“That’s all I ever wanted to do – end suffering.” – Kahler-Jex
Dinosaurs on a Spaceship was always going to be a tough act to follow, pushing all the right pop culture buttons. It’s a given that most Doctor Who episodes will try to do this, only occasionally opting for iconoclastic brilliance, as in The Doctor’s Wife. The object is to steal rather than borrow, because in stealing you make the material your own.
A Town Called Mercy, written by Toby Whithouse, merely borrows the Western genre. Combining Westworld with High Noon, it spices up the stakes by making Kahler-Jex a war criminal. There are Whovian touches, particularly the Doctor’s transgender horse, Joshua/Susan, but they’re bogged down in a literal reading of the genre with no quirky/original supporting cast. The characters are straight out of Studio Casting: the young man drawn to the way of the gun, the preacher, saloon-keeper, principled town marshall, comic undertaker, and girl who faces down the cyborg gunslinger. She is the great-grandmother of the narrative voice that opens and closes the episode.
The debate on morality suggested in the title weighs heavily on the plot, centred upon the creator of the cyborgs, Kahler-Jex, who considers himself a hero for ending a global war by using programmed killing machines. Drones spring to mind. As he tells the Doctor, “It would be so much simpler if I was just one thing.” Instead he is also the town’s saviour, who gets them through a cholera epidemic with no casualties, and a public benefactor who installs street lights. The question in the Doctor’s mind being, “Is that enough?”, a reflection of his own guilt. The Doctor is, of course, deeply aware of his own implication in genocide, as well as the consequences of his mercy, and wants to honour “all the people who’ve died because of my mercy.”
So he bundles Kahler-Jex out beyond the pale, an interesting visual take on a phrase that originally meant to exile miscreants from the protective walls of civilisation, and leave them to the tender mercies of the wilderness. Isaac, the town marshall, prevents this and is killed by the cyborg, but not before handing his badge over to the Doctor.
Amy is also fiercely opposed to the Doctor’s vengefulness: “You can’t be like him, we have to be better than him.” You can see the join between the Doctor’s and Kahler-Jex’s dilemmas – they come together as clumsily as the skin on the cyborg’s face, when it was clearly the writer’s intention to suggest a neater confluence of ideas.
There are many felicities. I mentioned Susan, the transgender horse, and I loved the doctor’s choice of drink when he swaggers into the saloon: “Tea, but the strong stuff – leave the bag in.” My choice as well. Almost on a par with “Tea, Earl Grey, hot.” But the plot is an uncomfortable mix of high moral purpose and Whovian high jinks, along with a feelgood finale in which Kahler-Jex sacrifices himself to save others, and the cyborg becomes the town’s new marshall. Better to have let the Whovian ethos predominate, and the moral purpose be implicit, as in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship. We had genocide there, as well, but it wasn’t preached at from the pulpit.
Meanwhile, on the Ponds front, they once again reject the Doctor’s offer of further gallivanting. Even the chance of finding out what happened to all the animals we shot into space. This after Amy correctly identifies his moralistic malaise as the result of being too much alone. We’re clearly rushing headlong towards the moment when Doctor and Ponds part company forever. Next week’s trailer offers more rifts within the lute.