Andrew East sees keep out signs as suggestions more than actual orders.
Full disclaimer: I have an intense dislike of the Western genre. It’s not something I can put a finger on why, it’s just a style of story which doesn’t interest me. Of course, it won’t stop me watching a story in a Doctor Who context, but A Town Called Mercy is not an episode I’m ever going to pick at random because I fancy some Time Lord action.
Still, here I am. Volunteering to revisit Matt Smith's adventure in the small American Frontier town of Mercy.
This episode happens to be one of the stories I’ve watched with my son. His love of Doctor Who comes and goes a little depending on what his latest obsession is but he has a selection of favourite stories which, when he’s in the mood, are the only ones he’ll watch. For some reason, A Town Called Mercy was the first Doctor Who story we watched together, as a family. I hadn’t watched it prior and so it was a bit of a risk (he was only four years old at the time of broadcast). As a consequence, when rewatching it for this retrospective, I found I appreciated the episode in a different way. I think, on first viewing, I was very aware of my son’s reaction. Was it too scary? Did he understand what was happening? Was he even enjoying it? Worrying about this probably stunted my own enjoyment. Watching it alone, and bearing in mind my predisposition to dislike it because of the genre it was aping, I actually found I rather enjoyed it, although this tailed off a little in the final third.
The principal reason for my enjoyment was the performances. First and foremost is Matt Smith. In this story, his Doctor is equal parts excited child and vengeful alien. I love the scenes of his excitement of being in a Western (which, historical setting aside, is clearly how the Doctor is treating the situation). When he walks into the bar, all lone gunman bravado and then stumbles slightly as the piano stops abruptly on their entrance, Smith is a joy to watch. Toby Whithouse gives the Doctor some brilliant lines (I love the one about Keep Out signs being a suggestion more than a rule). Later, when he is torn between sacrificing Jex to the Gunslinger and his own guilt (drawn out in a great scene where Jex compares himself to the Doctor) Smith continues to play it perfectly.
Adrian Scarborough is also superb as Kahler Jex. The aforementioned scene where he recognises that the Doctor carries similar guilt to him is pitch perfect (although this scene has an interesting new angle to view it from in light of the various revelations in the 50th anniversary special). His weasly, slimey persona makes his war crimes chilling and it is very easy to empathise with the Doctor’s reaction to him.
The other cast member I enjoyed was Ben Browder as the Marshal, Isaac. He is instantly likeable the moment he comes on screen and his sudden death about halfway through the story is one of the reasons I think I lost interest a little in the final third. His death, whilst right in story terms (he dies, saving the life of Jex – a man he had sworn to protect after saving the town from cholera), robs the cast of an ally for the Doctor.
One other problem with the script is the fact that Amy and Rory, Rory in particular, are surplus to requirements and contribute nothing to the story. Rory, it seems, spends entire scenes saying nothing or running around. It’s a massive shame, as Arthur Darvill’s Rory is easily one of my all-time favourite companions. This story is not a good showcase for him. So without these usual allies, to begin with, Isaac fulfills that role – and fills it well. His instant rapport with the Doctor is believable and fun, mainly due to Browder’s performance. When he dies, this dynamic leaves a massive hole in the story. As a consequence, the story has to, fairly unsuccessfully, fill the hole with one of the lesser town residents, Dockery, who even has a final scene with the Doctor which would have be far more suited to a farewell with Isaac.
