You're Fast Becoming Prey to Every Cliché-Ridden Convention in the American West (A Town Called Mercy)

(65 comments)

The problem of Susan.
It’s September 15th, 2012. Ne-Yo is at number one with “Let Me Love You,” with Pink, Public Enemy, and Fun also charting. In news, an attack on the American embassy in Libya results in the death of the US Ambassador, among others. Andy Murray wins the US Open. Also, I turn thirty. How ghastly. 

While on television, A Town Called Mercy. It is easy to find fault with this story. This does not, however, make it any less worth doing. First and most simply is, of course, Susan, the trans mare. This marks the second time Toby Whithouse has completely fucked up trans representation (the first being his gobsmackingly transphobic bit of dialogue for Jack in Greeks Bearing Gifts over on Torchwood). One can certainly argue that Susan was not actually trans, and indeed, I am forced to do so, but let’s be clear that I am doing so only because the alternative is to have the Doctor misgendering someone, and no. One might argue that the intent was good, although I think you run aground pretty quickly when you realize that thus far all trans representation on Doctor Who has been for the purpose of jokes, which is actually pretty much the opposite of good intentions no matter how much you state it. It’s past fucking time we have a trans character on Doctor Who, played sincerely and sympathetically. Ugh.

Moving on, then, we get to more substantive issues. When looking at the allocation of episodes in this mini-season, the Moffat bookends seemed likely to be good, the Chibnall episodes seemed solidly unpromising, and then you had Toby Whithouse in the middle. Whithouse is an interesting writer - his three previous stories were good. His Torchwood script was at least well-crafted, which is one of the nicest sentences you can write that begin with the words “his Torchwood script.” Being Human is fabulous. He’s probably one of the more interesting possibilities for next showrunner, in that he’s got the basic ability to write in a bunch of different tones and to change things up within an episode. He can do scary, tragic, and funny in the same forty-five minutes, he’s got experience on big dramas. I’m really interested to see The Game when it drops, which, curiously, seems like it will be in the US before the UK. And so this looked quite promising.

But with A Town Called Mercy we see one of his basic virtues as a Doctor Who writer turn unexpectedly to vice. One of the things Whithouse has always been very good at is what we might call high-theme writing - the sort of thing that, in Doctor Who, came out of Paul Cornell’s early 90s embrace of Neil Gaiman’s “tell don’t show” approach, where you make sure whatever big statement about Doctor Who you want to make is actually delivered, as dialogue, within the text. This has been characteristic of the new series, and is actively reinforced with the famed “tone meetings” in which all the different departments are put on the same page about what the story is doing and then turned loose to contribute actively to the storytelling. Doctor Who’s embrace of a pop music structure, with each episode excitedly shouting “here’s what we’re doing this week!” is perfect for high-theme approaches. And Whithouse is very, very good at this. His episodes know what they’re about, and say so.

With The God Complex, this was already starting to feel slightly out of step with what the program was doing, but that was covered for by Nick Hurran’s superlative direction. But by this point in the program we’ve very much moved past that. It’s in a large sense what the “the Doctor has deleted himself from every database in the universe” plot point is about. It’s not that the Doctor has gotten too big, but rather that the degree to which he is a known quantity diminishes him. The idea that you can look the Doctor up and get an explanation or, as Dinosaurs on a Spaceship proposed and rejected, a price suggests that the Doctor is a singular and known quantity. But starting with Season Seven, and kicking into overdrive thereafter, the series begins to move away from that. 

Instead it starts… well, the default term is something like “making the Doctor mysterious again,” but we should stress that this is not in some Cartmel Masterplan “far more than just another Time Lord” sense. Rather, it’s about narrative grammar. One of the truisms of Season Seven is that the storytelling speeds up a lot, but a fair part of this effect is generated not by actually going any faster, but by starting and stopping the story in slightly unusual places, or by limiting or eliminating sequences in which the Doctor’s emotional reaction to things drives the plot. It’s not about keeping the Doctor out of the story for large swaths of things, but rather about not letting the emotional beats of the story parallel the Doctor’s emotional arc. This feels accelerated simply because the distance it puts between the viewer and the Doctor makes it feel like there are gaps in the story - like things are being skipped. 

Which means that Whithouse’s story, in hindsight, comes at precisely the wrong moment - a story that’s loudly and emphatically done in the very style Doctor Who is abandoning. On top of that, there’s a worrisome sense that Whithouse only has one angle he knows how to take on the Doctor, which is the post-Time War angst Doctor. Which is fine, but again, something that’s by this point receding into the past for Doctor Who. Indeed, if you want to be vicious, you can read Day of the Doctor as Moffat going “oh for god’s sake, let’s just never have a story like A Town Called Mercy again.” So here the concept is that the Doctor is paralleled with Josef Mengele, only effective. But the well of “the Doctor has done things as terrible as any villain” has long since started to run dry, and the fact that Kahler-Jex is such an absolute cipher doesn’t help. The script tries to paper it over with the line about how “it would be so much simpler if I was just one thing,” and this is a perfectly fair point when made at human beings, but equally, there’s a perfectly reasonable response to be made, which is that, yes, it would be, because it would mean you could actually have been coherently and effectively characterized in the course of a forty-five minute story instead of just bouncing back and forth between two extremes.

