by Catriona Mills

Live-blogging Doctor Who Season Seven: "A Town Called Mercy"

Posted 22 September 2012 in by Catriona

Today’s live-blogging (I really must stop calling it that) is a slightly pained and tentative affair, because I’ve just managed to do something to my back that makes it impossible to take a deep breath. Here is my advice to you: don’t fall down half a flight of stairs. It is the gift that keeps on giving.

Synopsis

We open with the mysterious Gunslinger executing some hapless alien. At least, I assume he’s hapless, because I don’t have enough information yet to know who is the evil one in this scenario. In my experience, mysterious gunmen in Westerns can be either good or evil on a pretty much 50-50 basis.

The important thing here is that the Gunslinger has one more target: the Doctor.

Heading for Mexico for the Day of the Dead festivities (though in what era, I’m not sure), the Doctor, Rory, and Amy land instead about 200 miles out of their way, in a small town called Mercy in the Wild West, a town isolated by a mysterious rock-and-wood boundary line. The Doctor seems to enjoy this visit more than his last visit to the Wild West, probably because he doesn’t have to have his tooth removed by a nineteenth-century dentist (and, as an added bonus, doesn’t have to look at Steven’s ridiculous gunslinger outfit).

Their slow wander through the town (and the score is lovely) leads to my favourite bit of dialogue for the entire episode:

DOCTOR: An electric street lamp about ten years too early.
RORY: It’s only a few years out.
DOCTOR: That’s what you said when you left your phone charger in Henry the 8th’s en suite.

In the pub (saloon, whatever you want to call it), the Doctor introduces himself as the Doctor, and is promptly flung over the rock-and-wood boundary line by a group of overly enthused townspeople, who hope that this is the Doctor that the Gunslinger is looking for. Fortunately, Ben Browder turns up (albeit claiming to be called Isaac) and points out that the people know this isn’t the right Doctor.

The Doctor deduces from this that Isaac knows who the Gunslinger is looking for—and, sure enough, there’s another alien doctor, whom I shall simply call the Other Doctor, in protective custody in Isaac’s jail. This doctor has been such a productive and helpful member of Mercy that Isaac refuses to hand him over to the Gunslinger, even though no one can leave the town or bring in supplies until the Gunslinger has what he wants. So the whole town is slowly starving to death, but Isaac is standing firm.

The Doctor offers to grab the TARDIS and evacuate the town, while Rory and Isaac distract the Gunslinger. But, being the Doctor, he takes a side trip to the Other Doctor’s allegedly badly damaged spaceship, only to find it in perfect working order and replete with easily accessible files revealing the extent of the Other Doctor’s crimes, in the form of turning citizens into cyborgs—like the Gunslinger.

Furious and disgusted, the Doctor returns to Mercy, forces the Other Doctor across the boundary line despite Amy’s insistence that the Doctor’s changed for the worse after months of travelling on his own, and holds him there until the Gunslinger arrives. When he changes his mind and tries to attract the Other Doctor back across the line, it’s too late: the Other Doctor is frozen and it takes Isaac pushing him out of the way to save him from the Gunslinger.

Isaac is killed, leaving the Doctor as marshall. And the Gunslinger, despite his programming against killing innocents, has lost all patience, and tells the Doctor that he will tear the entire town down the next day if the Other Doctor isn’t delivered to him. A lynch mob comes in the night to try and end the dilemma, but the Doctor talks them down (albeit with what seem to me to be rather ahistorical arguments), leaving room for the Doctor’s own elaborate plan of distracting the Gunslinger with cleverly applied alien make-up until the Other Doctor can get to his ship and escape.

But the Other Doctor has other ideas, and initiates the ship’s self-destruct program, blowing himself to pieces. And the Gunslinger, instead of walking into the desert and self-destructing as he planned, is talked into remaining as Mercy’s marshall—a marshall who is more fantasy than reality, even to the current population of Mercy.

What didn’t work for me in this episode

I really hate to start this discussion, but … Susan. Susan the horse.

I didn’t manage to work up the same level of rage as other viewers did over Oswin describing her crush on a girl as a “phase”. I don’t know if Oswin identified herself as gay, bi-sexual, straight with a past girlfriend, or simply an open-hearted girl, so I really didn’t become infuriated by that statement.

I didn’t like it, though. I thought it cheap and ill-thought-out.

