Sunday, 30 September 2012

TV Review: Doctor Who 7.03 - A Town called Mercy

Is Series 7's third installment good, bad or ugly?

In simple terms, the third episode of Doctor Who's seventh series left me in a mental jumble. It made me wonder how Toby Whithouse, writer of such fantastic episodes as last year's The God Complex and the Russell T. Davies-era nostalgia fest School Reunion, could screw up something so badly to the point that even a casual viewer could rectify the flaws he creates in series 7 episode 3, A Town called Mercy. Yes, it pains me to say it, but this episode - one that had so much going for it judging from the trailers and such that preceded it - was pretty mediocre to say the least. It's kind of ironic to state that, however, because so much about this Western-themed 'epic' was executed to near-perfection, namely the direction, music, acting and the overall tone that these three things create. It's evidently clear that too much of the focus with this episode was on shoehorning in typical Western flick cliches as opposed to actually writing a sensical, brilliant tale, something that I know for a fact Whithouse is perfectly capable of doing both in Doctor Who and his own series Being Human (which, going off-topic slightly, you should all check out). It's when he overcoats a botched tale with historical or cult themes that he creates his own monstrosities - You only have to watch 2010's Vampires in Venice to see this theory in motion. At least that story made a lick of sense, though, 'cause this one's chock full of plot-holes and continuity errors the size of several Grand Canyons.

The Doctor, Amy and Rory enter a certain town called Mercy, unbeknownst to the badly-composed and ultimately pointless tale they're getting themselves into.
I'm actually in some way glad that this episode was terrible, because it makes it all the more easier to synopsise it. On each subsequent occasion I watched A Town called Mercy (for review purposes, that is) I found more and more errors as well as rectifications for said errors, to point out in this review. I'll save all of that for the following paragraphs, though, because believe it or not there are good things to be said about A Town called Mercy despite all the justified hate I've brought upon it in the last paragraph. If you haven't guessed already, Whithouse's latest is a Western, which fits the 'blockbuster' theme of series 7 nicely. It's also dealt with perfectly, mainly thanks to the staging and the absolutely phenomenal musical score from Murray Gold (seriously, this episode and this episode only contains some of the best music the guy has ever produced for Doctor Who, adding a Western twang to his usual epic antics). Mercy was filmed at Almeria province in Spain, the exact same site in which the likes of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and many other classic westerns were also once in motion. The site looks all the more iconic in this episode thanks to Saul Metzstein's phenomenal direction - Yes, the director of Dinosaurs on a Spaceship returns to direct his second episode in a row, and I must say he's rising up in the pantheon of great Doctor Who and indeed TV directors judging from his work on the show thus far. Some of the shots in this episode, ones involving the apparent antagonist The Gunslinger in particular, look absolutely gorgeous.

Speaking of The Gunslinger, the BBC art department have developed an absolutely wonderful and truly convincing creation with this character. Extra kudos to actor Adrian Scarborough (the guy who played a chav in PhoneShop previously... No, really) for putting on a believable performance under all that heavy costume, too. Speaking of performances, despite the confused morals of the episode (again, more on these when we get to the bad), Matt Smith works wonders alongside his fellow cast, even if most of 'em are basically stock Western characters. The three personae Mercy focuses on are the driving force of the episode, delivering their morally-split emotions with truly great acting ability. Heck, in this regard I can even compliment Toby Whithouse's writing, because while the plot as a whole is extremely flawed, he does give each of the three mains some truly great lines.

This, right here, is called acting. Matt Smith delivers near-perfect visual prowess in many of Mercy's scenes, but he sadly doesn't quite save the episode... At least this scene is brilliant, not to mention complimented by amazing music.
And now, we reach the negative side of things, a metaphorical sea of utter atrocity that practically floods and destroys everything that could've made A Town called Mercy something fantastic. I've already mentioned parts of it, so I might as well start with the story. Whithouse's latest effort actually starts out extremely promising, which makes it all the more awful when that promise is destroyed. The viewer is immediately pulled into the action through the pre-intro sequence, in which the cyborg Gunslinger gives one of his adversaries Hell through a nasty laser cannon blast to the face. Talk about grabbing the viewer's attention. Following the opening credits, Mercy continues the ever-piqued promise, with The Doctor, Amy and Rory entering Mercy through means of a rather clever camera pan. The former informs the townsfolk that he is an alien doctor (in their view, at least) and is instantly chucked out. This is where the plot picks up and is immediately met with a huge plot-hole; The first of many found in A Town called Mercy.

Meet Kahler-Jex, one of the most morally confusing characters ever to grace Doctor Who.
To put it simply, the Gunslinger is out for revenge on a race known as the Kahler, and his last victim is hidden away in Mercy. Why exactly he wants his revenge is actually explained extremely well, but it's the morals of three key characters that make this episode trundle along with a broken wheel; These characters being The Doctor, the Gunslinger and his final target Kahler-Jex (yes, the Kahler have their race preceding their name... Chantho much?). And, again without spoiling anything, the morals of all three of these characters, even The Doctor himself, are completely screwed up. In theory Mercy's plot has a solid premise, but it's the delivery that counts and Whithouse absolutely messed up on that front. Kahler-Jex constantly changes his personality so much throughout this episode that you really couldn't care less what happens to him by the end. The Doctor, upon discovering why the Gunslinger is after Jex, completely flips and goes so out of character to the point that he'd willingly take arms seemingly out of nowhere and blast Jex's brains out. Think about how many times the show's protagonist has used guns since 2005 and you know there's something wrong.

Casual viewers probably won't be affected by the botched character traits in this episode as they may not be quite as familiar with Matt Smith's Doctor, but if there's one thing there is absolutely no excuse for, it's the ever-gaping plot-holes the 45 minutes of western drama are filled to the brim with. I can't go too into detail with these due to spoilers, but in vein of that I'm glad - There's far too much badly thought-out writing in this episode to fit into a review that can't exceed much more than 1000 words. Oh, and you're probably wondering why I haven't yet mentioned Amy and Rory in this review. The answer to that puzzling thought is quite simple: The companions, who happen to be leaving in a few episodes' time, do quite literally nothing in Mercy. Sure, Amy fixes a problem but it's one that doesn't even need to be fixed, as you realise at the climax of the episode. As for Rory... Well, he does quite literally nothing. I counted under 10 lines for the latter character throughout the entire episode. Honestly, they shouldn't even be in this adventure... I mean, they clearly aren't enjoying it judging from what little we see of the pair.

The Doctor gets himself into more than a few quick-draw duels in this episode. If there's one thing A Town called Mercy passes with flying colours, it's the Western vibes it emanates.
Now, you probably think I despise this episode, right? As a matter of fact, I don't. I actually enjoyed it thoroughly on my first viewing, mainly thanks to the aspects I held in high regard at the start of this review. Yes, the story is atrocious as a whole but that's slightly made up for with some well-composed, admittedly rather beautiful lines courtesy of Toby Whithouse's writing. And do I need to go into details about the direction and writing once more? I can say for certain that I'll be buying series seven's soundtrack as soon as it's released. It's the positive aspects that make A Town Called Mercy worth watching, but the negatives do nothing but let it down and collapse it into an utterly shambolic disappointment. Due to this, it's a very hard episode to rate, but I've done so anyway. In short, episode 3 of series 7 isn't worth skipping, but if you get bored of it midway through, know this: You won't be missing out on much...

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