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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

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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