"“We all carry our prisons with us. Mine is my past, yours is your morality.”
As the mini-season of Doctor Who ‘standalone movies’ continues, this week we get the first attempt at an actual genre piece – the genre in question being the Western. The show’s tried doing one before, with questionable results in 1965’s The Gunfighters, which gave us this untrammelled musical classic from an offscreen Linda Baron (and, occasionally, Peter Purves):
Largely played for laughs, The Gunfighters is far from an accurate representation of the historical West. But then, neither is A Town Called Mercy. That laconic title gives the tip as to its real inspiration – classic movie Westerns. Being Human creator Toby Whithouse, scripting this week, draws heavily on plot points from specific movies. The vendetta between cyborg Kahler Tek and his creator Kahler Jex is familiar from any number of Westerns, but that noontime shootout can only be from 1952 Gary Cooper classic High Noon, while the thread of having to keep the bad guy safe in a besieged jail cell is basically the entire plot of Howard Hawks’ influential John Wayne thriller Rio Bravo. Mysterious strangers defending a beleaguered town is of course the plot of The Magnificent Seven, and the relentless cyborg gunslinger has his genesis in the frankly terrifying Yul Brynner from 1973’s sci-fi/Western hybrid Westworld.
Director Saul Metzstein, who’s proving an inspired find for the show, meanwhile draws heavily on the non-Hollywood ‘Spaghetti Westerns’ of Sergio Leone. Any Leone fan will find plenty that looks familiar here, primarily the location of Almeria in Spain where Leone shot many of his classics. Metzstein’s not above copying his camerawork either (well, why not borrow from the best?). That crane shot over the town sign early on is straight out of Once Upon a Time in the West, while the framing and cutting of the final showdown between the Doctor and the vengeful cyborg is pure Leone. Murray Gold puts in his part with a deliberately Morricone-esque score, complete with (presumably) Melanie Pappenheim prominent on soprano duties much as Morricone always used Edda Dell’Orso.
Leone’s movies presented a dirtier, grittier view of the West than Hollywood, but it was still stylised, with streets as wide as freeways and breathlessly tense shootouts in which the combatants stared through narrowed eyes at each other for up to five minutes while Ennio Morricone’s Mexican-influenced score filled the viewer’s ears. A Town Called Mercy cleaves more to that view than Whithouse’s other inspiration, HBO’s more realistic Deadwood; but then, Saturday teatime would not be the ideal setting for a rerun of that show’s coruscating mix of profanity, mud, prostitutes and murder.
As you can probably tell from all the above, I’m a huge fan of Westerns, so this episode didn’t have too hard a task in winning me over. But it wasn’t just the perfectly recreated genre style I liked. Toby Whithouse is a very skilled writer, and in this (admittedly cliched) setting crafted a very thoughtful tale of justice, mercy and redemption. After the furore over the Doctor apparently killing the bad guy last week, this episode delved deep into the moral questions that act posed.
When the Doctor found out the truth about alien fugitive Kahler Jex, that far from being the kindly healer he appeared he was actually a Josef Mengele-style war criminal, he was immediately ready to hand him over to his vengeance-hungry creation for ‘execution’. Amy, meanwhile, was horrified by this attitude, calling him out on it in a way that she arguably should have last week.
But the moral question here was far more complex than last week, with its unrepentantly nasty villain. Jex, on the run from his remaining creation’s revenge, had been trying, somehow, to make restitution for the moral failings he was all too aware of, giving the town of Mercy electric lighting and curing an outbreak of cholera. And as he pointed out to the Doctor, the gruesome cyborg experiments to turn humans into weapons ultimately saved more lives than they cost, by ending the war they were designed to fight – shades of the moral dilemma over dropping the bomb on Hiroshima.
That the Doctor saw this in such black and white terms (while Amy didn’t) was some indication of how far removed he’s been getting from humanity while travelling alone so much. Amy, for her part, showed more empathy by far, even while Jex held her hostage. Both Matt Smith and Karen Gillan were excellent, showing their characters have developed and continue to do so; the scene in which a (not terribly skilled) gunslinging Amy furiously prevented the Doctor from handing Jex over was magnificent. As was Smith’s handling of the trigger-happy local teenager, similar to the Seventh Doctor talking an armed assassin out of shooting him with sheer morality.
Rory, by contrast, got little to do, though Arthur Darvill made the best of his limited role. With comparatively little part to play in the complex moral drama unfolding, he got to (arguably) have the most fun paying cowboy, leading the gunslinger on a wild goose chase through arid bluffs with town marshal Isaac (Farscape’s Ben Browder, perfect as the classic mustachioed lawman in a Wyatt Earp style).
This being a Western, it of course had to climax with a shootout. The Doctor wearing a Stetson is fair enough (“I wear a Stetson now. Stetsons are cool.”), but fans of the show since 2005 may be somewhat uncomfortable at the idea of him wielding a gun. Not that this is a new thing:
This episode, however, directly confronts the issue of the Doctor’s morality, and how far he’s prepared to go. We needn’t be too shocked by the gun, which ultimately he declines to use. As with the best stories, he relies on his ingenuity, sending the gunslinger out after decoys to keep the town safe. And when Jex answers his own moral dilemma by blowing himself and his ship to bits, the Doctor’s prepared to see Kahler Tek as a victim as much as a villain, and entrust him with the town’s safekeeping from now on.
If the episode has a notable failing, it’s that it does seem to move quite slowly as a plot. Perhaps that’s due to the complex moral issues being debated by some well-drawn characters, but equally possibly, it’s that Leone influence again. Let’s not forget, Once Upon a Time in the West opens with a whole 15 minute sequence of gunslingers waiting for Charles Bronson’s arrival at a station in which nothing happens – and yet it’s a masterclass in building tension. A Town Called Mercy may not have time in its 45 minute runtime for that kind of operatic grandeur, but it certainly has a more measured pace than last week’s enjoyably frenetic offering.
A pretty good guest cast breathed life into Whithouse’s characteristically thoughtful dialogue (although some of the townsfolk’s American accents seemed a mite shaky). Aside from Browder’s likeable turn as Isaac, the standout was prolific character actor Adrian Scarborough, who imbued the nuanced character of Kahler Jex with pathos and likeability despite his crimes. His description of his people’s afterlife, climbing a rock carrying the souls of all those you’ve wronged, was beautifully written and delivered, giving his ultimate sacrifice a natural tear jerking quality far removed from the show’s frequent contrivance in this area.
Andrew Brooke as the gunslinger was suitably scary while also being sympathetic, not an easy trick to carry off from under all those prosthetics. Mind you, the design was very reminiscent of Red Dwarf’s simulants:
And the idea of a beloved British sci fi show doing a Western also recalled that show’s classic episode Gunmen of the Apocalypse. Not a bad thing necessarily, but difficult to avoid for viewers of my age!
I thought this was an excellent episode, though my love of Westerns probably makes me less than objective here. It had real depth and complexity, while there was enough classic cowboy action to keep kids entertained. There was also some more hinting about Amy and Rory’s life passing by with occasional Doctor-visits, and what may be a developing theme about the Doctor’s morality, something Steven Moffat seems to keep returning to. Overall, another bullseye at making a movie-style episode in a season which so far has been more consistently enjoyable than last year. Next week it’s back to Chris Chibnall on scripting duties, but his effort last week makes me less trepidatious about that than I might once have been…