A Town Called Mercy

Holistic Review: The first half makes great use of a Western setting to tell an original story, but it devolves into a bog-standard cliché Western riddled with infuriatingly inconsistent characterization.

Daleks, dinosaurs, and now Westerns, in the first three weeks. These three things would be toward the very bottom of my wish-list for a new Doctor Who episode, yet I'm pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the way the first two were handled. But this week, I'm sad to say, I enjoyed our Western tale about as much as I'd expected to: which is to say, not very. It all starts out well enough, though. The frontier town of Mercy serves as a colorful setting for an intriguing, and genre-appropriate, tale of alien war criminals and their single-minded cyborg executioner. The first half of the story, while not perfect, at least keeps the viewer guessing, as pieces of the puzzle gradually slot together and hidden motivations come to light. Unfortunately, everything comes to a grinding halt around 19 minutes in, when Jex finally admits the truth (in a long, exposition-laden scene) and all of the backstory is explained. From that point on, there's no plot left: just endless moralistic speechifying, and gunfighting action scenes. Which, in some ways, makes the latter half of A Town Called Mercy resemble season 7 of Buffy, except that I feel this comparison does Buffy season 7 a disservice. At one point, I actually yawned. YAWNED, people! I never yawn at Doctor Who. (Well, hardly ever.)

What's worse, the stultifying speechifying (I couldn't resist!) is compounded by the writing, which clearly favors plot over characterization. I actually find it difficult to believe that Toby Whithouse, executive producer of the often-stunning Being Human, wrote this. Events in the latter half of the story, rather than clarifying the first half or answering dangling questions, throw matters into greater confusion. The main characters, although vivid, are nearly all muddied by inconsistent motivations. They constantly make out-of-character decisions that serve the plot more than their own interests, and vacillate from moment to moment about what action they want or intend to take.

I honestly don't know who's the worst offender in this story, but let's start with Doctor Kahler-Jex. Adrian Scarborough portrays him very, very well... but he seems to be constricted by the need to play Jex as each scene dictates he should be perceived, rather than as he would actually behave. Thus, when we first meet Jex, as the alien doctor who improved the lives of the entire town, he comes across as very kind, modest to a fault, and even empathetic. When he hints at his unsavory past, his expression turns regretful, and as the Doctor later points out, his aiding the citizens of Mercy seems to be an attempt at atonement. But the very moment that we discover Jex is a mass murderer, Scarborough's performance turns cold and defiantly unrepentant, even needling the Doctor over his crippling level of morality. Even when he admits that he dwells on his past actions, he spits his words at the Doctor like venom, without a shred of remorse in his voice. Until, of course, the moment that Jex has to snarl "It would be so much simpler if I was just one thing, wouldn't it?" At that point, we need to be able to see Jex as the ruthless war scientist and as the caring family medic, and suddenly he is blessed with shades of grey, waxing poetic about Kahler death rituals, and his fear of confronting all the souls that he doomed, which finally makes him seem more like a real person again. Well, it's a little late now! If we'd been able to see Jex's regret all along, side-by-side with his conviction that he had nevertheless made the right choice, it would have added a lot more potency to the scenes of the Doctor's rage at his actions. But of course we couldn't have the Doctor threatening the life of a kind, semi-repentant man; waving a gun at anyone less than a hardened criminal would tarnish the Doctor's image. But I'll come back to the Doctor later.

So Jex's outward attitude flip-flops according to the dictates of the script; but what about his motivation?

The gunslinger, meanwhile, has motivations so inconsistent that they make my head ache. Let's go through it slowly, okay?

After all that, it seems almost minor by comparison to point out that, for a killing machine famed across its home planet, the gunslinger is extremely slow on the draw. Targets are constantly running through its sights, and it never even attempts to shoot any of them. Even leaving aside the town-rampage scene, it has tons of time to fire at Rory and Isaac through the rock, but it dawdles while the Doctor tapdances on Jex's ship, until it's finally distracted by the alarm. See above, re: random circumstance.

