DOCTOR WHO: Series 7 - A Town Called Mercy / Review (SPOILERS)

A Town Called Mercy
15th September 2012, 7.35pm 

The review contains plot spoilers.

Doctor Who and the western genre are not the easiest of companions. Donald Cotton's sorely underrated pastiche The Gunfighters, transmitted in April 1966 and featuring William Hartnell's first Doctor, was the last time that the series decided to take a swig of bourbon at the Last Chance Saloon. Then, the series was trading on the retelling of the O.K. Corral legend in the Hollywood westerns of John Ford (1946's My Darling Clementine and 1964's Cheyenne Autumn) and John Sturges (1957's The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral) and was certainly made with the historical significance of this Old West shootout in mind given the programme's then faltering remit to engage its young audience with history and science fiction. By virtue of Cotton's allegorical satire and musical parable, it also sat slightly at odds with the bold and colourful television westerns being produced in America such as The Big Valley (ABC, 1965-69), Bonanza (NBC, 1959-73), Gunsmoke (CBS, 1955-75) and The Virginian (NBC, 1962-71).

However, two years before The Gunfighters appeared in Doctor Who's third season, the genre was undergoing something of a transformation in the hands of director Sergio Leone. The major innovation that Leone brought to the western was to transform the black and white morality of the Old West depicted in Hollywood fare and replace it with an altogether more complicated set of values. The appearance of his protagonists also forsook the sanitised look of the Hollywood cowboy and, using his trademark shooting style of big close ups and panoramic long shots, he presented the criminal tendencies of the Old West in all their dusty, sweaty, grizzled glory.

His films, A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) were mainly shot in Almeria, Spain and were as romantically connected to its landscape as Ford's were to Colorado's Monument Valley where he filmed seven of his westerns. However, Leone's westerns, a synthesis of Hollywood conventions seen through a European perspective, were often criticised at the time for the aestheticising of violence within Leone's discourse of the civilising of the Old West and the democratic and technological conquest of the mythological frontier.

'a man who lived for ever, but whose eyes were heavy with the weight of all he'd seen' 
Toby Whithouse's A Town Called Mercy makes its own journey back to Leone's original locations and sets, using the Almeria and Tabernas based theme parks of Mini Hollywood and Texas Hollywood to stage the environs of Mercy itself and the surrounding desert to fulfill the series' blockbuster ambitions. The episode is beautifully shot. Director Saul Metzstein and director of photography Stephan Pehrsson go for golden browns and saturated blues in the palette for the exteriors, using landscape, blazing sun and skies to tell as much of the story in visual terms.

Murray Gold also gets an opportunity to broaden his musical palette and his score is one of the highlights of this episode. There are wonderful references to and pastiches of a number of film and television composers. You should be able to spot nods to the legendary Ennio Morricone compositions for Leone's films, the brassy Jerome Moross score for The Big Country (1958) and the classic Elmer Bernstein themes for The Magnificent Seven (1960) as well as the traditional bluegrass subtleties of David Schwartz's music for Deadwood (HBO, 2004-6) and Jeff Beal's superb scores for Carnivàle (HBO 2003-5). A far cry from Lynda Baron warbling 'The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon'.

The episode opens with a narration about 'a man who lived for ever, but whose eyes were heavy with the weight of all he'd seen. A man who fell from the stars.' This reflects the similar narration on Asylum of the Daleks, recounting the legend of the Doctor and his apparent death and resurrection.

As the episode unfolds this story clearly sets out the stall for Whithouse's examination of morality within the three figures of the Doctor, the war criminal Doctor Kahler-Jex and his creation, the cyborg cowboy Kahler-Tek (Andrew Brooke). The western genre is populated with such anti-hero outlaws, those 'psychologically disturbed or profoundly disillusioned protagonists who were estranged from or threatening to the larger society' watched over by the good sheriff who is forced 'to confront the reality of his own dehumanisation' in the face of unchecked violence or the hypocrisy of the people he is pledged to protect. (1)

The opening scene, set at night, however, does not locate the viewer in this world until the final close up on Kahler-Tek, the cyborg with a conscience, as he systematically hunts down those who created him. Metzstein keeps him at a distance, out of focus, and concentrates on the paraphernalia of science fiction with security drones and readouts festooning the screen, providing no clues as to where this story is set. Only the score and a shot of the stetson wearing cyborg suggest anything different. After the title sequence, Metzstein instantly establishes the location proper with a sweeping crane shot that frames the Doctor in front of the Almerian landscape and the town's frontier. After he reasons with Amy and Rory about disregarding 'keep out' signs, there is also a cut to a stunning panoramic wide shot of the town and the surrounding landscape.

