Doctor Who: The Angels Take ManhattanBookmark and Share

Saturday, 29 September 2012 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

Doctor Who - The Angels Take Manhattan
Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Nick Hurran
Broadcast on BBC One - 29 September 2012
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK preview of the episode.

The Angels Take Manhattan delivers in a series of ways: New York’s most infamous statue makes an impressive appearance, and location filming in NYC allows for some iconic Central Park sequences, especially Rory’s visit to Bethesda Fountain. It’s often noir-ish in tone, largely as a result of Melody Malone’s pulp pastiche mixed with repeated shots of dark, shadowy hotel corridors. Nick “slow-mo” Hurran does the business again, and there are some interesting ideas that help develop the Weeping Angels, chiefly their use of a “battery farm.” Surely this could’ve been implemented in any city or major population centre, though; in the end, there’s no strong or necessary link between Manhattan and what the Angels are up to. And do the Angels’ victims spend their entire lives in one hotel room? The plotting here produces some striking, uncanny images of people confronting their older selves, but it doesn’t quite seem fully thought through.

As a series finale, this sometimes suffers from an excess of narrative trickery. It constantly plays with audience expectations surrounding the Ponds’ exit, twisting backwards and forwards between a “final farewell”, death, not-death, death, and, well, a final farewell exactly as promised. For me, the frenetic to-ing and fro-ing got in the way of any sustained emotion; for loss to really hit home, I suspect that its mood has to linger with audiences. But all the whizz-bang scripting rather got in the way of building a powerful, consistent emotion. Rather than heart-felt sentiment and sincerity, this felt too much like a storytelling game, even down to a clever final integration with The Eleventh Hour. Or perhaps it's just that I’ve got a heart of stone.

Steven Moffat also repeats his favourite ontological game; the one where a character suddenly appears in what should be an impossible time and space. We’ve previously had the Doctor abruptly appearing on the TARDIS screen (The Beast Below), and strolling into a recording of the past (A Christmas Carol). This time it’s Rory who moves inside the pages of a novel being read aloud. As a device, it’s perhaps beginning to lose its impact through brazen repetition. Yes, Steven Moffat is an award-winning and massively talented writer, but can’t anyone – exec producer, producer, script editor, whoever – push him not to rely so heavily on tried-and-tested motifs? Just for once, it’d be interesting to see him produce a screenplay devoid of self-referencing Moffatisms.

The Angels Take Manhattan plays yet another game; it needs to find a way to make its ending properly final; a conclusion that can’t be rewritten or reversed. But it does this by reverting to Moffat’s fixation with spoilers: if the Doctor and Amy read ahead, and into their own future, then that future supposedly becomes fixed or “written in stone”. However, this gambit assumes that the events of River’s novel are nothing but the stone-cold truth. What if she’s fabricated, embellished, or dramatised events? I suspect that reading Melody Malone’s adventure shouldn’t quite work in the way that’s suggested. Time can be rewritten, although “not once you’ve read it”… but this can only be true if the act of writing is in no way aesthetically transformative, and amounts to a sort of pure, factual documentation. Storytelling – represented through typewriter clatter and words in extreme close-up – is reduced to a record of events; reading therefore means nothing other than discovering what is, was, and will be. And this attitude towards storytelling extends to the very last story that the Doctor is asked to tell: that of Amy's adventures which have finished, and which are simultaneously yet to come. Oddly, there's absolutely no concept of fiction (or art) within Moffat's artful fiction.

Setting this strangeness aside, “I just have to blink” is a smart inversion of the Angel’s first appearance, and the Angels continue to offer an effective, monstrous presence as Moffat returns them to their Blink modus operandi rather than building on the developments of series five. There’s also a bit of resetting for River, whose role as a criminal, and as the woman who killed the Doctor, seems to have been dissolved along with the Doctor’s legend. The irony is that just at the point that this story insists on fixed points and irrevocable endings, it nevertheless busily rewrites and re-orients Doctor Who’s continuity.

And therein lies the problem, because there can’t be any final ending in a programme like Doctor Who; it’s right and fitting that the Doctor should hate endings, never reading a book’s final page, because Who itself will never have the TV equivalent of a closing sentence. And this is why Moffat has to work so hard to trick viewers into believing in a final ending for the Ponds, even down to a collision of “written in stone” dialogue and written in stone visuals. And down to re-using a shot from The Eleventh Hour, to further cement the notion that Amelia's story is now wholly completed, and rigorously book-ended. But this sense of a closed ending pulls, ultimately, against the televisual and storytelling DNA of Doctor Who, where endings – whatever temporal rules you try and set for them – are always temporary. Afterwords are never the end; they’re just the bit before readers start imagining, and writing their own stories. (Or they’re the bit before the next Christmas Special).

