A Town Called Mercy
Not since the McCoy era has the show tackled moral questions like we saw in A Town Called Mercy. While it did remind me a lot of Star Trek in its composition, I saw that as no bad thing – it’s a very Doctor-Who-y format. Certain parts of Fandom often like to analyse episodes to their very deepest minutiae, and this was certainly one for them. The Doctor and Amy both meet their mirror images – The Doctor in the war criminal trying to atone for his atrocities and Amy in the Cyborg experimented upon and changed into something less human.
The pace was slower, but I liked that very much – it gave the story time to ferment, for the actors to work their piece, for the setting to get under the skin. I’m unashamedly biased towards the Classic Series, and I felt that like those old stories, this slower pace gave the time to actually think about the story’s messages and dilemmas instead of speeding through at a million miles an hour and not knowing really what just happened at the end of it. Call me a pensioner, whatever you like, but A Town Called Mercy is the first story in a while that’s given me the chance to breathe.
And breathe I did, and what I got was a brilliantly shot Western town that, like Enlightenment and The Greatest Show before it, managed to combine an imaginative and thought-provoking script with a beautiful backdrop. In a way, the Western setting provided a medium for all of the story’s arguments to transpire in – a land of freedom, of choice, of second chances, of second airings. Mercy gave Jex a second chance as their Doctor, The Doctor one as their Marshall, and the Gunslinger one as their Protector. It was about re-muddying the lines between black and white, not just making The Doctor darker but making his world more ambiguous as well. No more swinging in to save the day from the dreadful villains who don’t know how evil they’re being, no. The Doctor is dealing with actual people, with consciences and guilt and pride and honour and desperation.
And what people they are. This episode’s cast is vital in helping it along, especially veteran Adrian Scarborough, who practically sells the episode on his performance alone. When the truth about his history was revealed, I initially groaned at what I thought would be a typical “twist” that saw us switch sides and watch as Jex became a maniacal scheming villain. I was incredibly, incredibly pleased to see what came instead – a pair of characters, both damaged by the things they’ve done, both seeking justice – either through redemption or retribution. The Doctor, since the Time War, can identify with both, and this episode more than most managed to press his buttons in an enlightening and entertaining way.
Neil Cross is a writer for whom I have a large amount of admiration. In two episodes he’s shown what NuWho has the potential to be – a magnanimous force for good. His only ideology seems to be that love and happiness saves the day, with enough scientific realism to stop that falling into the slushy mess that the beginning of this sentence would make it out to be. I had planned to start this article talking about ghost stories, but as the Doctor himself says, this isn’t a ghost story – it’s a love story.
Although there’s no love lost between Clara and the TARDIS, who after spending a season being rather less talkative than she was in Neil Gaiman’s The Doctor’s Wife seemed to gain a rather snarky streak this week. At times Clara threatens to become little more than a mystery and a puzzle – an enigma wrapped up in a pretty Blackpudlian girl. Neil Cross isn’t gonna have any of that – he’s made the storyline around her into something more subtle, and has more than any writer at this point made a deliberate effort to develop her into something completely different to her predecessors.
And talking about completely, how about this story, eh? No real villains, just star-crossed lovers who, despite their garish appearances, are no different to our guest stars, Alec Palme (Dougray Scott) and Emma Grayling (Jessica Paine). The two are some of my favourite guest stars from this series, and their sweet little love story (with a Professor and his assistant) also feels strangely like a parallel for our two main leads.
I’m not going to deny it – I really like the chemistry between Eleven and Clara, and in certain circles I’d be called a “shipper” – but it’s not like the series hasn’t presented me with some serious evidence. In this episode alone, we have the fact that the TARDIS seems jealous of how much The Doctor is attached to her, and the way that he tries to keep her out of harms way when he goes investigating through time.
Hide had everything that I love about Doctor Who in spades, and wasn’t afraid to push a few of the boundaries to make it happen. Episodes like Hide are ones that make me glad to still be a Doctor Who fan, that reward me for all of those times where I’ve gone off on fanboyish rants about episodes and still tuned in the next week. I loved it, and I really do hope that Neil Cross writes more episodes in the future.