Is Whithouse capable of more? He may well be, and I certainly would be interested in seeing him back. Frankly, he’s at a point in his career where an evolution in style is due. Once again, I admit my intense curiosity for The Game. But for this story, he’s in a rut, such that when we get to the big loud theme-as-text moment, the Doctor’s throwing Kahler-Jex over the town line to be killed and talking about his mercy, it’s as clanging and hollow as a bell. This isn’t helped by being the moment where Karen Gillan most obviously goes on complete autopilot. That Arthur Darvill is relatively disinterested throughout this episode is largely understandable, given that the script gives him essentially nothing whatsoever to do, but Gillan has a huge chunk of the drama that she has to anchor, and she doesn’t bother to show up. The only person who seems to be enjoying himself is Matt Smith, and even he’s stuck doing things he’s done before. 

This also gets at the other big structural flaw of the story, which is that everything after Isaac’s death turns out to be setup for the exact situation that Isaac averted, only with the tiny difference that the Gunslinger gets off the hook. Isaac sacrifices himself to keep Kahler-Jex from committing suicide at more or less the halfway point of the episode. Twenty minutes later… Kahler-Jex resolves the situation by committing suicide. The heroic suicide is a lame enough trope, but to set it up and then prevent it just so your story has a second half, then end it with something so similar to what you rejected is careless. It makes the script feel like it’s as much on autopilot as the actors. 

And yet for all of this, it feels as though the biggest problem with A Town Called Mercy is simply that it’s in Season Seven. This would be acceptable, at least, in any other season. Indeed, pretty much every other season has at least one story that basically does what this story does, complete with an arc about the Doctor nearly succumbing to the desire to mete out divine justice and finally taking a higher route. In most cases, it works pretty well. Sometimes it’s a season highlight. Rarely is it a turkey. But it’s been done, and here it reaches a familiar point in Doctor Who - the moment where what had been working perfectly well suddenly and abruptly dries up and feels tedious and dull.

The problem, and here, as we’re going to be stuck doing throughout Season Seven, we have to reach past the end of TARDIS Eruditorum a bit, in this case the old approach has run out of road before a new approach has quite managed to establish itself. The experiments with narrative acceleration will yield some new techniques, but they don’t quite work on their own. And the pulling back on the Doctor’s familiarity is difficult in the third season of a given lead actor. So we fall into a bit of a gap here - one where the past is clearly ready to be buried, but the future hasn’t emerged yet. 

If anything, what’s surprising is that the past has stuck around for so long. This is, under the hood, basically a Russell T Davies story. The only other time an old approach has hung around quite this long after creative changes is the appearance of The Hand of Fear in Philip Hinchcliffe’s third and final season, and that’s very much a testament to the long arm of the Pertwee era. And fair enough - the reinvention of the show under Russell T Davies is the sort of thing you’d expect to have similar reach. But in this case, unlike the Hinchcliffe era, the new approach hasn’t actually come together yet. There hasn’t been a big, iconic “this is what we do now” story for the new approach. Arguably, there’s not going to be until 2014, although ultimately I’d disagree with that and pick out a couple of stories in 2013. And all of this is complicated by Steven Moffat himself making huge leaps in his storytelling that require going through a rough patch before suddenly emerging at the end of 2013/beginning of 2014 with the astonishing Time of the Doctor/His Last Vow

But none of that helps this story, which sits, stranded, as clear endpoint of a particular way of doing things. This is the last time the series will try to get away with a high-theme story about the boundless and infinite pain of being the last of the Time Lords. It’s the last time it’s going to dabble so obviously in “the hero and the villain are just mirrors of each other.” It’s the last time, to be somewhat sharper and more directly implicate Toby Whithouse, that it’s going to feel like a post-Alan Moore reboot of Doctor Who. (And here the Pop Between Realities on The Fades becomes apropos as well.) This is, in some ways, the longest aesthetic project of Doctor Who. It’s been trying to accomplish this sort of story since Remembrance of the Daleks. Here, it finally stops, realizing that it’s accomplished it in as many ways as it is possible to accomplish such a thing. Twenty-three years of one particular stylistic and aesthetic approach comes to an end here. Which is an astonishingly long run. Notably, it’s nearly as many years as it took to get to Remembrance of the Daleks in the first place. Given this, the fact that we can finally say we’re done seems almost… merciful.

Comments

Christopher "Peaky" Brown 2 years, 9 months ago

Amen.

