Doctor Who crashing into other genres can be a lot of fun, but every so often it crashes into a genre that is so vastly inferior that it runs the risk of being diminished by the effort. This happened with The Return of Doctor Mysterio, which did little other than prove exactly why Doctor Who is inherently superior to the superhero genre. A similar problem occurs when Doctor Who does a Western, which is perhaps why it virtually never happens. The previous major example was The Gunfighters, which managed to be magnificent by not taking itself too seriously and having a lot of fun with the genre clash, before showing the horror of where male posturing with guns can lead. I have to confess to not being a fan of westerns, which I have almost invariably found to be highly tedious examples in glorifying machismo and gun culture, and therefore lacking much intelligence. By trying to do something serious with the genre clash rather than just having fun with it, A Town Called Mercy gets dragged along that same path.
Where the western-mashup does work here is where it is completely subverted, and the old clichés are avoided. So absent from the picture is a hellfire-and-damnation priest, a meanest shooter in town defending his turf, a barmaid who is just there as an object of male desire, or a heartless and corrupt sheriff. There are characters in the story who might have slotted into all those roles, but they are never the stereotypes we might expect. Basically, the story avoids being quite as terrible as a western by trying very hard not to be a western. It just borrows the visuals, as much as anything. Oh, and the guns.
And that’s where we come to a problem. In The Gunfighters the Doctor mentions that he has a gun collection. Perhaps it is the events of that story that motivate him to change his opinion of guns, and the Doctor we are more familiar with nowadays virtually never resorts to picking up a weapon. If he does it is generally a subversion (there are exceptions, when the writing goes wrong), such as in The Movie when he turns a gun on himself to achieve the same ends as turning it on somebody else, or Flesh and Stone where he uses a gun as a tool rather than a weapon. Probably our best example is The Doctor’s Daughter, the moment where he is truly driven to pick up a gun and aim it at somebody. But look at the events leading up to that, with his daughter killed, and the outcome, with the Doctor declaring himself a “man who never would”. That defines the Doctor, and yet here he seems genuinely unsure of whether he will pull the trigger and end Jex’s life.
The point of all this is an exploration of two aspects of the Doctor’s character, both of which have been done to death by this point. Firstly the Doctor has been travelling around on his own a lot lately, although that all happens between episodes. He is somebody who needs his friends, and Amy stops him from going too far, a straight repetition of what happened with Donna. This was done far better in The Waters of Mars when the Doctor was companionless and went too far, although even that was not without its problems. Here we have a much more simplistic exploration of the theme, and it adds nothing, merely repeats what has been already said more than once.
Secondly, Jex is an obvious parallel for the Doctor, somebody who ended a war by wiping out his own people, and in the process saved far more lives than those he ended. Like the Doctor, he is not evil, but a man who was driven to extremes and did what he thought was for the best.
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.
This brings back all that post-War angst for the Doctor, and drives him to a murderous rage. In retrospect it is easy to see how we are building towards the events of The Day of the Doctor, and it’s a relief that there is actually an end point to all this. By now the idea of the Doctor as a PTSD hero has run its course, and it’s time for the Doctor to start being the Doctor again. Writers have been far too fond of throwing accusations at the Doctor (sometimes by proxy, by having some kind of spurious parallel character throw accusations) by comparing him to villains. It is always a technique that relies on the Doctor’s unwillingness to defend his position and say the obvious things. Ultimately he’s nothing like Jex, as their post-War lives illustrate. The Doctor goes on being a hero, while Jex hides away, gets his friend killed for him and then renders that self-sacrifice completely hollow by taking his own life anyway.
The one thing the episode really gets right is the Gunslinger, who could so easily have been a straightforward cyber abomination but instead becomes the one character who actually achieves true atonement and travels the path from villain to hero. And there are sincere efforts here to examine the nature of atonement. The Doctor and Jex both feel the need to atone, but grapple with the nature of that process.
You committed an atrocity and chose this as your punishment. Don’t get me wrong, good choice. Civilised hours, lots of adulation, nice weather, but, but justice doesn’t work like that. You don’t get to decide when and how your debt is paid.