However, a plus point is the whole production looks amazing. Moffat intended these stories – Season 7a – to be 'film of the week' style, and this is certainly evident on screen. The vistas of the Old West are thoroughly convincing. Obviously, filming on a purpose build Western set (in Spain) has a lot to do with this, but the music, costumes and direction all add immensely to the filmic atmosphere. The High Noon finale, in particular, is very exciting, trope-filled though it is (and rightly so: if you’re going to do a Western on Saturday evening telly then you need to give the audience what they expect). One aspect of the direction that I don’t like, though, is the point of view effect used for the Gunslinger. It just seems a bit cheesy and over-produced. This extends also to the pre-credits sequence which, tone-wise, doesn’t fit at all with the rest of the story. It also has a bit of a cheat of a ‘cliff-hanger’ (in as much as that is how the pre-credits is often used) with the Gunslinger claiming he is going to kill the Doctor which just fails to excite (although maybe this is because it’s a second viewing where, as a viewer, I know which ‘doctor’ he is actually referring to). However, I do rather like the realisation of the Gunslinger. The make-up and costume are superb and Andrew Brooke, under layers of latex and voice modification, still manages to give a performance which elicits some sympathy from the audience.
A couple of asides: it’s good to see another link with the classic series pop up with the casting of Garrick Hagon as the undertaker (who is really only there to provide the Western gag cliché of the undertaker measuring up the protagonist moments before a big gunfight). Hagon appeared in a much larger role in The Mutants and its always fun to see classic series actors appearing in the new series as it gives a sense of continuity between the two. Another weird thing is the barmaid who looks distractingly like Alex Kingston. I have to wonder whether anyone noticed this during filming because its something both my wife and I noted on first viewing and really stuck out second time round.
One slightly jarring aspect watching this story out of context is the minor arc of Amy and Rory growing apart from the Doctor, and how the Doctor is apparently hardening without the presence of human companions. It is played out in a couple of scenes, notably the one where Amy fires a gun (leading to a great line for Ben Browder) and at the end where Amy asks to go home because they are starting to age quicker than their friends. Reading online, it seems there is a theory that this episode actually happens during The Power of Three (the next episode in Season 7a) where the Doctor keeps returning to Earth to take Amy and Rory on trips (including Tudor times which includes the phone charger escapade that the Doctor refers to at the beginning of A Town Called Mercy). It’s all very timey-wimey but a different take on the ‘continuity’ of the Doctor’s adventures. However, watching independent of Season 7a means this arc seems to come out of nowhere a little, especially considering there is no reference to this being a quick trip for Amy and Rory at the beginning, nor any suggestion of the Doctor’s changing character in his larking around ‘cowboy-style’ at the opening of the story.
Historically, the story doesn’t seem quite sure whether it wants to go for accuracy (it seems a little less glossy than we might expect and Whithouse does cite the gritty Deadwood TV series as a source of inspiration) or tropes, although it leans more heavily towards cinematic Western than historical Old West for obvious reasons. All the locations are present and correct: the saloon, the church, the marshal’s office with jail cell, the deserted, dusty street, the town border, the mountains, the clocktower. Of course, we have the anachronistic electricity set up by Kahler Jex but the Doctor says its actually only ten years early.
The presence of Ben Browder’s Isaac is, for UK audiences, possibly a little confusing. I had assumed, wrongly, that he was the town’s sheriff. In fact, he is the Marshal which is, according to online source, TARDIS wiki, not the same as a sheriff and it is actually stated that Mercy, at this time, has no sheriff. Isaac is a Marshal, a different lawkeeping role, and unlike a sheriff, is not elected. This means he can pass his badge on to the Doctor on his death which he couldn’t do if he were a sheriff.
All in all, I did enjoy watching A Town Called Mercy, despite my predisposition to dislike it. I enjoyed the first half much more than the second half, partly due to the loss of Ben Browder and partly because it gets a bit angsty for my tastes. The cast are all great and the script is well-written. Because it’s a Western, I’m probably not going to return to it out of choice too often, but as a Doctor Who story it is certainly a solid entry into the Doctor’s universe.
A primary school teacher and father of two, Andrew finds respite in the
worlds of Doctor Who, Disney and general geekiness. Unhealthily obsessed
with Lance Parkin’s A History, his Doctor Who viewing marathon
is slowly following Earth history from the Dawn of Time to the End of
the World. He would live in a Disney theme park if given half the