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Scott 2 years, 9 months ago

Does anyone seriously buy the whole "The Doctor's as bad as the villains!" stuff anyway? I mean, sure, there's ethical criticisms to be made of the Doctor as a character, and maybe some of them have a point (I mean, it's practically built into the Master) but usually it just seems a tad too simplistic IMHO. Bad enough when it's mostly forgettable types like Kahler-Jex, but it really gets silly when it's Davros -- i.e. a character who the show has repeatedly pointed out is an utterly bonkers evil faux-Nazi maniac with next to no moral credibility whatsoever over forty-odd-years -- who we're supposed to take seriously when he tries to paint the Doctor as being exactly like him.

It's one of the key things that tends to irritate me about the new series (as well as the whole "Doctor's utter self-loathing" thing, which could be dialed back a teeny bit as well).

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Kyle 1 year, 7 months ago

It's ridiculous! It's a trope that's never been executed well. Good, even great writers like Russell T. Davies have fallen prey to the trap. No criticism the new series has managed to throw at the Doctor has ever been so substantial that it couldn't be hand waved away with one sentence.

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Lee Shelton 2 years, 9 months ago

I've always struggled to put my finger on why Series 7 seems quite as unsatisfying as it does and this is the best articulation I've seen yet as to why that might be - although, to be fair, most of the other critiques I've seen of this series don't seem interested in rising above the level of "worst series ever, Moffat is evil, etc, etc" (the Eruditorum comments section excepted of course and there have been tentative discussions of this series here). I always wondered if the series also suffered from being caught between the big ambitious and inventive series 6 arc and the build up to the anniversary. This series was always in danger of coming across on the one hand as an anti-climax with the River Song story mostly done and dusted, and on the other as time-serving while we waited for the 50th celebrations to come around. I wonder if this becomes particularly exposed in series 7b once the Ponds have left. Especially given the great stuff we've seen from Clara - via the writers and the now regular show-stealing performances from Jenna Coleman - in series 8, the "impossible girl" thread increasingly does seem like filler trying to get us from A to B with minimal fuss.

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Heath 2 years, 9 months ago

I'm not going to argue any of the major points, and actually reiterate Phil's comment about this being very much an RTD style story, (which would have been a lot of fun with 10 and Donna, I'd offer).

However I remember this one (at least the first half) as being hilarious. Indeed it is Matt Smith bringing his A game to an otherwise Ok plot, but the confusion at the beginning about being an alien doctor, the line about "no trespassing" being a suggestion "like dry-clean only", and even the horse scene crack me up to this day. This one starts off as a truly funny romp.

Even the Susan/Jacob horse thing. I get the response that its gotten from many about the insensitivity to trans issues. However I love it because of the running season 7 joke that the Doctor speaks everything, inlcuding horse. And in the end, horses are not known for adhereing to strict gender norms, so I always chalked it up to run of the mill Who zaniness, and another opportunity for the Doctor to assert that he knows more than you.

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Froborr 2 years, 9 months ago

From 2005 to 2013, yes, it made complete sense. The Doctor committed genocide. He judged the universe would be better off without two entire races of people, so he wiped them out. The question of whether he's any better than his villains was absolutely worth asking.

Now that he never actually committed genocide, it's not much of a question, he is definitely better than the villains. But, you know, that's not a high bar to clear, so we move on to the more complex question of whether he is (or has ever been) a good man. (To which the answer is "eventually, yes, arguably, probably not, yes, no, arguably, probably, no, mostly, debatably, probably, ish.")

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Alan 2 years, 9 months ago

Agreed. And the problem was exacerbated, IMO, by the fact that everyone not living under a rock at the time knew that the Ponds were leaving. However, Moffatt bafflingly decided not to do any kind of arc leading up to their departures in favor of a set of standalone adventures before an abrupt and somewhat arbitrary departure episode. All of which left me with the unmistakeable feeling that we were treading water for most of 7a.

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Alan 2 years, 9 months ago

My main recollection of this story was that it just felt so damned boring. Which, coming after DoaS, an episode that existed solely so that Matt Smith could exclaim "Dinosaurs! On a Spaceship!", and before "The Power of Three" which was explicitly about an alien invasion so boring that humans stopped paying attention to it, was sort of the theme of Season 7a. Even Ben Browder, who was often electrifying in Farscape, was boring here, trapped as he is in his current status of "that guy who used to be in Farscape so we can slot him into the lantern-jawed leading role of any sci-fi show."

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jane 2 years, 9 months ago

This is the second story directed by Saul Metzstein, and if there's one account on which to acquit Mercy, it's this. Even though the story is as bare and stale as Phil suggests, at least the direction is interesting.

First, it's continuing with the reiterating of certain motifs that have been played with since at least Asylum. The flickering of lights, for example, but even more so the fact that Jex's spaceship is shaped like an Egg. That his vehicle becomes a place for self-sacrifice reminds of Oswin's self-sacrifice after her invocation of eggs. And of course there's lots of nods to Westerns -- from the deployment of A-Frame shots to the final High Noon showdown.