If you've been paying attention, a clear correlation has emerged in all three episodes thus far between light and dark, not only in the way interiors and exteriors are presented in such dramatically contrasting ways but in subtler ways too. Here, we have the shadowy, dusty interiors of the marshall's office, the claustrophobic confines of Kahler-Jex's spaceship and the jail aligned with the brilliant sunlight of the desert landscape; in Asylum we shifted between the ice planet exteriors, the Dalek asylum and Oswin's Dalek confinement; and in Dinosaurs it was the contrast in the bright domestic scenes, the beach sequences and the darkness of the Silurian ship.

The Ponds are also tiring of their travels with the Doctor and at the end of this episode they decline his offer for further adventures. With this in mind, there are other symbolic instances of lightness/darkness, perhaps as a foreshadowing of what is about to happen to the Doctor, Amy and Rory. Each episode has featured flickering or malfunctioning light bulbs. Each episode's title sequence is getting darker. Compare Asylum's opening titles with this episode's and you'll see the vortex is closing down, becoming sickly green and darker by the week. Light is being extinguished and with it surely rests the fate of the Ponds and the Doctor's uncertain grasp on morality.

The Doctor observes 'that's not right' of the fizzing, flickering street lamp in the town square, the provision of electricity being ten years ahead of its time, but also perhaps a signal that this will be no easy encounter with the world and morals of the Old West. Also note the shot of the Doctor observing the fizzing lamp in the marshall's office which emphatically underlines this idea while at the same time providing him with clues as to who Kahler-Jex is. The Doctor also seems to be of the opinion that all his Christmases have come at once so far this series and it may well be a case of 'be careful what you wish for' as we hurtle towards the last of this year's five episodes.
'We call this town Mercy for a reason' 
Whithouse does put some of his characteristic humour into the tale and includes some sly winks to the cliches of the western. The Doctor's near choking on a tooth pick, his swaggering entrance through the saloon doors, Abraham the undertaker's eagerness to measure him up (played by Garrick Hagon, last seen as Ky in The Mutants in 1972), the townsfolk's eagerness to dump him outside the frontier and getting to know a horse called Susan are all lovely, funny touches. Although, what Carole Ann Ford will make of Susan as a talking horse is anyone's guess.

The town's dread of the alien is of course inherent in the fear of the cyborg-with-no-name who stalks Mercy attempting to track down the last of its targets. The Gunslinger, as he's known to Isaac, the town's marshall played by Farscape's Ben Browder sporting a magnificent 'tache, seeks a refugee alien doctor and has sealed off Mercy until he gets what he wants. In essence, this is the scenario of The Magnificent Seven and High Noon (1952) - an allegory about communities threatened by external forces, be they villages threatened by bandits or towns afraid to support their marshall in the stand against murderous foes.

The Doctor puts the clues together and unmasks Kahler-Jex, the survivor of a space ship crash and a member of 'one of the most ingenious races in the galaxy'. On the surface, he seems like a good man and helping those sick from cholera and providing the town with electric light are good enough reasons for Isaac to protect him from the Gunslinger. 'We call this town Mercy for a reason' offers Isaac and acts of redemption and the idea that America is the land of second chances are the nub of the episode's exploration of the morality of both Doctors.

The townsfolk are becoming uneasy and, like the occupants of Hadleyville opposing Gary Cooper's marshall in High Noon, they would rather Kahler be handed over to secure their future comfort. High Noon has been seen as an attack on opportunism, complacency and materialism and 'reverses the traditional Western ideal of reconciling heroic individualism with the larger social good' and this resonates with Kahler-Jex's misplaced aspirations. (2)

Isaac recounts that the war only ended five years ago and that its violence still lurks under the surface of everyday life. He sees handing over Kahler-Jex as a descent into chaos and lawlessness even though Kahler-Jex later intimates to Amy that 'all that was good in me' has been given to the Kahler, suggesting what remains may well be unpalatable opportunism and like the Doctor, one of the few survivors of the Time War, he can start again, 'remember myself' and 'help people'. It's a quietly intimate scene, where Kahler-Jex looks back on his life and realises that to end suffering was all he ever wanted to do even though Amy's enquiry if he is a father suggests that he is more of a parent to the very chaos that Isaac is protecting him from.

