Criticise modern Doctor Who? How dare you! And, yes, I always feel a bit harsh when doing so, because the series is generally of such a high order, with almost every episode outstanding in its own way. (Just imagine if we’d had the internet in the troubled 1980s, or blogs tearing into something as patchy as late-term Tom Baker…)
For all its good points – which I will get to – A Town Called Mercy doesn’t quite hit the bullseye for me. It lacks authenticity. I don’t believe in it. I don’t feel it.
The town looks like a set plonked in the middle of a desert. Mercy is literally a one-horse town; they could only afford the one nag. I don’t believe the Doctor’s moral stance, either his wavering or sudden certitude in dealing with Kahler-Jex. I don’t feel anything when the marshal dies or when Jex eventually takes his own life.
I adore westerns and I love Doctor Who, but the two worlds have never quite gelled. Obviously, A Town Called Mercy looks infinitely better than The Gunfighters, the desperate studio-bound William Hartnell comedy-western from 1966, but it has a similarly uneasy mix of English and American actors. (And in 1966, they could afford four horses!)
This 21st-century production probably had to tick all sorts of compliance boxes; it looks like a spaghetti western but must remain peculiarly bloodless in tone. It proceeds at a languorous pace, which is a pleasant contrast to some of the flash-bang-wallop, did-I-miss-something? episodes, but does leave me stifling a yawn.
My other beef is that, while Amy gets a fair slice of the action, Rory is almost redundant; Arthur Darvill has just a handful of lines. Was he only on set in Spain for a few days?
OK, whinge over! It looks gorgeous, doesn’t it? Especially the footage out in the desert. I love the sight of Doctor galloping on his horse (not Joshua, mind, “He’s called Susan and he wants you to respect his life choices”) and the ground-level shot of him inspecting the dusty soil with Susan behind and the sun setting over the sierra. Never mind that the next sequence shows the sun high in the sky again.
Director Saul Metzstein has done another superb job (after the dinosaurs episode), with dozens of thoughtful compositions, overhead crane shots and well-lit interiors.
“We all carry our prisons with us,” Jex tells the Doctor. “Yours is your morality.” Toby Whithouse’s script contains many such gems, but this one line is the key to the story. He’s cleverly constructed a morality play showing the Time Lord, the fugitive alien Kahler-Jex and the avenging cyborg Gunslinger all as complex people capable of monstrous acts, self-justifying but ultimately worthy of redemption.
I almost puked at the Doctor’s interplay with the trigger-happy teenage lad, especially their final, good-natured parting shots. But, surprising myself, I enjoyed the top-and-tail storytelling from the little girl and/or her great-granddaughter, which could have been hideously Little House on the Prairie, but somehow rose above that, and ended elegiacally with the forlorn image of the Gunslinger-turned-guardian-angel on the rocky outcrop overlooking Mercy.