Saturday, September 15, 2012

A Town Called Mercy: Only The Wind And The Dust Heard It Say, Do You Believe In The Westworld?

Throughout its near forty nine years, Doctor Who has exhibited a whole tiding of magpie-like qualities when it comes to the generic patchwork of the areas which it operates in. Or, to put it in slightly less prosaic, swallowed-a-dictionary terms, it's been a show which has - often - presented, shall we be kind and say homages to rather than rip-off's from other TV series, movies and classic literature. And, in doing so, hoped that the majority of its audience wouldn't notice. Which, to be fair, for a long time, most of them didn't. Nice trick if you can pull it off. This has happened at various times during the show's existence but it was, especially, prevalent during a period of three years in the mid-1970s when yer actual Tom Baker his very self was playing The Doctor, the show was being produced by a man named Philip Hinchcliffe and script edited by one of the drama's finest ever writers, the late Robert Holmes. Holmes was a big fan of classic horror and encouraged his writers to sample numerous external texts in Doctor Who's aesthetic. Thus, for instance, the series produced free-form near-adaptations of several classic monster stories like King Kong (as Robot), The Quatermass Experiment (The Ark In Space and Seeds of Doom), Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (Terror of the Zygons and The Android Invasion), The Mummy (Pyramids of Mars), Frankenstein (The Brain of Morbius), The Beast With Five Fingers (The Hand of Fear), R.U.R mixed with Metropolis (The Robots of Death), The Manchurian Candidate (The Deadly Assassin) and The Bride of Fu Manchu (The Talons of Weng-Chiang). They did it brilliantly, let it be said, and this cunning juxtaposition of horror motifs and cod SF elements conspired to scare the living bejesus out of lots of seven and eight year olds and send notorious full-of-her-own-importance interfering old busybody Mary Whitehouse into neo-stationary orbit. For some fans of the show Doctor Who has never reached those heights since. (For others, this blogger included, that's misty-eyed, nostalgic codswallop - the era had just as many clunkers as most others and some of the so-called 'masterpieces' are actually, with the benefit of hindsight, nothing of the kind. But, that's an argument for another day.)

I mention all of the above because Doctor Who had always rather enjoyed taking risks with its format and dipping its collective toe into genres one would normally consider to be off-limits for a popular long-running family SF drama to go anyway near. The Western, for instance. The genre of John Wayne, Gary Cooper and Clint Eastwood. Of Stagecoach, The Searchers, My Darling Clementine, High Noon, The Good The Bad & The Ugly and High Plains Drifter. Doctor Who even, once, had a go at that genre. A long time ago, admittedly, dear blog reader. Long before most of you were born, I'll warrant. In 1966 with a four-part story called The Gunfighters - a variant on Gunfight At The OK Corral which had then, and still retains, a reputation slightly lower than a rattlesnake's belly amongst the cognoscenti. (Again, being the contrary so-and-so that he is, yer actual Keith Telly Topping has always rather liked The Gunfighters seeing it for what it is, a, mostly amusing, attempt to do something a bit different.) Which brings us to the show's second Western, A Town Called Mercy. And a very different beast indeed. Because, as noted, if there's one thing that Doctor Who had always done rather well it's taking a basic premise for a film and then stretching such a conceit over the show's own framework to, in a process rather like making a boat, fashion something which is, at once, recognisably, Doctor Who and yet, also, if you know what you're looking for, a clear rip-off, sorry, a clear homage to a particular cultural text. In the case of A Town Called Mercy, that source text appears to be a particularly fine, rather bleak 1973 SF movie called Westworld written and directed by Michael Crichton and starring Yul Brynner which has something of a cult following. Both A Town Called Mercy and Westworld feature the idea of a rogue cyborg in the dustbowl setting of the American West. Matt Smith isn't in Westworld, however, so that's probably the point where this blogger should shut up rabbiting on about where Toby Whithouse might've got his ideas for the script from and get back to talking about a really very good episode indeed of Doctor Who.

