I wrote this in two concentrated bursts, heading to and from Glasgow on the train. Other than that, I’m not sure there’s much more to add. I hope it means something to folk that DWM is willing to publish critical (albeit, level-headed – I hope!) pieces about the programme.
This is from DWM #453.
The best bit in any Western is when the hero and the villain go for their guns. Whatever the complexity of their dispute, it comes down to who’s quickest on the draw. Bang-bang, you’re dead. But that’s not how it’s traditionally done in good ol’ Doctor Who, where morality and mortality have a less direct relationship. So when the Time Lord moseys on into Mercy (population: 81), he’s crossing a line.
Toby Whithouse’s script looks at what happens when a peacemaker turns lawgiver. While it asks some commendably ambitious questions about redemption and forgiveness, its aim is not quite true. In that case, The DWM Review is just gonna have to send it to Boot Hill…
Not really. Not even metaphorically, because A Town Called Mercy is by any standard a superb production. The Fort Bravo set in Spain provides the Doctor Who buck with its biggest possible bang, allowing the show to glory in a wide Wild West panorama. There are no cramped angles here, no four-foot-square backdrops having to stand in for a whole world. This is Doctor Who in The Big Country. Murray Gold’s music positively revels in all of that, as he turns in one of his most distinctive and successful scores yet, jaw-harp a-twanging and guitar a-sliding while some cowgirl performs a lonesome cantata. It looks great, it sounds great, but it’s not bullet-proof.
The crux of the matter – our hero advocating the death of war criminal Kahler-Jex – results in a dazzling scene, good enough to be spliced into the season trailer. “Today I honour the victims first,” says the Doctor. “The Master’s, the Daleks’. All the people who died because of my mercy.” Now that’s exciting, but I just don’t buy it. Not even a little bit. Granted, the Doctor of late has become increasingly vengeful. Up to the very last moment I expected him to give those invalid Daleks a stay of execution, and was genuinely surprised when he sentenced space trader Solomon to death. But at least we can reason the former was probably never in his power, while the latter was a decision made in extremis. In this story we’re not in the moment. The Gunslinger isn’t coming for the townsfolk right there and then, and indeed there’s plenty of time to march Kahler-Jex across Mercy, while the Doctor squabbles with Amy. This is not a snap-judgement. He’s thought about it, and he’s advocating capital punishment.
The Doctor is a character who, I don’t think, has ever condoned retribution. Sure, sometimes he might reprogram an enemy system to set petards to ‘hoist’, but he never ever uses death as a form of censure. And so, for me, the story would have had to work a lot harder, challenge the Time Lord far more rigorously, for him to come to this decision. I sense, somewhere along the way, Whithouse might have fretted about this too, and has Amy highlight the absurdity, as if calling out his own script before we can (he’s quick on the draw, this guy): “What’s happened to you Doctor? When did killing someone become an option?” Yeah, when?
The story’s preview in DWM 451 hints the production team were also cognisant of the challenges presented by this turn, asking for tweaks to the script even while filming. It indicates this transformative moment was never considered lightly. But perhaps the difficulty they were experiencing in making it fit the character is it doesn’t fit the character.
Whithouse’s now signature ‘the Doctor and his enemy discuss the story’ scene plays far more successfully with the moral ambiguities, as Kahler-Jex – a kind of alien Dr Mengele-turned-Dr Kildare – nails the difficulty of the situation: “It would be so much simpler if I was one thing.” That the character then goes on to kill himself in order to save the Earthlings is yet another confusing moral flip-flop. One that handily resolves the story, but is never convincingly presaged. At this point, it’s best to conclude that there’s a decidedly queer quality of mercy being peddled, particularly when the Terminator-like Gunslinger is then employed as some kind of town Marshal – a vacancy that only opened up because he’d shot the previous one. Sheesh! Is that redemption? Is what happened to Kahler-Jex redemption? I dunno.
I’ve gone hard on the muddled morality in this story, but that’s only because A Town Called Mercy puts it squarely in any reviewer’s sights. So here’s my final pot shot, and what I consider to be the tale’s ultimate irony. It’s this: The Eleventh Doctor is actually by the far the best incarnation to kit out with a hand gun, because he’s the one who looks silliest wielding it. Although he has a darkness and a gravitas that more than equals what his predecessors brought to the role, he also has a fantastic childlike quality which is uniquely his own. When he wants to be, Matt’s Time Lord is a kind of Frank Spencer, the actor playing with that notion of a kid in a grown-up’s body, bundling around the Wild West, loving the adventure of it all and making friends with a horse called Susan.
There’s a real innocence to this Doctor, far away from the character who we’ve seen contemplate enforcing a death penalty. Give him a gun, sure. But in his hands it should just be Cowboys and Indians.