Adrian Scarborough is impressive as Kahler-Jex, initially generating great sympathy for the character and yet, later, leaving us far more conflicted about him when the truth is revealed and Kahler-Jex's help to the townsfolk is simply seen as self-appeasement. By the time he's goaded the Doctor into violence, Scarborough's performance ensures you really can't stand the bugger. The light and the dark of Kahler's actions are symbolised in that flickering light bulb just as the Doctor and the Gunslinger's silhouettes often block out the sun. Whithouse suggests that even the Doctor's search for moral validity may still be driven by guilt over the amount of blood on his own hands.

After a charming scene of the Doctor attempting a rodeo ride on what looks like Mork's spaceship from Mork and Mindy (ABC, 1978-82), the episode switches gears and Kahler-Jex's ship becomes the biggest and bitterest of pills to swallow when the Doctor learns of the man's experiments from his personal files. The horror of these experiments is appropriately left to the imagination with only a close up of the Doctor's eyes and the recorded screams giving us an intimation of the crimes witnessed, where 'things may have been uncovered' that Isaac, the Doctor and Amy might not be able to forgive.
'the communal rule of law displaces the individualistic code of the six-gun'
Whithouse leads us to the very contentious scene where the Doctor forces Kahler-Jex over the frontier and offers him as a target of the cyborg's gun and swift justice. The Doctor's anger is well conveyed by Matt Smith as he confronts the murdering alien scientist, his bellow of 'sit down!' to the so called 'war hero' probably the angriest we've ever seen his Doctor. The Doctor explains the nature of the cyborg to Isaac and in doing so differentiates between this killing machine and an aspect of the Moffat signature - the melding of humans and technology either as a force for good or as an accident of programming. This very neatly reflects the idea of the dehumanisation of the individual through violence and war.

We've seen this with the nano-genes in The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, the blindly obedient clockwork men of The Girl in the Fireplace and CAL preserved in the computer in Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead. Here, the machine-human hybrid is a weapon, created to end a war. The Doctor's anger is directed at Kahler-Jex's unorthodox search for an advantage in that conflict and yet he too could be considered the advantage that ended the Dalek and Time Lord confrontation. In a way the modern Western reflects this, with for example, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) proposing that eventually 'the communal rule of law displaces the individualistic code of the six-gun'. (3)

That code of the six-gun is a very potent and powerful visual symbol and Whithouse shows that even the Doctor will allow himself to be swayed by it. The image of the Doctor brandishing a gun, one that is such a vital symbol of both law and disorder in the Old West, is quite shocking. This takes us back to the notion that the Doctor's moral compass needs to be tempered by his companions and reflects equally memorable scenes in Dalek and The Runaway Bride where he is pulled back from the brink of further violence by Rose and Donna. Yet, this didn't happen in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship where the Doctor brooked no mercy at all for Solomon. Could this have been deliberate preparation for the issues that this and possibly future episodes raise?

Here, the dichotomy is clear. Either the Doctor becomes the Leone-Eastwood hero, who has 'no illusions to begin with' and no 'cause worthy of commitment other than looking out for oneself in a bleak, violent world' or he rejects it in favour of the redemptive power of mercy and forgiveness, preserving the frontier from the dehumanising effects of war, technology and monsters without recourse to violence. (4)

It's a choice the Doctor has faced on more than one occasion and this idea of a Doctor struggling to comprehend the bleakest and most violent of universes was partly the modus operandi of his sixth incarnation and is reiterated in this episode as his guilt associated with the victims of Kahler-Jex, the Master, the Daleks - 'all the people who died because of my mercy'.

