Monday, July 15, 2013

The Mild Mild West

When judges on talent shows open their comments with “Let me just start by saying, you look great!” I tend to take the cynical view that they really don’t have much worthwhile to say about the contestant’s rendition of a pop classic.

So, following my rewatch of Doctor Who’s Western entry for Series 7, A Town Called Mercy, let me just start by saying, it looks great. No, it really does, I’m not just saying that. The production team in days of yore could never have afforded all that location work in Spain. Visually, it captures the Western well and primes the viewer for some terrific rootin-tootin adventure.

But essentially all we really get is a passable rendition of a popular classic.

Just as DinosaursOn A Spaceship riffs on daft Hollywood actioners, this riffs on classic Westerns – High Noon, Rio Bravo, El Dorado spring immediately to mind – and many a Star Trek level morality play. Unfortunately, to go with the convincing Western visuals, they choose to confirm these sci-fi roots by featuring a very Star Trek alien (human with token cosmetic feature) and a Star Trek Borg gunslinger. They then go on to incorporate a fairly typical Star Trek feeble ploy into the Doctor’s cunning resolution. Although in fairness to Star Trek I don’t recall an episode where people stuck crinkle-cut chips on their noses and wore dangly ear-rings to pass as Bajorans. But I stand by to be corrected on that score.

In short, it’s all too familiar and like many a talent show performer it’s really not bringing much that’s new to the borrowed material. There are strings of entertaining and amusing notes (the Doctor’s relationship with his equine companion, Susan, for one thing; “anyone who’s not an American, throw down your gun” etc) but it lacks the depth and emotion that a morality tale of this (potential) complexity deserves.

A shame, because there are touches of brilliance. It’s beautifully framed as a legend of the West, narrated in part by the great granddaughter of the young girl we see momentarily during the tale. There’s a dramatic start with the cyborg hunting down one victim and declaring there is only one more to be terminated: the Doctor. Even if the cyborg does look A Bit Rubbish (TM).

It’s when the Doctor shows up in town and reveals he’s an alien that it all starts to unravel a bit. The residents turn on him and cart him off to the town limits, despite the fact that he’s obviously not the alien doctor with whom they’re familiar. The one who’s been with them for weeks and has given them ‘lectrics’ and saved them from a cholera epidemic. The one with the snakey green tattoo on his face. That one.

It’s an easy mistake to make. After all, the cyborg – developed as an advanced weapon by said alien doctor – makes a similar error later on.

You know how it is: you’re a cyborg out for revenge on your creators, you’ve made it your mission to hunt down these men and your computerised brain has only sufficient processing power to cope with one identifying mark to single out your targets. Well, except for when the sheriff dons the garb of the alien doctor to act as a decoy. Then you’ll lock onto that instead.

But you don’t want to hurt innocents. Which is why you set up the perimeter around the town and are laying siege to the good folks of Mercy, coming for anyone who steps over the line and (probably) starving them to death until they hand over your sworn enemy.

Actually, it’s kind of a ridiculous setup when you think about it, isn’t it? But never mind. You’re a deranged cyborg, your programming’s faulty, you can be excused.

Other characters meanwhile are obliged to act rashly simply to inject drama into the proceedings. The writer (Toby Whithouse) hamstrings himself somewhat with the scenario. He’s written himself into a corner of a jail cell. In a siege nothing much happens unless the besieged take action. So naturally the Doctor has to throw a wobbly, march alien war criminal Kahler Jex to his execution and hold a gun on him. So close on the heels of his execution of Solomon (in Dinosaurs On A Spaceship) we really have to worry about the Doctor’s mental health. And we have to have the strange situation where Amy is having to remind the Doctor (at gunpoint) that he doesn’t just go around killing people.

At which point, Sheriff Isaac gives his life to save the alien war criminal. This is a waste, not just because Ben Browder is the only convincing American in the cast (not to mention great – but forgive my bias, I’m a Farscape fan.) But primarily because his death isn’t dwelt on nearly sufficiently. It should be the cog on which the whole plot turns and while it probably is the trigger which eventually persuades Jex to sacrifice his own life not enough is made of it to properly underpin Jex’s subsequent actions.

There’s a very familiar scene where the townsfolk gather outside the jail to try to coerce the Doctor into handing his ‘prisoner’ over, followed by a semi-interesting discussion between the Doctor and Jex, lending some insight into the Kahler views on the afterlife. But it’s all a little ‘lite’ and questions of alien war criminals and justice and general Star Trek level morality have all been addressed more proficiently and substantially by the likes of Babylon 5. (See Passing Through Gethsemane or Deathstalker.) It’s possible they’ve also been done better in Star Trek.

Whithouse is a better writer than this would have you believe. While the alien invasion plot of School Reunion was weak, his ability to write a moving and affecting emotional story was never in doubt. Here, likewise, the human moments are the strongpoints but they’re not nearly strong enough.

There’s some great dialogue, Smith is in his element, clearly having lots of fun and there are plenty of highlights that add up to a better episode than the impression given by this short review.

But even at its brightest and best, I was left with the feeling that more could have been done at every turn. Like I said, it hits some decent notes but finished, for me, as that most difficult of standards on which to comment: the distinctly average.

In a sense it’s a bit like Phil Collins’ Another Day In Paradise: it raises profound issues but rarely rises above the superficial. And it’s a karaoke version at that.

Maybe that’s the right depth for a Saturday evening sci-fi adventure show, for an audience expected to tune into The Voice or The X Factor after Doctor Who.

But I wanted more. What can I say, some of the judges on this Doctor Who panel are really demanding.

Next Time...

The Power Of Three.


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