TV I’m angry. I’m actually angry. I had to take a breath and make a cup of coffee before I began typing because my gesticulations were becoming so pronounced it would have become impossible to use this keyboard. I’ve even visited Gallifrey Base and therapeutically awarded it 1/10 to A Town Called Mercy in the weekly poll amid all the 8s., 9s and 10s listed in the thread below even though for reasons we’ll get to it deserves a few more points at least. I’ve been trying to remember quite when a Doctor Who story on television has made me react this way (as opposed to Torchwood which was pretty much every week). Glancing through this episode list it might be as far back as Planet of the Ood, but that was mostly the peavishness of pointlessly having been preached to. You know, it’s probably New Earth. Oh sod it.
THE DOCTOR DOES NOT USE GUNS. He doesn’t. He just doesn’t. Well ok, if we’re being picky, in newer series terms there is the wurling dervish moment at The End of Time, the bubble burst in The Time of Angels and when he holds a revolver to Cobb’s head in The Doctor’s Daughter but the first two are for benign reasons and in the latter he has just witnessed the apparent death of his instant daughter (just add genes) and pretty swiftly says, “I never would” making the moral point in the face of Cobb’s murderous nature, because at least at that point he never would. But he does not point a gun at a man because he’s not doing what he wants him to do the way he wants him to do it. It breaks the character. As I alluded to last week, he might as well strap the next nonce whose not talking to a chair and fetch a towel. Or an axe. Or whatever else is to hand.
Except as that paragraph and a few last week indicate there are always qualifications to that point. Counter arguments. Toby Whithouse’s script is a clear homage to the westerns of Sergio Leone especially Once Upon A Time In The West, where everyone is morally ambiguous even the apparently benevolent cowboys. Over forty-five minutes he’s telling the kinds of story which are the stock in trade of later westerns, in which the once good man finds his white hat becoming greyer with age having seen too many of his allies die and the Doctor’s lived through hundreds of years of that and we’re supposed to see how it takes its toll. Within the structure of the episode, we’re supposed to see him learn that there is another way with Amy as the voice of reason.
Indeed that conversation, and this whole episode, has similarities to the closing moments of Dalek, in which the Ninth Doctor, brandishing a massive laser, is ready to explodify the apparently single surviving example of his arch enemy, only for Rose to talk him round and remind him who he is, the pepperpot self-destructing rather than face up to its nature of being. Similarly, the Doctor’s process of later deciding whether indeed he should lead this other alien Doctor to his death mirrors similar ruminations in that season’s Boom Town over Blon Fel-Fotch Passameer-Day Slitheen's impending return to face certain death back home. Like Annette Badland then, Adrian Scarborough now offers a study of charismatic evil, Whithouse’s script providing him with enough dimension that we might reconsider their fate.
Plus, if we’re adding in the murder of Solomon last week, we’re clearly now supposed to see that the Doctor’s gone off the rails a bit from travelling alone, lost his moral compass. This too has happened before. The Waters of Mars is about much the same thing, even if then he is using his powers for good even if they broke the laws of time. The whole of the "first" season is about the Doctor getting over the time war, about Rose dragging him back towards the figure that we know and are supposed to love so that he can distinguish between, in The Christmas Invasion, giving the Sycorax captain no second chances but looking grimly on Harriet Jones cold bloodedly destroying the rest of his ship. In this new series, it’s the Doctor who’s looking a bit tired.
All of which is fine. Except, and I’m going to say this again in block capitals, THE DOCTOR DOES NOT USE GUNS. There’s a reason when faced with a similar stage direction when making, I think, The Face of Evil Tom suggested he should threaten them with a deadly jelly baby instead and the myriad other occasions when a rogue writer and an overworked script editor let such things slip through. It’s the silhouette. It’s about what it says to kids. Guns are cool. Look, the Doctor’s holding a gun. Look he’s pointing it at that man’s head because he’s not doing what he wants him to do the way he wants him to do it. Or put it another way, disregarding the Stockbridge moment in the comics, imagine another of the Doctors doing the same thing. Go on, imagine Pat or Jon or Tom pointing a revolver at another man.
It doesn't work, unless there's an instance I'm forgetting. That’s why UNIT existed in the 60s & 70s. A whole military unit injected into the series to put the Doctor’s benevolence in sharp relief even if that barely extended to admonishing the Brig for his methods when he’s quite clearly saved the Doctor a regeneration. It’s why Jon spent five years practicing Venusian aikido. It’s what makes the Doctor different. It’s what makes this show special and it especially doesn’t help tonight that Amy’s reaction is to point a gun at the Doctor. This is what happens in other shows. It’s what happens in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles or Torchwood. To an extent it’s why Torchwood exists too, because amongst other things Russell T Davies also decided straight gunplay has no place in a family show. That it’s better than that. Which it is. Usually.
Toby, Steven and everyone else who signed off on this probably assume that it’s earned when the Doctor draws his sonic screwdriver later, that they’re showing kids that guns are bad and the Doctor is different, that there is another way. But putting a gun in his hand in the first place, no matter what horrors he’s witnessed in the pod, however many people he’s watched his foes kill previously, this being the proverbial straw, saps the magic from the show. The effect is similar to watching The West Wing after Aaron Sorkin walked away. They’re the same actors, their characters have the same names but they’re not the Leo, Toby or CJ we know, they’re doing it wrong. In other words, the Doctor and Amy brandishing guns in this way is Who’s equivalent of Josh shouting at a building.