As Kahler-Jex suggests to the Doctor, 'You cannot apply the politics of peace to what I did' and Whithouse presents various reactions to the scientist's past actions - Rory condemns him as a war criminal and Amy suggests they find another solution other than handing him over to his cyborg hunter. Pointedly, the Doctor is lost in a reverie when Amy rejects the idea of allowing Kahler-Jex to be executed and his moral bearings seem to have momentarily abandoned him. Perhaps, he is dealing with the memories of his own acts of violence, his inner conflict underlined by the appropriately chilling comment from Kahler-Jex that 'looking at you Doctor, is almost like looking into a mirror. Almost.'

The Doctor looks into himself and briefly wrestles with the accusation that he lacks 'the nerve to do what needs to be done', is unable to give in to the very impulse that Kahler-Jex celebrates. The Doctor is at breaking point, his conscience pricked by a final insult from Kahler-Jex that at least his own people didn't have to rely on the Doctor to save them. Amy is also clearly shocked that even Rory believes that the Doctor's actions are justified when he drags the man out into the street. 'We can't be like him. We have to be better than him', she later implores the Doctor.

He genuinely doesn't know if he can shoot Kahler-Jex, just as he genuinely didn't know if he could gun down Davros in Resurrection of the Daleks, and it is only Amy, like Rose and Donna before her, who reminds him that he has changed. She brandishes a gun on him and offers that maybe she too has changed just as he's been 'taking stupid lessons' since she last met him. Amy's actions, which eventually manage to sway the Doctor back to a sense of communal law, do offer some comedic relief as she inadvertently fires her gun and Isaac, mindful of her inexperience behind a six-shooter, requests, 'OK, everyone who isn't an American, drop your gun.' That quip holds more than a few grains of truth in it about a frontier society that matures with its gun culture still intact.
'face the souls of those I've wronged' 
Sadly, Isaac becomes another of those victims and dies saving Kahler-Jex from the cyborg's gun. This is the noble sacrifice motif that often crops up in the series and here the dying Isaac underlines the nature of the heroic within the context of this story by asking the Doctor to preserve Jex and the town because 'you're both good men... but you just forget it sometimes'. Metzstein captures this sacrifice in a glorious overhead shot, spiraling up in a very Sergio Leone manner, ending in the redemptive action of the Doctor assuming his marshall's status, pinning on his badge and facing the High Noon challenge from the cyborg.

That 'violence doesn't end violence' but merely 'extends it' suggests the Doctor has found some equanimity with his own nature by the time the townsfolk confront him and urge him to hand Kahler-Jex over to the cyborg. This affords a further scene with the scientist, where Whithouse pauses to explore again the man's nature and his mirroring of the Doctor. Just as the Doctor noted to Amy and Rory about the townsfolk, 'frightened people. Give me a Dalek anyday', Jex also rejects this as too simplistic an approach to the morality of the situation. 'It would be so much simpler if I was just one thing, wouldn't it? The mad scientist who made that killing machine or the physician who has dedicated his life to serving this town,' he argues.

Rather like the Davros the Doctor encountered in Genesis of the Daleks, Jex is both, he - ending a war through the modification of human victims and also bringing the benefits of his skills to the frontier town, Davros - the brilliant Kaled scientist who ensured the Kaled's survival but only as ideologically dominated machines of war.

However, despite the Doctor's accusations that he is assuaging his guilt, Jex counters that he only fears death because that is when he will be forced to shoulder his burden, when 'we all carry our prisons with us' to the grave. It's only when Kahler-Jex is sitting in his spaceship, counting down to its self-destruction, he redemptively accepts that he is as much a monster as the killing machine hunting him down and he must 'face the souls of those I've wronged.'

With the climax to the episode, Metzstein stages the obligatory face-off as an homage to High Noon, in typical gun fight style, between the Doctor and the Gunslinger cyborg. He uses some lovely deep-focus shots of the clock behind the Doctor and the quintessential image of the gun-fight, a shot between the Doctor's legs at his oncoming opponent, while intercutting to the townsfolk praying for their lives in the church. The ensuing chase around the town adds some much needed action to the proceedings after several lengthy scenes of exposition and it all concludes in the spectacular destruction of Kahler-Jex and his spaceship.

