.

    4. I would have liked them to have shown him as Mercy's protector not because the Doctor told him he was going to be, but because we just saw it on our own. The narrator could have said "And that's why even to this day the town of Mercy has never needed a police officer..." And then show the town in the present day having the bank robbed only to show them coming out to a wrecked getaway car and the robbers stunned and captured by a mysterious shadow that looked like a phantom cowboy.... making Tek into a weird western legend

    5. The Doctor has handled weapons in all his lives, he has killed people and he has killed people either directly or indirectly. So having the current Doctor do this isn't exactly covering new ground.

    6. I do find it ironic that the Doctor has already been accused of the same crime of turning people into weapons by Davros during the Tenth Doctor's era In his case it wasn't making them into literal weapons but rather giving them (his companions) the courage and ability to fight.

    7. The Doctor staring down the lynch mob was a slightly gentler way that he stared down a gun than the Seventh Doctor did in "The Happiness Patrol". Again it seemed like less new ground but just a new facade.

    8. I get the feeling from the season prequels and some of the hints in each episode thus far this year that the Doctor already has an inkling about the final fate of Amy and Rory. Its like he knows there's nothing he can do about it but he's just trying to enjoy their company while he can. In a way it's almost last season's theme in reverse.

    9. It all well and good that the Doctor went to Jex's ship and discovered the truth, but why after he already confronted the Gunslinger, did he not go to the TARDIS and go back into town that way? It's not like he was marched in at gunpoint.

    10. I'm wondering if someone ever called the Doctor out on some of the things he's done as he did with Jex, would he be so quick to acknowledge them. He seemed a bit of a hypocrite. And while we can accept our heroes to be flawed, I'm not hypocrisy looks good on any of them.

    11. Once again, no new ground. It was covered with Ten. The Doctor travels alone, he loses some of his humanity by not having anyone to worry about or be his conscience. Even so I'm not really sure Amy Pond is a great Jimminy Cricket. I think he defense of Jex would have been better had she seen him being the kind town healer in action. As far as she's concerned, he's the wormy guy who took her hostage, why would she defend him?

    Overall, another mixed bag. I liked the setting and the premise was interesting, but some of the execution was a little rough and rushed.

  • Morgan_LaFai

    I liked the first half of the episode, but I wanted so much more from the back half.

    I was really looking forward to having Browder back on a scifi show and this was how they use him. What a waste. I liked the comedic moments (Susan the horse and non-Americans with guns) but I found the Doctor waffling between vengeance and protection in under 5 minutes poorly handled. Snapping when his issues pertaining to war (and boy the Doctor does know how to do what needs to be done to stop a war) were triggered by the other doctor's actions worked for me. However, the Doctor being reigned in that quickly after snapping was very badly handled. That, and the aforementioned sad demise of Browder halfway through, really ruined the back half for me.
    And the resolutions did not turn the episode around. The good buy, turned bad guy, turned suicide did not have the emotional impact it should; and the bad guy, turned victim, turned back into the bad guy, finally ending up being the god guy and protector of the town he terrorized just didn't make any sort of sense. Even writing that sentence hurt my head.

  • Amy's speech helped remind me that the companions aren't annoying little play things but an emotional anchor for the doctor...A1Job.notlong.com

  • Morgan_LaFai

    Don't really get the A1Job.notlong.com part of your comment, but as to the rest, I understand what you are saying. On an intellectual level Amy's speech was great. It not only reminded me of the Doctor's need for an emotional compass, but reminded me of 10 (I think it was Tennant) when he said that he couldn't even see the beauty of the verse anymore without someone to show it off to. His companions are more then just an emotional guide, they are the lens through which he sees the verse. He has lived to long and done to much to be able to see the beauty on his own. He needs someone to appreciate it and to appreciate him; someone to fight for and to remind him why he is fighting in the first place.

    The problem I had with this episode is that I know this on an intellectual level, but I didn't feel it on an emotional level. Just making me aware is not the same as making me care. And that is where this episode failed.

    And for the record I like Smith, I do. And it's not like the Tennant or Eccleston years were perfect. Every season has its good and its bad *cough Daleks in Manhattan cough* and this episode started good an ended, well not bad, just meh. I want more from the Doctor then meh. But I do get the foreshadowing of the Ponds, so maybe after the season ends, I will look back on this episode and love it the way I do now with so many of Catherine Tate's episodes.

  • bbmcrae

    I think the point of the A1Job.notlong.com link is to remind us all that while the Doctor is immortal and faces many difficult adventures, we all can still make money from home like so many single moms. Am I wrong?

  • Fabius_Maximus

    Again, the episode's story felt rushed. It didn't take time to develop the plot, like they did in the last 6 seasons. The Doctor and companions are - Bang! - right in the middle of things, rush around, do inconsequential things, and then a solution presents itself out of the blue. That's just bad storytelling.

    An occasional roller-coaster ride is nice. But it gets old quickly.

  • Uriah_Creep

    The Doctor and companions are - Bang! - right in the middle of things,
    rush around, do inconsequential things, and then a solution presents
    itself out of the blue. That's just bad storytelling.

    Isn't that just typical Doctor Who storytelling? Since I started watching it at least (with Eccleston), that's been the very template for most of the episodes. I watch the show, and generally enjoy it, but I consider it the Deus Ex Machina-est show on TV.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    I don't think it's been as bad before as it is now. Asylum of the Daleks was fine. But the last two episodes were just silly. I didn't have the feeling that there was something at stake, because the episodes didn't leave time to really explore what the problem was. There wasn't anything to discover for the audience. I could have told you 10 minutes in that the other doctor was a war criminal. That particular story has been done to death by other shows. And they didn't even make it ambivalent, or explored the Doctor's feelings on that matter (despite the fact that there clearly was something there).

