A lonely, mysterious stranger arrives in town, seemingly from nowhere and for no particular reason. He sets the world to rights, routing the bad guys and emboldening the good to realise their potential. Surviving a gunfight at the end, he rides off into the sunset leaving the townsfolk to wonder just who he was.
While the history books tell us that Doctor Who has only done a western once before (the 1966 William Hartnell adventure about the OK Corral ‘The Gunfighters‘), in fact plenty of stories in its run fit the template. What’s odd about last night’s episode, ‘A Town Called Mercy,’ is that it seems to enjoy the Western’s trappings while eschewing its format.
This is not a pastiche western in the way that ‘Voyage of the Damned‘ was a pastiche disaster movie or ‘Curse of the Black Spot‘ a pastiche pirate story. It’s not a knowing nod to the genre like ‘Back to the Future 3.’ Instead, ‘A Town Called Mercy‘ is a chamber piece asking interesting questions about revenge and atonement. This doesn’t seem to have met with universal approval in the webosphere; but after last week’s light-hearted romp a more serious piece of storytelling seems right.
‘The Gunfighters‘ was filmed in cramped west London television studios with a British cast doing their best to adopt authentic cowboy accents. It’s a measure of how far the programme has come that ‘A Town Called Mercy‘ was filmed in Almeria, Spain on the purpose-built set that countless spaghetti westerns have used; with a cast which makes generous use of a smattering of American actors including genre favourite Ben Browder. Director Saul Metzstein and Director of Photographer Stephan Pehrsson make full use of the landscape and set and Murray Gold offers us a score that sounds like a tribute to every western you’ve ever seen. Visually, this is a hugely impressive piece of work. Metzstein looks like a real find and it’s no surprise that the production team were sufficiently impressed by his efforts on this and last week’s episode to offer him the Christmas Special.
The script is by ‘Being Human‘ creator and showrunner Toby Whithouse. It’s a measure of Doctor Who’s cachet that its able to attract names like Toby and other showrunners like Neil Cross, Matthew Graham and Chris Chibnall to its roster. Mercy is Whithouse’s fourth script for the series and for my money the most interesting. There are layers here which will pay re-viewings.
There is perhaps a mismatch between what we on screen and what the script is describing. It’s almost as if Whithouse assumed that the story would be shot in a Welsh quarry and studio set. So apart from the saloon bar scene and a couple of main street setpieces, there are few nods to the conventions of the Western and few opportunities to realise the potential of the authenticity of the Almeria location. (The fact that the town has a population of 81 according to the script yet hosts a large bank on screen is a good example of the mismatch between what the script’s telling us and what the programme is showing us). Whithouse isn’t really interested in telling us a story about men in black hats and men in white hats. His protagonists’ hats are grey – the cyborg gunslinger holding the town to ransom is a wronged result of cruel genetic manipulation desperate to avoid collateral damage in his desire for retribution; his creator is no Mengele sadist but a doctor haunted by what he was driven to doing in the necessity of wartime and trying to salve his conscience by caring for aliens in exile. The Doctor is torn between acting as an avenging fury and impartial judge. Whithouse is rewarded by another stellar performance by Matt Smith and a nice guest starring appearance by Adrian Scarborough. Andrew Brooke as the gunslinger is so well aided by prosthetics and voice reverberation that it’s hard to spot where the performance ends and the engineering begins. The rest of the cast are given little to do, though Sean Benedict as the greenhorn makes an impression.
There are some missed opportunities in the exposition that make it a little hard to engage in the debate about revenge and retribution. What was the war that the Kahlers were engaged in? Were they defending themselves or waging a war of aggression? Was the cyborg programmed to avoid killing civilians or is it a moral qualm he’s developed? How high up the chain of command was Kahler Jex? It’s a shame, because this is an intriguing premise, more redolent of ancient Greek tragedy than the medieval morality tradition that Doctor Who usually draws on. And there’s a slight feeling of cop out in the end when Kahler Jex commits suicide to bring the cycle of revenge to an end; although that’s not as much of a cop out as the Doctor’s apparent preferred solution which is what the cyborg and its prey should just bugger off somewhere else and continue their fight where he doesn’t have to sort it out.
Whithouse’s script has some nice moments – the Doctor and the horse sequence, for instance – but it feels one polish short of being as good as it could have been. But that would have been very good indeed and what we’ve got, judged by what it is and no by what it isn’t, is a thought-provoking drama in deceptively cosy wrapping.