The strongest episode of this season so far, A Town Called Mercy offers a complex, thought-provoking treatise on the morality of war, the decivilising effects of violence and the burdens of responsibility that the Doctor must continue to wrestle with. It's often quite a powerful episode, particularly the sequence where the Doctor threatens to use a gun, using imagery that may be alienating in its directness but supportive of the message in the story, that violence is no means to an end.

Matt Smith and Adrian Scarborough are best served here, both giving performances that show their respective protagonists descending into the darkest moments of self-reflection. Although Amy is used very sparingly in this episode, she does have a key role to play in forcing the Doctor to consider his actions. Rory is presented as having a viewpoint fleetingly and then disappears into the background for most of this episode and doesn't get an awful lot to do. Ben Browder is effective as Isaac and certainly wouldn't have looked out of place in an episode of Deadwood.

Like the outlaw gunfighter who finds himself redundant as the Old West is over taken by the encroaching modernity of America's turn-of-the century expansion and industrialisation, the Gunslinger cyborg accepts his fate and offers to wander off into the desert to self-destruct. However, the Doctor sees him as the protector of the peace and, at the conclusion of the episode, we not only see the way the Old West becomes a source of nostalgic playfulness in the mock shoot out between the Doctor and Dockery (Sean Benedict) but also the way it is mythologised in the closing narration, where the Gunslinger becomes the ultimate marshall of a town called Mercy.

(1) John Lenihan, Wanted Dead or Alive - The American West in Popular Culture
(2) Ibid 
(3) Ibid
(4) Ibid

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6 Responses to “DOCTOR WHO: Series 7 - A Town Called Mercy / Review (SPOILERS)”
  1. David says:

    I was going to say after last week's episode review, if you're not enjoying reviewing this series (which you clearly haven't in the past, given your well-understood bail on series six), you're more than welcome to stop. However, this review is much more a return to form - probably because there is more "there" there to review. I'm glad I read your reviews (and occasionally go back to watch older stuff you review, if I can get my hands on it), because you pick up on a lot more that I miss. Unlike you, however, I found a lot of the humor in this episode - and in this series so far - pretty forced, generating more groans than laughs.

    Perhaps the key to this season - as with last - is to look for the non-Moffat episodes. And despite my gradual warming to her over series five, I'll be glad for Amy, Standard-Issue-Moffat-Woman-Mark-3, to be gone, although I will miss Rory. Not convinced from Asylum of the Daleks that the new companion will be better, though, or even any different.

  2. Well, I enjoyed this episode far more than 'Dinosaurs' because, as you say, there was more meat on its bones. My heart sinks with episodes like 'Dinosaurs' because like many episodes in 'Doctor Who' these days, it's just there and doesn't advance character or story arc in interesting enough ways. It looks good but it's an empty shell.

    I'll keep reviewing them, good or bad. And I always try and find the good in anything unless it ends up like 'Torchwood: Miracle Day'. :D

    I did bail on reviewing all of Series Six simply because of 'Let's Kill Hitler' and hung on in for 'Night Terrors' but sadly didn't review what I thought were two of the strongest episodes of the series we've had in ages - 'The Girl Who Waited' and 'The God Complex' both of which satisfyingly gave dimension to Moffat's standard issue woman and made his own scripts look like the repeat, recycle and repeat again exercises they've become.

    Oddly, Moffat's episodes are some of the weakest entries in the series considering he's been lauded so highly by fans. He spends an awful amount of time showing off and pays little attention to character and motivation. He can write excellent episodes but examples are getting thin on the ground these days.

    I am playing the 'wait and see'game with Clara/Oswin. Granted, 'Asylum' did not bode that well as she was coming over as Standard-Issue-Moffat-Woman-Mark-4.

    The humour was definitely forced in with a crowbar into 'Dinosaurs' but it was applied with a lighter touch in 'Mercy'. And 'Mercy' completely switched round about twenty minutes in to a darker tale about responsibility and morals.

  3. Hmm. This was one of those episodes where I liked what they were trying to do, but felt it never quite came alive. Mercy always felt like a stage set to me. There's no sense of place; there's no notion what the people in this town do (except for those who fill in the standard tropes of the Western, like Sheriff and Preacher), or where their food comes from (if it's from other towns, what do they sell back?), or how such religious people would react to an abomination coming from outer space. It never seemed real - and nor really did the Kahler (we don't even find out who they went to war with). So the moral discussions didn't have any weight.