Perhaps the most satisfying thing about The Angels Take Manhattan is that it’s a story about telling and reading stories. The angels get meta. But this remains a satisfaction at writerly cleverness in place of heartbreak and emotional devastation. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll miss Amy and Rory, and this episode does a good job of showing their love for one another. But in the end, there’s not too much to feel actively sad about; they presumably live out their time together, remembering the Doctor and all their escapades, even reaching perfectly respectable ages. Their tragic fate… is to lead ordinary, loving lives. And it’s hard to feel sorry for the Doctor; he has River to look after him, after all, and we already know that he’ll have a new best friend soon enough, as the pleasures of seriality roll ever onward. The Angels Take Manhattan is, at best, a simulation of high emotion – a copy which shouldn’t be mistaken for the real thing. Statuesque and finely crafted, it may be, but it represents an impossible finality in a serialised world.




The Ambassadors of DeathBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 25 September 2012 - Reviewed by Chuck Foster

The Ambassadors of Death
Written by David Whitaker
Directed by Michael Ferguson
Broadcast on BBC1: 21 Mar - 2 May 1970
DVD release: 1 October 2012 (UK)
This review is based on the UK Region 2 DVD release.

When I first watched The Ambassadors of Death back in the 1980s I remember not being terribly impressed, finding the story overlong and a bit boring. Watching it now I can hardly understand what that teenager was thinking as there is plenty of action and intrigue to appreciate throughout the seven episodes!

I'm going to assume that people coming to this story will be aware of what the story is about, but briefly it surrounds the attempts by a deluded former astronaut to make people believe that there are hostile aliens intent upon invading Earth, and how the Doctor has to negotiate in order to avoid an all out war between the two as alien ambassadors are held hostage.

One of things I really like about Ambassadors now is the way in which the story unfolds is so "matter of fact" and played very straight. Like The Silurians before, UNIT have become attached to an important project to provide security, and again the Doctor decides to help out the Brigadier on his own terms only once he becomes intrigued by what's occuring, and then (in this case literally) walking off and leaving them to it once he's "done his bit".

The Doctor here continues to show his disdain for authority figures and those who fail to comprehend how clever he is(!). Liz, who does, continues to display her own scientific credentials throughout - not to mention her courage in trying to evade those eager to kidnap her and in facing radioactive aliens!

The Brigadier depicted throughout this season is a gritty, open-minded individual, and the mutual respect between him and the Doctor shines through (it's a shame he became more of the stereotypical 'military mind' in later seasons). The UNIT of this season is also clearly a serious military outfit rather than the "family" it became in later seasons; in fact it is so formal that when Benton makes his appearance in episode five without hindsight it's hard to tell whether he's going to be a goodie or a baddie! The extensive use of stuntmen serve to make the action sequences worthy of huge-budget movie battles (kudos to director Michael Ferguson and stunt coordinator Derek Ware/HAVOC).

General Carrington as the main protagonist makes for an ambiguous character, flitting between being the leader of the kidnappers and an military ally to the Space Control investigation until his ultimate paranoia comes to the fore in the later episodes. Like many 'real' characters, he sits firmly in that grey area of neither good nor evil, but totally convinced that he is in the right over the intentions of the aliens he had encountered on a former Mars mission. You cannot help but feel pity for him at the end when he craves understanding from the Doctor. All-in-all, a compelling performance from John Abineri.

Like the Silurians previously, the "monsters of the week" here aren't inherently bad but are simply dealing with the environment they find themselves in. The "Ambassadors" have arrived on Earth in good faith, unaware of the delusion Carrington has of their intentions, and are forced to act as radioactive 'weapons' (the "Carriers of Death" as the original story title describes them). However, those on the spacecraft orbiting Earth are quite happy to wipe out the planet should their delegates not be returned, and those held 'hostage' seem happy enough to murder others when carrying out their tasks, so perhaps Carrington wasn't quite as off-the-mark as one might think ...

In spite of the nitty-gritty activity, there's still time for some fun in the story. The Doctor and Liz do some time-travel shenanigary at the start which much as I hate to say it validates a similar scenario with the Doctor and Peri in The Twin Dilemma! (Terrance Dicks also relates this to the opening and original closing scenes in Day of the Daleks). Then there's Jon Pertwee's chance to use his "doddery old man" voice in episode two as the Doctor re-recovers Recovery Seven. There's also inside jokes with the Hayhoe/Silcock van signs to appreciate, as well.

Though it is (probably) unintentional, I find all the labelling within the story rather amusing, too - the space vehicles are emblazoned with their identity just in case any passing space travellers need to know which is the Probe and which is the Recovery vehicle, briefcase explosives are handilly labelled as such, and even the Doctor's "anti theft device" is clearly displayed on the dashboard! Little touches like that serve to remind us, of course, that this is still a family show and not now focussed on being an adult-oriented series as some critics might have suggested at the time.

