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Posts Tagged ‘A Town Called Mercy’

Let us take a moment, prior to turning our attention to A Town Called Mercy, and consider the succession. Not in terms of who it may be that finds himself filling the shoes of young Master Smith when he opts to move on, but who will be running the show after he goes. You may think this is presumptuous and untimely, but I remember it was as early as the summer of 2007 that people were asking the Moff if he would take the reins (this was ‘asking if he would’ in the sense of ‘demanding that he’).

Moffat was unquestionably the show’s big gun throughout the Rusty years, the writer whose work was anticipated more keenly than any other. He was always the logical candidate to succeed Davies as showrunner, given his experience, popularity and ability. Thinking about the show these days, one has to ask who occupies a similarly prestigious position amongst the regular writing team? Neil Gaiman is beloved and critically acclaimed, but he’s not going to commit himself to running a TV show in Wales. Gareth Roberts and Mark Gatiss have experience of TV production, but Roberts lacks the profile and Gatiss, much as I love his work elsewhere – and in Doctor Who of other media – has only written one inarguably great episode, and that was in 2005. Chris Chibnall similarly seems to me to be really just a journeyman contributor.

I suppose there exists the remote possibility of the BBC bringing in an external candidate for this extremely plum job, but my money’s on them promoting from within, and it seems to me that the pre-eminent figure is none other than Toby Whithouse. Think about it: this man created and was showrunner for Being Human, a consistently popular BBC fantasy series, in addition to contributing four scripts to Doctor Who itself. Now, I don’t care much for Vampires of Venice: to me it feels a bit like a Tennant script that they found down the back of the filing cabinet and hastily rewrote for Smith. But The God Complex was one of the best two or three episodes of last season, School Reunion ultimately gave us SJA – in addition to being a very accomplished outing in its own right, and A Town Called Mercy

Yes, we’ve finally arrived at the topical part. A Town Called Mercy is certainly my favourite episode of the year so far, but this is bearing in mind that a) Asylum of the Daleks DID NOT MAKE SENSE and b) Dinosaurs on a Spaceship was much more about wacky ideas and visuals than any kind of coherent plot. Compared to these two, Mercy looks like an episode of I, Claudius or The Singing Detective: there is a proper plot, and serious characterisation. Oh, the relief.

‘I’d speak up but I’m feeling a little horse’, etc.

That said, while it may not look like an episode of Star Trek, it could be rewritten as one without a great deal of difficulty – I say this possibly because I seem to recall a number of Trek episodes with a similar thrust, but also because this story put the core moral dilemma so absolutely front and centre in its storytelling. Knowing as much as I do about the way the modern show is put together, I suspect the brief given to the writer likely focussed on the words ‘western’ and ‘cyborg gunslinger’ much more than ‘moral dilemma’ – although I believe the Doctor’s little off-the-deep-end moment was also a feature. This was interesting, and the kind of thing I was actually expecting to see last season when Moffat was promising us the sight of an angry Doctor.

But then again there was never much doubt as to how the story was going to play out, broadly speaking: I wonder if it isn’t better for the show not to base episodes around this kind of moral dilemma, given they’re always going to resolve in basically predictable ways. You just know the Doctor isn’t going to actually execute someone, in the same way it soon became clear that Jex had a moment of redemptive self-sacrifice waiting somewhere down the line for him.

This was an issue I had with The God Complex as well – both scripts were strong, with interesting set-ups and solid characters, but they both seemed to me to be a little lacking in surprise and joy: there was none of the peripheral craziness and sense of excitement about the sheer possibilities of the format that I so relish in really good Doctor Who. Whithouse writes good individual jokes, but his recent scripts have all been rather solemn, if not sombre. (I’m attempting to put into words something subtle and tonal I’m not completely sure about myself, so it’s very likely I‘ve stopped making sense.)

In any case, a bit of solemnity and seriousness is exactly what this series has been needing: Whithouse also, possibly notably, completely ignores the current meta-narrative clutter surrounding the series (the Doctor is supposedly dead – how is this supposed to work, given he’s a time traveller? – and his companions don’t technically accompany him any more). It’d probably be overstating things to say that A Town Called Mercy shows that you don’t need any of this stuff in a good episode, but the fact remains that this was what this was. Whether the series has got its act together now, or if this was just a brief high point, remains to be seen.

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