Friday, September 21, 2012

A Town Called Mercy

Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer, doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.

-- William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

The Doctor's heaviest guilt comes from that question of whether, sometimes, perhaps he should have shown mercy... and, others, he should have enforced a justice that otherwise would never have been upheld.  So many times, he has let the most horrific villains escape death.  Was his mercy in allowing the Master to live all those times worth the price of the billions (or perhaps trillions) who died in Logopolis?  Or his mercy with the Daleks in Genesis worth the untold numbers murdered by their deathrays?  Should he have dispensed his own justice against them instead, or was he in the right?

And what of those times when he did destroy his adversaries?  Was he right to eradicate both the Time Lords and the Daleks at the end of the time war, even if it did seem the only way to save every other life?  Or, more recently, what of his cold killing of Solomon?  Well, okay, Solomon killed that Triceratops for no reason.  He deserved to die.  But even so, the Doctor's attitude was a bit more ruthless than usual even when he has killed.

A Town Called Mercy forces the Doctor to face this by pitting him against Kahler Jax, another Doctor who fell out of the sky and dedicated his life to helping others.  He's also another Doctor who did horrible things in a war in order to end it - in his case, experimenting on others and turning them into horrific cyborgs without their consent.  His defense is that it ended a seven-year war in a week.  But now, after making a peaceful life for himself on another planet (ours, naturally), the last of his experiments has hunted him down across the stars.

Both the Doctor and Jax truly want to make the Universe a better place.  And both, essentially, dropped the Atomic bomb in order to save the millions who would have perished otherwise.  Jax in some ways went further by intentionally torturing innocents, but it isn't far from what the Doctor did - after all, the Doctor committed double-genocide to save the Universe.

The Doctor, on realizing who he's facing, does that rarest of moves and pulls a gun.  Amy tries to talk him down, but as the Doctor says, he honestly doesn't know what he's going to do.  It's a terrifying, powerful scene.  In this centerpiece scene, A Town Called Mercy is brilliant.

It doesn't quite sustain that brilliance, but it definitely flirts with greatness.  The first half, building to that showdown, is terrific - engaging mysteries, good humor, strong characterizations, perfect Western atmosphere, and an exciting story that quite delightfully drops the Terminator (more or less) into the Old West.  The Cyborg makeup is superb, visceral enough to make the story compelling but not so much that it would give nightmares to kids watching.  The acting, unsurprisingly, is top-notch right down the line.  Smith is, yet again, extraordinary, bouncing wildly from the silliest comedy to the darkest drama without it ever feeling forced or jarring.  And the first half of the episode builds to that masterful scene.

The second half, alas, doesn't quite pay off.  The townspeople, understandably, form a lynch mob, but the Doctor talks them down.  Unfortunately, the Doctor's speech is a not-terribly-compelling sermon, and the tension evaporates.  And honestly, the Doctor should have done something more clever than just reiterated a moral concept.  The townpeople had clearly made up their minds, and it would take a better speech than that to pull it off. 

(The scene might still have finessed it on the sheer shoulders of Matt Smith's acting, but Murray Gold's otherwise effective score flattens it.  Gold does a Firefly/Serenity-style mix of Western motifs with more techy instrumentation and percussion, which generally works.  But there, it's just a distraction in a scene that would be much better with either no music or a minimal dramatic underscore.  Still, that's more the fault of the director than Gold.)

The Doctor's plan is a minor let-down.  It's a bit clever, and his use of the Sonic in the duel is nice (although you'd think that would do more damage to the townspeople's ears than the Cyborg's), but it's not really a ruse worthy of him, nor as exciting a scene as it should be.  Jax's final decision and the Cyborg's fate both make for a good enough ending to redeem the limp climax, but it's still a bit disappointing.

The real flaw, though, is that after that showdown halfway through, it never really engages with the ideas at its core.  Amy simply says that they can't be like Jax, and that's the end of the argument.  But it really is a complex question - after all, they can't be certain Jax won't end up doing other horrible things, and that's precisely the sort of consequences they fear.  There's a reason the Doctor does sometimes kill.  And it should be a more difficult conflict.

And Amy has quite a dark streak of her own, which should have been acknowledged, too.  In the end, Toby Whithouse compelling crafts a difficult question, then answers it too simplistically.  That said, it's possible the rest of the season will deal with this.

Regardless of its somewhat weaker second half, A Town Called Mercy is a solid, compelling, and highly entertaining yarn.  Can't complain too much about that.


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  • Rory has some fun moments in this, but it's the second episode in a row where he's mostly sidelined.  Given how short his time on the show apparently is, it's a bit disappointing that he hasn't been getting more to work with.  Regardless, full points to Arthur Darvill's ability to create a complete and awesome performance purely with his face.  His ability to feel like a much bigger part of the script than he really is reminds me here of Steve McQueen in The Magnificent Seven, where McQueen gets less than a dozen lines and has to share the screen with Yul Brynner almost constantly, yet still almost feels like the star of the film.

    Yeah.  Darvill makes Rory so awesome he's comparable to Steve McQueen.

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