More interesting, I think, is the visual juxtaposition of the townspeople with the monster -- that is, with Jex. And, curiously, for once this doesn't involve Amy, who's been the focus of "monstering" since The Pandorica. This time, it's Rory, but not just him -- all the men in town take on Jex's appearance; all of them are implicated. If there's any justification to the lack of female casting in this story, it's to implicate men in a certain kind of machismo-driven revenge story.

Not that Moffat hadn't already done that in A Good Man or anything.

Another beat I'd like to point out -- the significant resolution to the story. It isn't just that Jex immolates himself. It's how that suicide takes place, or rather, how it doesn't take place. If Isaac hadn't sacrificed himself at the midway point, Jex would have died at the hands of the Gunslinger. In the end, the Gunslinger doesn't get to participate in the violence -- this, then, is what Isaac's sacrifice ultimately permits.

One last thing that's interesting -- Jex's voice ringing out throughout the town and countryside. It's almost like the voice of God, and indeed Jex played that role in his own war, though truly more the role of a Demiurge. The death of the creator-deity, then, is what ultimately brings peace to Mercy.

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Lewis Christian 2 years, 9 months ago

This is just me projecting on to Moffat and the team but, looking at Series 7 as a whole, it seems to me that a lot is just treading water. It's as though nobody quite knows what to do in 2012 or 2013, prior to the anniversary. 7B feels more cohesive, imo, than 7A, but I don't feel it's any good. It feels like a string of episodes with a hollow mystery/arc and just there to throw various shout-outs to/for fans. 7A, as you say, is just a string of barely connected episodes. If I could redo those 5 eps, I'd have expanded the divorce aspect over maybe 2 or 3 episodes and go to town on a character arc for them. (And, personally, I would've had The Power of Three as their final hurrah. Manhattan, for me, just felt like an excuse to bring back the Angels and give the Ponds a sad death because eh. The Power of Three would've felt more satisfying as an 'endpoint' for 7A, imo. But that's probably a discussion for another time.

Back to the original point, yeah, I do think 7A is treading water. I think it's strong, but ultimately a bit hollow. Maybe giving us Clara/Oswin from the off, for all of Series 7, no split, would've been a better option?

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Lewis Christian 2 years, 9 months ago

There's also a theory which places A Town Called Mercy during the events of The Power of Three isn't there? Because Rory's phone charger in Henry VIII's room is mentioned in both episodes, or something.

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Lee Shelton 2 years, 9 months ago

All that said, I wonder if we are seeing in series 7 an edging towards the sort of primarily character-based arc that we're seeing in series 8. There's the germ of an idea that series 7 might be following a story where the Doctor moves from sweeping in to throw people's lives in to chaos (Asylum of the Daleks, Power of Three), facing the consequence of that (Angels Take Manhattan), taking on Clara as a part-time companion who still lives her own life outside of the TARDIS and finally learning to settle down for thousands of years defending Trenzalore. But I don't think they really hit that theme hard enough. So I think there is almost an arc there but its hard to tell whether this was part of a plan or not as it isn't really articulated. I must confess I enjoyed series 7a more on a re-watch than I did originally but the series as a whole is definitely the weakest run of the Moffat era (which in the main I love, I should clarify).

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Eric Gimlin 2 years, 9 months ago

This one played oddly for me in no small part because my brain felt the need to remind me "Damn, I miss Farscape" every 10 seconds or so...

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Melissa Robertson 2 years, 9 months ago

I agree with you about the theme running through series 7. It could be applied to Eleven's era as a whole, but it's definitely strongest in series 7.

I find 7a to be okay, but only if watched as standalones. I don't mind standalones, but after 6 series of arcs it was jarring. I personally subscribe to the theory that the rest of 7a takes place after Angels Take Manhattan, because then it just seems like the last couple that Eleven took with Amy and Rory, even though he knew he shouldn't, because he didn't want to lose them, which ties in nicely to the themes of series 6 (and, to an extent, series 7).

I will forever love 7b, though, mostly because of Rings of Akhatan and Name of the Doctor. Also Bells of Saint John.

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David Anderson 2 years, 9 months ago

I felt that the run up to the punchline of the Dry Clean Only joke was laboured. No doubt there were people watching for whom this was their first series of Doctor Who, and who were therefore unaware of the Doctor's attitude to Keep Out and No Entry signs. But I think they would have managed to grasp the point even if it were briefer.

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David Anderson 2 years, 9 months ago

One of my few criticisms of The God Complex is that it also felt much like a holdover from the RTD-era's themes and concerns.