    I'd also argue that there's no real resolution to any of the moral debates. Adrian Scarborough talks about his terrible guilt one minute, and the next he's castigating the Doctor for being weak and describing himself as a war hero. With a few more close ups and shouting it might have worked, but I didn't get a sense of who this guy was.

    And as for the Doc's descent - it didn't work for me either. Eccleston's similar descent in Dalek is crafted right the way through the episode and (arguably) feeds off the ones before. This felt like a temper-tantrum because Jex happened to hit a nerve, and because the writer wanted to make a "we must be better than them" point that's fairly facile.

    Ultimately, it felt very much like the Doctor wandering around in a Western as-seen-on-TV, with a few aphorisms thrown in. I didn't hate it; it's a diverting plot, it looks nice, and there's some good lines. Still, I did think it should have been so much better. It's such a strong concept that it could have been one of the best stories ever, and in the end it was merely OK.

  4. Mike,

    I think if this had a running time of 90 minutes rather than 45 minutes you could spend time world-building and fill in the areas you mention.

    The problem with the 'epic movie' format they're trying to squeeze 'Doctor Who' into means that any sense of world building goes out of the window. There isn't time to do it and there isn't the money (they had one horse between them, for heaven's sake). I agree that the situation is very thinly developed and we don't get to know about the townspeople at all but you can accuse many of the recent episodes of that problem.

    Background and character are often sidelined and that becomes a real problem when the format is hammered into a Michael Bay movie. See 'Dinosaurs on a Spaceship' for how that turns out. All I would say is that at least we get some characters in 'A Town Called Mercy' and though they may not get enough room to manoeuvre and their moral articulation is rough around the edges - they are characters!

    So agreed, there are problems with it. Whithouse clearly had problems convincing us with the Jex-Doctor parallels and I think what he achieved almost got us there. Again, I agree, the Doctor's descent into chaos is not threaded into these episodes in a coherent manner. I place the blame squarely with Moffat. He is Head Writer and he needs to get his hands dirty actually formatting the show and ensuring this stuff doesn't come out of the blue. However, he seems reluctant to get that involved.

    You compare it to Eccleston's first year. Well, whether it was a good thing or a bad thing, RTD rewrote everybody's scripts apart from Moffat's, often 100% rewrites, to get the tone and continuity right. He was clearly a workaholic who spent much of the first three years hammering the format into shape. I don't see that happening at the moment. It's all a bit laissez-faire.

    That said, I'd watch 'Mercy' over 'Dinosaurs' any day of the week even if it struggles to convince us of its world view.

  5. Yes, I'd tend to agree with most of that diagnosis. I think it's certainly better than Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, which I found terribly irritating. And I think the format is... difficult. One thing I like about it - apart from season-spanning story arcs taking a back seat - is that each episode feels like an event. When the season focuses on an arc, then so many of the individual stories feel like filler.

    However I would note that it's not all format. Stories like The Long Game, The Girl In The Fireplace, Tooth And Claw, Gridlock and Midnight manage to do some world- and character-building in a 45-minute space, to varying effect. But it needs a lot of writer ability, and as I write that I realise that all the things I just listed were written by RTD and Moff.

    ...which I think does firm up something else in my head. A Town Called Mercy feels like a first draft of a cracking story, but without it having been really worked over with the showrunner properly. I have no idea how much work Moffat puts in with his writers, but whereas RTD would almost certainly have worked and reworked that idea with Whithouse, you feel Moff just didn't hone it as he should.

  6. chas_m says:

    Hey lookit, the American accents are way better this time around! :)

    But seriously, thanks for such a thought-provoking episode. I didn't mind Dinosaurs at all (one silly runaround -- perhaps two -- per season is okay by me for variety's sake), but felt there was something more there with "Mercy," and you've put your finger on it nicely.

    As for Oswin/Clara I think perhaps there's a reason why she has a different name when we meet here -- she's likely to be a different character. But having said that, I think it's clear she'll be manic like Oswin was. Moffat has a set idea about women the way Terrance Dicks does, and if you don't like it you may have to wait for his era to end to get something different in that department! :)

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