Finally, music-wise, I do like a bit of Dudley Simpson with my seventies Who, and he is in fine form here as composer of a number of memorable themes - notably, there's the grand "space" music during episode one, the jaunty theme to accompany UNIT, plus the 'unearthly' theme that followed the Ambassadors around.

The DVD

If course the real 'selling-point' for this DVD is the colour restoration for episodes two to seven, so was it worth the delay since its original announcement for last year with The Sun Makers? From a purely objective point of view, there is a noticeable drop in quality between the first and second episodes, and at times the colour seems ropey and occasional strobing peeks through; overall, it reminded me a lot of how The Daemons looked on its restoration in 1993. However, of course, the important point here is that Ambassadors is being presented IN FULL COLOUR and is a vast improvement on the previous BBC VHS release, let alone the swirly patches of occasional colour intermixed with black and white that we were treated to on dodgy VHS copies and even on UK Gold's broadcasts! Many of us won't remember the story in colour anyway, and it doesn't take long to adjust to quality change at all - certainly anybody used to VHS playback won't have a problem. Full marks to the restorers Peter Crocker and Richard Russell for what they've been able to achieve with the material they had to work with.

The commentary team for each episode were 'themed'; so for example episode one included Terrance Dicks discussing how the script developed from David Whitaker's original outline and director Michael Ferguson's obsession with the then new CSO techniques; episode two, meanwhile focussed on the stunt team with Derek Ware's reasoning behind the creation of HAVOC, and fellow stunt men Roy Scammell and Derek Martin recollecting their experiences. The cast popped in and out for episodes, too, and it was bittersweet to hear Nicholas Courtney, Caroline John and Peter Halliday recount their experiences on the show during the course of the story - the 2009 recording helps to make it feel as if they are still here to regail us with their tales. Geoffrey Beevers joined the team for the final episode (and immediately asked by compere Toby Hadoke how he got the job in a story alongside his then pregnant wife Caroline!), and the team as a whole spoke about the family atmosphere Doctor Who created.

The production notes are as comprehensive as ever, so if you ever wanted to know the names/locations of all the various tracking stations seen in episode one, the reams of narrative originally planned for Wakefield (as played by Michael Wisher in his first appearance in the show!), and who/what "Grimnod" relates to, it's all there to find within the text!

One gem included Whitaker handing episode two over on the day Armstrong set foot on the moon, and this wasn't the only connection with real-life space history for the story. The main extra on the second disc is the making-of documentary, and its opening 'scene' reflected how sometimes fantasy and reality aren't so far apart as, during a story surrounding the recovery of a space probe, NASA had to undertake a similar feat with Apollo 13's disaster (which occured in April 1970 between the broadcasts of episodes four and five). As one might expect, the documentary delves into how the story was made, expanding and clarifying some of the commentary observations by the production team on the main disc.

Other extras on the disc includes an instalment of Tomorrow's Times focussing on the media coverage of the Third Doctor era (presented by Peter Purves in a manner reminiscent of John Craven on Newsround!), a contemporary trailer for the story (which highlights the action-oriented elements), and the usual collection of images from the story and PDF copies of Radio Times listings.

Next Time

It's the Third Doctor again, one year on - how have our favourite characters developed since we met them in Ambassadors ... find out in the special edition release of The Claws of Axos!





Doctor Who: The Power of ThreeBookmark and Share

Saturday, 22 September 2012 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

Doctor Who - The Power of Three
Written by Chris Chibnall
Directed by Douglas Mackinnon
Broadcast on BBC One - 22 September 2012
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK preview of the episode.

“That’s new!” And as a slogan for series seven, surely those words are appropriate enough. Despite revisiting familiar monsters and set-ups (Daleks, dinosaurs and the Western), Doctor Who continues to ring the changes here. Asylum of the Daleks introduced a companion like no other, and The Power of Three puts an intriguing new spin on the old alien invasion plot, as well as utilising a time-frame and a structure that are highly unusual. Superficially, this reads like Russell Textbook Davies -– it's all celebrity cameos, newscasters, and shots of international landmarks. All families, and homilies, and voiceovers, and underground bases, and tributes to the great human spirit. It’s a Greatest Hits package on an epic scale. Except it’s also infused with Moffatesque tropes: things like the throwaway Zygon incident (including cabbage cameo) and the Henry VIII adventure-as-punchline, not to mention the Doctor’s difficulty with life in the slow (i.e. ordinary) lane, the Doctor-Amelia relationship, and more gags than most sitcoms would settle for.