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Nyq Only 2 years, 9 months ago

Yes, the Doctor can't help but be ethically dubious because of the effect he has on whole societies that he visits. The the government/power structures/villains he topples and disrupts are bad is a given but that only gets him as far into an ethical justifications as George Bush Jr versus Sadaam Hussein - actually worse because the Doctor doesn't hang around for the consequences.

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Nyq Only 2 years, 9 months ago

Hmmm - an ex-soldier, a broken down cyborg, a dark Doctor? Shouldn't a Town Called Mercy be in the current series? ;)

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Lewis Christian 2 years, 9 months ago

I'm not sure if it fits, but I quite like the notion that for the Doctor, Manhattan comes before 7A does. It's quite a neat idea. As for the standalones being jarring, I get the impression it was an extreme knee-jerk reaction to the fact Series 6 had been so arc heavy, and so here was a half-series without much arc at all.

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Anton B 2 years, 9 months ago

Surely one of the subtexts of this story was pitching it as a kind of riposte to The Gunfighters? In effect, it's the answer to an argument that had actually long been laid to rest (well, certainly on this blog); that the one genreDoctor Who can't crash effectively is the Western. The solution it finds is to release it from its studio confines and film on location, in fact the, location of many real spaghetti Westerns. It's ironic then that, given that brief, it fails so spectacularly. I'd bet it'll be a long time before anyone attempts a 'Doctor Who and the Cowboys' story again. Which is a pity as I'd love to see Capaldi rock that Brett Maverick look again that he carried off so well in Mummy on the Orient Express. Perhaps a story set on a Mississippi riverboat Isn't out of the question. It could be a celebrity historical with Mark Twain. In fact I've got the perfect title. A River Song Ending

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Christopher "Peaky" Brown 2 years, 9 months ago

The most disappointing thing about this one is that it *could* have been great, and indeed the comments here do a good job of illustrating that, especially the bit about how The Gunslinger was redeemed by *not* killing Jex. I really dislike the cop out ending though - I mean, if Jex hadn't blown himself up in an act of desperate writing*ahem*heroic sacrifice, what would have happened? The Gunslinger and he would have continued their chase somewhere else, and it would have been the Doctor's fault.

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Matthew Blanchette 2 years, 9 months ago

It was not pitched as a riposte to "The Gunfighters"; Moffat, following time-honoured and unquestioned fan dictum, specifically told Toby Whithouse to not watch that story.

In the event, it might've been better if he had, don't you think?

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encyclops 2 years, 9 months ago

I liked series 7 just about as much as series 5 and a lot more than series 6, for what it's worth. Apart from this particular story, which I found appalling on just about every level, I enjoyed it immensely.

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encyclops 2 years, 9 months ago

Philip, I'm slightly shocked to see that you and I agree so thoroughly about this episode, both in general and in some of the details that bother us (e.g. Jex's exasperating characterization). Peaky's "Amen" really said it all (so here I am throwing useless words at it like a dunce).

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Anton B 2 years, 9 months ago

I wasn't suggesting it was literally 'pitched' rather that the comparison is inevitable. The fact that Moffat banned the writer from watching The Gunfighters to me kinda reinforces that.

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Philip Sandifer 2 years, 9 months ago

Well, I mean, neither Moffat nor Gatiss are really people I'd expect to take the "the Gunfighters is an unrecognized classic" angle. Moffat's interest in the Hartnell era ends twenty-five minutes in, and Gatiss is the epitome of the conservative taste fan.

I bet Whithouse would have enjoyed it, ironically.

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TheSmilingStallionInn 2 years, 9 months ago

Okay, Froborr, trying to figure out here--One is eventually, Two is yes, Three is arguably, Four is probably not, Five is yes, Six is no, Seven is arguably, 8 is probably, War Doctor is no, Nine is mostly, Ten is debatably, Eleven is probably, and Twelve is ish (right now). Okay, not sure about Four, although Six during his televised run may be a given, but I have yet to hear his audios.

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TheSmilingStallionInn 2 years, 9 months ago

Hmm, interesting. Another theory I've heard is that after the Ponds were taken back in time, the Doctor went back to see them--that the episodes between Asylum and Angels actually took place after the Doctor lost them.

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jane 2 years, 9 months ago

Doctor Who on a Mississippi riverboat better be invoking Herman Melville...

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Matthew Blanchette 2 years, 9 months ago

Or, at the very lease, Creedence Clearwater Revival.

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dr.jimmy72296 2 years, 9 months ago

I've never gotten the dislike for 7A. For me, it's the last time I consistently enjoyed and looked forward to the show. Everything since has been a disjointed mess. You have these moments of flawed brilliance (Name of the Doctor, Listen) sprinkled in among mildly entertaining crap (Day of the Doctor, Flatline, Nightmare in Silver) and downright unwatchable, completely irredeemable train wrecks (Time of the Doctor, The Caretaker, Kill the Moon).

