Doctor Who Series 7 Roundtable: “A Town Called Mercy”

 

Every week, my buddies and I will discuss the new episode of Doctor Who. We call this the Doctor Who roundtable. Creative, huh?

Cory: Well, there we go. 

For the last two weeks, we’ve been discussing how this season of Doctor Who and its title character have felt “off” in some way. The show has been willing to turn in fun but ultimately lightweight standalone adventure episodes despite the clock ticking down to Amy and Rory’s likely dark departure, while the Doctor has seemingly been willing to actively kill those who oppose him. “A Town Called Mercy” makes a strong effort to explain the latter issue, and in doing so, similarly works to solve the former. Although the episode featured some less-than-subtle discussions about morality, justice and vengeance, “Mercy” is still the most successful episode of the season for me. It raises important issues about the Doctor and his relationship to Amy and Rory, it has something to say and still enjoys rumbling around in a familiar generic sandbox. What do we think? 

Myc: So this was better than putting Dinosaurs on a spaceship. More of a High Noon meets the Terminator meets the Doctor. It was interesting. I kind of feel like the Western is really good for the Doctor and I’m surprised we haven’t seen this before sine the re-launch. When you get right down to it, the Doctor is the classic Man With No Name character who moves from town to town righting wrongs before moving on again. A very Western hero type. So that was pretty cool. However I still had issues with this episode. I’m not sure it’s possible for them to make a less subtle episode than this one. They couldn’t possibly do more to point out how the Doctor is ultimately facing a character who is essentially his double-a man who is also called the Doctor, who has committed atrocities in an effort to stop violence (like our Doctor), who repents for and internally struggles with his choices (on the nose again), AND who is accepted as a savior by the people he helps. And how is a good man deep down inside (as this episode went out of its way to tell us, because to hell with subtlety).

Also the episode is sure to point out how easy it would be for characters to be just one thing and not complicated by dueling personality traits, because REAL characters are complicated. Like the Doctor.  Like this bad guy doctor too! Parallelisms!

I’m moderately annoyed that previous incarnations of the Doctor have gone out of their way to avoid guns, but here the Doctor willing grabs guns and threatens people with them. But I guess they try to mitigate that by pointing out how time has passed for the Doctor (who is now more than 1,200 years old) and by making Amy the voice of reason.  I feel like this is the ultimate case of the program doing the “telling not showing” though. Wouldn’t it be more powerful for us to actually watch the Doctor travel alone for a few episodes becoming more brooding and dark and then have Amy say “this is what happens when you travel alone” instead of just skipping the traveling and jumping right to the angry/brooding Doctor?

I’m curious to know what you felt was successful about it Cory. Perhaps we could start there before I diverge too much down one of my inevitable tangents.

Tony: This episode has been my favorite of the season, by far. It featured a cohesive story with developed characters and we actually saw an overall story-arc touched on within the narrative. This episode featured the quality of Doctor Who writing that I’ve come to expect over the course of the re-launch.

Myc, I’m with you on the Doctor’s use of weapons, particularly his willingness to use the gun. However, I am starting to believe that is a large part of this season’s story-arc and not just a heavy-handed “look, this character is bad” statement. We get the little hint that the Doctor has aged quite considerably since the previous season’s events which may indicate that the Doctor has been traveling alone for far too long; perhaps longer than he ever has before. We’ve seen this come up before in Doctor Who with David Tennant as the Doctor. Traveling alone severely alters the personality of the Doctor in a very negative way as it pertains to the value of life and his want to find the solution that saves everyone.

Travis: I also liked the overall episode. It felt like we were getting somewhere overall with the narrative, something that heavily criticized last week’s episode for not doing. We now have a rationale for the Doctor’s actions this season, why he has been short with people, and why he has been prone to more violence. I felt this happened without taking too much away from this episode, leaving this as a fine enough episode on its own. The Doctor seemed to work well in the Western setting, like Myc noted. I also enjoyed The Doctor random comment to himself about him wearing Stetsons, a nice reference to last season and Matt Smith’s Doctor’s enjoyment of hats.

I had far less issue with the ‘heavy-handed-ness’ of the episode than Myc did and frankly I was not bothered by it. I do not want to critique and break down the show just for the sake of tearing it down; that really does not accomplish much. I am not trying to claim that you are doing this Myc, but I also do not want to become hypercritical of Doctor Who because of doing weekly reviews. For me Doctor Who has been a cheeky, sometimes cheesy science fiction TV romp that tends to be heavily handed in its messages. For example, in case anyone wasn’t sure if the Daleks like to kill things, they made their catchphrase “Exterminate.” While the show has been quite brilliant at times over the last few seasons, the show also has its fair share obvious storytelling. This episode had a bit of that blunt storytelling, but I never felt it came off as odd or strange to me. I found that parallel Doctor allows them to narrative explore The Doctor, without it being about him directly. After coming off season six which was all about how dark and scary The Doctor can be, it was nice for me to see them approach it through talking about someone’s similar mistakes and drive for redemption. I have a feeling that some of the elements from this episode will matter even more as the season continues to unfold.