The Doctor, too, ping-pongs from protecting Jex to "He needs to die, and I think I might be the one to pull the trigger" to protecting him again, in an attempt to add some darker layers to his character. I commend attempts to take some risks with the Doctor, if for no other reason than that they give the incumbent actor some interesting challenges, but in this case, I think the arc suffers from the 50-minute curse. This is the kind of storyline that really needs to build over time in order to be believable. The one thing that almost makes me buy the Doctor's sudden disregard for his conscience is Amy's line "See, this is what happens when you travel alone for too long." Maybe it has been building over time, and we just haven't been privy to the gradual changes. After all, it's comparable to what happened to the tenth Doctor after Donna's loss, going all "Time Lord Victorious" on us and deciding to play God. However: while I can, at a stretch, go along with the idea that the Doctor is suddenly willing to let an alien war criminal be executed in the name of justice, I absolutely cannot believe that he would ever grab Walter's gun with the intention of committing the deed himself. Aside from the fact that it goes against his ethics, even if frontier justice absolutely has to be meted out, it's not his to give. Even worse, I really find it ludicrous that the Doctor and Amy would ever hold guns on each other! (What if one of them had gone off accidentally? Amy clearly didn't have the best control of hers, after all!) I think this is the collision of "we have to make this scene as tense as possible" and "we have to show Amy pulling the Doctor back from the deep end" but, while this scene would have been effective in, say, The X-Files, it's just not workable in Doctor Who. In my opinion.

Aside from that questionable scene, Amy and Rory might as well not have been in this story at all. What does either of them do? Rory's nothing but cyborg-bait, and going along with the Doctor's harebrained plans nearly gets him shot three or four times. (The Doctor's unbelievably cavalier about Rory's well-being, using the term "sleight of hand" as a euphemism for "risking your life".) Amy gets to have a heart-to-heart with Jex (to tease out his mysterious backstory) and a showdown with the Doctor, and she nearly winds up in Dodo's role, of getting kidnapped at gunpoint by a mild-mannered man with a dark side... but none of that impacts on the plot even slightly. What's also disturbing is that Amy and Rory aren't immune to the character inconsistencies that are plaguing the rest of the cast. Remember how, back in The Almost People, Rory was the one who was fighting for the gangers to be treated as equals, and Amy was coldly refusing to view them as people? It didn't make her likeable, but it was true to both their characters. Rory is the considerate caretaker, who's never been afraid to stand up to the Doctor for his convictions, and Amy is the judgmental jerk. However, A Town Called Mercy reverses their roles, as Rory decides that Jex should be thrown to the wolves, and only Amy speaks up in his defense to talk the Doctor out of it. I think there's still this perception that Amy is "the main companion" and Rory is "the hanger-on", and therefore Amy should get first dibs on any juicy plot developments, but in this case it again undermines Rory's character, and glorifies Amy's, in a way that doesn't seem true to either of them.

Even the townspeople as a whole leave me full of questions.

If we try to ignore the fluctuating characterization of practically every character in the story (...good luck...) and focus only on the plot, then as I mentioned above, it's fairly solid going for the first 19 minutes. Once there's no more plot to drive the story along, though, we're left with nothing but a back-and-forth as various characters face off against one another, try to kill one another, and/or debate whether Jex should be sacrificed to save the town. The first couple of scenes are tolerable; even though the arguments themselves are relatively trite ("he has to be punished", "we should find an alternative", "I can't decide if I'm going to kill you"), we haven't seen this particular situation before. But then we get a scene in which a lynch mob surrounds the courthouse, which is defended only by the Doctor and his friends, and the Doctor not only has a one-on-one showdown (with guns), but manages to talk the kid out of harming him by blurting out platitude after platitude. You know he's going to convince the mob to leave somehow, so the whole scene is just going through the motions. And then the gunslinger comes to town, and stalks around not killing anyone, and I've seen it all before and it's all just so boring. Cue stifled yawns. I'm all for invoking the classic Western tropes and images, but did it have to all be so on-the-nose? Even the ending, for me, felt predictable, because I'd been under the impression since the advance publicity that the gunslinger was the town's sheriff/guardian!

One would hope that at least the dialogue would be relatively entertaining, but A Town Called Mercy has relatively few genuinely great lines, relatively a lot of groan-worthy lines, and far more clichés than it ought. I'll cover the good and bad lines below, but let's just look at a few of the worst-offender clichés.

