Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Corral Dilemma

Doctor Who
A Town Called Mercy
Series Seven, Episode Three

Goodie gumdrops, it’s Toby Whithouse!  I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for his episodes after the wonderful School Reunion, the hilarious Vampires Of Venice and really-good-in-places The God Complex.  He’s great at writing the Doctor, great at writing comedy, and well, he struggles with plots, but we can’t have everything.  A Town Called Mercy features that tricky premise, the moral dilemma.  They’re easy to set up, buggers to sort out.  How does he fare with this one?

Okay, so Kahler Jex is an alien doctor stuck in the town of Mercy.  He escaped his shadowy past and is repenting for it by helping the people there.  But one of the cyborgs he wronged is out to get him, and it’s only a matter of time before it gets impatient and wades into town to finish him off.  Once that’s done, it’ll go away.  What should the Doctor do?  After hilariously (and satisfyingly) planning to bundle everyone into the TARDIS and get out of there, which is always the unspoken obvious solution, but then not doing it when he finds out the truth, the Doctor’s left with a clear choice.  Boot Jex to his doom, or suffer the consequences.  (Or that TARDIS thing.  Just sayin’.)

Mysteriously not solving plots since 1963!
Jex is a war criminal, no doubt.  But as the local sheriff, Isaac points out, he’s also doing good work and that’s all the Mercy folk need concern themselves with.  Plus, Jex’s dark deeds ended a war and saved millions of lives.  What about that?  The men behind the atomic bomb have been grilled aplenty in reality and in fiction, and it always comes down to peace being bought with atrocities, and that being nobody’s ideal solution, but nonetheless appearing to be the only way out at the time.  There is no easy answer, especially once the bomb’s been dropped.  The only thing anyone can agree on is that nobody’s happy afterwards.

Does Jex deserve to die?  Depends who you ask.  (And anyway, some people wouldn’t consider death a punishment, as it precludes suffering.)  Does he deserve punishment?  Absolutely.  But isn’t there anything between killing him and letting him go?  No authorities on the homeworld to try him?  No chance that helping Mercy for the rest of his life counts as penance?  It’s a tricky one, so it’s enormously disappointing that after all that, Jex self-destructs his ship with him in it.  Oh.  Doesn’t make much difference from the cyborg shooting him, really, and wasn’t he more or less ready to die at the halfway point?  (Yeah, he was trying to talk his way out of it, but all he had to do was step backwards.  Some part of him seemed ready for the inevitable.)  No story should climax with something it did earlier.

It’s a deeply dud solution, leaving Mercy without the doctor Isaac died to protect and, yeah, rendering his death pointless.  Also the cyborg Gunslinger is appointed as Mercy’s new sheriff… but he’s a war criminal too, even if he was Only Following Orders.  Lest we forget, he shot Isaac dead.  If he gets to make peace in The Land Of Second Chances, why can’t Jex?  Wasn’t this guy a soldier before he was a cyborg?  What did he do in the war?  Was all of that forgiveable?

What’s really annoying about it is the way it leaves the Doctor out of the decision making.  At first he’s happy to throw Jex to his doom; his mercy over the years has racked up its own body count, so one more life, this time a guilty one, seems fair.  But really, does it?  Isn’t that tantamount to what Jex did – one life, to save a group?  He changes his mind when Amy rightfully (if obviously) points this out, and spends the rest of his time keeping the Mercyfolk at bay, eventually sending Jex to his ship, endangering them all anyway, surely marooning some other town in the same conflict and resolving little.  When Jex blows himself up, the Doctor can do nothing more than agonise on the sidelines (and, we must awkwardly conclude, thank his lucky stars that someone else took the plunge).  Jex could have taken this way out at any point.  Regardless of his (begrudging) moral yo-yoing, the Doctor ultimately doesn’t make a difference.  And that’s the opposite of what he’s supposed to do.

Brrr, it’s all getting a bit serious in here.  What else is there?  Well, Toby Whithouse’s aforementioned comedy skills are put to brief good use: the Doctor’s opinion of “Keep Out” signs and his conversation with a barmaid are hilarious enough.  (Finding out he can speak horse is perhaps one cutesy step too far, but oh well, they’re unlikely to go back to that.)  Matt Smith is good throughout, particularly when he first speaks to Jex after finding out the truth.  It’s understated bliss until he shouts at him, but eh, everybody shouts now and then.

Amy sort of shines here, being the one to keep the Doctor on track; a pity it’s such an obvious point to make, and a bigger pity she didn’t have this conversation with him last week when he successfully offed the bad guy.  It’s also a shame the observant Jex whittles Amy’s strengths down to her being a mother, which as it happens has impacted her personality in no way whatsoever.  If there is an important thing about Amy, it’s not the child she and Rory produced.  They’d have to have raised it for that to make any difference.  Rory gets nothing to do, something they make a joke out of; I’m not entirely happy with that, but what’s new?

No chance he could say "You seem like an all right
sort of bloke, sorry about this mess we're in"?
The guest cast is impressive, although Adrian Scarborough’s transition from loveable-but-preoccupied eccentric to the old We’re Not So Different, You And I is annoyingly jarring.  (Does absolutely every character ever put behind bars have to say that?)  He’s not wrong, of course, and the Doctor’s occasional bouts of genocide have been a cornerstone of the series since its return, but they don’t find any use here for the comparison.  The Doctor did commit ghastly acts to spare further ones, and his punishment is living with it while he helps people.  Jex is denied that option.  Annoying.

Anyway.  Ben Browder makes the potentially sugary-sweet Isaac seem plausible, and the American accent helps.  He could have given the extras a few tips.  What else?  The special effects are minimal, so they’re fine.  The narration at the start and the end is pointless, bookending the story with a redundant bit of misdirection.  I guess the Gunslinger looks cool.  I’m not sure he learned anything from all this; the scene where he spares a church-load of innocents is probably supposed to be moving, but it’s consistent with his behaviour since Minute #1.

This isn’t the first episode to grapple with a big question and shrug its shoulders in lieu of an answer.  But in any moral dilemma, the ending is everything, and this one didn’t satisfy me.  It’s no deus ex machina, but nor is it the Doctor tussling with a decision and learning from it, which is surely the point.

1 comment:

  1. This episode was total dreck. And painfully serious and unbearably BORING.

    Also, the resolution sucks. It's a lazy solution that could have happened at any point, Isaac died for nothing, and hey, since the Doctor killed loads of people to end a war maybe he should shut the hell up with his accusing moralising and actually come up with a proper ending.