Saturday, 15 September 2012

The Quality of Mercy (Review)

I'll own up right from the outset, but I have never been a massive fan of the Western genre. I can sit through the better "spaghetti westerns" but the classic Hollywood films have always been a turn off. I was also conscious of the relative disappointment felt last year when Doctor Who tackled another well-known genre. The Doctor meets Pirates! How could you possibly go wrong with that combination...? I therefore approached this new episode with a certain amount of trepidation... Spoilers Ahead.

Last year's pirate story merely played with a few elements that weren't intrinsic to the plot, and the story didn't need them. This time, there were a lot of Western conventions - the lone gunslinger, the fateful meeting at "High Noon", the town lynch mob etc., but they felt far more intertwined with the story. Some will argue that the setting was an interchangeable backdrop - that it could have been an alien colony, or an English Civil War village. This misses the point that, apart from the "Historicals", countless Doctor Who stories are set against a background / context that can be argued is immaterial to the storyline.
The idea that America at this time, and especially in its expanding frontier territories, is a land of second chances fits perfectly with the main themes of this story.

Those themes are, of course, the multitude shades of grey between right and wrong, responsibility and conscience, revenge and retribution - and ultimately personal redemption. The Doctor finds himself caught in a moral dilemma. At first it seems clear cut - Kahler-Jex is a war criminal who created the cyborg Gunslinger, and killed many in his experiments to achieve this. The Doctor who sentenced Solomon to death last week without batting an eyelid is prepared to hand the alien doctor over to his nemesis. Rory agrees, but Amy wants another way, and stops him. There are hints of the past - of the "Time Lord Victorious" and "sometimes you need someone to stop you".
This story saw a fantastic performance by Matt Smith. One particular highlight was the scene where he had to confront the young man in the lynch mob. Violence begets violence, and he simply won't allow this to happen.

Kahler-Jex proves to be a more complex character than the Doctor first assumes. He has been helping the town for some years - curing cholera, giving electric power and so forth. He has found a home, and a friend, in Mercy, and may truly be striving for redemption. It soon becomes apparent that he is haunted by what he had done, and has a belief system that means he will continue to, quite literally, carry this guilt even after death.
It was a wonderful performance by Adrian Scarborough - creating a character at times chilling and others tragic and even sympathetic. We know he's done terrible things, but we want him to somehow escape from all this.

 The Gunslinger is another tragic figure - and we feel the same for him as we do for Jex. We want him to get his revenge and closure. I think it would have been a cop-out had he self-destructed at the end - as though his life had no value beyond his quest for vengeance. It's nice to think he's still out there, protecting the townsfolk of Mercy. I believe Jex's own personal form of redemption was really the only choice open to him, and for the story.
Ben Browder was thankfully not underused. His departure from the story sets up the latter part as the Doctor has to step into his boots and badge.
Garrick Hagon only had a couple of scenes, but the one in the jail with the coffee was well worth him being there (very Carry On Cowboy).

A very different type of story than the previous two weeks of high adventure - and for this I'm very glad. More thought provoking than action-packed - though there was enough of that to keep the kids happy.
The use of the Spanish Western recreation town and the surrounding countryside greatly helped sell the story - you certainly couldn't have filmed this one in Bute Town. But did we really see a big castle or hacienda on a hill top a couple of times?
Finally, a special mention must be made of the music. I will certainly look forward to Murray's Series 7 soundtrack release.
Overall, a quality production.

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