It was the last time that the show actually revolved around the Doctor as opposed to the least likeable companion since Mel. It was the last time Matt Smith played the Doctor instead of playing Matt Smith playing the Doctor as a one note slapstick joke.

I get that the horse joke is offensive, and even worse, it's painfully unfunny, but it's nowhere near as off-putting as making the central premise of an entire 45 minute episode "Abortion is Murder."

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Carey 2 years, 9 months ago

I rather liked A Town Called Mercy myself, but I guess a lot of it has to do with whether you like westerns or not. The problem with the western genre is that it has already been massively deconstructed (arguably something that started with The Searchers, but definitely from Rio Bravo, Howard Hawks' reaction to High Noon) so, strictly speaking, it is a genre that Doctor who finds difficult to deform into a Doctor Who story. Having said that, Whithouse picks upon the same trick as Moffat himself does with that other well deconstructed genre, noir detectives and The Angels Take Manhattan, and has the genre distorted before he actually gets there, and then Whithouse goes on to mirror that story (which was already mirroring cliches from westerns) with the Doctor's recent backstory.

So we get the comedy of the Doctor being out of place in the old west, but we also get the subversion of the western genre in which the day is won not with a shoot out, but with the guilty character (once again, see Rio Bravo) taking himself out of the equation. Yes, it could be argued that plot wise, had he done so earlier, or simply been given to the Gunslinger the programme would have ended far quicker, but this is a story investigating guilt and responsibility (as with many westerns), and in this way Doctor who does subvert the genre: the big bad gunslinger instead of leaving town having brought havoc to the families he wanted to protect (see Shane) doesn't need to kill, and instead is adopted by the community. And in this way it does conform to the deconstruction of the genre in that it is the formation of the community that caused the archetypal western protagonist to die out (see the Unforgiven).

If there is a flaw (and this would be my greatest criticism of series 7) it is that the almost total absence of female characters in the story: understandable because of the genre conventions Whithouse is aping, but not forgivable.

It's interesting to hear Whithouse himself talk of his Doctor Who writing, as he's on record as saying that stores such as A Town Called Mercy and Vampires of Venice are very much stories outside his comfort zone, and he's far more at ease writing stories like The God Complex.

I liked A Town Called Mercy: it set out to write a typical Doctor Who genre mash up and did so with surprising sophistication. But what would I know: I like Planet of Evil for exactly the same reason.

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Anton B 2 years, 9 months ago

The more I think about it the more I want to see it. Alex Kingston in full Southern Belle drag, Capaldi in the aforementioned floppy tie and long jacket, Clara playing the schoolmarm somehow having to take a trip down the Mississippi. The plot involves aliens gambling with planets for chips and Time and Space as the stakes. Oh and of course they'd make a complete mess of the racial subtexts giving us all something to talk about for weeks.

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Lewis Christian 2 years, 9 months ago

It was the last time Matt Smith played the Doctor instead of playing Matt Smith playing the Doctor as a one note slapstick joke

This is important. I feel the costume change he was given for 7B was totally pointless. I read (so I'm not sure how/if true) that they changed his costume so it was more 'classic series-esque' as a nod for the 50th. And, in-universe, it kinda works since the tweed reminds him of the Ponds. But when he lost the old tweed, some of the magic was lost. And then Matt Smith... I dunno... he wasn't quite the Doctor in 7B.

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Anton B 2 years, 9 months ago

@Philip Sandifer
Well, I mean, neither Moffat nor Gatiss are really people I'd expect to take the "the Gunfighters is an unrecognized classic" angle.
I agree, that's why A Town Called Mercy struck me as an attempt to 'fix' their perception of that story's 'faults'.

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Scott 2 years, 9 months ago

... You know, the whole 'genocide' thing really does seem to be something that I should have probably remembered about before posting my OP.

But nevertheless (he says in what is no doubt a slightly foolhardy and ill-advised attempt to claw back some dignity and credibility after such an obvious oversight) while the question may have been worth asking, I'm still not convinced the answer would ultimately have ever been anything other than a 'no'. A 'no' that was not unqualified or unambiguous, perhaps, but a 'no' nonetheless. If nothing else, given the series's (relatively) simple depiction of morality and the narrative weight of 40 to 50 years of the Doctor being pretty clearly the hero (if not an infallible or unflawed one), the Daleks being fairly unambiguously the epitome of evil (and, let's be fair, only very rarely even coded as 'people' by the series) and the Time Lords being fairly clearly presented as (in their latter years especially) ambiguous at best, I think a verdict of 'justifiable genocide' was ultimately always going to be the likely bet even if "The Day of the Doctor" never happened.

And yes, 'justifiable genocide' was one of those things that felt as weird to write as it no doubt does to read, but hey ho, I've been dipping my toes into the moral relativistic pool in this entire thread, might as well leap all the way in.

