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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Doctor Who blogging: “A Town Called Mercy”

Doctor Who A Town Called Mercy Matt Smith

(all spoilers! don’t read till you’ve seen the episode… or unless you don’t care if it’s spoiled for you. this is a love fest only — all complaints and bitching must come from a place of love / previous: “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”)

(get my downloadable discussion guide to “A Town Called Mercy” for teachers, librarians, and everyone else who needs to keep kids amused, engaged, and educated at DoctorWhoTeachersGuides.co.uk)


My theory about what is going on this season, and where it’s going to end, has now solidified with this episode. Because, look:

The opening narration — about “a man who fell from the stars” — is meant to make us think it’s about Doctor. And the closing narration then slams a sort of door on the Doctor: the legend isn’t about him… but perhaps more importantly, in a dramatic situation in which the Doctor figured in a key way, he is not what everyone remembers about it.

What’s more, there’s really no reason at all for the narration bookending either end of the episode except to point out that others are creating legends around themselves just as the Doctor has done. Which isn’t to suggest that the Doctor isn’t needed, but perhaps that the legend of him isn’t needed.

So I wonder: Is Moffat making space for the legend of the Doctor to disappear, erased from the universe as the memory of him has been erased from the Dalek databases? This could be a sort of reboot — and just in time for the 50th anniversary — give the show a fresh slate. I’ve been hoping for a long while for the show to get away from old enemies like the Daleks and the Cybermen and to find some new ones, but that could be tough, in context, when the universe is crammed with entities that the Doctor has royally pissed off over and over again.

Of course, the Daleks still exist, and presumably will continue running around the universe exterminating everything in sight, so the Doctor will likely run into them again.

But I’m keeping my fingers crossed for that clean-slate reboot.

And “A Town Called Mercy” shows that it can be done. Here we have new aliens, a new adversary, a totally fresh tale that is nevertheless totally Who-ish… and in the best old-fashioned sense. The Doctor feels mercurial and alien in a way that goes beyond the weird tics and comic nonsense that has so far mostly characterized Matt Smith’s tenure. (I’m not blaming the actor: he’s certainly demonstrated in these last two episodes that when he’s got a meaty script to work with, he can be explosive. He just hasn’t had a lot to work with as far as adding any genuine depth to the Doctor.) Talking to babies and horses is funny, I guess, but it doesn’t have much to do with what’s actually going on around him that he can have an alien Time Lord’s impact on. Suddenly picking up a gun and threatening a man who has provoked him by hitting too close to the Doctor’s own sense of guilt over his own wartime actions?

Doctor Who A Town Called Mercy Matt Smith

Whoa. It’s not the picking-up-the-gun thing that’s startling in itself — the Doctor has done similar before, though not often — but the now-recurring lack of mercy… and the fact that Jex drove him to it. “Looking at you, Doctor, is like looking into a mirror, almost,” Jex the war criminal tells him, and this is when the Doctor starts to get really enraged. Jex has him pegged: the Doctor is all rage and guilt and solitude, and we actually see the evidence of that right here. But it took Jex’s “Thank the gods my people weren’t relying on you to save them” to really infuriate him, to drive the Doctor to throw Jex out to the Gunslinger for the cyborg to execute. Very little of this is actually about Jex and Jex’s crimes — it’s about the Doctor’s own guilt over “all the people who died because of my mercy.”

And it’s hardly expunged here. Which suggests that is still to come. And that perhaps someone else will have to force it upon the Doctor. As the Doctor says to Jex, “You don’t get to decide when and how your debt is paid.” So is someone else going to decide how the Doctor pays the debt he thinks he owes back to, at least, the destruction of Gallifrey?

Jex is a complicated character, arguably at least as good as he is bad. The Gunslinger turns out to be quite poignant, and not a Terminator at all. If neither of them are the villain of this piece, could it be that the Doctor himself is the villain? Not only for his willingness to let Jex be executed but for arranging for Jex and the Gunslinger to take their battle elsewhere, and likely put others in their crossfire? Wouldn’t that make more people the victims of the Doctor’s mercy? He was just berating himself for creating so many such victims, and now he’s doing it again?

Random thoughts on “A Town Called Mercy”:

• So, wait: If the townspeople did not actually pull Jex from a badly damaged spaceship — since his ship isn’t damaged at all, at least not to outward appearances — then how did he arrive in the town?

• I laughed out loud at the Western-movie cliché: the stranger walking through the swinging saloon doors, the townsfolk going quiet.

