Does Arthur Darvill like Spain? Did he mind being shunted over there to film A Town Called Mercy, an episode in which his character Rory is utterly superfluous? Maybe that means a leisurely shoot. Maybe there were many siestas and sangrias. You could do worse.
What about Matt Smith? He has more to do in this episode than Darvill, but this is not the Doctor’s story either. Even he is a guest in someone else’s adventure. Two someone elses in fact.
It’s really the story of Kahler-Jex (Adrian Scarborough) and the Gunslinger (Andrew Brooke). Jex is a doctor, who during a cosmic war experimented on soldiers to turn them into living weapons. The Gunslinger is a result of his labours, and is now out for revenge on Jex for his unholy transformation. He has followed Jex to the American Wild West and the stage is set for a treatise on one of Doctor Who‘s favourite moral lessons, that the ends never justify the means.
Jex is (a little laboriously) compared to the Doctor throughout. Both are men who took actions in war which have haunted them forever. Both are killers, and it’s this which gets under the Doctor’s skin. This leads to some unusual scenes where the Doctor’s usually impeccable moral compass wavers. Furious when he discovers the extent of Jex’s war crimes, he pushes him over Mercy’s cordon and delivers him to the Gunslinger. It takes Amy (Karen Gillan) to talk some sense into him, but not before our usually gun-phobic doctor has aimed a revolver squarely at the chest of his dark mirror.
(Incidentally, the Doctor wielding a gun is new Who‘s way of signaling desperation on his part – as in The End of Time – or of him being pushed to the brink of his self control – as in The Doctor’s Daughter. It wasn’t always so significant a gesture. Just last random in The Seeds of Doom, he spent quite a lot of time brandishing a pistol and it was no great indicator of something wrong with the Doctor then. Though it was also no indicator that he had changed his reluctant attitude to weapons. As Sarah points out, it’s an empty gesture not a portentous one, because although the Doctor might carry a gun, he’d never actually use it.)
So the Doctor’s angst about his actions in the Time War gets some prominence here, but that doesn’t make it his story. If it was, the Doctor, not Jex, would be centre of the story’s dilemma. We’d have some resolution for the Doctor at the end, some cathartic action or coming to terms. But here he’s the same Doctor at the story’s end as at the beginning; it’s just that he has a mid-episode wobble.
(And again incidentally, the episode immediately prior, Dinosaurs on A Spaceship, hinted at a newly ruthless streak in the Doctor, when he blew up Solomon the trader without remorse. That strand is quickly neutralized here, which is a shame. Had the next couple of stories built on it, we might have got to a point in The Angels Take Manhattan where an unDoctorly act of violence could have led to the departure of Rory and Amy, and added a layer of consequence to his actions.)
So this is the story of wrong doer and vengeance seeker, and while the Doctor’s not as unnecessary to the tale as Rory, he is an adjunct to it at best. You could make it the Doctor’s story; he’d be the one taking a sabbatical in a remote little town. A vengeance-seeking remnant of the Time War would come looking for him. It’s the same plot but now our hero is directly involved. Amy could make the Doctor face up to his past crimes (Rory can enjoy 48 hours sleep induced by a Delta Wave augmenter). We’d care about the outcome more; the stakes would be higher.
Although it probably couldn’t end with the Doctor blowing himself up.
Perhaps the plot’s not the thing. Perhaps pastiche is the main game. Like the recently randomed Time Heist, this episode is deliberately mimicking a film genre that most of us recognise by its tried and tested tropes. You can’t have a Western without a shoot out at high noon or a stranger walking into a saloon or a lawman struggling to hold things together.
There are other, more diverse, filmic references too. The Doctor’s talking down an angry lynch mob from a verandah recalls Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch performing a similar feat in To Kill a Mockingbird. And the Gunslinger’s patchwork appearance brings to mind any number of Frankenstein’s monsters from film and TV. Not to mention that it’s hard to mix sci-fi and Western and not recall Back to the Future Part III.
This episode comes from a season which openly invites viewers to compare Doctor Who to the movies. Series 7a was pitched as a movie per week. Its stories were the first to be publicized with faux movie posters. Dinosaurs on a Spaceship takes its name from schlocky action film Snakes on a Plane. And there are many isolated towns in the movies, from a A Town Called Alice to A Town Called Bastard.
And not long after this, the series would actually be producing films. Blockbuster episodes like The Day of the Doctor and Deep Breath were available to see at the cinema. Directors like Ben Wheatley and Rachel Talalay come to the series with feature film credentials. Series 7a feels like it’s getting us used to the idea that Doctor Who is filmic, rather than televisual. It would have been logical that this should have led to a Doctor Who feature film in the 50th anniversary year. Perhaps in another universe it did.
So A Town Called Mercy offers better pastiche than plot. But that’s fine and dandy. If the writing doesn’t exactly shine, at least the visuals do. Step up director Saul Metzstein and DOP Stephan Pehrsson (he who did such an impressive job on The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon; clearly he’s your go-to guy for desert landscapes), because the whole thing really looks the goods. As good as a movie in fact. And maybe that’s what the whole thing was trying to achieve.
SACRIFICIAL BLAM! Kahler-Jex.
LINK to The Seeds of Doom: That gun totin’ Doctor.
NEXT TIME: Y’know, wouldn’t it be great is my random who spreadsheet spat out The Gunfighters for us to compare and contrast approaches to the Western? Yes, that would be very convenient.
But no, we’re sticking with Smith for The Rings of Akhaten.
(And then it’s The Gunfighters after that. Dangnabbit!)