Then we had “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” and the Doctor kissing Rory. Which would have been fine, except Rory’s reaction left me a little uncomfortable. And this, mind you, was from one of the core writers on Torchwood, so we know he can write interesting gay characters. (Well, gay or omnisexual, depending on whose definition you prefer.) And this wasn’t a glaring moment and certainly not a homophobic moment, but still, there’s that moment of discomfort again. So that’s two episodes and two moments I’m a little uncomfortable about.

Then we’re on the third episode and there’s Susan the horse. Who asks that the preacher respects his life choices. And now we’re three for three, because I’m uncomfortable again.

I’m fully prepared to accept that I might be over-sensitive on this subject right now. I’m a straight girl myself, but I do live in Queensland, where it behoves us all to remember just how alienated, uncomfortable, or even outright frightened our government is making non-straight citizens feel right now. And Queensland is hardly unique in this matter.

So I’m not thrilled that this show, this show that I adore, is repeatedly adopting a rather boringly heternormative stance for its throwaway jokes. Because it is boring: there’s nothing original about these kinds of jokes, and the current climate makes them even less amusing. That’s as strongly as I’m prepared to phrase it right now, but I do hope this thread in the show disappears over the course of the season, because it’s not one that I find funny, let alone clever or necessary.

What worked for me in this episode

Spain. Spain worked for me.

Spain, it turns out, is really staggeringly beautiful. And I loved the flavour of the spaghetti Western that filming in Spain gave to this episode. I used to watch many Westerns with my father, years ago, when they were always on telly on a Friday night, and it was almost always a Sergio Leone film. Well, except that one time we watched Shenandoah and my father had to tell me when to cover my eyes, plus my mother wouldn’t stop laughing at Jimmy Stewart’s son limping into church at the end of the film.

But that’s a story for another day.

So I have a soft spot for spaghetti Westerns and the flavour of those came through strongly for me in this episode. Much more, for example, than the flavour of either C.S. Lewis or World War II came through in “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe.”

You know what else worked for me? Ben Browder.

I have a complicated relationship with Farscape, because, let’s face it, it’s an incredibly abject show, and sometimes insanely difficult to actually watch (Nebari mind-cleansing, anyone?). It makes me giggle that Farscape is produced by Hallmark Entertainment, and Nick and I can amuse ourselves endlessly trying to come up with Hallmark cards for Farscape occasions. But the core of that relationship is a deep love for the show: I do think it’s marvellous, really. And that extends to everyone involved with it, especially Crichton and Aeryn.

So Ben Browder just became one of those actors whom I’m always happy to see. And I liked him here, channeling aspects of Crichton’s good ol’ boy persona and a bit of Clint Eastwood. Of course, I should have realised that meant he was going to die.

After all, Crichton died at least three times, and I might have forgotten about another couple.

Also, when they interviewed Ben Browder about this role for SFX magazine, he said:

“Well, you know, I mean honestly, when you look around and you go, okay, what shows would you wanna be on, you know? Other than being able to go back and being on the original Star Trek, you know, I mean, yeah, Doctor Who! How could you not wanna be in Doctor Who at least once in your career? They do a brilliant job with the show so, you know, it was kind of a no-brainer when I got the offer. It was in the middle of pilot season here, which is a busy time. I was like, ‘I really should be in town to look for a series of my own, but no, I’ve got an offer to do Doctor Who, I’ve gotta do that.’”

So now I love him even more.

(The whole interview is here.)

I also rather liked the element of alien world-building they added into the Other Doctor’s character: that idea that he’s a man of faith and he knows what his actions will do for his chances in the afterlife. I don’t know if it was the writing (I do love Toby Whithouse, and hope you all took my advice to watch Being Human) or the delivery, but I found that speech convincingly plausible and alien, which is what you want of your science fiction, isn’t it?

I asked Nick what worked for him:

Me: I already have dibs on Spain and Ben Browder.
NICK: Well, Ben Browder. And I thought it was interesting that they kept him fairly ambiguous, the medical character. They kept you guessing to some extent almost to the end. And I think that was an ambivalence in the character himself, that he was uncertain about his own role. I thought that worked well.

Share your thoughts [8]

1

Matt wrote at Sep 22, 12:16 PM

I watched it with the kids tonight. I wasn’t super excited by this episode but liked it enough to watch it again. I enjoyed the pace: it didn’t feel rushed but just hit all the right beats for me. I agree with you about the setting. I didn’t realise it was Spain but the atmosphere was present throughout the episode (even Sol remarked on it). Felicity liked the horse (but neither of my kids believed the Doctor can speak horse). On second viewing I think I enjoyed it more.

2

Catriona wrote at Sep 22, 10:41 PM

I did think this was a more solid episode/storyline than either of the preceding stories, to be honest.