The Doctor gets a Stetson (and a gun!), and finds himself the reluctant Marshall of a Western town under siege by a relentless cyborg. That's the essential set-up of A Town Called Mercy. The first thing to say about the episode is that it looks stunning. Sumptuously directed by Saul Metzstein, mostly on location in Almería in Southern Spain, where The Magnificent Seven, A Fistful of Dollars and Once Upon A Time In The West were also shot, it carried all of the necessary period details to convince the viewer they're in 1880s Arizona. The story begins with the production team's current big fixation, a voiceover to bookend the drama. We are told of 'a man who fell from the star' who 'lived forever but whose eyes were heavy from the weight of all that he'd seen.' Then The Doctor, Rory and Amy arrive at Mercy (having missed Mexico by two hundred miles), with its eighty one residents. Eighty of them human. A town of 'anachronistic electricity, Keep Out signs, aggressive stares.' No wonder The Doctor wonders if someone has 'been peeking at my Christmas list.' 'I see Keep Out signs as suggestions rather than actual orders,' he reveals. Which, frankly, explains much. It gets even better (or, you know, worse, depending on your frame of reference) as the Time Travelling trio enter the local saloon and the piano immediately stops playing. And, before you can say 'don't get many strangers 'round 'ere,' The Doctor is being carried to the town limits by nervous locals. Perhaps, to be sacrificed to their Pagan Gods. You know, a bit like Leicester on a Friday night. Anyway, the town sheriff (Farscape and Stragate SG-1's Ben Browder in a terrific, if sadly rather short-lived role), prevents a lynching (or, actually, a 'dumping outside of town,' and left to the, ahem, if you will, mercy of 'a mysterious space cowboy assassin' technically) and takes The Doctor to meet the source of all this discombobulation, the town doctor (a fabulous performance from Adrian Scarborough). Who, also happens to be an alien. Not that the townsfolk are too bothered by this, since he's cured a Cholera epidemic and given them electricity, so they're quite prepared to be welcoming. Until his hat-shooting Terminator-like nemesis (Andrew Brooke) turns up. 'He shoots people hats?'
'That's what you said when you left your phone charger in Henry VIII's en-suite.' Saddle up, then, faithful viewer, for a classic revenge Western scenario. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid meets The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford down the back alley for a shot of red-eye and bit of back-shooting with Randy the Cowpoke. Except, that A Town Called Mercy is so much more than just High Noon retooled with Terminator-riffs and a sonic screwdriver. This is a story about atonement for war crimes; about guilt and redemption. An ethical debate on the nature of forgiveness and the morality of justice in which The Doctor finds himself straddling a bewildering line of moral uncertainty. One in which it's Amy's job to try to talk him down from a position of doing either the wrong thing for the right reason or the right thing for the wrong reason. Because, like the man once said, there are few things like life that are black and white and those that are are usually Laurel and Hardy movies. And right and wrong are usually involved in most decisions. When Rory argues that Jex, as a war criminal should be handed over to The Gunslinger without any further ado, Amy is furious. 'We don't execute people, did I miss that memo?' Turning to The Doctor for support she finds only a very confused and distracted Time Lord. 'Yes. I don't know. Whatever Amy said.'

A Town Called Mercy is a beautiful, lyrical, touching piece - with a pacifist message wrapped up in blankets that are coloured with shades of deepest grey. It's a dark, troubling episode, full of moments of extraordinary depth and grace. For the second week running Matt Smith gets to display the occasional glimpse of white-hot, incandescent anger in The Doctor at the horrors the universe sometimes places in front of him. Yet he's sanguine enough to note: 'Frightened people. Give me a Dalek any day.' 'War is another world, you can't apply the politics of peace to what I did' Kahler-Jex notes as he fills in the background to The Gunslinger's creation. And then we get one of the most memorably dramatic sequences the show has done for ages as Jex tells The Doctor: 'Looking at you, Doctor, is like looking into a mirror. Almost. There's rage there, like me. Guilt, like me. Solitude. Everything but the nerve to do what needs to be done.' The Doctor cracks an prepared to give Jex up to his executioner. 'When did killing someone become an option?' asks Amy, not unreasonably. The Doctor replies with an outburst that might become one of this generation's 'do you remember?' moments in years to come: 'Every time I negotiate, I try to understand. Not today. No, today, I honour the victims. His, The Masters', The Daleks'. All the people who died because of my mercy.' It's a good argument but it depresses Amy. 'See, this is what happens when you travel alone for too long. We have to be better than him.' Violence, as the episode points out in a suitably glorious pacifist metaphor, doesn't end violence, it extends it. 'We all carry our prisons with us.' Never a truer word.

I love A Town Called Mercy, dear blog reader. It pushed all of the right buttons for me. A thoughtful episode about important subjects, well-written and beautifully acted by all cornered. Whithouse's dialogue sang: 'Everyone who isn't an American, drop your weapons!' for one. 'I speak "Horse", he's called Susan and he wants you to respect his life-choices,' for another. 'You're really letting him do this?' asks Amy as The Doctor prepares to carry out the worst act of his twelve hundred years. 'Save us all? Yes, I really am!' Rory replies. Here is an episode in which The Doctor - and, curiously, both Jex and The Gunslinger - find a difficult, torturous and circular route from hatred, through introspection, to empathy and, finally, magnificence. It's a piece of dramatic artifice which suggests that the way to atone for being a terrible person is, simply, to trust that those you've wronged will not hold it against you in the great scheme of things. A curiously moving message which I never expected to find at the end of a Doctor Who revenge Western. Extraordinary. I think Girl In The Fireplace might, just, have been replaced as my favourite Doctor Who episode.

For today's Keith Telly Topping's 45 of the Day, of course dear blog reader, here's Theatre of Hate.What else could it be?