Sunday, June 28, 2015

Aragon vs. Anderson: A Town Called Mercy

Now that I have a few minutes free, I thought I'd go back to one of my great passions...bashing The Whorist (or as it's generally known, The Nerdist), in particular their Doctor Who reviews by one Kyle Anderson.

Mr. Anderson (now doesn't that sound sinister) in my view, has rarely if ever met a Doctor Who post-Rose story that he hasn't loved.  I don't mean liked.  I mean L-O-V-E-D, to where that particular episode is the Best Doctor Who Episode of All Time...until the next episode when THAT becomes the Best Doctor Who Episode of All Time.  It's gotten to be almost a point of parody to see how Anderson rarely finds fault with a Doctor Who episode.  I don't mean just to nitpick on a few things.  I mean give a bona-fide negative review.  Even I, someone who has been vociferous in my condemnation for many NuWho episodes, do admit when I see a good one (like Flatline or Mummy on the Orient Express).  Anderson, however, will almost always find something to wax rhapsodic about, even on something as atrocious as In the Forest of the Night

I was intrigued by this, so a little research was required.  I went as far back as I could regarding Anderson's Doctor Who reviews, and the earliest one I could find was the Series/Season Six opener, The Impossible Astronaut.  What I've done is taken Kyle Anderson's review verbatim, and offered my own 'translation' to the text to see what Anderson is, in my view, really saying.  I also throw in my own thoughts as to what is being said.

I hope this will be a fun and informative journey into the strange mind of the Functioning Nerd.

I present Part 17 of The Nerdist as Whore: A Town Called Mercy.  My 'translations' are in red.

It has been said elsewhere that the TARDIS is not simply a time and space machine; it is also a genre machine: Step out of its familiar blue doors and enter any kind of story the writer’s mind can concoct.

Given the recent spate of NuWho writers, one shudders at what will happen next.

With “Asylum of the Daleks,” we had horror; with “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship,” we had comedy; and now with “A Town Called Mercy,” we have, ostensibly, a Western. Sort of.

With "Asylum of the Daleks," we had a horrible episode; with "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship," we had an embarrassment; and now with "A Town Called Mercy," we have, ostensibly, a clichéd Western. 

In the entire nearly-50 year history of the show, there has only been one other attempt at the Western, the First Doctor story “The Gunfighter,” a serial that was mostly a comedy despite the OK Corral setting and quite a well-shot gunfight to go with it.

Maybe I shouldn't quibble on the fact that the First Doctor story has been given the overarching title The Gunfighters (plural), not The Gunfighter (singular) as Anderson maintains.  I'm sure it was a typo (and we've all had them).  The Gunfighters (plural) was the last Classic Doctor Who story to have individual titles for episodes, and the next story, the now-lost four-parter The Savages, began the tradition of having "Episode 1", etc. for the rest of the series' original run.  I suppose it was comic, but by goodness was The Gunfighters a dreadful Doctor Who story.  If I'm honest, A Town Called Mercy is actually BETTER than The Gunfighters, especially with that damn Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon playing an average of once every three minutes!  The song was played or heard 34 times in around two hours...a horrible ditty that would cause screaming frenzies to the hearer.  If only THIS story were lost...

It’s difficult, I’d imagine, for a show as supremely British as Doctor Who to tackle something as supremely American (or Italian) as the Western. “A Town Called Mercy” has all the physical trappings that one would immediately point to as belonging to the Cowboy movie, but there was something strangely missing, something that WAS present in “Dinosaurs.”

For all the sets and costumes and settings, this is the second time Doctor Who bombs with a Western setting.  Maybe they should leave those to The Duke, not The Doctor. 

Landing in the middle of nowhere in the 1880s, the Doctor, Amy, and Rory come across a town called Mercy (get it?!?)

Yes, I thought it was pretty stupid too.

which is surrounded by rocks and logs creating a perimeter. Upon entering the saloon and pronouncing himself, the townsfolk run him out as a mysterious cyborg called “The Gunslinger” teleports ever-closer.

Obviously, the citizens of Mercy are Classic Who fans who can no longer endure Matt Smith.