What’s curious about this Davies-Moffat hybrid, of course, is that despite offering the best of both worlds – a meeting of minds and eras – it’s written by neither showrunner. Instead, it’s Doctor Who’s own third way; the power of three produced by fusing two different dimensions and eras of the show. Chris Chibnall plays an absolute blinder, proving that he can rise to the challenge of almost any commission. But while Dinosaurs on a Spaceship was a title in search of an episode, this is an episode in search of a title. Cubed would have been a contender for the dullest story title ever committed to screen; thank God for the late rethink. But The Power of Three isn’t much better. It doesn’t really have anything much to do with the story: after all, this is about physical cubes, not a mathematical process of cubing (adding a line about block transfer computation might have covered it, but c’est la vie. It’s hardly as if the episode is light on fan service). Instead, The Power of Three is a title that barely makes sense unless you interpret it in the light of this episode’s place in the overall series – it’s The One Before The Ponds Leave, and so is meant to reinforce the team’s togetherness just before tragedy (presumably) strikes. It’s ironic that in a run of single-episode stories allegedly light on arc matter, we get an episode title that’s pretty much pure arc. Year of the Slow Invasion would have been my personal choice, but I expect any executive producer worth their salary would have had a heart attack in response to a title involving the word “Slow”. Saturday night prime-time telly can't afford to imply any sort of sluggishness.

I could grumble that Steven Berkoff is ludicrously wasted as the Shakri propagandist, and that the global attack is resolved quicker than champions can solve a Rubik’s cube. And how many different mythical evils are Gallifreyan children told about? This felt like lazy Who – a clichéd short-cut to narrative significance that hadn’t been earned. But such complaints miss the point, I suspect: this episode isn’t really about the Shakri. It isn’t even really about the cubes... and here’s hoping that they aren’t released as Character Options merchandise. A featureless black cube that does absolutely nothing: Worst. Toy. Ever. No, it’s character stuff all the way down from seven to zero, with Brian getting some great lines and some hilarious bits of business. In fact, this whole episode is hugely quotable, whether it’s chat about Yorkshire Puddings, or watering the plants, or “welcome back, lefty!”. The dialogue consistently sings out; it dances and zings without ever feeling overly wacky or forced.

Chris Chibnall gave Brian pretty much the strongest moment in Dinosaurs – sitting on the TARDIS threshold drinking tea and watching the world turn – and he’s at it again here. This time Brian’s everyman figure gives his blessing to Amy and Rory’s time-travelling exploits in a heart-warming sequence: “save every world you can find”. Brian’s Log is also comedy gold, as is his moment of recognition that Amy and Rory have changed outfits. It’s a great shame that presumably we’ll lose Brian along with the Ponds – Doctor Who feels stronger and more rounded when its main characters reach across generations, and like Wilf before him, Brian adds a light touch of complexity, and a sense of real groundedness.

Kate you-know-who Stewart is another well realized character, and Jemma Redgrave turns in a stellar performance even though she doesn’t always have a huge amount to work with. I’m not sure how convincing a reformed and scientifically-led UNIT actually is, mind you, but nevertheless Redgrave’s chaste kiss at the episode’s end is a delight. The Brigadier is honoured via Kate’s inclusion. If the mark of an impressive script is that it leaves its audience wanting more, then this definitely hit the mark for me: I was left wanting more of knockabout, resolute Brian and more of earnest, intelligent Kate.

In the past, Chris Chibnall may not always have won fans’ admiration. The fact that series one of Torchwood had to be filmed when it basically wasn’t 100% ready didn’t help his cause, and The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood also have their detractors, though Chibnall’s scripts there were hardly well served by last-minute budgeting issues and poor design choices. If there’s blame to be attributed then I suspect weak exec production should attract more commentary rather than Chibnall’s output alone. But writers make good targets for critique – executive production is rather more amorphous, more awkward to pin down. A screenplay… that’s probably easier to lambast. And more recently, Dinosaurs garnered brickbats for its treatment of Solomon. But again, shouldn’t stronger exec production have picked up on the Doctor’s behaviour as a problem?

At the risk of courting controversy, this episode – along with non-Who work such as United, and Torchwood’s Adrift – helps build a strong case for Chibnall as a writer who can deliver something that few other current Who writers can: a genuine diversity of story types. Like Davies, Chibnall can convincingly tug at the heart strings – effortlessly melding the ordinary and the fantastical – but he can also write trad gothic horror and big, frothy adventures, and kitchen sink realism. Sometimes fandom values writers who play the same tricks over and over again – isn’t this what shows us we’re dealing with a proper auteur? – and in turn devalues writers who can hit the brief, turn the commission into something startling, and deliver a true range of stories. Somehow we assume this makes a writer more anonymous; a gun for hire or a plodding dinosaur in the TV industry rather than a voice bursting uniquely off the page. But I think that Chris Chibnall’s authorship lies, increasingly, with his ability to take the best bits of Davies and Moffat and make them anew. Without ever feeling like pastiche or slavish imitation, The Power of Three has a maturity and an energy and a sheer fittingness. It takes Moffat’s original and, let’s face it, rather vague idea and fashions it into something electric. We're given Davies’s core vision plus Moffat’s comedic vitality plus Chibnall’s chameleonic virtue… yes, it really is Who raised to the power of three. This episode is an innovative, worthy addition to Doctor Who's ever-unfolding C.V.




