For the 2012 Season, Mr Moffat has promised us a mini-movie every week, but so far neither has really lived up to the billing. Not only because of the presence of the archetypal returning foe, in the shape of the Daleks, but also because of the shenanigans involving Jenna Louise Coleman, and the ongoing Rory/Amy soap opera, Asylum of the Daleks, good as it was, felt much more like the latest episode in a continuing saga. Dinosaurs on a Spaceship was much more self-contained, but it just felt too ordinary to earn the title of “mini-movie”. A Town Called Mercy might just qualify however.
It helps that we get to drop the Doctor and co into a fresh genre. Westerns have only been attempted rarely by the series, with the most notable version from 1966 carrying the reputation in some quarters as the worst Doctor Who story ever (this is probably unfair). Last year’s season-opener included some Western set-decoration but was concerned with other things entirely. This genuinely was a Western with all the swagger, morality-plays and suspense that implies.
The Doctor’s arrival in Mercy was especially pleasing and accurate. Whereas last week, Chris Chibnall’s script doled out achingly familiar icons one-by-one as if they were astonishing innovations, this week Toby Whithouse dashes off Western clichés in a flurry, but with a knowing wink, and with efficiency bordering on haste. You want a Western? Okay good, here’s the border town, swinging saloon doors, piano that stops playing as soon as strangers enter town, just like you asked for. Now let’s do something more interesting.
And more interesting it certainly was. Instead of a simple good-vs-evil, we get a satisfyingly complicated mix of self-interest, tribalism, ends, means and justifications. Jex is arguably a war criminal, even though his actions ended a war which would no doubt have cost further lives. The Gunslinger is arguably bringing justice, but in his single-minded pursuit of Jex and his colleagues, he is bringing more suffering, not ending it.
Now, none of this is especially innovative, and it maybe needed an extra twist in the final ten minutes, rather than having Jex simply solve everyone’s problems by obediently committing suicide at the first opportunity, but it’s refreshing to see Doctor Who attempting to tackle some of these issues, and the Old West setting and the Doctor’s uncharacteristic lapse into vengefulness I think means that the team pulled it off, assisted by lovely performances from Adrian Scarborough and especially Ben Browder – a neat bit of casting that made the character wrongly seem invulnerable, making it all the more shocking when the Gunslinger guns him down.
I do have niggles though. Very unusually, on Moffat’s watch, the rules aren’t especially clear. Will the Gunslinger risk collateral damage or not? The answer “sometimes” is rather unsatisfying. And the business with the town’s rocks-and-bits-of-wood border was very confusing. I initially assumed that the Gunslinger was incapable of crossing the barrier due to some bit of Kahler magic, rigged up at the same time as the lights and the heating. Yet, when the time comes, the Gunslinger simply marches over it, as if he and Jex had simply been playing a game up till then and the Gunslinger had now opted to change the rules. Oh, and Rory is rather poorly served. Remove him entirely and the plot is scarcely affected.
Hardly perfect then, but a huge improvement over last week and easily deserving of four stars, but it’s a bit frustrating, that especially after such a long wait, the script wasn’t given that final polish which it needed.
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