The town’s marshal, Isaac (guest star Ben Browder), saves the Doctor and takes them all to his office, where he’s introduced to the OTHER Doctor, Kahler Jex, the town’s benevolent physician who is being pursued by the Gunslinger. Taking a visit to Jex’s spaceship (which was not in the plan), the Doctor discovers that Jex and others were responsible for genetically-engineering their own people to be the perfect weapons, which ended the Kahler’s 9-year war in a week. Knowing Kahler to be a war criminal that has perpetuated hundreds of atrocities, the Doctor decides to push him out of the town for the Gunslinger to kill. The Doctor claims that he won’t let more people die because of his “mercy,” the same mercy he’s shown to the Daleks, the Master, and many others time and time again.

Oh sure, he has no problem letting the Master live, the Daleks live, all these villains he's been fighting all these years, but now all of a sudden he's going to throw the guy who saved Mercy from cholera to the Terminator...I mean, Gunslinger. 

The real conflict of the episode exists within the Doctor. He can’t wrap his brain around Jex being both a butcher and a savior, and it’s his own inner turmoil about having done the same thing during the Time War (though it’s never spoken out loud) that makes him react the way he does.


After Isaac is killed (he should have been in it much longer)


by the Gunslinger, accidentally of course,

Of course.

the Doctor becomes the marshal and must find a way to save Jex without the entirety of Mercy being slaughtered by the Gunslinger in the process.

I guess that answers the age-old question, "Who died and made you Marshal?"

Now, as I said, on the surface, this is a Western in the traditional sense; it takes place in a totally deserted small town; there is a town lawman who is the moral authority of the place; there’s horses and guns and Stetsons; and there’s even a showdown at High Noon.

We've got all the accoutrements of what a Western is supposed to look like, right down to a showdown at High Noon.  Talk about cliché overload!  He forgot to mention the shady ladies, which I figure given the town was essentially on lockdown would have come in handy in Mercy. 

Shooting the episode in Almeria, Spain, in one of the very standing towns built for Sergio Leone’s Italian Westerns of the ’60s (not to mention a few dozen thereafter) added an air of legitimacy to the look and the visual style of the episode.

It certainly made a lot more sense than when John Nathan-Turner sent the crew to Seville to shoot The Two Doctors despite there being no point to the setting...or the story really, but I digress.

They even got a genuine American in the form of Browder, someone with sufficient geek cred to boot, to be the marshal.

I guess...not having seen Browder in anything, I am not in a position to 'geek out' at a guest appearance.  I had to look who he was up, and yes, I've never seen either Farscape or Stargate SG-1.  I can say that Browder's Marshal would have made a better Companion than Amy and What's-His-Name, but like The God Complex's Rita and both Riddell and Nefertiti from Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, good Companion material is tossed in favor of The Bitch and The Wimp.  NuWho is too terrified to have a Companion a.) from Earth's past, b.) from Earth's future, and/or c.) not from Earth.  Instead, we're stuck with 21-Century foxes...

They certainly did everything they could to make us all think we were watching a real, honest-to-goodness Horse Opera.

Complete with Talking Horses (in a roundabout way)!

But, Toby Whithouse’s script lacked the most important element: a bad guy. Seems easy, doesn’t it? And they certainly had a character who LOOKED like the bad guy, but he wasn’t.

I absolutely love Westerns, so please forgive me this brief history.

Allow me to show off, because you, Nerdist readers, are either too stupid or ignorant of Westerns to understand the subtleties of the genre.  Also, I have to lengthen the review while not mentioning all the awful things about it.  

Hollywood Westerns generally had a good guy, a “White Hat,” who was often a sheriff or a marshal and they and possibly a few deputies or other helpers defended their town from the “Black Hats,” or bad guys. You’ll find this in movies like Rio Bravo or My Darling Clementine. In the case of something like High Noon, which at least partly inspired this episode, the sheriff is on his own as the town has essentially turned its back on him, but he still defends them. In all of these films, the key is that the good guy is defending the town and its people from bad guys who want to do bad things.

The other variation is an heroic stranger who comes through town and, though perhaps he doesn’t want to, he defends the town out of nothing but duty. The best example of this is Shane. With Spaghetti Westerns (or Westerns made by Italian filmmakers for Italian/Spanish/West German audiences), the tropes became a lot more cynical. The “White Hat” didn’t wear a white hat and wasn’t overly good, usually helping people out of his own desire for money, which is the case in movies like A Fistful of Dollars and Django. The “Black Hats,” however, couldn’t have been more evil, often committing really horrifying and violent acts with a delight that caused many of these films to be censored in a lot of places, especially the UK.