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IG 2 years, 9 months ago

I thought the change of outfit came about because of the original plan for Victorian Clara to be the new companion, with the Doctor based in Victorian London as per The Snowmen. Not sure where I heard that though. Matt Smith's love of dressing up may also have been a factor ;)

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jane 2 years, 9 months ago

Seriously, "The Confidence Man" would make a great Doctor Who story.

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Anton B 2 years, 9 months ago

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Anton B 2 years, 9 months ago

A Melville /Who mash-up fanfic? I say do it! It'd make a great April first blog post.

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BerserkRL 2 years, 9 months ago

Justifiable genocide is pretty easy to come up with. Suppose that for some reason there are only two Hittites left, Hadam and Heve. And they're serial killers, And they attack you with their machetes. So you shoot them in self -defense. There you go.

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elvwood 2 years, 9 months ago

encyclops, I agree except that I would say "weakest" rather than "appalling on every level" - it some redeeming features, just not many.

One surprising discovery reading here is the dislike of series 7 - I always thought series 6 was seen as the poor relation of Matt's era. Perhaps if I dared venture into the TV sections of Gallifrey Base I'd have found this out earlier!

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BerserkRL 2 years, 9 months ago

solely so that Matt Smith could exclaim "Dinosaurs! On a Spaceship!"

They should have give him Samuel Jackson's line.

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BerserkRL 2 years, 9 months ago

I'd bet it'll be a long time before anyone attempts a 'Doctor Who and the Cowboys' story again.

You've had some cowboys in here. Not actual cowboys. Though that can happen.

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Jarl 2 years, 9 months ago

It especially helps when both races are constructed with particular morals baked right into their genetic code by megalomaniacs like Davros and Rassilon. See also: The Vervoids.

I'm sure there's even more examples out there, but I'm struggling to remember which ones were genocide and which were merely wiping out an invasion/occupation force.

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Jarl 2 years, 9 months ago

The commonly accepted chronology places this episode in one of the adventures during the party in The Power of Three, where they were gone for 7 weeks. Fittingly, it's that scene that most makes me think that it must take place before Manhattan, because of the Doctor's conversation with Brian about "what happened to the others".

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Jarl 2 years, 9 months ago

A lone wanderer comes to town and shakes up the status quo with his eccentricities. The townspeople make him sheriff and ask him to kill the monstrous madman who's coming to shake them down and wipe them out. There's a dramatic showdown, the wanderer wins through guile, cunning, and speed. Somewhere, in the distance, a train explodes.

I have no idea why anyone would think Doctor Who and a western could coexist.

For that matter, imagine the TARDIS "disguised" as a fanciful carriage by tipping it on its side and putting it on a horse-drawn wagon. "Come one, come all to the Doctor's Magnificent Medicine Show! Behold, the sonic screwdriver! It mends barbed wire, it re-braids rope, it removes bothersome teeth, it deletes posts on tumblr! Wait, no, you don't have that yet. It deletes posts on MySpace!"

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Jarl 2 years, 9 months ago

This episode continues the "Back into the shadows" arc that's been allegedly rumbling along since The Wedding of River Song, specifically the ongoing subversion where both a character and the tone of the show mistakes the Doctor for another, unrelated doctor or kind of doctor, a subversion first seen with Solomon the Trader. This is, shamefully, my favorite part of the arc, the mistaken identity bit, because I am a sucker for comedic misunderstandings. If two people are in a room conversing while a third's listening through a door, I'm on the edge of my seat.
Ultimately, this arc doesn't really go anywhere. The last proper engagement we get with it is the tantalizing hint in Nightmare in Silver that the Doctor's existence can be inferred by the holes he leaves in history and records, which I was sure would set up the plot in which the Daleks would regain their memories of the Doctor. This didn't happen, of course. In fact, the very next episode features someone recognizing the Doctor by reputation and handheld x-ray, and the episode after Nightmare in Silver is all about someone who knows the Doctor so well and hates him so much that they're willing to commit suicide and destroy the universe just to be rid of him. So much for "I got too noisy".

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Anton B 2 years, 9 months ago

@BerserkRL
That's a nice catch. Do you have that phrase in the States though? "you've had some cowboys in here." As in - "some amateur chancers have done work for you."

I wonder where the conflation of cattle herders with sly ineptitude came from?

I remember some time ago the Duke of Edinburgh getting into trouble on a royal visit when, upon being shown some faulty electrical wiring (I don't recall why) he observed that. "I don't know about cowboys this looks like it was done by an Indian!" I'm prepared to believe that, rather than the typically racist Prince Phillip comment this sounds like, the Queen's husband was just attempting a rather I'll thought out joke involving reversal and substitution by association. In this case 'cowboy' for 'Indian'. Oddly then it is racist but not in the way the royal sponger intended.

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encyclops 2 years, 9 months ago

It's true that as a rule I'm turned off by westerns (though I can enjoy the cream of the crop if I try), but you're the first person so far who's actually almost convinced me it's actually a western at all.