Having now ripped my way through this poor story, I'm going to try to salvage things by admitting that there were some things that I really liked about A Town Called Mercy. As a story concept, it's engaging. The Wild West is the perfect setting for a story about vigilante justice, and there are few criminals more horrific than an unethical wartime doctor who experiments on prisoners (or, in this case, duped volunteers!). The cyborg, although in some ways the villain of the story, is extremely sympathetic: it's fighting for the side of good, and trying to bring escaped criminals to justice, which is a theme that always reverberates strongly. And, at least initially, Jex — the other villain of the story — is shown in an even more sympathetic light, which opens up an interesting angle to be explored, of how reformed war criminals should be handled. Unfortunately, the episode doesn't really choose to follow that line of thinking. It gets lip service during the initial argument after Jex's true origins are discovered (Isaac's rebuttal is "No, he's the guy that saved the town from cholera, the guy that gave us heat and light.") but it never goes much deeper than "He's done terrible things!" / "But he's done good things too!" before veering off into a discussion of the Doctor's wavering moral state. So it's a bit of a missed opportunity, but the glimmerings of the idea are there.

Having improved on Invasion of the Dinosaurs' special effects last week, this week the series tackles the American accents of The Gunfighters. To their credit, the actors in A Town Called Mercy acquit themselves much better on their Southern accents than their counterparts from 1966. If Byrd Wilkins (the Preacher) isn't actually from the US South, I'll eat my hat. (Ha! According to the IMDb, he's from Louisburg, North Carolina... that's less than an hour northeast of my hometown. See? My hat remains intact.) He's a great find, totally believable in the part, although I wish he'd had a bigger role to play. The only accent that didn't quite convince me was the narrator (apparently uncredited), whose bookending scenes sounded a little bit too eager. One might perhaps use the word "overacted". Not that it was bad; it was just more "hyperactive" than "drawl". (A good example is the line "When I was a child, my favorite story was about a man who lived forever, but whose eyes were heavy with the weight of all he'd seen.") You sort of get the feeling that she thought "I've only got six lines; I'd better make a big impression with them!"

Sad to say, I was never a Farscape fan. I watched the pilot, but it failed to grab me, so I dropped the show from my schedule. These days, I kind of regret that, because I've heard so many good things about it, and about Ben Browder's performance. So it was a pleasant surprise to hear that he was going to make an appearance in Doctor Who. Believe it or not, I'd actually completely forgotten that he was appearing, and it didn't even hit me that he was Isaac until the closing credits rolled. I can't say that I was bowled over by his performance, but he nails Isaac's laid-back drawl and sheriff-appropriate moral center. And his accent is pretty faultless; no surprise, given that Wikipedia informs me he's from Tennessee. I only noticed one slip: on the line "What're you doin'?", he sounds like he's from Brooklyn! But that's probably my faulty ears rather than his tongue. And I really like his delivery of "Tell 'em about the cholera!" Most importantly: Isaac is the one major character with unwavering motivations.

Adrian Scarborough balances Jex's moral and immoral sides well. As "contrite Jex", he appears world-weary and honestly regretful, and his genuine concern for the townspeople is evident. As "self-righteous Jex", he's fiery and shows a backbone that his easygoing contrite self rarely exerted, and his slight jitteriness is replaced by a cool self-collectedness. Even when Jex is obfuscating his true emotions, Scarborough does a nice job of signalling them to us through the way Jex moves, or the look in his eyes. One of his best deliveries, although the line itself is rather trite, is "War is another world. You cannot apply the politics of peace to what I did, to what any of us did."

Sean Benedict (Dockery) looks really familiar, but apparently he's never been in Doctor Who, so I can't decide why I feel like I know him. On further reflection, I think maybe it's because he looks vaguely like American Idol season 2 runner-up Clay Aiken, but that's random. Dockery is kind of a thankless role — Benedict's main scenes require him to ineffectively threaten the Doctor with a gun, and then make a big joke of it at the end of the story — so I'd really like to see him in a different role at some point. Speaking of different roles, it's fun to see Garrick Hagon back as the undertaker (Abraham). I'd certainly never have guessed it was him! (He looks different when he's not oscillating rainbow colors, wearing spandex, and flying.) I actually did really enjoy the running gag (only twice: not overused!) of the undertaker measuring the Doctor for his coffin, particularly when he does it right after declaring his faith that the Doctor will save them! Joanne McQuinn (Sadie) was notable as one of the only female characters in the story, even though she barely gets anything to do, other than stick up for Jex once to the mob. (But what's she doing with the mob in the first place, if she disagrees with them?) Her saloon dress is great, though! Oh, and one of my favorite actors in the story is the uncredited woman who does the voice of the ship's computer! She's awesome. Absolutely perfect intonation. What's weird, though, is that we have two uncredited artists who have several lines in the episode, and one credited artist (Rob Cavazos, as Walter) who only has one line, during the mob scene. ("We thought Isaac was right to fight, but it's different now! We gotta say, all right, we lost, and give that thing what it wants.") Were the rest of Cavazos' lines cut?