Doctor Who: A Town Called Mercy (review 2)Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 16 September 2012 - Written by Matthew Kilburn
Written by Matthew Kilburn

Doctor Who - A Town Called Mercy
Written by Toby Whithouse
Directed by Saul Metzstein
Broadcast on BBC One - 15 September 2012
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK preview of the episode.

North America's cultural influence is woven around Doctor Who like a double helix. The programme was born to a British public broadcaster already reliant on Hollywood for much of its output, and which had charged an iconoclast from Canada with the task of taking its native dramatic forms and reshaping them for a medium where the United States spent most and shouted loudest. Doctor Who could be characterised as the child of a secret encounter between the American adventure story and the classic serial. Selected American television westerns were thought by the BBC in the early 1960s to be unsophisticated material suitable for late afternoon viewing, although when under the purview of the old Children's Department, violent incidents were carefully removed. Doctor Who at first sought not to be the simple morality play British broadcasting creatives perhaps imagined the American western to be, though its influence was evident early on: Marco Polo had strong elements of the pioneer caravan form, and there is some irony in that The Gunfighters, an anti-western set in the American west using characters and situations borrowed from the genre, almost bookends the start of a period where the Doctor becomes much more like the nomadic cowboy than he was before, solving problems as an outsider rather than becoming embedded in his host society, and slipping away before that society can find him a role in its future.

Production office and subsequently fan mythology stated that The Gunfighters had shown that the western was not a genre Doctor Who did well; and yet for part of the 1970s, in the shadow of that 'Wagon Train to the stars', Star Trek, several Doctor Who stories could have been told in the western genre with minimal alterations beyond setting. Perhaps the reasons Doctor Who never visited the western after The Gunfighters were not only that the BBC wouldn't risk dressing a quarry or a Television Centre studio as a late-nineteenth century American town and invite unfavourable comparison with American film series, but that it would also draw attention to the programme's similarities to a genre from which it needed to differentiate itself for reasons of cultural identification (as a 'BBC' production) and of audience suspension of disbelief.

Once the programme was liberated from the multicamera studio, the western became a genre for Doctor Who to slay, once the time was right. In the 1990s, Philip Segal listed a remake of The Gunfighters among his possible scenarios for a Doctor Who series. When Russell T Davies drew up his guide to Doctor Who's format before production on the revived series began in 2004, his 'adventures in the human race' described potential space adventures in terms of human pioneers, language reminiscent of the American frontier.

It's taken seven series to reach the American west, and it is already one self-consciously filtered through European eyes and hands, in the shape of the western sets of Fort Bravo and Oasys near Almeria in Spain, known from the films of Sergio Leone and others. This might create expectations of a more cynical, unidealised depiction of the western setting, and to a limited extent these are met. It's to the credit of A Town Called Mercy that it acknowledges the moral uncertainties and ambivalences of the characters, something for which Dinosaurs on a Spaceship had little room.




A Town Called Mercy's setting combines preoccupations of the classical western, religious faith, social stability and the development of the community, with some self-aware historical contextualisation. The town of Mercy draws on a cultural commentator's view of the western as American nation-building device. In Isaac's words, it is five years after 'the War', presumably the American Civil War. In Mercy, people can find second chances; it encapsulates the new America of the frontier as imagined by later generations, seeking to create a better future by breaking from past divisions. Although these are never specified, making the town's preacher African-American is shorthand for one of them. It also distances A Town Called Mercy from a purely white vision of the United States, even if only at a token level. More successfully, the presence of a transgender horse satirises the heterosexual heroism of the traditional west and (through the name Susan) acknowledges that this is an old, old target, with its echoes of the song 'A Boy Named Sue'.

The preacher's prominence is important less for his ethnicity than for his presence as a marker of the role of religious belief in this story. The luckless Kahler-Mas is told in the pre-credits sequence to make peace with his gods, and Kahler-Jex later shows that his outlook on life and death is shaped by his religious conception of guilt and the afterlife. The Gunslinger, when challenged, says that the Kahler gods are no longer his; is this simply because his faith has been destroyed by the betrayal which turned him into a cyborg, or because faith is for those of the flesh, or because Jex had assumed the mantle of a creator-god? As the Gunslinger - Tek - regards himself as a 'monster', perhaps it is the latter, Jex having reduced Tek's rank in the order of creation.