Doctor Who A Town Called Mercy

That’s often what happens to the Doctor metaphorically, but usually not quite so literally.

• Woodgrain credits this time:

Doctor Who A Town Called Mercy

• Ben Browder!

Doctor Who A Town Called Mercy Ben Browder

That is all.

• Oh, and not to freak you out or anything, but you know how Isaac the marshal calls the Doctor “son”? Yeah, it’s not meant literally, but still: Ben Browder is actually old enough to be Matt Smith’s father.

• But the Doctor is now 1,200 years old. I’ve lost track of where we are with his age. Is he actually 1,200 years old, and if so, there’s centuries of adventures we’ve missed out on…

• The bit in which the Doctor, Amy, and Rory are passing the shot-up hat back and forth?

Doctor Who A Town Called Mercy Karen Gillan Arthur Darvill Matt Smith

That’s a really nice bit of actorly “business” between the three of them, and I can’t remember another example like this off the top of my head. I like it because it lends a sense of intimacy to the characters, like these people really know one another and have spent a lot of time together. That stuff that actors do when it’s not really their turn, narratively speaking, to be doing or saying anything can, when done right, add lots of texture to a tale. And this was fantastic texture.

• I really don’t get how Amy and Rory can just go home after all this. How do you just dip into and out of a life of intergalactic, transtemporal travel?

• Great quotes:

“I see Keep Out signs as suggestions more than actual orders. Like Dry Clean Only.” –the Doctor (oh my god, I’m the same, about Dry Clean Only, I mean)

“Why would he want to kill you? Unless he’s met you…” –Amy to the Doctor, about the Gunslinger

“Two alien doctors! We’re like buses.” –the Doctor (ie, you wait forever, and then two come along at once)

“Why would I be curious? It’s a mysterious space cowboy assassin. Curious? Of course I’m not curious.” –the Doctor

“Frightened people! Give me a Dalek anyday.” –the Doctor

“You know all the monkeys and dogs they sent into space in the 50s and 60s? You will never guess what really happened to them.” –the Doctor

(next: “The Power of Three”)



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  • The Doctor’s been saying he’s 900 years old ever since his fourth life. Either he lost count or had a midlife crisis; either way, the Moff has started him counting again.
    Also: he sonicked the barrier around Mercy. Does the sonic do wood now, then?

  • “Doctor feels mercurial and alien in a way that goes beyond the weird
    tics and comic nonsense that has so far mostly characterized Matt
    Smith’s tenure. (I’m not blaming the actor: he’s certainly demonstrated
    in these last two episodes that when he’s got a meaty script to work
    with, he can be explosive. He just hasn’t had a lot to work with as far
    as adding any genuine depth to the Doctor.) ”

    Sorry- I completely disagree.   I thought Matt Smith was brought more depth to the Doctor and had plenty of meaty scripts last season (The Doctors Wife, The God Complex)   Of course I guess this is all a matter of taste and what makes a certain Doctor your favorite. 

  • beccity98

    Aside from the episode, is anyone else annoyed by the Instagram-ed theme?

    Woodgrain! That’s what that was! I couldn’t tell. It’s very slightly interesting, the change in font or whatever, but why even bother?

  • Mjpeterson36

    He aged 300 years last season between when they saw him get shot on the beach and when he actually got shot on the beach. 

  • beccity98

     Maybe he was just rounding for a while?

    Wasn’t the barrier wood and rock? Maybe it was only doing the rock?

  • Craig

    Moffat has said that there’s no way the Doctor actually knows how old he is. He could be many thousands of years old. But over the course of these three episodes, The Doctor has aged himself up 300 years. A long time to be by himself.

  • Wehmer

    Sorry, 100 years.

  • Knightgee

    The reboot theme is also my theory. it makes sense when combined with the Dalek’s having their longstanding grudge of him erased, plus his statements at the ends of Season 6 where he said he would go to ground for a bit because there was way too much animosity about him (and given how it affected his companions I don’t blame him).

    Amy’s point about how he becomes when he travels alone for too long also reminded me of things Donna said to him when they first met about his behavior. It’s like he needs humans to humanize him or maybe he needs companions to get him outside of his own internal funk about his past actions. 

    I’m curious how the Ponds will be written off. Moffat has assured us it will be very final with no room for them coming back, but as it stands it seems like their arc is bending more towards them just deciding not to travel with him anymore because they settle down on Earth and have normal but happy lives with their friends and family. Nothing about that really screams “can’t ever travel with him again” though.

