It has been said elsewhere that the TARDIS is not simply a time and space machine; it is also a genre machine: Step out of its familiar blue doors and enter any kind of story the writer’s mind can concoct. With “Asylum of the Daleks,” we had horror; with “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship,” we had comedy; and now with “A Town Called Mercy,” we have, ostensibly, a Western. Sort of.
In the entire nearly-50 year history of the show, there has only been one other attempt at the Western, the First Doctor story “The Gunfighter,” a serial that was mostly a comedy despite the OK Corral setting and quite a well-shot gunfight to go with it. It’s difficult, I’d imagine, for a show as supremely British as Doctor Who to tackle something as supremely American (or Italian) as the Western. “A Town Called Mercy” has all the physical trappings that one would immediately point to as belonging to the Cowboy movie, but there was something strangely missing, something that WAS present in “Dinosaurs.”
Landing in the middle of nowhere in the 1880s, the Doctor, Amy, and Rory come across a town called Mercy (get it?!?) which is surrounded by rocks and logs creating a perimeter. Upon entering the saloon and pronouncing himself, the townsfolk run him out as a mysterious cyborg called “The Gunslinger” teleports ever-closer. The town’s marshal, Isaac (guest star Ben Browder), saves the Doctor and takes them all to his office, where he’s introduced to the OTHER Doctor, Kahler Jex, the town’s benevolent physician who is being pursued by the Gunslinger. Taking a visit to Jex’s spaceship (which was not in the plan), the Doctor discovers that Jex and others were responsible for genetically-engineering their own people to be the perfect weapons, which ended the Kahler’s 9-year war in a week. Knowing Kahler to be a war criminal that has perpetuated hundreds of atrocities, the Doctor decides to push him out of the town for the Gunslinger to kill. The Doctor claims that he won’t let more people die because of his “mercy,” the same mercy he’s shown to the Daleks, the Master, and many others time and time again.
The real conflict of the episode exists within the Doctor. He can’t wrap his brain around Jex being both a butcher and a savior, and it’s his own inner turmoil about having done the same thing during the Time War (though it’s never spoken out loud) that makes him react the way he does. After Isaac is killed (he should have been in it much longer) by the Gunslinger, accidentally of course, the Doctor becomes the marshal and must find a way to save Jex without the entirety of Mercy being slaughtered by the Gunslinger in the process.
Now, as I said, on the surface, this is a Western in the traditional sense; it takes place in a totally deserted small town; there is a town lawman who is the moral authority of the place; there’s horses and guns and Stetsons; and there’s even a showdown at High Noon. Shooting the episode in Almeria, Spain, in one of the very standing towns built for Sergio Leone’s Italian Westerns of the ’60s (not to mention a few dozen thereafter) added an air of legitimacy to the look and the visual style of the episode. They even got a genuine American in the form of Browder, someone with sufficient geek cred to boot, to be the marshal. They certainly did everything they could to make us all think we were watching a real, honest-to-goodness Horse Opera. But, Toby Whithouse’s script lacked the most important element: a bad guy. Seems easy, doesn’t it? And they certainly had a character who LOOKED like the bad guy, but he wasn’t.
I absolutely love Westerns, so please forgive me this brief history. Hollywood Westerns generally had a good guy, a “White Hat,” who was often a sheriff or a marshal and they and possibly a few deputies or other helpers defended their town from the “Black Hats,” or bad guys. You’ll find this in movies like Rio Bravo or My Darling Clementine. In the case of something like High Noon, which at least partly inspired this episode, the sheriff is on his own as the town has essentially turned its back on him, but he still defends them. In all of these films, the key is that the good guy is defending the town and its people from bad guys who want to do bad things.
The other variation is an heroic stranger who comes through town and, though perhaps he doesn’t want to, he defends the town out of nothing but duty. The best example of this is Shane. With Spaghetti Westerns (or Westerns made by Italian filmmakers for Italian/Spanish/West German audiences), the tropes became a lot more cynical. The “White Hat” didn’t wear a white hat and wasn’t overly good, usually helping people out of his own desire for money, which is the case in movies like A Fistful of Dollars and Django. The “Black Hats,” however, couldn’t have been more evil, often committing really horrifying and violent acts with a delight that caused many of these films to be censored in a lot of places, especially the UK.
I give you this context so that I may make this point: All of these Westerns have a very clear, discernible, and reprehensible villain. In this, there are two possible villains, each with a point of view that is, if not condonable, at least understandable. It went along okay for a bit; the Gunslinger was scary and seemingly unstoppable and the nice alien doctor was the innocent victim of his unexplained wrath. Then, we find out that Jex has done inhumane and deadly experiments in an effort to win a war, not unlike Davros when he created the Daleks. Our sympathy then switches from the doctor to the Gunslinger. Revenge stories are one of the most powerful and prevalent in the Western genre. However, we’re meant, through the Doctor’s conversations with both Amy and Jex, to come down on the side that there are no black and whites in any situation.
This is the problem. This story BADLY needed a villain. Not just to fulfill its Western roots, but to give it some kind of tension. This type of setting needs certain constants. Either Jex or the Gunslinger had to be a true villain, and since both somewhat redeemed themselves by the end, it made everything that came before it happen in vain. I understand this is what Whithouse was going for, making us not side with anyone outright; fine, I get that. But this comes only one week after an episode that, for all its zaniness, had an unbelievably evil villain who would have been perfect in a story like this. And, if the point was that the Doctor should be above revenge or killing no matter how justified, then why show us that immediately after he allows Solomon to be taken out entirely for doing essentially the same thing that Jex did. If the Doctor’s going to learn the lesson that killing is wrong regardless of motivation, then he needed to be defending someone as bad as Solomon, not himself.
This could have, and I think should have been a Good/Bad/Ugly setup, with the Doctor representing the “Good,” Jex representing the “Bad,” and the Gunslinger representing the “Ugly.” As it stands, we had a Pretty Good/Fairly Bad/Somewhat Ugly setup and it just didn’t work. Westerns, at least in the early days, were morality plays that worked because the hero had to be faced with ultimate villainy. This tried to be a morality play where everyone was basically the same. The Doctor refused to hurt anybody, Jex repented his past crimes, and the Gunslinger didn’t want innocents to be in the way. There are no stakes at this point. When nobody is doing anything at each other, it becomes a pretty boring Mexican standoff. How boring is it? The resolution comes when one person kills themselves and is said to have done the “honorable” thing. Clearly, Toby Whithouse hasn’t seen as many Westerns as I’d have thought if he thinks someone committing suicide would ever have been seen as the high road in a John Ford film. Sacrifice? Sure, but not suicide.
At any rate, this was my main problem with the show. It wasn’t a Western and it wasn’t an adventure; basically, it squandered the fantastic location and some more phenomenal direction by Saul Metzstein. Even Murray Gold, who I’m not the hugest fan of, got to play around with familiar themes. When the Doctor rides away on Joshua/Susan, the music cue is very reminiscent of The Magnificent Seven. It’s just kind of a shame. This was a very dull episode.
Next week, we’re going back to Chris Chibnall already for “The Power of Three,” which I know very little about and am extremely intrigued by given the trailer. Check it out!