Finally, the gunslinger, played with grit and a certain amount of sadness by Andrew Brooke. Once you learn the atrocities that were done to him, you can't help but look at the makeup job and wince inside. For example, the join around the eyepiece isn't perfect — the prosthetic below the eye appears to be bunching up — but then suddenly you think, oh man, that's Kahler-Tek's flesh puckering around the wound, and it makes your blood run cold. The tattoo-esque designs on all of the Kahler, by which the gunslinger recognizes them, are a cool idea; I like the idea of a facial marking that's as unique as a fingerprint.

Character issues aside, Matt Smith has some great scenes. My favorite, perhaps, is the moment when he springs his deductions on Isaac, making it clear that in a matter of minutes, and from a handful of clues, he's deduced one of the town's biggest secrets. Or, at least, one of Isaac's biggest secrets; nobody else in town seems to be very concerned about protecting Jex. He also gets some great moments of physical comedy, like the way he ducks back into the sheriff's office. He handles his toothpick really impressively, spinning it around with his mouth alone, and looking, on a couple of occasions, as though the Doctor is alarmingly close to stabbing himself in the gums with it! It takes an adept performer to look that unpracticed. Among his delightful deliveries: " 'Son'? Ha! You can stay!", "Yes, I suppose I am.", "He shoots people's hats?!" (an inane line, but well-delivered), "Ah! No! Yes! I see! Mmm.", his contemptuous grunt of frustration when the ship's computer claims no knowledge of the gunslinger, "It's all lies.", and his rage on "Sit down!" I've already mentioned the missed opportunity to have a deep discussion about reformed war criminals, and I think the episode also misses a potentially strong moment where the Doctor might have had to come to terms with the fact that, in some ways, he is also a war criminal. We've never looked at it that way — after all, he probably saved the entire universe — but in doing so, he apparently caused the genocide of two entire races. Jex observes that "Looking at you, Doctor, is like looking into a mirror, almost." but he never finds out that the Doctor does have "the nerve to do what needs to be done." And I think that could have been an interesting facet to explore, depending on how it was written.

I was sort of middle-of-the-road with Saul Metzstein's direction this week. It's unquestionably good, but the few "wow!" moments are balanced out by a couple of "huh?" moments. On the plus side: the out-of-focus shot of the cyborg aiming his gun-arm at Kahler-Mas; the cute shot of the TARDIS trio passing the injured hat back and forth (Amy doesn't even look at it, she just waves it around!); the images from the ship's screen reflected in the Doctor's eyes and on his face; and the mother and kids watching the TARDIS fade away in the foreground. Metzstein also benefits from some stunning desert-and-mountain scenery courtesy of Almería, Spain, which does look uncannily like the southwestern US. (Although, contrast with Utah's recent appearance!) But, there are also a couple of odd moments. As the cyborg is stepping over the town boundary, we cut to the Doctor with the bank clock in the background, and between the time the cyborg lifts its foot to the time it sets it down, eight seconds elapse. Talk about slow! The mock-showdown between the Doctor and Dockery at the very end is oddly-directed; you can't tell right away that the Doctor is playing along. Framed from the chest up and from the wrong side, so that we can't see him reaching for a nonexistent holster, he just looks confused and surprised.

A Town Called Mercy is blessed with some great sound effects, not least of which is Murray Gold's rather impressive score. It doesn't usually stand out, but it's perfectly suited to the story, especially when it features the guitar. The cyborg's sound effects are all spectacular, too: the powering-up whine of its gun-arm, the whirring of its gun at full power, and the zap when it disappears. Also, that ship's alarm, yowza... the sound-effects folks do "ear-splitting" very well. Love the way it echoes for miles!

Incidentally, I keep wanting to type the name of this story as A Town Without Mercy. Which maybe would be an appropriate title too, but I think it's probably due to the influence of the hilariously bad, predictable TV movie The Town Without Christmas, which my mother and I cackled at one year and mocked every year thereafter. Apparently my fingers have fonder memories of that film than I'd realized...

Minor points:

There are strong glimmers of potential, but ultimately, A Town Called Mercy is made up of interminable speechifying and action scenes built on a hole-riddled central concept. Unconvincing, and disappointing.

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