Am I the only one who saw it instead as a Star Trek episode?

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David Anderson 2 years, 9 months ago

Not the only one.That said, it's an example of the type of story that consists of a moral dilemma that has to be all tied up by the end of the episode. That genre is particular associated with Star Trek, but I think it is always going to be a pull for any sf-y (or fantasy) series in which the regulars visit a different planet each week.

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BerserkRL 2 years, 9 months ago

No, it's not an expression here.

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heroesandrivals 2 years, 9 months ago

I actually think the recent Flatline is incredibly RTD-ish, insofar as the location and invasion themes.
But you can tell it's not a RTD script because it leaves the inherent classism issues of the setting at the door, paying only lip service to them in 2 lines. Russel would have been VICIOUS....

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Adam Finch 2 years, 9 months ago

I agree: the 2012 episodes are a return to form after the sustained disaster of 2011. Proper, slut-it-up event TV week on week. Then The Snowmen is the best Christmas special since 2008. Funny how it turned out in 2013. Still, The Day of the Doctor was fun!

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Jarl 2 years, 9 months ago

I've never heard it except from the Doctor. I assumed it was due to cowboys having a reputation for roughness and roughousing and horsing around and other things that kinda sound like cowboy puns.

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Jesse 2 years, 9 months ago

As a western fan, I thought the first half or so of this was a nice genre mash-up. It kind of went downhill after that.

Still, I appear to like it (and 7A in general) better than most people here do. It's definitely one of the top two Doctor Who westerns of all time.

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Anton B 2 years, 9 months ago

So, another example of cross-cultural dissonance. Interesting that we've taken a stateside term and re-configured it to our own usage.
From http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=cowboy+builder

Cowboy builder
A tradesperson, normally a builder, plumber, roofer etc who performs shoddy work at an inflated price.
"This cowboy builder asked me a very big price for that shoddy work"

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Jarl 2 years, 9 months ago

Cowboys were, at least in modern mythical thinking, rough-housers, usually amateurs (or, at least, working outside their professional field), and somewhat untrustworthy on a good day. I can see the lineage from there to "Cowboy builder". There's a similar saying over here of "cowboy cop", only with a more lethal implication.

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SK 2 years, 9 months ago

Justifiable genocide is pretty easy to come up with. Suppose that for some reason there are only two Hittites left, Hadam and Heve. And they're serial killers, And they attack you with their machetes. So you shoot them in self -defense. There you go.

That's not genocide.

Genocide is when you set out to destroy an entire class of people, because of their membership of that class.

So, Hitler with the Jews (obviously) or Stalin with the kulaks: people were targeted because of their membership of a class, and the aim was to wipe that class out of existence.

Simply doing something that happens to result in the destruction of an entire class (such as killing the last two in self-defence), but without the intent to wipe out that class, has the actus reus of genocide, but because it lacks the mens rea it is not genocide.

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Alan 2 years, 9 months ago

I was just in the process of writing a reply about how much that scene bugged me because canonically only three companions have died in fifty years. The vast majority of the Doctor's companions travel with him for a time and then leave, so that guilty attitude he demonstrated towards Rory's dad seemed out of place. And then, it suddenly struck me for the first time -- he was talking to Rory's dad and Rory would have been the fourth companion death had he not been resurrected by a bizarre plot contrivance. I need to go rewatch that episode (which I didn't care for the first time) before Phil covers it.

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Daru 2 years, 9 months ago

On balance, I enjoyed series 7b more than 7a - for the reasons suggested by Melissa. I absolutely adored the feelings of Bells, Rings (which holds a special place in my heart for me), Hide, Crimson and Name. These episodes showed ways forwards that have been expanded in Series 8, as Lee suggests above, of the character development becoming the arc. But yes that's a thing that is still seeming to be half formed here - but I still love the back half of 7.

7b I did find a lot of fun, apart from A Town Called Mercy, which story wise left me feeling a bit empty, it felt out of place somehow seeing the tortured Doctor mirrored with his foe. Didn't work for me. I would have enjoyed a lot more an all-out comedy Western which just revelled in the joy of the setting in the style of The Gunfighters.

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Daru 2 years, 9 months ago

"And in the end, horses are not known for adhereing to strict gender norms"

I am intruiged at how you know this :)

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Daru 2 years, 9 months ago

I'm a big lover of The Gunfighters, shame this story was something of a reaction against that. How about the Doctor and the Tardis rocking into Deadwood on the Deadwood Stage with big show tunes an'all?

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gatchamandave 2 years, 9 months ago

...with Ian McShane glaring from behind the bar ?

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Owlie 2 years, 8 months ago

Bit late commenting on this one, but... as a trans person myself: it was a male horse named Susan. Not a trans horse. People with traditionally feminine names don't necessarily identify as female.

And I thought it was a pretty obvious reference to ''A Boy Named Sue''.

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