Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Doctor Who: A Town Called Mercy (Episode Review)

Last week’s Dinosaurs on a Spaceship was a prolonged failure of an episode. It completely encapsulated what happens when every weakness of Moffat era Doctor Who is amped up to the max and its strengths removed. Well, conversely A Town Called Mercy is in fact the total opposite of this – Displaying every single strength in the series thus far without any of its weaknesses dragging it down.

You can already tell it’s a major improvement when the script addresses the exact criticism which was had of the last episode – Instead of beginning with a jumbled, chaotic series of events, jumping all over the place without rhyme or reason; this one just cuts straight  to the start.
After a genuinely good very short pre-credits teaser the Doctor, Amy and Rory appear on the outskirts of a Wild West town. Ignoring an obvious perimeter and warning signs they go in and proceed to learn that not only do the townsfolk have working electrical lighting over a decade before it is discovered but they know of aliens. A cyborg known as the Gunslinger is blockading the exterior, trying to starve out the town. His demands are that the alien known as “the Doctor” be handed over for execution. However, all is far from what it seems and the Doctor quickly discovers he might be fighting for the wrong side...

Unlike, again, Dinosaurs on a Spaceship this episode has the best sort of pacing. Each development happens in turn at exactly the right time with the audience being given just enough time to absorb information before the next stage is put into play. This is exemplified during the first attempt to outthink the Gunslinger and reach the TARDIS. In which hints are dropped suggesting the cyborg isn’t entirely what he seems when he refuses to fire upon innocents and leads almost directly into a revelation about his origins.

The level of zaniness and outlandish insanity is kept to a minimum and that was definitely a decision for the better, especially in the later stages of the episode. Mainly because of the moral choice the Doctor has to make and the dark secret which comes into play as a driving force behind many characters. There are certainly fun moments, such as the Doctor revealing he can speak horse to an astounded man, but it never becomes overwhelming prevalent. So villain of the episode doesn’t end up acting like a fool after murdering several people like David Bradley’s robots from last time.
Perhaps what helped this is the presence of Ben Browder as a guest star. Being best known for his roles in Stargate SG-1 and Farscape, Browder is no stranger to having to balance seriousness and humour in a sci-fi series. While he’s not given many chances to make jokes the few he does never feel out of place or at odds with the emotions of each scene. It also helps that he pulls off a very convincing cowboy and despite playing what is mostly a side character he never feels superfluous to the plot.

Adding to this are the other guest stars who are equally talented if not more so. Veteran actor Adrian Scarborough plays a man haunted by his inner demons and trying to outrun his past. Despite a playing sort of character this series has seen time and time again in recent years his performance makes him feel very human. Similar kudos goes to the actor playing the Gunslinger, Andrew Brooke, who manages to convey a surprising level of emotion through some extremely heavy makeup and a scarce amount of lines. While he doesn’t turn the “villain” into a memorable character he manages to elevate him above being completely forgettable and gives some suggestion of depth.

If there is one flaw to criticise its that there’s a point involving Amy and Rory which seems to be tacked on. In only a couple of episodes they will be leaving the series and this is highlighted briefly when a character manages to enrage and disgust the Doctor to the point where he draws a gun on them. The action results in Amy asking if this is what happens if he travels alone for too long. While it is laudable that they tried to maintain this emphasis upon their departure and what the Doctor is like without companions, it just sticks out like a sore thumb.
Remaining on the subject of the Doctor snapping, one part of the script I did like is how it made connections to his actions in the Time War without explicitly saying so. The series seems to be trying to move away from that part of the Doctor’s life and it’s good they were able to still utilise it without namedropping the event.

Honestly, this is one of the best generic episodes I’ve seen in a long time. It feels epic, is of a very high quality of writing, acting and themes and despite having nothing to with any overarching plot it’s great enough to watch to recommend to just about any fan of the series. This is not one to be missed.


Doctor Who and all related characters and media are owned by the BBC.

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