If Mercy is an American utopia, a small town somehow surviving in the desert with little obvious means of support, its siege by the Gunslinger is a powerful image of later American dystopias. The Gunslinger's debt to RoboCop and the Terminator is obvious. His prosthetics are material expressions of the brutal combat experiences endured by Rambo and the friends of The Deer Hunter. In Doctor Who, this kind of war is to be imagined or viewed from the sidelines, but the screams of the unsuccessful victims of Jex's cyborg conversion programme are more than enough to help us. The Gunslinger's name and roboticness owe much to Yul Brynner's character in Westworld, but his poncho-like outfit recalls Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name from the Dollars Trilogy, as does the post-Civil War setting.

The Gunslinger suffers too because he has had another's dual nature imposed upon him: Jex's name and profession suggest Dr Henry Jekyll, from a gothic storytelling tradition. The American utopia has been made possible by his scientific expertise. Without Jex, Mercy would be low-tech even by the standards of 1870; it doesn't appear to be a railroad town. However, like Jekyll, Jex has been avoiding the truth about his own nature, and when this repressed side emerges it is sneering, supercilious, and callous. The result of his interference in Mercy is its isolation within what is in appearance and effect a magic circle.

A Town Called Mercy is an accomplished construction of histories and fictions received and revised, into which arrive the Doctor, Amy and Rory. The solitary Doctor of the first shot momentarily points to the debt the Doctor owes to the lone stranger of western myth, but Amy and Rory then appear, to remind us that the Doctor likes company, as the Daleks recognised two episodes ago. The Doctor begins this episode uncomfortably balanced again between the childlike and the childish, a Norman Wisdom or Eric Morecambe sure that he knows how to behave in a western saloon bar but unconcerned if his conduct is, after all, out of place. After two episodes where the Doctor's external insouciance seems to be vindicated, it is welcome to see him be made uncomfortable by his dilemma and have to work out what the right course of action is.

Isaac tells the Doctor that both aliens are good men who just forget that sometimes. Though there is no speech in which the Doctor agonises about the Time War, Jex's experiences and defence of his actions recall the trauma the Doctor shared with the audience in previous years. Jex might have decided where his debt was to be paid; so, perhaps, has the Doctor. Isaac's death temporarily removes the Doctor's outsider status; as marshal, he becomes part of Mercy and upholds justice against the temptation to be cruel and cowardly. This is all played successfully as credible character development. The lives and motives of human beings are depicted as focused on the smaller picture and shaped by fear of the unknown; no wonder the Doctor would prefer to deal with a Dalek any day. Matt Smith is always watchable but his Doctor is at his best when he gets to show his range. There is more room in this story for contemplation of the grey areas of existence, and that saving people isn't just about running around wisecracking amidst explosions. The sequence where the Doctor persuades Sean Benedict's Dockery (definitely a kinsman of Unforgiven's would-be gunman, the Schofield Kid) from a moral misjudgement is quieter than much of what we have seen this season, and the better for it. The episode as a whole is seemingly slower than Dinosaurs, but this is an illusion of pacing, and a further indicator that Saul Metzstein is an asset to Doctor Who's directing roster.



This is a good though problematic episode for Amy. Karen Gillan's performance is increasingly reminiscent of Elisabeth Sladen's Sarah, and her costume's leather jacket is reminiscent of Sarah's early outfits as well as the mature Sarah of The Sarah Jane Adventures. As Sarah often was, Amy is here the only female character with a substantial part. Mercy is a town of patriarchs: it has an Abraham (Garrick Hagon, fussily and methodically measuring light years from his youthful Ky) and an Isaac (Ben Browder, dirty in desert dust but clear-sighted and confident in his faith in his town's mission). Yet it is women who tell its story and foster identity. Gender stereotyping it may be, but this is what Amy successfully does in this story, recalling the Doctor to what she has learned from him, and overruling Rory's emphasis on expedient action. We could probably have done without the stirring music as Amy makes her 'we have to be better than him' speech, though.

Murray Gold seems to enjoy drawing from a musical tradition he's not yet exploited in Doctor Who, with guitar strings referencing Ennio Morricone's scores from the Dollars trilogy. Once inside Jex's spacecraft, there is a riff on 'Journey of the Sorcerer' too, perhaps a nod to the ship's Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy-like graphics. The Doctor's farewell theme borrows from earlier in Gold's corpus, for another tale of pioneer idealism undermined from within, The Doctor's Daughter. We may have been here before, but A Town Called Mercy is the more coherent of the two and more confident in its use of motifs.

