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Doctor Who: A Town Called Mercy (Review)

I see ‘Keep Out’ signs as suggestions more than orders.

– the Doctor

To be fair, it’s very clear that these two annual trips to North America have been an attempt for Doctor Who to “break” into the market place over there – to provide viewers with something recognisable as a gateway to a uniquely British television show. While the American backdrop of The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon added some wonderful stylistic touches, and a nice juicy role for President Nixon, A Town Called Mercy feels like a more overt attempt to tell a distinctly “American” story within the framework of the show. Borrowing more than just its aesthetic from the setting, A Town Called Mercy is also decidedly American in theme and tone.

A gunslinger built…

The setting and archetypes of A Town Called Mercy very clearly pay homage to the myth of the American West. Our wandering hero stumbles into town only to be made Sheriff – or, well, Marshall. America is the land of opportunity. There’s a stronger emphasis on guns and religion than usual. There’s a high noon stand-off against overwhelming odds. There’s a narration that seems heavily influenced by – if not outright stolen from – True Grit. However, it’s not just these factors that lend the adventure a decidedly American feeling.

The episode’s moral dilemma will seem familiar to anybody with even a cursory knowledge of American history in the twentieth century. The episode is set in the wake of the Civil War, but the central dilemma mirrors that created in the wake of another conflict. Jax, the other alien doctor, has done horrible things during a conflict involving his people – including grotesque and inhuman experiments on living subjects. However, after the conflict ended, he seeks amnesty in America, the land of “second chances”, seeking to atone for his crimes by using his vast knowledge to help the country. In this case, by introducing electricity and curing cholera.

The signs are good…

The situation seems quite similar to the recruitment of German and Japanese doctors following the Second World War. Knowledge gathered through incredibly brutal experiments done on captive subjects was taken by American forces and put to use following the conflict. The morality of that situation is still contested, as many scientists who did truly awful things were offered amnesty in return for their scientific knowledge and skill sets. It’s hard not to see that chapter of American history foreshadowed in this Wild West adventure, as the Doctor struggles with the morality of a similar situation. (To be fair, Jax seems actively interested in doing good, not just in saving his own skin through collaboration, but the metaphor still works.)

There are other aspects of the story which seem to result from a finger on American pop cultural consciousness. Britain has also been affected by the consequences of the September 11th attacks, but the debates about freedom and security stemming from that incident have been a driving force in American cultural discourse, informing even the most apolitical of blockbusters like The Avengers. A Town Called Mercy seems to fleetingly touch on the theme of a society struggling to come to terms with a horrible event in the recent past, and struggling to reconcile those wounds with higher philosophical ideals. As the Marshall notes, “War ended only five years back. That old violence is still under the surface.”

He rode through the desert on a horse with a girl’s name…

Of course, I might be reaching a bit too much, but I think Toby Whithouse’s script seems to have been written with a decidedly astute eye on American cultural touchstones. This isn’t necessarily a British commentary on American pop culture, but an attempt at an intersection between the two. Note that the Doctor does not ridicule the town’s dependency on guns, as he frequently does to other guest stars, and how rapidly he adapts to the town’s cultural norms – drinking coffee instead of tea, wearing a belt with a gun in it, and even his Stetson. “I wear a Stetson now,” he tells Susan the Horse, mirroring a line from The Impossible Astronaut.

As such, I can’t help but wonder if the scenes featuring the townspeople turning on Jax were meant as an affectionate reference to The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street, a seminal piece of American post-War science-fiction that saw another isolated community (suburbia) reacting in terror towards the unknown, sacrificing their values out of fear and turning on one another in panic. That’s frequently regarded as one of the best episodes of The Twilight Zone, arguably an American science-fiction show that approaches the cultural significance that Doctor Who holds for the British. Then again, it’s a common enough idea that it might just be coincidence.

The last stand?

There’s another nice revelation towards the end of the episode, when it’s revealed that the mythical figure discussed in the narration is not the Doctor. It’s become a bit of a narrative crutch in recent years to feature narrations explaining how important or significant the character is, so it’s nice to see Whithouse turn that on its head a bit. It also seems like an affectionate nod towards the American audience, a polite acknowledgement of their own cultural archetypes, with “the gunslinger” very much a cornerstone of American mythology.

