Monday, May 20, 2013

"A Town Called Mercy"

"That's traffic control!"
It's time. I've delayed reviewing this episode and the rest of New Who Series 7 for ages because, let's face it, it was pretty mediocre all in all - not as offensive as Series 6 or RTD Who but overall just kind of forgettable - but there's serious criticism to be made so it's time for us to return to the world of rubbishy overrated modern geek TV. I'm told that Gatiss and Moffat advised Whithouse to not watch Hartnell serial "The Gunfighters" before this one, because it apparently sucks and isn't really worth remembering, but I still find the admission of this fact to be a fleck of spittle in the face of the Classic Series. Regardless, this is as far as I'm aware the second ever Western in Doctor Who after said First Doctor adventure so it's refreshing to see them using something other than the modern show's direly overused staples like the Second World War or Victorian Britain.
Aftermath of the first read-through.
Anyway they show begins, much like "Asylum of the Daleks", with a clumsy voiceover by some complete non-entity referring to past events. Things get a little more interesting when we're immediately introduced to a murderous cyborg who can't help but look like Kryten from Red Dwarf in a crossover of his Sheriff and Jake Bullet alter-egos. He's hunting down "the Doctor". Wuh-oh! So roll titles and the Doctor, Amy and Rory show up at a relatively decent looking Wild West town right out of the cover of some motel room paperback. It's nice that for this episode we don't need any forced introduction to Mr and Mrs Pond-Williams with the Doctor picking them up or visiting them for the billionth time, they're just there, thank God. As a change of pace from Murray Gold's usual hyperactive brass band we also get some stereotypical Old West 'boing-boing-boing' banjo to help things along. At least the anachronism of the lights is actually part of the plot rather than a production error.
"Toby, this is shit."
After some mediocre dialogue from the Doctor and chums we get our textbook Western saloon scene. I get that they probably wanted to homage classic Western tropes but it's pretty run-of-the-mill stuff, just like the undertaker bit – I really hope there weren't people who couldn't see that one coming. They all seem very accepting of the fact that the Doctor is an extraterrestrial – even if he's not the one they were looking for, using modern jargon like "alien", and the Doctor gets thrown out of town so we can watch while Kryten teleports very, very slowly forwards in unnecessarily truncated steps. So if they knew the Gunslinger wanted them to hand over an alien doctor who was already in town, why are they chucking out the Doctor, who just arrived? Anyway, Ben Browder who was apparently in Stargate or something shows up to save the day. He looks extremely old and dilapidated and has tiny eyes. Not sure which parts of that are his character and which are just his general sense of exhaustion. The whole scene is pretty pointless, and it begs the question: why doesn't the Gunslinger just teleport into town and have a look around? Also I know it's after the Civil War, but a black preacher in the old West? Uh huh.
"I can stick it up there if you want."
So it turns out Isaac aka Ben Browder is protecting Kahler-Jex, a classic lazily-designed alien who looks like a human with an unsightly facial tattoo. He's brought technological advances to the town, what a hero. He may have an ugly past, but apparently "America's the land of second chances", although the Civil War only ended "five years' back." This was a missed opportunity, I think, to show how utterly inconsistent the 'second chances' bit can be in notionally free societies, and I think the after-effects of the Civil War could have received a little more attention. Jex reveals that the Gunslinger can't or won't harm innocents, which makes why he hasn't just popped in and grabbed Jex even more perplexing – they can't harm or obstruct him and he poses no danger to them.
"Do you have one in purple? I need it to match
my v-neck shirts."
Rory and Isaac go to create a distraction for the Gunslinger while the Doctor retrieves the TARDIS, nabbing the Preacher's horse, which is apparently a transgender horse that wants its life choices respected. I know this is a joke but bloody hell this stuff gets tiresome after a while. I don't want the show to not be accepting and pro-LGBTXYZ issues or whatever but they're always used for comedy in a way that comes across as patronising and vaguely discriminatory in its own way. The Doctor gets distracted, however, by Jex's ship, which is a giant suppository lying in the dust. The Gunslinger is apparently so primitive that it gets confused about who it's chasing simply because Isaac is wearing Jex's clothes – why would he identify Jex with them – and in the meantime Jex and Amy have a dreadful conversation about why he wants to stay. He can identify Amy as a mother by the "kindness", "sadness" and "ferocity" in her eyes. Yep, that's definitely how you identify someone's maternal qualities! The writing for this show is so cringe-inducingly pretentious sometimes.