3

Drew wrote at Sep 23, 02:43 AM

what didn’t work for me: the Doctor grabbing the other doctor and throwing him across the execution line. Same as the last episode where he placed the “conveniently transportable ‘locator’ device” that the Earth missiles were locked onto inside the other spacecraft. I didn’t care for either of those scenes or the motives behind them.

Also, I don’t buy the plot device of “this is how the Doctor gets when he travels on his own.” Whether they realise it or not the show has established that the Doctor travels fine on his own and they did so in very first episode, the pictures of the Doctor in Dallas in 1963, South Hampton 1912 and Java after Krakatoa can only have occurred between when the Doctor leaves Rose and Mickey in the alley and then returns 5 secs later to tell her that the Tardis also travels in time.

So far the season’s been a bit of a fizzer for me, or rather a mixed bag, good but disappointing at the same time.

4

Catriona wrote at Sep 23, 07:15 AM

Why can’t those events (Dallas, Southampton, and Java) have occurred before the Doctor met Rose? Do we know that meeting Rose was the first thing he did after he regenerated into the Ninth Doctor? There is the implication that he hasn’t looked in the mirror yet, but maybe that’s because he was busy assassinating Kennedy. Or maybe it’s a plot hole.

Plus, I do have to say that that was a different Doctor. The Doctor’s personality does change when he regenerates, and this one might not react as well to loneliness. I don’t have a problem with that.

I do have a problem with those two scenes, as I said in the last live-blogging (though not in this live-blogging, admittedly). Frankly, it sounds a bit like Toby Whithouse had some concerns with that scene, too: the interview is here. But is it really any worse than some of the things the Tenth Doctor did? This Doctor, the Eleventh Doctor, is obsessed with his age—barely an episode goes past that he doesn’t mention it somehow. Maybe he’s getting a little cranky in his old age?

5

Nick wrote at Sep 23, 11:19 PM

Time for another rewatch of The Doctor’s gonna bust a cap in yo ass, methinks.

6

Deb wrote at Sep 24, 12:39 AM

The setting was lovely, and I am an old fan of the spaghetti western. This episode also made me reminisce about a favourite film (Westworld) and Kryten as the Gunslinger in Red Dwarf. So good points for that.
Susan, ahhhh Susan. Like the other instances it was a cheap gag. What annoys me most is the throwawayness of it all. It speaks to a casual attitude that disturbs me. If you are going to deal with subjects like these then you need to think about what you are saying. Imagine trying to pull off casual gags at the expense of a person of colour or a differently-abled person, just wouldn’t fly now.
Also, like Drew, I am bothered by the Doctor’s willingness to facilitate executions.
Apart from all that it was a better episode than the previous.

7

Tim wrote at Sep 24, 01:27 AM

Unlike Nick, I found the other doctor pretty predictable. Even his inconsistent characterisation didn’t hide his direction in the plot. And it’s good to read that Whithouse worked hard at the Doctor taking up a gun, but I just don’t think he got it right. For me, this makes three out of three episodes that look half-baked.

Re Susan, I read it quite differently — it struck me as a joke, but not a throwaway joke. The Doctor often chides humans for their narrow, intolerant outlook; he’s an empathetic, sensitive hero who can accept people as they are without judgement,* and the show is saying humans would be better off if we were more like him. Accepting that animals can have inner lives and make choices requires accepting the same of humans.

*Unless they’re anvil-clanging dark-reflection war criminals. Then it gets awkward.

8

Catriona wrote at Sep 24, 06:29 AM

What a terrible moderator I am!

Tim, I see what you’re saying, and they’ve done that before, with Stormageddon. Admittedly, Stormageddon chose to accept his parents’ identification of him as Alfie, but there it wasn’t simply a throwaway line, but a thread through the episode.

My concern with Susan is that, firstly, it felt like a less developed version of that old joke anyway (complete with the whole “I speak horse”, though the “I speak baby” might only have been from “A Good Man Goes To War”, now I think about it, but let’s not get side-tracked here), not just that it felt like a re-tread of an old joke, but that it was the third joke in the third consecutive episode that seemed to promote a dominant heteronormative world-view and to suggest that anything not heteronormative was, well, comedic fodder.

I’m not saying that’s what Toby Whithouse (whom I revere) intended. I AM saying that it’s not difficult to read it that way, and I’m not thrilled by the emerging pattern.

Actually, I’m pretty much with Deb on this one, especially in that this felt better than last week’s episode.

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