"“We all carry our prisons with us. Mine is my past, yours is your morality.”
As the mini-season of Doctor Who ‘standalone movies’ continues, this week we get the first attempt at an actual genre piece – the genre in question being the Western. The show’s tried doing one before, with questionable results in 1965’s The Gunfighters, which gave us this untrammelled musical classic from an offscreen Linda Baron (and, occasionally, Peter Purves):
This episode, however, directly confronts the issue of the Doctor’s morality, and how far he’s prepared to go. We needn’t be too shocked by the gun, which ultimately he declines to use. As with the best stories, he relies on his ingenuity, sending the gunslinger out after decoys to keep the town safe. And when Jex answers his own moral dilemma by blowing himself and his ship to bits, the Doctor’s prepared to see Kahler Tek as a victim as much as a villain, and entrust him with the town’s safekeeping from now on.
If the episode has a notable failing, it’s that it does seem to move quite slowly as a plot. Perhaps that’s due to the complex moral issues being debated by some well-drawn characters, but equally possibly, it’s that Leone influence again. Let’s not forget, Once Upon a Time in the West opens with a whole 15 minute sequence of gunslingers waiting for Charles Bronson’s arrival at a station in which nothing happens – and yet it’s a masterclass in building tension. A Town Called Mercy may not have time in its 45 minute runtime for that kind of operatic grandeur, but it certainly has a more measured pace than last week’s enjoyably frenetic offering.
A pretty good guest cast breathed life into Whithouse’s characteristically thoughtful dialogue (although some of the townsfolk’s American accents seemed a mite shaky). Aside from Browder’s likeable turn as Isaac, the standout was prolific character actor Adrian Scarborough, who imbued the nuanced character of Kahler Jex with pathos and likeability despite his crimes. His description of his people’s afterlife, climbing a rock carrying the souls of all those you’ve wronged, was beautifully written and delivered, giving his ultimate sacrifice a natural tear jerking quality far removed from the show’s frequent contrivance in this area.
Andrew Brooke as the gunslinger was suitably scary while also being sympathetic, not an easy trick to carry off from under all those prosthetics. Mind you, the design was very reminiscent of Red Dwarf’s simulants:
And the idea of a beloved British sci fi show doing a Western also recalled that show’s classic episode Gunmen of the Apocalypse. Not a bad thing necessarily, but difficult to avoid for viewers of my age!
I thought this was an excellent episode, though my love of Westerns probably makes me less than objective here. It had real depth and complexity, while there was enough classic cowboy action to keep kids entertained. There was also some more hinting about Amy and Rory’s life passing by with occasional Doctor-visits, and what may be a developing theme about the Doctor’s morality, something Steven Moffat seems to keep returning to. Overall, another bullseye at making a movie-style episode in a season which so far has been more consistently enjoyable than last year. Next week it’s back to Chris Chibnall on scripting duties, but his effort last week makes me less trepidatious about that than I might once have been…