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New Who 7.3 A Town Called Mercy

And now, for my return train journey, let us consider the matter of A Town Called Mercy.

History and past continuity

Like Dinosaurs, this story is dealing with the past, but this time within an actual historical setting. And guess what? There are marked resonances with the programme’s own history too. It’s not just that any Wild West story inevitably recalls The Gunfighters - the references to that are quite conscious and deliberate, like the Eleventh Doctor asking for a cup of tea in the Saloon Bar, just as the First Doctor asked for a glass of milk back in Tombstone. In fact, Wikipedia tells me that the original working title for The Gunfighters was The Gunslingers.

Much more exciting for me, though, was the Doctor’s line, “That’s not right” when he spotted the presence of anachronistic electric lights. Because that is exactly what Susan says when she reads Barbara’s book about the French Revolution in the very first episode of Doctor Who, and I liked what it says about the programme’s approach to the past so much that I borrowed it for the title of my Classical Association paper on the subject two years ago. The resonances are a little different this time. In Susan’s mouth, the line refers to misunderstandings in the history book she is reading, while in the Doctor’s mouth in Town it signals that something is wrote with history itself. But in either context it evokes the superior perspective of the time-traveller, who knows Earth’s history better than its inhabitants, and in Town it must surely be a deliberate reference to Who's own history, too.


References beyond Who

The Gunslinger not only looking like the Terminator, but using the word ‘terminate’ to describe his executions.

Everyone dashing around with Jex’s tattoo painted on to their faces, in ‘I’m Spartacus’ style.

The fact that the story was filmed at Fort Bravo and Oasys in Spain, also used for many a Spaghetti Western – particularly nice for me, as I have been to Fort Bravo myself on a family holiday, stood in the very Saloon where the Doctor ordered his tea and witnessed a staged gun-fight in front of it.


Kahler Jex and the Doctor

Obviously the central issue of this story is whether worthy motivations (trying to bring a war to an end) and a sense of guilt afterwards are enough to excuse torture and abuse. It was good to see this made an issue of debate between the characters, for example with Rory being very clear that Jex was a war criminal while Isaac the Marshall only saw how he had helped the people of Mercy – a bit like Barbara and Ian debating the rights and wrongs of the French Revolution in The Reign of Terror. Interestingly, what really tipped the Doctor into a gun-toting rage was not the simple fact of Jex and what he had done, but Jex telling the Doctor that the two of them were alike – so there are still some big guilt issues there, although whether it’s about the Time War now, what happened to River Song or something else, I don’t know. Anyway, put next to his treatment of Solomon in the previous episode, it is clearly supposed to be leading somewhere.


Weaknesses

There were some aspects of this story which didn’t really stand up, though. The complete reversal in the Doctor’s attitude towards Jex after Isaac the Marshall got killed protecting him needed a bit more development; so did the townspeople’s sudden desire to hand Jex over to the Gunslinger after all; Rory had altogether too little to do; and it seemed something of a cop-out for Kahler Jex to neatly resolve all the moral issues at the end by just killing himself. There is also an odd inconsistency in Amy’s stance on how often she and Rory get to travel with the Doctor. In Dinosaurs she was complaining that it had been months since they had last seen him and worrying that he was weaning them off him, and half-way through this episode she identifies the Doctor’s willingness to hand Kahler Jex over to the Gunslinger as the result of him travelling on his own too much. But by the end of the story she is asking him if they can leave it for a while nonetheless, in case their friends start noticing that Amy and Rory are ageing more quickly than them. I gather from reviews of The Power of Three that references to Henry VIII and Rory’s phone charger may suggest we’re seeing the stories this season in a different order from the way the characters are experiencing them, so maybe Amy’s attitudes would become more consistent when seen in the right order.


Cool bits

The horse called Susan who wants people to respect his life choices.

The preacher was black, and he didn’t die!

The Doctor pulling out his Sonic Screwdriver in classic shoot-out style when the Gunslinger arrives in the town.


Future implications

The opening of the story reminds us forcefully of the Doctor’s erased identity by playing around with our expectations. We leap to assuming from the opening dialogue that the Gunslinger is hunting down our Doctor, but of course he isn’t and he can’t be – everyone believes he is dead, the Daleks no longer even remember that he ever existed, and Solomon's universal scanner in Dinosaurs could not identify him. So Moffat wants us not to forget this, and we can be pretty sure this is going to matter later in the series.

I also notice that all three of the stories I’ve seen so far have essentially been about parasites. Kahler Jex has taken refuge in the town of Mercy, and persuaded the people to like and protect him, but he does not really belong there and is using it partly as a hiding place and partly to assuage his own guilt. Solomon had much more aggressively tricked his way onto the Silurian ark, and expelled the original inhabitants for his own ends. And Oswin too, although she didn’t mean to invade the Dalek Asylum and was profoundly changed herself as a result, still ended up creating her own life amongst the mad Daleks, and using Dalek technology and her access to the path-web for her own ends.

Perhaps related to this is the theme of eggs. Kahler Jex’s ship looks like an egg; we saw broken dinosaur eggs on the floor of the ark in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship; and Rory thought the Daleks wanted eggs in Asylum while Oswin needed them in her soufflé. Eggs can belong to parasites, of course, as for example with the various types of wasps who lay their young inside living spiders, larvae or insects. And if Dalek nanogenes were still inside the Doctor’s brain, slowly transforming him, that would be the act of a parasite too. I look forward to seeing how this will develop.


And now I think I deserve to finally watch The Power of Three...

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Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
parrot_knight
Sep. 30th, 2012 01:10 am (UTC)
I was impressed that it wasn't thought necessary to spell out for the audience explicitly that there were parallels between Jex and the Doctor, in the way that might have been done in the RTD period. Strongly implicit, yes, and asserted by Jex, but we didn't get vast amounts of backstory or confessional from the Doctor. He has, after all, told us it all before.

I'd not thought of the egg/parasite analogy. It carries on into The Power of Three, at least twice over; and into the smashed vases and the eponymous villains of The Angels Take Manhattan.
strange_complex
Sep. 30th, 2012 09:54 am (UTC)
Yes, eggs and parasites were indeed definitely there in The Power of Three! Will hopefully have time to find out how they carry over into Angels shortly.

BTW, sorry about almost this entire entry being in italics when you read it. I've only just spotted and fixed that this morning.
danieldwilliam
Oct. 1st, 2012 02:18 pm (UTC)
Aye - there's a bit of the parasite theme about the Angels, depending on your POV.

Not sure how the egg parasite theme carried on the Power of Three. I wasn't watching it very closely.
viscount_s
Sep. 30th, 2012 11:04 am (UTC)
"Everyone dashing around with Jex’s tattoo painted on to their faces, in ‘I’m Spartacus’ style."

..actually I couldn't help but think of 'The 3 Amigos' :)
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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