Saturday, 15 September 2012

Television - Doctor Who 'A Town Called Mercy' review

Doctor Who A Town Called Mercy Karen Gillan Matt Smith Arthur Darvill

The problem with emulating Westerns is that the genre has such a distinct visual style and rhythm, extending deeper than stetsons and shoot-outs, that accommodating such peculiarities into the established aesthetic of a television programme or movie (I'm thinking Back To The Future Part III here) comes off as hollow. It won't have made a blind bit of difference for any of the children watching, but for any Western fans watching, 'A Town Called Mercy' shot well wide of its mark.

Another problem to which 'Mercy' fell victim is the temptation to deploy all the Western clich├ęs without giving them a fresh spin or purpose. The Doctor enters a bar which immediately falls silent; a man is protected in the local gaol; a go-for-your-guns standoff occurs between hero and black hat. All de rigeur for the genre, and imitations of it even moreso, but none were given the required twist to make them any more fresh than the countless times they've graced our screens before.
The only attempt to subvert genre expectations came through the moral quandary facing the Doctor when he realised the cyborg gunslinger, previously believed to be a psychotic killing machine, was in fact looking for justice against the Mengele-type Doctor being whom the townsfolk were protecting. The twist wasn't particularly surprising, with Dr Kahler Jex presented as too one dimensionally lovely to be anything other than a villain in disguise (his 'hints' at being the cyborg's creator were no better hidden), but was at least an attempt at telling a slightly different story within an altogether too familiar framework.

It might have worked had the plot not needed to overlook so many gaping holes in basic logic to make it work. The first, and most obvious, is why the gunslinger took so long to walk into town and find his target, as anyone waiting for an explanation why he took so long to cross the town's wooden boundary would have been asking themselves. A reluctance to harm civilians made no sense at all: he could easily have escorted Jax out in the desert and performed the execution there. (If he wanted to avoid alerting the townspeople, most of whom seemed happy to hand Jax over anyway, he could have performed the extraction at night). The second is why the Doctor never fulfilled his plan of using the TARDIS to rescue Jax once he'd decided that was what he was going to do. He was sidetracked the first time, but there was nothing to stop the plan working thereafter. Plus, was the ship damaged or wasn't it? As the Doctor noted, it seemed in perfect condition when he discovered it, so what made it crash? Small plot holes can be glossed over, but ones so blatant as those fatally undermine the story's integrity.

The Doctor was also acting somewhat out of character, and not just in the way the series has knowingly had him be more aggressive since the Ponds abandoned him as constant companions. While Jax's story paralleled the Doctor's own drastic solution to end the Time War, his angry shift from protector to executioner (particularly in abandoning his long-established dislike of firearms) happened far too quickly. Amy talking him back to his old self was a sweet moment, but mostly because Karen Gillan (whose talents were otherwise left standing on the sidelines with Arthur Darvill's Rory) sold it so perfectly. The scene felt like a holdover from a Tennant episode, emphasizing how little Smith's Doctor has been defined beyond the actor's performance. Smith has such an inherently odd demeanour that he's an easy sell as a thousand-year old alien. Tennant, though less naturally Doctor-ish, was a more versatile actor who could flip from carefree to vindictive with uncomfortable ease. For all Matt Smith's talent, he's hopeless at being intimidating, making his fury more ridiculous than shocking.

On the plus side, 'Mercy' continued this season's trend of Who looking better than ever. In particular, it was lovely to get an episode set almost entirely outdoors. Budgetary restraints have often forced the Doctor and companions through a rotation of spaceships and military bases, so planting him in the middle of a sun-seared desert town made a terrific change from the norm. It's a shame more effort wasn't put into suggesting the town existed in anything other than complete isolation (or finding supporting actors with more convincing American accents): establishing shots made Mercy look like exactly what it was, a set in the middle of nowhere, rather than an outpost on the edge of some far-away frontier. That's a minor nitpick, but it wouldn't have hurt to see a road, or something to give the impression that the town existed as part of a wider world than required by the plot of this particular episode. Nevertheless, whilst a tad stagey, 'Mercy' is the third Who episode in a row to have a very specific and distinct visual style, and all the stronger for it.

It was certainly fun to have Who in the old west for the first time since William Hartnell's 'The Gunfighters' (my Whovian experience, sadly, does not stretch so far back), making it even more of a shame the episode played so safe within the genre rather than trying to give it a proper Who makeover. 'Cyborg in the Old West' is no less of a high concept than a Dalek Asylum or Dinosaurs On A Spaceship, although in the latter case, writer Chris Chibnall gave his gimmick purpose through a strong story. The abundance of plot holes in Toby Whitehouse's plot suggested his narrative was built entirely around forcing his gimmick's ill-fitting pieces into place. 'Mercy' had its pleasures, and the 'Hollywood movie every week' ethos continues to produce a higher quality standalone episode than Who has had in the past, but felt too emprisoned by its genre trappings to unleash the subversive spirit which fuels the series at its best.

ADDENDUM: And another thing - why on earth wasn't this episode called 'A Fistful Of Doctors'? Just a thought.

1 comment:

Silent Hunter said...

I quite liked Kahler-Jex's character portrayal.

This was good, but not a classic. "Asylum" was better.