Steve Goble

Choose life. (Deuteronomy 30:19)

Doctor: "What I don't understand is why you haven't just walked into town and killed him."

Never has the word 'showdown' been more appropriate.

This week's Doctor Who movie-riff is Cowboys & Aliens.

The Doctor, Amy and Rory land in the wild wild west, and immediately get mixed-up in a local feud between the people of Mercy, and a troublemaking outsider. Several of the usual western homages are carefully included here, so it ought to go without saying that before long the Doctor is indeed wearing the dead Sheriff's badge, and at high noon facing down the trigger-happy gunslinger, with his sonic.

The real science-fiction twist here is that said challenger is an alien cyborg seeking revenge on his creator - Dr Kahler-Jex - who for years has been holing himself up here as the town's physician.

The moral undertone is to conjure about with the word justice, which is where the script first loses its footing, as throughout the only version of justice under discussion is retribution. As you know, justice can look like deterrence, rehabilitation, restitution, restoration and even forgiveness, but for most of this story it is assumed to just mean retribution.

Doctor: "You committed an atrocity and chose this as your punishment. Don't get me wrong - good choice. Civilised hours, lots of adulation, nice weather, but, BUT… justice doesn't work like that! You don't get to decide when and how your debt is paid!"

Moral concepts can be great things to write stories about, but I do think simplifying them down into just the one facet is not the best way to go in a drama. Here it's particularly unfortunate in light of how last season the same author turned in The God Complex, which similarly sought to make observations about faith, while throughout merely treating it as a synonym for hope. I would encourage either embracing some of the broader subject's depth, or using the correct term.

Worth mentioning too here are the repeated references to belief in a deity throughout both scripts, regarding which this episode comes out better. Faced with the invasion of their town, the people hide en masse in the church where, unusually for any TV series, they actually pray about their predicament.

In your face, Father's Day!

But A Town Called Mercy's script has a lot more unrealised potential that I felt it ought to. The internal functioning of the plot lost me in several places. For example, I'm still none the wiser why the gunslinger wouldn't set foot in the village, or why he kept the villagers prisoner there rather than letting them leave so that he could go in and execute his quarry, or why he was trying to kill them if they left, and giving up so easily, so maybe I should watch it again. (I've just watched it again - no luck I'm afraid)

In one scene, the gunslinger tries to shoot Kahler-Jex, misses, and then, with his target standing literally right in front of him, leaves saying he'll instead come back tomorrow to kill him, and potentially all the other innocent townsfolk too. He can't be racked with guilt over accidentally killing the wrong guy, because he's planning to kill potentially the whole village now. I can't believe they filmed those actors standing right in front of each other saying those sentences. I must be missing something, or this doesn't even appear to be a story.

In the bar at the start, how could the townsfolk, knowing their friend Kahler-Jex to be the alien doctor that the gunslinger was after, mistake the Doctor for him? Serious question.

The gunslinger also has a teleport, which in other scenes he does the old cliché of completely forgetting about.

Matt Smith also gets a few tricky scenes to find motivation for in this. One is justifying the Doctor's now usual high profile aliveness during a period in his life while he is supposed to be pretending to be dead. Another is his very brief decision to become an accessory to murder. An enormous character change like that needs time to both develop and be repented of, but this episode tries to fit it all into the same moment.

Sheriff: "So, we wait here 'til the Doctor comes to pick us up in your ship."
Rory: "Yes. I know. I-I was there when we agreed it."
Sheriff: "Yeah. I said that more for my benefit than yours."

And that is all the dialogue in that scene. Ben Browder you have fallen so far.

Doctor: "This man is a murderer."
Kahler-Jex: "I am a scientist!"

Ha ha, that's a joke, right?

In the end, the whole problem is solved the easy way, by having a guest character conveniently choose to commit suicide. The instances of this in Doctor Who since its revival seven years ago are legion (look no further than the aforementioned God Complex and Father's Day), but A Town Called Mercy tries to get away with it twice. (admittedly though, still not as lazy as Voyage Of The Damned's thrice)

That said, A Town Called Mercy's second suicide is pulled off extremely well.

Kahler-Jex is racked with guilt over the deaths that he has caused. His blowing himself up not only makes him feel as though he is pleading guilty and paying a price, but also prevents his cat-and-mouse games with the gunslinger from causing any further grief to innocents around them. Still think he could have just shot his pursuer though.

The final conclusion, with the gunslinger finding a purpose to his existence as a killing machine by from now on protecting justice, sees the story finally move from justice's retribution component to restoration, but this gets nothing like the same examination, as don't its other qualities.

And as for making the gunslinger the new 'sheriff', when he can't even make up his mind whether or not to try and kill people who are innocent…

Not being a fan of westerns, I haven't watched many of them, but I suspect that they are not generally as drenched in music as this episode was. But maybe they are, how would I know. At least this one featured the dialogue clearly recorded for a change, so that it stood some chance against all the strumming.

And once again, the BBC also saw fit to release a prequel after the episode's transmission, this time by eight days. In retrospect, I actually think that was a good call, but only because it completely gives away the plot.

My many criticisms above might make it sound as though I hated this episode. In actual fact… well, no you're right, it start-to-finish didn't work for me, and this is almost entirely down to my disliking the script.

And yet, even in this B-movie, there is the occassional nugget of solid gold to be found…


Doctor: "Please don't do this."
Teen: "Why? Reckon you're quicker'n me?"
Doctor: "Almost certainly not, but this? Lynch mobs? Town turning against itself? This is everything Isaac didn't want!"
Doctor: "How old are you?"
Teen: "Nearly nineteen?"
Doctor: "That's eighteen then. Too young to have fought in the war, so I'm guessing you've never shot anyone before, have you?"
Teen: "First time for everything."
Doctor: "But that's how all this started. Jex turned someone into a weapon. Now that same story is gonna make you a killer too. Don't you see, violence doesn't end violence - it extends it. Nah I don't think you wanna do this. I don't think you wanna become that man."
Teen: "There's kids here."
Doctor: "I know, who I can save if you'll let me."
Teen: "He [JEX] really worth the risk?"
Doctor: "Don't know. But you are."

Sorry, but I still prefer The Gunfighters.

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