Contains spoilers for the two aired shows.
Here’s the second of the ‘two-up’ reviews of the latest Doctor Who season, ahead of the final instalment of the short five-part mini/half season we’re getting in 2012.
While I don’t go out of my way to intentionally give spoilers, it’s sometimes impossible to steer away from revealing some plot details here and there in a review so please avert your eyes if you haven’t seen the episodes yet and want to remain completely unspoiled.
A Town Called Mercy
British productions should never on any account attempt to make a Western if it means trying to fake the Wild West in the English or Welsh countryside, in a quarry or on a studio set. It just never works. Only if the filming can be done in, say, Spain – using the same sets Sergio Leone used to film his spaghetti westerns with Clint Eastwood – should it ever be contemplated. Even then you need a stylish visual director like Saul Metzstein to really ensure that the place sparkles and the trip is worthwhile.
Happily, “A Town Called Mercy” had all this and duly looked fantastic. The montage sequence of the Doctor breaking into Kahler Jex’ egg-like spaceship was a particular standout, while the way the gunslinger slipped in and out of visibility as it approached the city limits was incredibly effective.
Unfortunately the episode seemed to have forgotten to pack a fully realised script in the suitcase to take with them which is odd indeed from writer Toby Whithouse, and as a result the episode felt strangely sparse both in terms of plot and in associated cast and characters. The preceding episode “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” had also been somewhat script-light, but it had covered up the bald patches with fun and frolics and a load of larger-than-life guest characters joining the Doctor’s new ‘gang’.
By contrast “Mercy” played the story small and lean, and as a result has none of the distractions to act as sleight-of-hand for those moments where the episode seemed to drag. Farscape’s Ben Browder is surprisingly underused and even the regular cast (Rory in particular) get very little to do here, although Matt Smith does take centre stage and is impressive as ever in the title role.
The problem was that there was too much talking and not nearly enough showing – a fundamental problem for a TV show. Everything – even the climax to a degree – seems to happen off-stage, the rest of the time leaving Kahler Jex or the Doctor to talk about things that aren’t being shown properly on screen. For example: apart from Rory and Sheriff Isaac’s decoy run through the desert, there’s no moment where we actually get to see why the town is cowering inside its bric-a-brac city limits. The writing and the direction – while visually stylish – doesn’t do nearly good enough a job of showing a scared, frightened town to ramp up the tension required to make this ‘base under siege’ premise work.
The basic story is of the Doctor’s reaction to ‘war hero’ Kahler Jex’s past crimes, which aren’t spelt out nearly as effectively as Soloman’s in the previous episode nor is the hint that it’s too close to home for comfort for the Doctor (who after all doomed the Time Lord by his own actions) is somehow underplayed. The Doctor’s disturbing response is to throw Kahler Jex to the cyborg wolves and show no mercy (hence the episode’s and the town’s name) – which persuades me that the sequence I discussed at great length from “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” really was intended to be as callously out of character for our hero as it felt at the time just so that it prefigured this equivalent moment here where he could be called out by Amy.
In fact, the oddest thing for me about this episode was that it felt like someone had taken those five paragraphs from my blog and converted them to a screenplay. They didn’t of course – it’s actually a sign of just how well that whole scenario was set-up in “Dinosaurs” and that I happen to have picked up on what they had in mind. But it might explain why I was actually a little bored during a crucial middle sequence of “A Town Called Mercy” because it felt I’d already seen this story play out seven days before.
In any case, having two alien Doctors sitting around in a Wild West jailhouse debating the philosophical rights and wrongs of the case might be a wonderfully quirky idea, but it’s just not a strong enough televisual episode in my book.
The Power of Three
Where “Asylum of the Daleks” had been an effective epic haunted house mystery, “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” the fun one for the kids and “A Town Called Mercy” an attempt to do a Western and finally expunge the memory of the widely-maligned 1966 serial “The Gunfighters”, the fourth episode of season 7 is … Pretty much unquantifiable.
At its heart, this felt like a throwback to the Earth-bound stories of the early 1970s of Jon Pertwee’s Doctor (and a few of Tom Baker’s first seasons), with its references to the Brigadier, UNIT and even the Zygons. It felt strangely like watching one of Pertwee’s more “realistic” science fiction adventures such as his encounters with the Autons, as billions of odd black cubes arrive on earth and sit around doing precisely … nothing.
That gave the episode the chance to kick back and have some fun with the idea of the Doctor moving in with the Ponds, mowing the lawn, painting the garden fence, playing on the Wii and picking up his footballing skills from season 5’s “The Lodger”, in sequences that to be honest went too far into full-on comedy mode for my taste and which reminded me of some of the broader humour from the Russell T Davies years of the modern series.
Actually there were more than a few Russell T-isms in this episode, not least the way in which the whole thing suddenly dials up to 11 and tries packing in so much into the last 15 minutes that the whole thing becomes a gabbled mess. While the idea of the cubes being in essence pesticide pellets was quite wonderful (and who doesn’t want to get one of those cubes as a Christmas present?), the rest of the Shakri plot should have been held back for a better outing where there was really time to develop it rather than shoe-horning in Steven Berkoff when he could have contributed far more.
More RTD traits? Well, for all his strengths, Davies was never one to bother about some of the troublesome details of the plot even if it meant leaving huge gaping logic holes, and these were present in Chris Chibnall’s script almost as an homage: a third of the world’s population collapses and dies with heart failure, but sometime later gets up fully revived with no ill-effects by some vaguely hinted-at global electrical shock? Or how about the outrageous coincidence that of the seven places on the planet that the invasion is being controlled from, one of them is … the exact hospital where Rory works. What are the odds? A couple of billion against, I’d suggest. Even an improbability drive would choke over that one.
Davies got away with this sort of thing by sheer gusto; and so does Chibnall in this instalment, pretty much, just as he did with “Dinosaurs” two weeks back. And a large part of how he pulls it off successfully is by an early sucker punch to our emotions with the return of UNIT and the introduction of its latest scientific advisor Kate Stewart, as played by the wonderful Jemma Redgrave. She’s exactly the sort of character that within 30 seconds of screen time, you know that you’re going to want to see more of and that one episode is not going to be enough (c.f. Captain Jack, River Song, Donna Noble, Wilfred Mott, Rory Williams …) Basically, if someone pitched a TV series idea for “The New Adventures of Kate and UNIT” right now, I’d be punching the air and saying “Hell yeah!”
The episode also finished strongly with Rory’s dad Brian (Mark Williams in his second guest appearance in three episode) telling his son and daughter-in-law that normal, real life can wait and that they should embrace the time they have in the Tardis and all the things they can do and achieve with the Doctor in the meantime. It’s a lovely scene, but also a worrying one: since the scene shuts the door on an ‘easy, amicable exit’ for the Ponds, you fear for what’s going to happen to them now instead in “The Angels Take Manhattan.”
The scene is also a sad moment in another way: the moment where Amy and Rory join the Doctor once more at the door to the Tardis is the final one that Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill filmed with Matt Smith. We shall definitely miss them a huge amount.
The current mini-season of Doctor Who concludes on Saturday night at 7.20pm on BBC1. The DVD and Blu-ray editions of the first five episodes of series 7 are released on November 12, 2012