"Hell, if that's got to make sense I don't
want to be sober!"
So the Doctor discovers from Jex's giant flying egg that he was a bad guy who did what Igon Spengler would described as "unnecessary surgery" to win a war on his home planet. The Gunslinger was one of his experiments, and wants revenge, but he hasn't got it yet because "people would get in the way". He can teleport! What was Whithouse thinking when he wrote this plot? In this spirit he immediately discards this apparent reluctance towards colateral damage and insists that he'll kill the next person to leave town. Why is he dressed like a cowboy, incidentally? He obviously doesn't care about disguising his huge futuristic laser cannon arm or classic bionic eye. Maybe he and Jex come from a Wild West themed planet and Jex just happened to hide in the Old West as well.
"This is an interesting setting.
Better blow it up!"
So back in town the Doctor flips his lid at Jex, who's started heavy-handedly lampshading what a terrible moral conundrum it is that he could be both a former war criminal and a reformed altruist and how he and the Doctor are so alike. It's unbelievably unsubtle and completely spoils the message of the episode. There's some other iffy dialogue as well, like Jex saying that the war he ended "decimated half of our planet." So it killed one twentieth of the people? I know, I'm being pedantic. It's awful that this classic atom bomb dilemma – a superweapon that ends war at the cost of innocent lives – is explored with a broadsword rather than a scalpel and is all the more disappointing for how rare it is as a theme for one of these stories.
"Ooh yeah, you'd like some moral
discourse wouldn't you?"
Jex for some idiotic reason thinks that trolling the Doctor about being a hypocrite is a good idea for staying alive and spells out the situation by associating him with the same "rage", "guilt" and "solitude". It's like amateur hour at the poetry club. This all goes tits-up when the Doctor drags him to the edge of town and pulls a gun on him, claiming "I genuinely don't know" about whether he'd shoot. We're meant to think "Uh oh, serious shit is going down!" but it's so unbelievably tactless that it's completely farcical. Why has this particular guy managed to rustle the Doctor's jimmies so hard?
The ice cream van! It's getting away!
What follows is a confrontation between Amy and the Doctor which is the only meaningul role for her in the episode – Rory has none, being underwritten as usual – and she accuses the Doctor fairly of "taking stupid lessons", wondering when killing people became an option. It feels like the voice of the exasperated viewer because the story has become so totally derailed. The Doctor has some big rant about honouring the victims first, we get an inexplicable name drop for the Master whom Amy's never met and so whose name could not possibly bear any significance, and Amy complains that they have to be better than Jex. Aren't they both kind of missing the point? Jex's crimes are in the past, and didn't effect the Doctor personally, so why is he in any way responsible for judging them? Similarly, being 'better' than Jex isn't really the issue; it's more about how to resolve the present crisis. I'm not sure, to be honest, but it feels like the matter of debate is wobbling all over the place and relying on clich├ęs to pad itself out.
"Just gotta shake this heartburn! Go on without me!"
In an effort to save Jex from Kahler-Tek, the Gunslinger, Isaac gets himself shot and killed: so much for Ben Browder's guest spot, then, and as he dies we get New Who's horrible warbling female solo voice. This could have been the end of the episode, and the cyborg out of guilt self-destructs for taking an innocent life or something, but no, we're only a little over halfway through. Ouch. The Gunslinger makes yet another threat, rather than just taking another shot. The characterisation for this character is totally inconsistent, unless he's just meant to be very indecisive and wracked with guilt, deliberately making empty threats to stave off his own emotional quandary, but it's not too clear.
"Sorry, what was that?"