  • VanessaDK

    I’m fine with the doctor aging hundreds of years, but I can’t believe the suit has held up quite that long.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    From and IP standpoint, letting the Doctor get much much older between visits with companions makes a lot of sense, insofar as it creates loads of space for tie-in novels and audio dramas and comic books and whatnot.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    when he’s got a meaty script to work with, he can be explosive.

    That really goes The Beast Below with “No one human has anything to say to me today!” But, how about that growl in his voice on the words “my mercy”? Chills.

    Still and all, seems like he’s beginning to become the Doctor that River remembers.

    Ben Browder! That is all.

    I know, right?! How is he not on every show?

  • KeithAllGamer

    Looks like they may deal with that question about how Amy and Rory could just go home after travelling with the doctor in the next episode, but hard to tell anything for sure from a preview.  Not much time left for the Ponds.

    Thought these last two episodes have been pretty good.  Some interesting ideas about where Moffat is planning to go with all this.  I’ve had plenty going on in my personal life so I haven’t really been giving it the thought I normally would.

  • Karl Morton IV

    He could have been sonic-ing to see if there was anything to it other than wood and rock. Sensible precaution, no?

  • Erm, death?

  • teenygozer

    At first, I said, “OMG, Jex is Mengele!”  Then I said, “Er, okay, maybe Jex is Oppenheimer?”  I swung back & forth between the two, eventually coming to the conclusion that perhaps Jex was somewhere in between.  But I didn’t get the idea that Jex was actually a war criminal, per se — his side *won*, and if your side wins, you’re generally considered a hero.  He’s on the run, not because the law is chasing him down, but because a combination of a huge load of personal guilt and one of his victims — ironically a fellow “hero” of the war who is also unable to return to a normal pre-war life — are chasing him down.  I didn’t get a sense that there was a Nuremberg Trial and prison cell waiting for Jex anywhere.

  • I find DW a welcome distraction from crap in my personal life. :->

  • RogerBW

    I’d certainly like to see a backing off on the idea that everyone’s heard of, and already has feelings about, the Doctor. The old series managed this by (a) having plenty of one-shot villains and (b) sharply restricting the villains’ abilities to perform time-travel, so that even if they’d heard of him they couldn’t be proactive about it. (The exceptions – The Chase, mainly – don’t really hold together as time-travel stories.)

  • Ohiopokey

    On a bad day, frustrated with everyone, I find myself saying “No one human has anything to say to me today!”  What a great line to crib!  (and the only time I ever remember him viewing the humans as the bad guys, not his fuzzy favorite species.)

    Does anyone else see a connection between the multi-use of the word “mercy” in this episode, and the Dalek’s whining “Mercy?”

    He’s got a point, though, about the trickle-down effect of all the baddies he has mercifully shuffled off to space or new planets or promises to leave humans alone.

    and one more thing.  I read a viewer’s comment on a recurrence of flickering electric lights in the first three episodes.  Grasping at straws?  anyone?

  • Ohiopokey

    Just wondering.  How is the Gunslinger zipping in an out of visibility?  Does he have a perception filter or a vortex manipulator? (I’ve been trying to give it up.) 

  • Tangeu

    With regards to the lights, I can’t help but wonder if the lights shorting when the Doctor picked up Kahler-Jax’s cable a
    coincidence.  Maybe the Doctor wasn’t as immune to the Dalek nanocloud
    as we thought?  Might explain his more aggressive behavior since, the
    light bulbs shorting (am I remembering that right?  Didn’t that cause the lights to flicker?), and nothing coming up on Solomon’s scan (surely it isn’t connected to that Dalek database, which was all that has been erased)

    Or it’s all just coincidence, and I’m grasping at straws

  • Knightgee

     That seems a bit too obvious, no?

  • Pelahnar

    As my roommate pointed out throughout the episode, flickering lights in Doctor Who is _never_ a good sign. And I don’t remember it in the first two episodes, but they definitely zeroed in on it in this one, without really explaining why. I’m thinking this will come back.

  • Pelahnar

    I never thought the Doctor was immune to the nanocloud – in fact, I have a whole theory about Oswin surrounding that very idea. However, I didn’t think that maybe any effects could’ve been lasting…I must start thinking now…

  • Pelahnar

    I believe Moffat has said they’ll leave ‘heartbreakingly’? My roommate and my theory is that it’s going to be less heartbreaking for us and more heartbreaking for the Doctor. If Amy and Rory put their collective foot down and say ‘we don’t want you in our lives anymore’
    …don’t you think that would break his heart(s)? Amy, at least, has been with this regeneration since he began. To be rejected like that now after ~10 years of her life (she’s about Rory’s age, right? And he’s in his thirties now) and, what, 300 of his…I’m sure it would break his heart(s).