To be fair, outside of its rather wonderful and sincere and affectionate embrace of American archetypes, Whithouse’s script is just a great deal of fun. Moffat promised that this year would be a season of blockbuster episodes. If Asylum of the Daleks was a “mission: impossible” style adventure, and Dinosaurs on a Spaceship was Armageddonbut with dinosaurs!, then A Town Called Mercyis – of course – a Western. But it’s big, and it’s bold, and it’s fun.

A blast from the past?

There are dozens of small touches that work really well, from “a Horse named Sue” – itself a lovely reference to Johnny Cash – through to the notion of a spaceship “car alarm.” Whithouse’s script even has a bit of fun with itself. When the Marshall repeats the plan for the audience’s benefit, Rory  points out that it’s a bit of a strange thing to say in the context of the episode. “I know, I was there when we agreed it.” It’s a nice wink to the somewhat hokey and self-aware nature of the entire thing.

That said, there’s also some nice character work. I have to admit, all three episodes this year have actually managed to do sterling character work. I didn’t much care for Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, but the interactions between the Doctor and Solomon were great. Here, the conversations between the Doctor and Jax are icings on a cake that’s tasty enough all ready. The parallels between the pair are obvious enough, and they aren’t made too overt. Jax did what he had to do in order to save his planet, while the Doctor has done similar things to save the universe.

Marshall law…

“It’d be so much simpler if I were just one thing,” Jax remarks, something that feels like it actually builds on Solomon’s interactions with the Doctor last week. Solomon was a character who did bad things, but so ridiculously evil it has hard to consider him a valid counterpart to the Doctor. Here, Jax has done unspeakable things, but he manages to become somewhat sympathetic. He’s more than just a “mad scientist”, and I think that plays to the episode’s strength. The Doctor’s murder of Solomon as he begged for his life seemed somehow okay because he was a sadistic sociopath. Here, the Doctor’s attempt to execute Jax evokes a great deal more concern.

In a way, it adds a bit of nuance to the climax of Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, with the Doctor’s actions remaining consistent, but his victim becoming more sympathetic. It seems like the Doctor is struggling to keep “the Timelord Victorious” in check, but his isolation from humanity is making him just a bit more brutal. “They keep coming back,” the Doctor protests to Amy, attempting to justify his decision to hand Jax over. Amy, to be fair, realises that this isn’t a good development for the character, and does what a companion should do. She calls him on it. “See, this is what happens when you travel alone for too long.”

Hit the road, Jax…

There’s a nice moment as the group argue, and the Doctor isn’t listening. When asked for an opinion, his reflexive response is “what Amy said.” I think it illustrates the ideal role for a companion – somebody to humanise the Doctor when he is starting to become a little too alien, a little too divorced from morality and his own better nature. There’s a sense that he emphasises with Jax, and seeks to atone for the harm that he has done by doing good. Matt Smith does an excellent job in those sequences, protesting, “Justice doesn’t work like that. You don’t get to decide when and how your debt is paid.” The Doctor would know all about that.

Jax has his own barbed comments to make. “We all carry our prisons with us,” he tells the Doctor. “Mine is my past. Yours is your morality.” Of course, the episode reveals that Doctor’s morality isn’t a prison – it is something that allows him to do impossible things. The Doctor doesn’t justredeem Jax here, by showing the alien doctor his own better nature. The Doctor also redeems the cyborg, by giving him a mission similar to the Doctor’s own – adopting an alien community and looking out for it.

A high noon…

Given the show is entering its fiftieth year, I think it’s also fair to say that the Doctor isn’t trapped by his past either. Writers like Moffat might tweak or re-write the mythos from time-to-time, but the show does an excellent job balancing the weight of fifty years of story-telling with a need to remain modern and relevant. All the shows so far this year have drawn from the past, but in a way that’s accessible. Asylum of the Daleks drew on decades of Dalek stories and models. Dinosaurs on a Spaceship used the Silurians. A Town Called Mercy seems to hark back to the First Doctor, who visited the Old West in The Gunfighters. (The First Doctor also travelled with a companion Susan, although she was not around for that adventure.)

I really enjoyed A Town Called Mercy. It was a lovely homage to American pop culture, and one crafted with a lot of respect and affection. I think it serves as a perfect example of what seems to be the season’s ambition: to produce a bunch of accessible large-scale adventures without ever losing the important parts of the series.

You might be interested in our other reviews of this season’s episodes of Doctor Who:

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