Scanners indicate an absence of spoilers
Now I must confess that the prospect of this episode didn't exactly fill me with thrills, for several admittedly somewhat nebulous reasons. Firstly, much like dinosaurs, in the past Doctor Who hasn't had a lot of luck with the Old West. Somewhat surprisingly for a time travel based show, there's only been one previous TARDIS-powered foray into Western territory and that was back in the days of the First Doctor, William Hartnell.
That adventure was The Gunfighters way back in 1966, and it was poorly received at the time that it led the production team to scrap the concept of doing straight historical stories shortly after. And while the Doctor would return to Earth's past many times over the years, usually there would be assorted alien tomfoolery to spice things up. However while monsters and robots would replace hobnobbing with famous historical figures, the TARDIS would never return to the Western again... until now.
However I don't think this was purely down to The Gunfighters having such a poor rating with Who fans down the ages, who have often voted it one of the worst stories in the show's long history. Rather I think, it more to do with a certain tension between the Western and SF genres. Now while they have cross pollinated successfully in the past on occasions, often they appear to rub each other up the wrong way - a perfect example of this being the recent dog dinner, I mean, movie, Cowboys Versus Aliens which despite being chock full of both cowboy and alien invasion tropes managed to fail as both a Western and a science fiction movie. And the problem is basically this, Westerns look to the past whereas SF looks to the future, hence any story mixing the two genres is often pulled into two contrary directions. And it's no coincidence that when the West and SF have worked together successfully, such as in Westworld or Outland, the stories have firmly favoured one set of tropes over the other, Westerns in the case of the former and SF in the latter.
Anyhow from the trailer for A Town Called Mercy, it wasn't clear how this adventure would play out, whether it would prove to be an uneasy mix or masterful blend. Although with the clips of a cybernetic gunslinger and a traditional shoot-out in front of the town clock, there was a distinct possibility this would be Doctor Who does Westworld. Now modelling your SF/Western hybrid on a previously successful venture is a smart move, however if it was too close to the original, it was going to look very derivative...
And also hanging in the balance for this episode was the fact it was penned by Toby Whithouse. Now previously I really enjoyed last series' The God Complex, and liked School Reunion well enough, but Vampires In Venice felt like a missed opportunity.
So then,with much much up the air for this story, and considering this is the mid-point story of this run of Who, I must confess I was expecting A Town Called Mercy to be *ahem* shall we say one of the least distinguished stories of the opening half of Series 7... Oh alright, I admit it, I thought it would die in the dust with fanboy critics measuring it for a cheap pine coffin by the halfway mark!
But as it turned out, it wasn't just a cheap clone of Westworld, nor was the story was ripped apart by different genres pulling in opposite directions like ornery mules, and above all I was very pleasantly surprised! We got a very cinematic episode with a decent balance of humour and drama and a very deft blend of SF and the West.
As a wise old SF bookstore owner of my acquaintance once remarked, often the essence of a good Doctor Who story is having the plot rooted in a huge moral dilemma. And oddly enough, that same ethical dynamic is at the heart of many a Western too. In the classic time periods for the Western; the frontier settlement and the Civil War eras, the law was weak or non-existent, what was right or socially acceptable was open to question, and this climate of moral relativism made for some great stories.
And here in A Town Called Mercy, it's the big ethical questions at the heart of the story that successfully bond together SF standards such as cyborgs, anachronistic technology and visiting aliens to equally familiar Western tropes such as gunslingers, US Marshalls, and shoot-outs under clapboard clocktowers. And it's well worth noting that Mr Whithouse has a lot of fun subverting such familiar elements, so we have many classic story ingredients, from both SF and Westerns, used in interesting ways.
Furthermore, while you might be expecting another romp of an adventure, another fun but throwaway story in this series of 'a blockbuster every week', this episode becomes more than just Matt Smith and co. rummaging through the Wild West dressing up box. Obviously as I'm keeping this spoiler-free, I can't go into details... but I will say there some unexpected character depths carefully and subtly explored here. Don't get me wrong, it's a very fun episode, but it's also a very interesting one too.
Now I appreciate the gulf between Westerns and scifi may so great for some viewers that they disappear into a cross genre limbo of dissatisfaction. Equally I acknowledge that for others the plot will seem slim and all the moral jiggery pokery I found fascinating will feel like filler. But that's Doctor Who for you - you can't please all the folks all the time!
But personally, I really enjoyed this one, despite have large reservations about it. And one of the things that stand out for me is that for once this was a story that didn't feel rushed. There was enough plot for the time slot and plenty room in the script to explore the ideas satisfyingly. It might not be be the flashiest episode with lots of running, explosions, or massive story arc bombshells, but I think that the thoughtful nature of A Town Called Mercy will ensure it's going to more appreciated as time goes by.
JIM MOON, 16th September 2012