Bizarrely, Whithouse himself knows that it’s wrong. He says so in this SFX interview. Journalist Richard Edwards asks him, “The Doctor ends up in a Sheriff-type role in the episode. Sheriffs usually carry a gun, but the Doctor doesn’t like firearms. Is that something you address?” Toby answers. “That was the sequence that took the longest time to get right. The sequence where the Doctor is kind of forced to use a gun, giving the right sort of emotional journey to that took a lot of finessing, and that was the scene that, from draft to draft, would change the most regularly because the Doctor is a confirmed pacifist and so putting him in that situation is a wonderful opportunity in that it forces you to confront it, and provides you with enormous tension and drama which, as a writer, is what you want.”
Surely the fact that it took so long to get right (even if arguably in the end it isn’t) is because he was right to be fighting his natural impulses. Doctor Who’s a wonderful franchise, which offers all kinds of possibilities and one of the reasons it’s a wonderful franchise is because of the (admittedly anti-egalitarian pacifism) of its central character. Indeed he could have even written around it and had another of the townspeople doing much the same action and having the Doctor in Amy’s position of talking them down, albeit with less metal in his hand. Indeed much that same scene is included later, which feels oddly hollow. At least he didn’t have Rory, A NURSE, do it even if he had him agree with the methodology to HIS WIFE.
To an extent Whithouse and Moffat (who proposed the idea) have fallen foul of Doctor Who’s strange curse that for all its apparent flexibility it doesn’t mix with some genres unless the writer’s being especially careful. Voyage of the Damned is a potential example in relation to disaster films which abhore the single protagonist. As The Gunfighters demonstrates, westerns are a problem, because of all the GUNS. Back to the Future Part III got away with it because wasn’t established the time travellers have these kinds of standards. At some point in a western the hero has to brandish a gun, it’s a semantic fundamental of the genre along with the hats, but as Joss Whedon realised after making his Firefly pilot, you can’t have cherishable approach to the life of antagonists in a western, syntactically the genre won’t let you.
With all of that in mind, is it possible to find any positives? What elevates A Town Called Mercy from a 1/10 to a 2/10 or even a 3? There’s no escaping the poetry of the visuals. Director Saul Metzstein aided by his camera operator Joe Russell and the various assistant directors really go to town in evoking Leone, Ford and Huston, with Time Lord on horseback against the impossibly desolate landscape aided immeasurably by filming in the very places some of those old films were also photographed. Or the beauty of the music, the temp track no doubt filled with specks of both Firefly and Morricone, the melody in places directly referencing Once Upon A Time In The West. Like the more successful genre fusion, The Unicorn and the Wasp, if there’s one section of the ensuing soundtrack which’ll be entirely recognisable without a track listing it’ll be this.
Plus there’s no denying the acting strength at play too amongst the small speaking cast. After his work in Farscape and Stargate, Ben Bowder’s sheriff offers a remarkably unshowy performance hidden beneath his moustache, albeit with a certain Fillionesque guile in the action sequences. Karen and Arthur are fine too, even if they’re not given much to do narratively overall, another of the script’s weaknesses. Arthur in particular is poorly served, mainly left to run around and react a lot in a way which hasn’t really been the case since the first series. Matt also does some excellent work with the script and shadows he’s given to wander through paradoxically illuminating the Doctor’s emotional journey as he returns to his personal fundamentals, into the light and is reminded of what makes him the Doctor, that THE DOCTOR DOES NOT USE GUNS.
Sorry, we’ll get back to that in the moment I promise. Otherwise, another weakness of the piece is the dullness of the cyborg. The core of the character seems to be The Man With No Name, or more specifically the aged, life worn version from Unforgiven. But in the days before he was nattering with an empty chair, even when Clint Eastwood’s granite like face seemed to have emerged from the outcrops within the landscape he had an infinite amount of charisma, he was no simple Terminator. Whithouse's decided that his Kahler-Mas needs to be a near emotionless killing machine, which again doesn’t feel very Doctor Who, despite the moments when he considers his disenfranchisement from society. Though that’s perhaps preferable to last week’s comedy robots who, as has since been pointed out to me in the meantime by a friend, are supposed be funny even though they're the tools of Solomon’s genocide of the Silurians.
Wow, nearly two thousand words in two hours. Imagine if I ploughed this industry into something that matters. But perhaps this does matter. It’s about what we’re teaching our kids and what we as kids originally grokked about the series. On the one hand, I remember watching westerns as a child then playing cowboys and Indians in the back yard, plastic guns everywhere. Later it was Star Trek and phasers. Later still it was Transformers and transforming. But eventually it was back to Doctor Who because, amongst other things, of the ingenuity of the main character. Originally, all that was required for the Doctor to become a better person was Ian giving him a suspicious look when he brandished a rock to knock the brains out of a caveman because he's impeding their return to the TARDIS.
After that he's was a benevolent alien we could all love, ruminating on his rights, but now, according to this production team, that’s a lesson he has to learn again, again, and again, that he needs to reminded that he’s better than the Daleks, the Cyberman and the Master by whichever mono-heartbeater happens to be in the vicinity. That makes him a little bit dangerous perhaps, more alien, but I could never get along with the Sixth and Seventh Doctor much on television for similar reasons and it’ll be disappointing if that’s the route Moffat et al are going now, especially if like the latter it’s never really explained how he got from going out of his way to give some kids their best Christmas ever to what we witnessed these past few weeks. This can’t be “just because” can it? There has to be a reason for all this. What have we missed when we weren't looking? He hasn’t blown up Gallifrey again has he?