This episode perpetuates the electric bulb motif seen in stories earlier this season. Within the context of the episode's plot, it suggests the fragility of Jex's electric lighting system and informs Jex that the Doctor has found his intact spacecraft. However, there are other fluctuations which are less easily explained in this way, which include one where Amy explains that she, Rory and the Doctor were on their way to Mexico and the Day of the Dead. The Doctor's face is sorrowful here; like Henry in Steven Moffat's oft-cited inspiration, The Time-Traveller's Wife, he might have foreknowledge of the end of the most important relationship in his life.

Toby Whithouse's writing has often relied upon awareness and exploration of the stories people tell themselves and each other to confirm their senses of self and get through life on a day-to-day basis. A Town Called Mercy is a good example of this. It is sustained by a unified visual sense, with strong cinematography and design. In its play with the history of places and people and the representation of that history in fiction, it is a great advance on 2010's The Vampires of Venice. In its blending of western and fairytale genres it restates Doctor Who's magpie nature and reinforces the programme's claim to be identity-myth itself while proving that it can be at home in the imagined American past and thus viable in the globalised present.




Doctor Who: A Town Called MercyBookmark and Share

Saturday, 15 September 2012 - Reviewed by Emma Hyam

Doctor Who - A Town Called Mercy
Written by Toby Whithouse
Directed by Saul Metzstein
Broadcast on BBC One - 15 September 2012
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK preview of the episode.

Amongst the best episodes of the last series of Doctor Who was for me Toby Whithouse's The God Complex, a beautifully made piece of television that was happy to steer the Doctor towards much darker places. Whithouse has history with Doctor Who, having also previously written School Reunion and The Vampires Of Venice. But with A Town Called Mercy, he's put together something very rare, a Doctor Who Western which actually works, the previous attempt in the shape of "The Gunfighters" is not an all together well regarded effort, this is a vastly superior episode.

And this is a slightly darker proposition, too. After the comparable lightness of Dinosaurs On A Spaceship, A Town Called Mercy pushes the Doctor to more uncomfortable emotional places than we've seen this series thus far. The cracks and strain on the Doctor are starting to show. Series 7 has demonstrated the comedy skills of Matt Smith extremely well and we also get to see his strengths when things go more serious. Smith is just terrific, his faux swagger as he asks for something strong (a cup of tea with the bag left in) while he nearly chokes on this toothpick is in wonderful contrast to his rage at Jex (him shouting at him to sit down nearly caused my eyebrows to fly off my forehead). Its also interesting to compare Jex and The Doctor, deep down they both seek the same thing.

The Doctor, being shown this reflection of himself can't cope and does something that may make some fans uncomfortable, it takes a simple statement of "this isn't how we roll" from Amy to bring The Doctor back to Earth and to remind us that The Doctor seeks his redemption through the actions of his friends. Gillan and Darvill are still at their best, with another unspecified period away from The Doctor our companions relationship seems once again to be on an even keel but if the episode has one major flaw its that Amy and Rory don't get a great deal to do, this very much being a tale of The Doctor's conflicted nature. This being said it does bring Amy Pond a little further forward than we've seen her the past week or two. It also exists pretty much as a standalone piece, even though there's the odd hint of undercurrent developing, Jex's comments on motherhood being both touching and ominous.

The production values ate absolutely terrific, Doctor Who has taken on three different genres this series so far, and each of them has looked outstanding. That's no small feat, and A Town Called Mercy looks the best of the lot so far. The wild west landscapes look appropriately sunblasted and desolate, A Town Called Mercy is the most cinematic of the three episodes we've seen this series to date.

As for the episode itself, Whithouse certainly knows his onions when it comes to westerns. He throws in a few more ingredients, too, with a sense of The Terminator in places, and a tip of the hat to the mighty Westworld in The Gunslinger with a healthy dose of humour chucked in, the horse who really prefers to be called Susan especially amusing. The early part of the episode, where he's having fun with the genre and exploring it, is arguably when A Town Called Mercy is at its strongest, as the episode progressed I found myself wondering why The Doctor didn't just use the TARDIS to solve the whole problem, this is addressed somewhat within the episode however its a little dissatisfying, much as in "The God Complex" Whithouse tends not to let a slightly shonky plot holes get in the way of the message he's trying to get across.

There is a small sense for me that there was a slightly better episode that could have been made out of the mix of ingredients here. That's not to say A Town Called Mercy is a bad piece of Saturday night telly, far from it. As it stands, though, A Town Called Mercy is a very good episode, with some excellent moments, all draped in utterly lush visuals, another success for the much vaunted "flexible format" of Doctor Who and another blockbuster delivered with confidence and appropriate Wild West swagger.

Review by Emma Hyam




The GunfightersBookmark and Share

Saturday, 15 September 2012 - Reviewed by Chuck Foster

>‎"What a man will do for what he truly believes in"

With A Town Called Mercy featuring the Doctor on a romp in the Wild West, it's time to settle down his other major dabbling in the genre with The Gunfighters. Fan Mythology has long held this story to propped up in the Boot Hill of Doctor Who, the worst the show could get and the nadir of ratings. Fortunately, a lot of this mistaken mystique has now been corralled into the past where it should be!

