Doctor Who: A Town Called Mercy

September 22nd, 2012

One of the little tricks Steven Moffat has been playing to keep the fans onside is to have, as an undercurrent in his series, references to a specific previous era of the show. Last year, there were a lot of little nods to Patrick Troughton’s last year on the show, almost all of which will have passed the casual viewer by.

This year, Moffat seems to have chosen William Hartnell’s last year or so to pay a sneaky ‘homage’ to. In the year when Steven Taylor was the companion, there was a Dalek story featuring an actor who later went on to play a companion, in a different role (in fact there were two), there was a story about a space ark, featuring the crew interacting with extremely large animals, with a dubious moral message, a trip to New York (coming up tomorrow in this series)…

and the story often considered the worst in the series’ history.

The Gunfighters is the official ‘worst Doctor Who story ever made’ in many guidebooks by people who should really know better. It is, in fact, a delightfully funny comedy western, with one of William Hartnell’s best performances. But it says something about how bad its perception among fans was that there hadn’t been another TV story in which the Doctor visits the Wild West — an utterly obvious setting — until now, forty-six years later.

And so we can definitely say that A Town Called Mercy is the second-best TV Doctor Who story set in the Wild West of all time.

In many ways this is a mirror of last week’s episode. Last week we had a universally-loathed writer putting together a well-crafted simple adventure story whose only real problem was its unambiguously bad moral message. Here we have a writer (Toby Whithouse, creator of Being Human) who is usually regarded as rather good, giving us a story which is trying to be a complex morality tale, but where none of the characters have a consistent motivation for five seconds at a time.

Last week, the Doctor blew the villain up, as an active choice, rather than save him. This week the villain blew himself up, for no well-explained reason, in order to save the Doctor from having to make a difficult moral decision.

That points to one of the two major flaws in the story, which is that it’s a massive, massive cop-out.

It’s attempting to deal with something close to a realistic moral dilemma. If you met Doctor Mengele, now, and he was a reformed character, selflessly helping people, and there was a Holocaust survivor after him trying to kill him, what do you do? Do you prevent the survivor from killing Mengele and insist he stands trial, or do you let the feelings of the victim outweigh the rule of law? Is there any amount of good you could do that could outweigh that much evil?

You could do a great story along those lines. Or you could do what Whithouse does here, and have the survivor be a cyborg killing machine who is going to kill an entire town full of innocent people if the war criminal is not turned over to him. You could then have your main character first turn the criminal over and then become his biggest protector, for no decent reason, while the town that had been protecting the criminal even at the risk of their own lives suddenly form a lynch-mob to kill him, but then change their minds again when the person who’d got their friend killed tells them “but killing is wrong!”

And then the criminal who had been trying to save his own skin decides to blow himself up, so no-one else has to make a difficult decision. No-one here has a consistent moral or emotional stance — they’re all pieces on a board, being moved wherever the plot, such as it is, demands they go.

And speaking of morality, I was wrong last week — they *have* decided that the Doctor is a moral imbecile who needs someone to look after him all the time so he doesn’t forget that killing people is wrong.

The other problem is that… well…

I read somewhere, I thought it was in the book How Not To Write A Novel but I can’t find it in there, an example of a typical piece of bad writing. It went something like this:

“John Hope looked at the sign, showing the name of the town. Hope Falls, it said, and as John Hope looked at the sign, he realised it was true. He, John Hope, had indeed fallen, and Hope, the metaphysical concept, had also fallen. He pondered the significance of the name, which you will notice is also the name of this short story, and of the collection of short stories it’s contained in. ‘Yes,’ John Hope thought, ‘Hope Falls’…”

Calling a story that at least wants to be about mercy A Town Called Mercy, and setting it in a town called Mercy, has some of this flavour, but just to make sure no accidental subtlety whatever creeps in, even by accident, we have exchanges like this:

“You think I’m unaffected by what I did? That I don’t hear them screaming every time I close my eyes? It would be so much simpler if I was just one thing, wouldn’t it? The mad scientist who made that killing machine, or the physician who’s dedicated his life to serving this town. The fact that I’m both bewilders you”

“Oh I know exactly what you are, I see this reformation for what it really is. You committed an atrocity and chose this as your punishment. “

It’s a tribute to Matt Smith’s immense skill as an actor that he actually makes that last line sound almost like something a real person might say.

And this unedifying nonsense is wrapped up in a lot of second-hand visual ideas borrowed from bits of Terminator, Westworld and even Red Dwarf (and not even from a good episode of Red Dwarf). It’s quite depressing that the programme has sunk this low.

One bit of light among the gloom — the music, by the cack-handed Murray Gold, a tenth-rate clone of John Williams, himself only a fifth-rate composer, is much better than Gold’s usual abysmal standards. Maybe if Gold would confine himself to trying to be Ennio Morricone rather than writing music that sounds like Hollywood SF blockbuster music, the programme might at least be listenable.

If not watchable.

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