  • abell

    I don't know why you'd be in the comments if this bothered you, but, THPOILERTTTHHHHH

    I was really unhappy with this episode. The morality play seemed to miss the point at every opportunity. First, though it was presented this way, the alien doctor wasn't a war criminal. He operated on volunteers (apparently in the Star Wars Universe where cyborgs exist but anasthetic doesn't, and surgery leaves patients screaming on the table) and successfully ended the war. Why that matters piece by piece. His victims volunteered. True, they couldn't have known what they were signing up for, but, no one can when it comes to warfare. Suicide missions are not uncommon, nor are terribly painful deaths. Yes, the doctor did administer the horrors, but, it's really not cut and dried on how evil his actions were. Secondly, they won the war. If you care for the end justifies the means, or care for the calculus of lives saved per lives killed, this also needs to be considered. More importantly, they won the war. That means that the govt in power was his. It's unlikely they turned on their premiere scientists, and it becomes clear later in the episode that they haven't. The cyborg has not been given the authority to hunt down the men who ruined his life by a legal body, he's acting purely out of revenge. The cyborg is holding an entire town hostage because of a (very serious) personal grievance. That is not justice. That is not morality. And then, the solution is, the guy kills himself, so that the mean cyborg can move on with his life. Wouldn't it just be better if the people who offended you and drove you to kill them, just killed themselves first? Then, the cyborg who has murdered 6 people in cold blood will give up his killing ways and become a protector of society. Killing only leads to more killing unless you preemptively kill yourself.

    As for the Doctor, none of this seemed to come up. The alien doctor is not the actual reason for any of the Doctor's decisions. First, he wants to kill the guy, because, he feels insulted that the other guy accused him of being unable to do what was necessary to preserve his people. He wasn't motivated by a moral justification of any sort, he was just angry at the man. After that, he protects him, not because of any nonsense about his innate value as a living being, but, because the Marshall died protecting him and the Doctor honors that cause. Also, he doesn't really have an issue with a cyborg hunting down the scientist who wronged him, he just wants him to do it where no one else will get killed. So, the Doctor's 1200 year old moral system is fine with revenge killings?

    Finally, there's the entire thing of the guy trying to atone for his actions. Obviously, he can't. He can't un kill or torture everyone that he did. But, he can save a town from cholera. Just as the evil cannot be cancelled out by the good, the good cannot be cancelled out by the evil. The entire thing about facing the souls of those he's wronged is ridiculous. He's going to be facing them eventually, no matter what, he might as well spend as many years as he has left helping people. It's not a cop out to do good, just because you did something terrible in the past. Morality isn't about balancing good acts with bad. It's not a financial ledger where credits need to outweigh debits. They're both there forever, why shouldn't he spend the rest of his life doing good?

    I feel better now.

  • Lindsey With an "e"

    I often try to determine if my dissatisfaction with an episode is due to the work of Matt Smith(of whom I am not a fan), or if he was given poor material to work with by imagining how Tennant or Eccleston would have handled the same script. In this case, I don't think any of them had a prayer. Susan the Horse was just about the only salvageable element, and I usually don't go for horse gags. That horse was a saint too, Smith is no equestrian. Bouncebouncebouncebounce.

  • BWeaves

    While I think I enjoy the futuristic or outerspace episodes a bit better, it's nice to see the Doctor going back in time on Earth as was originally envisioned for the show. I haven't seen this episode yet, so I'll have to play catch up again next Saturday.

  • Three_nineteen

    I just don't feel any...menace coming from Matt Smith in those scenes. I didn't feel any tension when Eleven was holding the gun, not because it's Doctor Who and the show wouldn't let The Doctor kill anyone with a gun, but because it's Eleven and I just don't see it. Plus the Ponds seemed to have switched places in this episode. Isn't Rory the one who usually wants to preserve life and Amy the one who is willing to cross the line if need be?
    Also, a colossal waste of Ben Browder.

  • The cyborg was my favorite.

  • AngelenoEwok

    I liked Susan the horse the best.

  • Second place!

  • I didn't realize Pajiba had official mods so let me suck up and welcome you.

  • Boy, did you pick the wrong person.

  • Ted Zancha

    I really enjoyed this episode. While the tone shift was a little jarring, I loved it. The Horse comment and the toothpick scene while ordering a tea (with the bag still in) was hilarious. Both were a show of Smith's wonderful comedic skills. But to have it shift to the Doctor holding a gun ready to fire was rather shocking. Amy's speech helped remind me that the companions aren't annoying little play things but an emotional anchor for the doctor.

    I have just recently started watching the Tennant episodes (I know, Blasphemy). But up until recently I thought the Doctor was just like a kid ( a friend of mine calls him the cosmic 4 year old). Watching the Tennant episodes really helps inform this dark side to the Doctor. I too wonder if this will be the season of the Doctor's rage returning.

  • I don't think season 7 will take off until we lose the Ponds.

  • Snow

    Last episode: Doctor leaves man to his death, no consequences.
    This episode: NO DOCTOR DON'T KILL THE MAN BECAUSE IT'S EVIL
    oh, okay.

  • jollies

    Last episode: Doctor leaves evil man -- a man who killed for profit, while showing no remorse or attempts at repentance -- to his death.
    This episode: Doctor has moral quandry about killing man who had done evil acts, but who had dedicated his remaining life to atoning for those evil acts (albeit even if to assuage his own guilt).

  • It's the traditional difference between doing something and merely allowing it to happen. It doesn't quite make sense, rationally, but it is hardwired into our brains.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T...

  • jollies

    Also what Martin said ...

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