15/9/12 “A Town Called Mercy”
“Violence doesn’t end violence, it extends it.” –The Doctor
Note: different review format than usual.
I had a sort of complex reaction to “A Town Called Mercy” for something that, on the surface I suppose, was fairly straightforward. Doctor Who does a Western. Well, Doctor Who did a Western back in the ‘60s, a musical Western no less, and though I’ve never seen it, I enjoyed the novelization. Other people’s reactions have been mixed. There have certainly been Western elements in subsequent stories, most notably “The Impossible Astronaut,” but you have to wonder why it took so long to do another. I think because, in some ways, Doctor Who and the Western are so much alike, they are almost like magnets with opposite poles: they repel one another. Not convinced? Amy and Rory in this were fairly incidental. Sometimes that’s just the way it is with companions, but last week I think it could fairly be said that they were both instrumental to the plot. In some Westerns, the cowboy has a sidekick, but he (and it’s usually a he) tends to be there for the comedy (though not so Tonto). I think possibly it was difficult because there were three characters whose morality we didn’t understand fully: the Doctor’s, Jex’s, and the Gunslinger. It’s unfair to say that things in the traditional Western are in black-and-white (look at anything post-1960s for more conflict, though Matt Dillon Gunsmoke is a wonderfully conflicted, moral Sheriff; more on him later). But with the audience second-guessing all three of these characters (plus all the cross-currents of Frankenstein and “Victory of the Daleks”) it impacts the flow of the drama. In my opinion, of course.
I have been reliably informed that the town of Mercy is located in Nevada. Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling throughout the story, and even up to the present moment, that we weren’t actually on Earth. That it wasn’t actually all as simple as that. Perhaps it’s the fault of the teaser, much shorter than last week and framed in every single way like an episode of Firefly, from the narration (“a man who lived forever, a man who fell from the stars”) to the music. I have kept myself really out of the loop on this series, so I didn’t even know they had filmed in Spain—I thought they’d gone back to the US and filmed in Utah. Regardless, everything looked outstanding for this story. The scenery was beautiful and became a character all on its own, which is quite proper for a Western. The set was a model-correct Western town, complete with courthouse/jail, clock tower, and saloon. The only thing to distinguish it is a system of electric lighting (to me it was interesting that the Doctor never thought this was a problem—surely it reeks of Meddling Monkery?). The Doctor pronounced it ten years too early, so I immediately pegged it as the 1870s. I was late proven right by someone saying it was five years since the end of the War. At first I was impressed that they just called it “the War,” for surely people got tired of calling it “the War between the States.” But this only added fuel to the fire that perhaps it wasn’t even the Civil War. Of course I had visions in my head of Colony of Lies, The Village, and so on. I thought that was going to be th big reveal.
Also, I know we have to follow and sometimes play with the “tropes” of the Western, but things seemed a little too pat on occasion. I was amused at the way the Doctor entered the saloon (“tea, leave the bag in”), but my goodness, I’ve never seen such a clean and tidy saloon in my life. Random extras later in the episode showed what appeared to be saloon girls, yet the townspeople were on the whole anonymous. (I think it’s tricky to give women autonomy in Westerns. They either have to be the townswoman beacon of civilization, the whore with the heart of gold, or precious little else. The hard-set gunslinger in Sam Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead was an attempt at something more pro-active, but it didn’t really work.) I grant you that these swift one-parters are too short for all but the most basic characterization; I grant you also that townspeople in a Western are often grouped as an anonymous herd, representing the civilization that the cowboy wants to bring to the land yet what will ultimately lead him out of a job. The one exception, of course, was Isaac the Sheriff, straight-shooting, decent, rather scruffy-looking Sheriff (no rhinestones and fringes here) whose attitude toward aliens and cyborgs was amazingly tolerant. So Jex the alien saved the whole town from cholera? In Isaac’s mind, this is enough to guarantee him acceptance. As I said before, Isaac reminds me in some ways of Matt Dillon (on radio at least); in the first episode of Gunsmoke, he has to keep a town from lynching a guy in the cells. First he tries to talk them out of it, but in the end he has to use force. This is a scene somewhat emulated later by the Doctor who has to do rather the same thing (he saves the gun-wielding for later).
It’s becoming obvious that the Doctor is going slightly insane, towards dangerous “Waters of Mars.” This seems to be a consequence of getting infected with Dalek-hate-virus in “Asylum of the Daleks,” but I wonder where it’s all leading. The difficulty is in applying a relevant sci fi-inspired storyline to this Western setting. “A Town Called Mercy” is really interesting in the way it tries to grapple with ethics; it succeeds a bit better than “Boom Town” (I think I’m one of the few people who likes “Boom Town”). Ultimately, this is a tough question to answer, and while the episode never led us in this direction, you have to make the parallel: what would the Doctor have made of the scientists who created the atom bomb? Of the pilots who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima? Would he have condoned that? I’ve probably mentioned this a million times, but I prefer Deimos / Resurrection of Mars to “Waters of Mars” and similar, I suppose because the former makes me still believe the Doctor’s way is best, while the latter makes me think he’s a monster. After all, for every revolution the Doctor has inspired, there are also times when he’s sided with the “oppressors.” It’s all a case of point-of-view, and maybe the Time Lords are right; maybe nonintervention is the best policy. In To the Death, the Monk is finally blown out of the water (and pays for it), while the Doctor’s way is best—yet he also suffers horribly.
So I just want to know why Toby Whithouse solves this conundrum (not that I have any bright ideas) by causing Jex to commit suicide. So . . . if you do some morally reprehensible things in the service of what you believe is the greater good, then you try to atone for it by being altruistic, you should just save everyone the trouble and kill yourself? Have I oversimplified this?
I liked a lot of “A Town Called Mercy” and it gave me a lot of food for thought. I am glad that the Gunslinger adopts a useful civic role instead of being killed like the Monster in Frankenstein. (Why he has he taken up his useful-for-the-story costume is never explained to my satisfaction. I also wasn’t sure how a cyborg could be fooled away from his quarry by people in disguise.) “I’ve no role to play in peace.” “America is a land of second chances.” The Doctor on his horse, Susan, looked amazing racing across the desert. It was interesting to me that the townspeople didn’t get the chance to be anxious about the fact no supply wagons were coming in; what about the water situation? I loved the fact that lack of water was the catalyst in Rango. (Though I suppose the fact that they bodily carried the Doctor out of town showed their displeasure!)
My favorite radio Western is Frontier Gentleman, which takes place roughly at the same time as this, which is very much a fish-out-of-water story—fortunately for him, though, he’s a very resourceful, charming fish-out-of-water and with the nonviolent, thinking tendencies of the Doctor. J.B. Kendall doesn’t have the moral angst of the Doctor, but he doesn’t often see good in people and situations which others have knee-jerk reactions to. And he’s British! In my opinion, Doctor Who can work as a Western—but you need to take advantage of the Doctor’s loner status to be the cowboy with his moral code who drifts from town to town (or planet to planet) rather than with planned stops. I could argue more about this, but I’ve written a paper about it so I’ll shut up now.