That's not to say some of the criticism isn't jusified. Considering the show's original remit to educate, the depiction of the Clantons, Earps, and the legendary gun fight would seem unlikely to grace history lessons of the day. But, of course, never let a few facts get in the way of a good story ...

And to be honest it is an entertaining romp. Historical inaccuracies aside, the plot unfolds at a leisurely but not lethargic pace, and the gradual change in ambience from a 'comedy' into something really dark can still catch you by surprise. Laurence Payne in particular is exceptional as Johnny Ringo, portraying convincing psychopath that you really wouldn't want to encounter in real life, much like Hannibal! And those final scenes of the actual fight are played totally straight with the portrayal of the gritty reality of "playing with guns".

Mind you, some of the accents were to be desired - what is it with this genre that when you go to the "wild west" you have to put on such an approximation - after all, "The Masque of Mandragora" didn't go all Italian on us! Perhaps they shouldn't have bothered and just played it straight through in 'normal' unaccented English, it wouldn't have affected the story. Shane Rimmer can perhaps be forgiven, however, for not trying to sound too much like Scott Tracey! (He's fresh in my mind having seen him pop up in The Spy Who Loved Me just before writing this review!).

Talking about Thunderbirds we also have David Graham here playing the fated barman, Charlie. Considering he doesn't actually have much to do in the story he does come across as one of the more competent characters, and of course gets to perform a death scene in a way that Ken Dodd should take lessons from!

This is one of those adventures where the plot ambles along quite happily in spite of the TARDIS travellers being there; like "The Romans" and other historical-based tales, their actions hover more around the edges of the main 'real conspiracies' that are revealed over the course of the story, rather than being integral to the plot. Dodo and Steven are unaware that they are both to leave the show in a matter of weeks (grin), and instead display their naivety over the potential dangers they put themselves in with their wild-west antics. Dodo's innocence around Doc Holliday is a wonder to behold, and Steven's ability to continually team up with the wrong crowd is a far cry from the astronaut from the year before. Still, we did get to see the Regret and Dupont double act entering "Tombstone's Got Talent"! Meanwhile, "Doc" ambles between sitting in a dentist's, sitting in jail, and sitting in a bar, and general making Mr. Wearp's life a misery - and what a joy it is, too!

The story is also one of those rarities where the underlying soundtrack is a unique experience. Had Lynda Baron been spotted in Cardiff earlier this year rather than last year I'd have been mighty suspicious about what we'd get in A Town Called Mercy, but it would seem that we're probably safe with Gold's usual fare tonight ... of course she's prevalent throughout The Gunfighters, and could almost be classed a narrator with the way the plot is reflected in the lyrics of The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon. For some reason I used to find it quite grating a couple of decades ago, but nowadays it slots in seamlessly with the story. But please don't do it again, no matter what Barrowman pleads!

Random musings:

"I never touch alcohol" ... well maybe not in this incarnation but a couple down the line and he's swigging his wine like a goodun! Actually, we don't see the Doctor drink that often in the series, with only the Fourth coming to mind as another distinct tea-non-totaller!

If the Doctor is a practitioner of never inflicting violence unless under threat, why does he have a collection of favourite guns?

Doctor Caligari ... Doctor Who? Ho hum, we are of course into the Innes Lloyd era of the show, where Who was treated more as a title than a question (thank you Dorium for reminding us of that!) - this one is more subtle than WOTAN's proclamation in The War Machines and Doctor von Wer in The Highlanders.

One has to wonder why - even though at this point he has little control over the TARDIS - he didn't just get back in and travel somewhere else rather than risk his health in a known bacteria-rife environment!

Interesting factoid on the production notes, there was plenty of real food and drink on hand for the cast to eat during the story - lamb chops and beans, such luxury!

This was the last story to feature individual episode titles up to Aliens of London/World War Three, which in some ways is a shame as it meant a clear end to the concept of a continuously evolving adventure. Sadly, however, this story a candidate for fandom to argue endlessly over what it should really be called :)

Having threatened Susan with a jolly good smacked bottom, he actually does the business with Dodo - albeit light-heartedly with the poster Holliday just gave him (grin).

And finally, so what exactly happened to the Doctor's tooth after Halliday extracted it? I wonder if it has disappeared into obscurity only to return next year as a major plot point for the 50th Anniversary as Time-Lord DNA is recovered in an unexpected place...

Conclusion

In conclusion this story is not half bad at all, and certainly didn't warrant all the 'hatred' it accrued over the years. Historically accurate it ain't, but then the multitude of films out of Hollywood don't exactly tell the true story, either.








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