I like a good western. And Toby Whithouse’s A Town Called Mercy is really rather brilliant. Genre episodes of Doctor Who work particularly well because, for a show that has to invent a whole new setting with each story, our common understanding and expectations provide a convenient peg on which to hang the actual narrative. Of course, they’ve got to match those expectations, and Mercy did so, both in saloon bar pastichery (with the Doctor growling his order for “tea – the strong stuff – leave the bag in”) and the fabulous use of the Spanish setting (the last story filmed in Spain rather wasting it). But where Mercy exceeded even my high my expectations was in its core story of doing the right thing, however difficult, even if it means standing alone; weaving the Doctor’s dilemma around his character development since three regenerations back, and addressing a controversial aspect of last week’s story.
The Universe’s Lawman
The Doctor’s murder of Solomon in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship was widely criticised; it stood out for being both somewhat out of character and chillingly deliberate. In Mercy, when the Doctor snaps and throws Jex out of town to his certain death, he is repeating that action. For the appalling acts he has committed, and to save the town, the Doctor is willing to send him to his certain death. The sequence is superbly structured and Matt Smith’s performance here is terrific. It recaptures the tendency the Doctor developed prior to his most recent regeneration to act as policeman to the Universe (and judge, jury and executioner), a tendency that was made explicit in Whithouse’s first script for the show School Reunion (“I used to have so much mercy…you get one warning”) and builds to a climax in The Waters of Mars. This re-emerges when Jex pricks guilt that the Time Lord carries for wiping out his own race (“thank the Gods my people weren’t relying on you to save them”). Guilt that was so evident prior to his the regeneration before that.
The act that passed without comment as a casual, nasty and brutal act of revenge in the last episode is fully explore in this one, provoking a radical swing in the Doctor’s moral compass. Amy wasn’t present as the Doctor despatched Solomon, but it’s her outrage (“when did we start letting people get executed – did I miss a memo?”) and Isaac’s dedication to the town’s benefactor that forces the change. It’s exciting to have such an unpredictable Doctor, thumbing back the hammer on his gun as he stares down the barrel of Amy’s.
My major criticism, though, is that in making the dilemma the centre of the story, and in challenging the Doctor as Marshall to face down a lynch mob and an unstoppable Cyborg, there’s a requirement that a price for doing the right thing is exacted at the end. Otherwise where is the dilemma?
It was seeing Jex go free, unpunished, that the Doctor found so hard; but Jex’s last act ensures the Doctor actually gets his way. It also rather begs the question: why Jex didn’t end things earlier if he was ultimately willing to sacrifice himself? It’s a somewhat tired, trite conclusion, too: redemption through selfless sacrifice has become such a Doctor Who cliché.
I suppose the Doctor choosing to do what’s right believing he will pay the price is morally equivalent to making the choice and actually doing so. But dramatically, it’s far less satisfying.
My favourite westerns build up atmosphere and tension slowly. While this 43′ episode was actually quite long on atmosphere, it would’ve been good to have a little more time for the dilemma to build up, and for confrontation to develop between the Doctor and the townsfolk. The consequences of Rory’s decision to hand Jex over for execution deserved some exploration, too. Five minutes more wouldn’t have hurt, but I’d have loved this to be a two-parter; I wonder if might have been if there hadn’t been a decision to make this series single episodes only?
I do, of course, have a few minor quibbles, and three questions about The Archers.
- What does the Doctor listen on? Does he have a time-space audualiser along with his other kit?
- What ever he listens on, couldn’t he listen to The Archers at any time?
- The Archers? Really?
I wasn’t the only one to notice “decimate half the planet”…
"Decimate half the population." They did that line deliberately. #drwho
…and after it had been used well in The Sound of Drums too. Presumably it should have been icoasmate the planet?
Enough of the nitpicks, though.
Great episode which ended too conveniently and far too soon. Not, I’m sure, that Moffat has any plans to hand over the reigns as show-runner for a while, but when he does, Toby Whithouse has to be the strongest contender to succeed him.
Edited to 9:20 add: I forgot to mention the music, which was lovely; I can’t wait the Series 7 soundtrack. Perhaps, hopefully, rather than waiting until next summer for a 2 disc set, the first disc might be released after the Christmas special…?
Also, another reason this episode needed a longer duration: we should have seen more of the Doctor riding Susan (three words I couldn’t have imagined typing before yesterday) across the Spanish plains…