It’s tricky moral ground, and an idea that some viewers may find challenges their own beliefs. If Doctor Who can at least make you think, then it can’t be a complete waste of an episode. This story is about a town called Mercy, and mercy is easy to find there. The path to atonement is much more elusive. RP
The view from across the pond:
Since the very start of the series, Doctor Who has been a moving target for a genre description. Starting off as a children’s educational program, it varied between a history and science lesson every week (for barely one story) before jumping in feet first to reside more prominently in science fiction. The thing is, I used to work in a video store where there were various sections to fit every taste. Drama, comedy, science fiction, horror, fantasy, western, romance, biographies … And Doctor Who went for it all. There was not a category our show could not dabble in. Whether giving us a touch of drama on The Edge of Destruction, a fantasy with The Mind Robber, a horror story with Inferno, a comedy with City of Death… there was no end to the genres being explored. Romance? Hide. Even the western? If The Gunfighters doesn’t take your fancy or falls a little closer to a musical, then Matt Smith’s era gave us A Town Called Mercy.
Why don’t we see more westerns in Doctor Who? The idea for a “western in space” was the very selling point for the classic Star Trek so there is clearly an underlying interest in it. I’d speculate that the reason we don’t see more of it is because westerns make up more of Doctor Who then we realize. Thinking of any number of Clint Eastwood westerns, you’ve got the town being plagued by some “tough hombres” that need sorting out but no one in town has the skill or the courage. In wanders the mysterious stranger on his white horse and it’s up to him to save the day. Then off he goes into the sunset, never asking for thanks, only to become the stuff of legend. Sound familiar? Perhaps the white horse is a blue box but the pattern is the same. Rarely does a western take place in the same location twice. Once the hero goes off, he’s onto new adventures (even if they are the generally the same in all the ways that count). The similarity is striking and doing more actual westerns might draw unwanted attention to that fact. (My own personal favorite western was Tombstone because Val Kilmer made a great Doc Holliday, but I can’t fault Hartnell’s version. If nothing more, he’s marvelously comical in a tough guy role!)
What does make A Town Called Mercy so interesting is that there’s a deeper moral issue at work. Kahler Jex (played by Adrian Scarborough) was a “bad hombre” during wartime but is now trying to make amends. He knows that what he’s done comes with a price. In some ways, the Gunslinger is actually the villain because he’s simply out for revenge. Revenge is a brutal emotion based on retribution, getting even. What makes him slightly different than the typical baddie though is that he’s not willing to kill innocents in the process. Furthermore he can be reasoned with, as he does have a sense of honor (which ultimately defines him more than his need for revenge). Jex, on the other hand, is trying to redeem his own soul. Everything he has done weighs on him, including “Dr. Frankenstein-ing” the Gunslinger, as he explains to the Doctor.
In my culture, we believe that when you die your spirit has to climb a mountain carrying the souls of everyone you wronged in your lifetime. Imagine the weight I will have to lift. The monsters I created, the people they killed. Isaac, he was my friend. Now his soul will be in my arms, too. Can you see now why I fear death? You want to hand me over. There’s no shame in that. But you won’t. We all carry our prisons with us. Mine is my past. Yours is your morality…
The Doctor has to evaluate the words Jex says and it’s a tough pill to swallow. Jex isn’t wrong. His actions here are not the actions of a bad guy. They are not the crazed workings of the type of villain the Doctor normally goes up against. They may be misguided, but they are neither malicious nor wrong. In the grand list of villains that the Doctor has had to defeat, Jex isn’t just small fry; he’s barely able to be called a villain. In fact, the Doctor’s morality about throwing him to the Gunslinger is far more questionable. He’s willing to give up being merciful. The name “doctor” signifies “do no harm” but his actions seems to have forgotten that. At least while he’s in a wild west town. Perhaps it’s not even the Gunslinger that’s the villain here. In the end, this story presents us with an interesting and complex morality play worthy of a good deal of analysis.
Before I wrap up, I’d be remiss in my duties as a fan of science fiction not to mention that it was great having Farscape’s Ben Browder join Doctor Who. Ben played the lead in Farscape before going on to one of the Stargate series. Having him make the leap to Doctor Who was a nice addition. The fact that he plays such a likable character who actually understands what it means to cooperate, serves to make him a more memorable character than many of the background players in this story. If I could have done without one thing from this story it was the Doctor speaking “horse”. The idea has become silly with him speaking baby, cat and now horse which ends up as a weak attempt to be funny by giving the “horse with no name” the name “Susan” even though it’s a male horse that wants his life choices to be respected. Look, the idea that Doctor Who can be a medium to spread understanding is fantastic in the very best of ways, but let’s do it with a bit more finesse huh? That was over the top and down our throats in ways that even Russell T. Davies couldn’t have been prepared.
One can hope the new series of Doctor Who offers us more morality plays. They worked for that original western in space, Star Trek, and I think it’s evident they can work again in the Doctor’s future… ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Power of Three