More than just a sci-fi Western, `A Town Called Mercy` asks some awkward questions of the Doctor.
An eloquent, thoughtful fusion of traditional Westerns with some moral quandaries, `A Town Called Mercy` works on a less energised level than the first two episodes. Toby Whithouse is no stranger to the very human dilemmas the Doctor faces here and as his own series Being Human shows, he isn’t afraid to pause the action and wise cracking for something else. In that respect- and despite the Doctor talking to a horse- this is a more adult orientated episode than either of its predecessors.
Yep, there sure are some spoilers if you go past here, pardner
For a lengthy period US television used the Western much the same way as it now uses police shows to examine the human condition. There is something satisfying about the scenario- the bleak location, the sand, the bristle of boots on wooden walkways, the anxious looks from windows- that inspire a focus. Toby Whithouse, whose `The God Complex` was one of the three standout episodes last season, inhabits the genre so well. All the imagery you expect is here from the hillbilly touches to the incidental music to the posturing, from the drama of the striking clock to the one man stand made by the Sheriff. Even if it was a pure historical, it’d be pretty good- director Saul Metzstein ensures it looks and moves perfectly.
The Doctor’s dilemma then is that Jex an alien scientist whose work creating cyborgs has caused a lot of suffering is wanted by the lone part cyborg gunslinger to pay for his past. Yet Jex has reinvented himself as a caring guardian of the town, helping them defeat an epidemic, given them basic electricity. Whithouse stirs the arguments about taking care not to favour one over the other. He has the Doctor drag Jex out to give him up to the cyborg- then has Amy challenge this decision. He gives Jex ample time to state his case in a scene that shows cracks in this Doctor’s hitherto litany of confident certainties. Another scene has the Doctor talk down the townspeople’s willingness to subsequently do what he wanted to do. It’s interesting because the Doctor is used to dealing with much larger scenarios yet here his universal code of right and wrong seems to hem him in. Perhaps when dealing with whole worlds it is easier to make decisions than when he can see the people he is supposedly defending.
One thing I have bemoaned generally in the Moffett `era` is a lack of distinctive supporting roles, characters we remember almost more than the Doctor in their stories. In Jex we have an example of the kind of character we need more of. Adrian Scarborough is adept at this kind of part; throughout the episode you are never quite sure what to make of him. Is Jex telling the truth or what he thinks people will want to hear? It is only near the end that we find out which. Yet even when he is accused he stands up to the Doctor’s hectoring, firing back some salvos of his own even though he doesn’t really know the Doctor. He has a golden script to work with but Scarborough delivers surely one of the best guest performances since the series returned in 2005.
It is in more vulnerable moments too that we can measure the Doctor. Any actor can do cocky and funny, bullish and triumphant. Sometimes there needs to be more light and shade in Matt Smith’s Doctor; the writers need to play against his natural exuberance because when they do this is the excellent result. The modern series does give us more of the Doctor’s emotions but this is quite new- the Doctor who doesn’t really know what to do. He lets people win arguments; he is unable to control Jexx though force of personality and this really fazes him. And it brings from Smith something more three dimensional, less showy yet more impressive.
So we get all we’ve had in the last two weeks- fiery visuals, chases, tension, classic iconography and some wisecracking, not to mention the Doctor talking to his horse, but we also get more. We are asked to think a little, to imagine what we might do. In stepping into an established genre, the series enriches itself rather than simply plays with the clichés.