I'm struck once again by how pointless and underused Rory is in this. The townsfolk come along at night to confront the Doctor but after a bit of a chat they all just piss off. The Doctor's done a complete turn around, arguing that violence only extends violence, exploring issues with a chainsaw, and now we need a convenient solution to the episode, so it's time for some faffing around until the Doctor can think up a good idea. What's with the bit where the undertaker gives the Doctor coffee? I was expecting it to be poisoned or something; it's a complete waste of time, and doesn't serve to make the townsfolk the Doctor is trying to protect any less anonymous or underdeveloped.
"We've forgotten the crackers!!!"
"It'd be so much simpler if I was just one thing, wouldn't it?" Jex asks the Doctor, Whithouse writing with all the subtlety of a mallet to the face. The Doctor retorts that he doesn't get to decide when and how his debt is payed: who does? The Doctor avoids veering into Tennant-esque "I am ze Ubermensch!" territory here but the problem is that the episode poses this question as a dilemma and in its reluctance to answer it instead of exploring the issue just has the characters loudly complain about it while the plot grinds to a halt. The cultural practices of the Kahler regarding the afterlife are actually somewhat interesting, and I can't help but feel like an episode set on the planet in the aftermath of the Kahler war would have been more interesting, perhaps with the Doctor discovering the atrocities of the winning side. Sadly we have no such luck, and so let's just trick this week's monster with the sonic screwdriver.
Too many of Ben Browder's heartburn tablets.
So everyone runs around with Jex's tattoos on their faces because as we've established this super-advanced cyborg has no better means of identifying its targets than basic visual recognition, and Tek gets to sway around in confusion for a while. "Disengage!" he exclaims. "It's a trick!" Gosh, is it? The dialogue in this episode is absolutely atrocious on occasion. He busts into the church for no reason before doing absolutely nothing, unwilling to harm a child just so that we can be reminded for the millionth time that he's all bark and no bite. Jex is back in his ship. This was the Doctor's solution, for the problem to just be pushed elsewhere? It's bizarre; the whole "no negotiation" thing comes across as incredibly defeatist and lazy in this episode.
Moffat's house after the 50th Anniversary Special.
To add to the convenience Jex offs himself in contradiction of the Doctor's plan, a rather dark ending, but more effective than him just running away although it makes the Doctor look rather useless. Tek remarks that Jex "behaved with honour", apparently now satisfied with not getting his revenge, and the Doctor makes Tek into the new Marshal. Apparently the townsfolk are content to accept some deranged cyborg who was threatening them a second ago; the Doctor even states that they need to get the problem away from the civilians, but now it's fine to keep this nutter around. The Doctor and co sling their hooks as Amy remarks that their friends will notice their ageing faster – finally someone acknowledges this problem with time travel – and after another clumsy voiceover to bookend the episode we're done.
"Believe us, it was nothing, really."
At the time I remember thinking this was a decent episode but in hindsight I think it actually kind of sucks arse: the plot is extremely contrived and relies on some incredibly moronic behaviour from the characters, the Doctor acts like a complete prat for little reason, Amy has only one moment of any significance and Rory has none, and the philosophical question is spelled out and illuminated with no subtlety and no depth. It's dull and underwritten and the time taken up gasbagging with Jex makes everyone else, even the Doctor's own companions, seem like cardboard cut outs, plot devices instead of people, which as I've stated time and time again is a massive waste of Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill. Matt Smith is forced to do 'serious' in a boring way which doesn't play to his strengths and one of the main guest stars is written out foolishly early, and Adrian Scarborough's performance as Jex relies on him making an utterly simplistic emotional journey with little motivation. Both of Whithouse's previous scripts, despite their faults, are more engaging and thought-provoking, and I wonder if things were hamstrung by the limitations of the setting. Tek looks kind of cool, I suppose, but I really can't find much to recommend in this episode now. I could suggest Red Dwarf's "Gunmen of the Apocalypse" as an alternative but you'd probably be better off just watching Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure and Blazing Saddle on two screens.

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