Oh, Robert Osborne, where art thou?  Meet your replacement when you finally retire.  No, not Hollywood scion/lefty/At the Movies assassin Ben Mankiewicz, but Kyle "Analytical Critic's Mind" Anderson...

I give you this context so that I may make this point: All of these Westerns have a very clear, discernible, and reprehensible villain.

ALL Westerns, Mr. Anderson?

In this, there are two possible villains, each with a point of view that is, if not condonable, at least understandable. It went along okay for a bit; the Gunslinger was scary and seemingly unstoppable and the nice alien doctor was the innocent victim of his unexplained wrath. Then, we find out that Jex has done inhumane and deadly experiments in an effort to win a war, not unlike Davros when he created the Daleks. Our sympathy then switches from the doctor to the Gunslinger. Revenge stories are one of the most powerful and prevalent in the Western genre. However, we’re meant, through the Doctor’s conversations with both Amy and Jex, to come down on the side that there are no black and whites in any situation.

Moral ambiguity.  Works in real life.  In Westerns, not so in Unforgiven.

This is the problem.

Yeah, because A Town Called Mercy was EXCELLENT apart from that...

This story BADLY needed a villain.

This story BADLY needed a villain...and a hero...and good actors...and a good script...

Not just to fulfill its Western roots, but to give it some kind of tension. This type of setting needs certain constants. Either Jex or the Gunslinger had to be a true villain, and since both somewhat redeemed themselves by the end, it made everything that came before it happen in vain. I understand this is what Whithouse was going for, making us not side with anyone outright; fine, I get that. But this comes only one week after an episode that, for all its zaniness, had an unbelievably evil villain who would have been perfect in a story like this. And, if the point was that the Doctor should be above revenge or killing no matter how justified, then why show us that immediately after he allows Solomon to be taken out entirely for doing essentially the same thing that Jex did.

Oh, you want consistency in Doctor Who?  You want logic in Doctor Who?  My dear Kyle, haven't you heard...

If the Doctor’s going to learn the lesson that killing is wrong regardless of motivation, then he needed to be defending someone as bad as Solomon, not himself.

This could have, and I think should have been a Good/Bad/Ugly setup, with the Doctor representing the “Good,” Jex representing the “Bad,” and the Gunslinger representing the “Ugly.” As it stands, we had a Pretty Good/Fairly Bad/Somewhat Ugly setup and it just didn’t work.

OMG...did Kyle Anderson say something on Doctor Who didn't work?  Where art thou, Captain Renault?

Westerns, at least in the early days, were morality plays that worked because the hero had to be faced with ultimate villainy. This tried to be a morality play where everyone was basically the same. The Doctor refused to hurt anybody, Jex repented his past crimes, and the Gunslinger didn’t want innocents to be in the way. There are no stakes at this point. When nobody is doing anything at each other, it becomes a pretty boring Mexican standoff. How boring is it?

It's so boring they can only afford One God...I mean, even I fell asleep at it!

The resolution comes when one person kills themselves and is said to have done the “honorable” thing. Clearly, Toby Whithouse hasn’t seen as many Westerns as I’d have thought if he thinks someone committing suicide would ever have been seen as the high road in a John Ford film. Sacrifice? Sure, but not suicide.

Suicide as the 'honorable' thing.  Such a British mindset, innit? 

At any rate, this was my main problem with the show.

Not the 'talking horse' shit, right?  That was peachy-keen. 

It wasn’t a Western and it wasn’t an adventure; basically, it squandered the fantastic location and some more phenomenal direction by Saul Metzstein. Even Murray Gold, who I’m not the hugest fan of, got to play around with familiar themes. When the Doctor rides away on Joshua/Susan, the music cue is very reminiscent of The Magnificent Seven. It’s just kind of a shame. This was a very dull episode.

Kyle Anderson recognizing that a Doctor Who episode in general and A Town Called Mercy in particular was dull? 

In the words of Phineas Fogg, perhaps I should 'curtail the jubilation'.  This might be his traditional "one negative review per season" routine, and next time he'll be back to telling me how he loved that particular episode.  However, given how often he said, and I quote, "I'm quite looking forward" to A Town Called Mercy, maybe, just this once, the disappointment is genuine. 

Next week, we’re going back to Chris Chibnall already for “The Power of Three,” which I know very little about and am extremely intrigued by given the trailer. Check it out!

Thank Heavens this nightmare is over, and now on to an episode I know very little about but which I'm going to gush over ad nauseam. 

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