  • Pelahnar

    The sonic ‘doing’ wood is probably a flexible thing. It can’t fight wooden aliens and it can’t unlock wooden doors…but perhaps it can detect whether something actually _is_ made of wood? In fact, didn’t it do just that, when it was refusing to open the door in the Christmas Special?

  • I hope so.

  • Arkaan

      The thing that’s intriguing to me is that Moffat really seems to be structuring these episodes like Davies structured the end of Tennant’s run.  Now, this isn’t quite the insane game changer that “Waters of Mars” is, but the undercurrent is still there (except now it’s how the Doctor’s shifted from insane ominpotence to crushing guilt and rage).  And it’s not about The Doctor’s departure (unless we’re heading for a massive twist). 

      I have a supposition about the end, but it’s based on a spoiler (a widely spread spoiler, but spoiler nonetheless), so I’ll leave it for now.

    re: Smith

      I don’t think he’s added as much depth to the Doctor as Tennant did, but it’s still an intriguing characterization

  • Ohiopokey

    I thought they were going to be written out in a way that there was no chance they could ever return.  Rose even managed to come back from the alternate universe.

  • Ohiopokey

    Wait a minute.  Hold the phone.  I’m going to go back to my DVR to enjoy some of the minutia I may have missed.  Didn’t Amy say that she and Rory were going to have to cool it with the doctor because their friends were starting to realize that they, the Ponds, were aging slower than them?  I sort of brushed that away thinking that the laws of relativity didn’t apply with time travel.  Does this have any relation to them hanging around the Doctor who has surprisingly aged by this episode?  Could the effects of time travel on them have anything to do with their departure?  

  • Pelahnar

    I thought she said they were aging _faster_ – just because the Doctor might pick them up and drop them off at about the same time, but they spend time in between, hence aging faster than their friends.

    That’s what I thought she said, anyway. But I could’ve heard it wrong.

  • Judy

    “That’s a really nice bit of actorly “business” between the three of them, and I can’t remember another example like this off the top of my head. I like it because it lends a sense of intimacy to the characters, like these people really know one another and have spent a lot of time together.”
    This is one of my favorite things about what is happening with them now, and part of why I’m so sad at the thought that they are leaving.  I love this unspoken intimacy, this inate understanding of each other and the dynamic of the threesome, instead of just 1 companion.  I am not looking forward to the departure of the Ponds.
     

  • I just finished watching this episode this morning, and I have to say that it was quite brilliant. I have a friend who called it the worst of the Moffat era if not all of New Who, but I don’t see that. Of course, she wasn’t raised on old Who like I was, and there is certainly a “Genesis of the Daleks” moral dilemma feel to this one (although few stories even compare to that fantastic bit of Who history) I found this episode both entertaining and thought-provoking in a way that at least half of the Moffat era has not been able to combine.
    The Doctor’s rage and guilt are laid bare – not for all the world to see, but for him to see – and he feels the shame of it all in a way that he hasn’t since he regenerated. I was lamenting the fact that he spends a lot of time travelling without Rory and Amy (more on that in a moment) that we don’t get to see, but I think we get a clear sense of how it has affected him in this episode beyond just Amy telling us he’s been without them. On the other hand, how many adventures has he had with River and other morally ambiguous companions in all this time without his in-laws? How have those adventures messed with his self-perception? Have they led to him to create a self-image more heroic and less riddled with guilt than he’s had, right up until Jex lays his soul open for him to see once more?

    On the Amy and Rory popping in and out of his life, perhaps they want a normal life but cannot resist getting caught up with their son-in-law’s wacky adventures. I wonder, too, if maybe the Doctor pops back in on them rather than other companions BECAUSE they are his in-laws. It’s an interesting relationship, and it really feels like it’s finally gelling… just in time for their departure from the series. As interested as I am in seeing a new companion, it’s a shame for the actors who have such great chemistry to be parting ways as camraderie, writing, and acting are all coming together so fantastically.

    Geronimo!

  • GeeksAreMyPeeps

    In the Dinosaurs on a Spaceship thread I commented that I wondered what was on the Doctor’s Christmas list. Now we have a hint:
    “Anachronistic electricity, Keep Out signs, aggressive stares – has someone been peeking at my Christmas list?”

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