Myc: I am not being hypercrtitical of the show because we’re doing weekly discussions of it, and I’m certainly not tearing it down just for the sake of tearing it down. I agree that Doctor Who is a cheeky and fun show but just because we consider something to be less serious fare doesn’t mean we hold it to a different standard. That would be a disservice to us as critics, scholars and fans. And it’s a little intellectually dishonest. The reason I’ve been so critical thus far is because, frankly, these episodes have been an incredible disappointment to me. I agree that Doctor Who hasn’t been the most subtle series in the history of the world, but the storytelling over the past few weeks has been so ham-handed that next week I fully expect every character to exclaim their emotional state at the beginning of every scene (“I’m angry and sad and bitter,” said the Doctor. “I’m confused and slightly angry and kind of scared,” said Amy. “I have a large nose and am hoping not to die again,” said Rory.)  What we’re seeing them do so far this season are more of the same things we’ve seen them do in other seasons, only they did it better the first time (for instance we get a deeper, more meaningful look into the self-loathing and regretful side of the Doctor in “Amy’s Choice” than we do in “A Town Called Mercy” in my opinion).

I agree with you Tony that the passage of time for the Doctor is contributing to his character change. We have seen this before, with both the Ninth and Tenth Doctors, so it’s not really a surprise that this Doctor would have that moment as well. However, in the case of the Ninth Doctor he began as cold and bitter and angry and softened through his relationship with Rose. With the Tenth Doctor we were actually shown him traveling alone for a while and how that affected his character. Here that part is shortcut by the Doctor mentioning his age (he’s way older) and by Amy insisting that he’s been traveling alone for too long. I would’ve appreciated one episode of the Doctor traveling without companions and suggesting how lonely he is/how long this has been happening before this. As I said, it reeks of telling not showing, which is just lazy storytelling.

But I’ll move away from this point and discuss what I really liked about this episode (other than it being Doctor Who, which I appreciate). My very favorite part of this episode was the tension between Amy and Rory with relation to the Doctor’s choice to sacrifice Kahler-Jex to the Gunslinger for the good of the town. I’ve discussed here and elsewhere how I view the companions as surrogates for the audience. Without getting into a long treatise about the companions, there was a nice argument between Amy and Rory that encapsulated a little of what we’ve been saying over the past few weeks about the Doctor’s character shift. Amy asks Rory if he was going to let the Doctor sacrifice Jex, to which he responds “Save us all?  Yeah?” and then Amy make a point about how this isn’t the way the Doctor operates. This is sort of the conversation that we’ve been having over the past few week, particularly Tony and I. This isn’t the way the Doctor operates, and we in the audience are cognizant of that. It’s meaningful to have the two surrogates have this conversation because it represents the ways that we have been interpreting the Doctor’s actions over the past few weeks (the weird tension between “the Doctor needs to save the day” and “that seems very un-Doctory”). So that was nice.  And as I previously mentioned, I love the idea of putting the Doctor in a Western. This just seems so completely logical that I’m shocked we haven’t seen it before now.

Tony: Myc, Cory had brought up the idea that the shorter season constraints might affect the content of the show early on in our weekly discussions. Do you think that the lazy storytelling has bearing on why characters are declaring their emotions rather than showing an episode of the Doctor traveling by himself? I think Cory’s insights about the logistics of production impacting the show’s ability to tell a grander, better story and it seems to be coming out through what you’ve interpreted.

I was perfectly fine with the blatant statement of traveling alone clearly altering the Doctor’s mindset, mostly because it addressed my biggest issue with the season thus far. Doctor Who has never been a program of highly complex character development and pointing out the obvious has been something that happens routinely. I think that the episode mentioned the possible changes in the Doctor when he goes solo will be needed in order to tell this larger, cohesive narrative but make sure those new to the program/world are in on that point as well. The audience has certainly expanded within the last two years and most new additions didn’t start with watching the series in chronological order. Without having seen the Ninth and Tenth Doctor traveling alone the blatant statement allowed the message to be communicated without the narrative confusing anyone new.

I really like the Doctor in the western format as well. And now having seen this episode, I struggle to find a reason why the show hasn’t gone there before. And Susan? Awesome. I have a lot of good things to say about the Doctor in this episode. The Stetson, as Travis mentioned, speaking horse, resulting conversations with said horse, his fascination with a man who shoots hats, etc… This is fan-service done well. Not the objectification fan-service we see written into Amy (re: bad fan-service). The more I talk about this episode, the more I like it.

Travis: I agree with Tony. While it would have been nice to have episodes of showing the Doctor off on his lonesome being terrible, the reality is there isn’t space to dedicate whole episodes to that endeavor. The last stand alone episode of season six did show the Doctor running around alone, which is why he was bugging Craig and Stormaggedon.

Cory: I agree with Myc, actually. Maybe not to the same degree, and I know that I said this was the most successful episode, but I still agree. While there might not be space for tons of episodes with the Doctor on his own, particularly with the short episode order before the end of the calendar year and the companions’ imminent departure, I think Moffat had to find that space. It wouldn’t have been as much of a big deal had the first three episodes not been at least moderately focused on what the Doctor’s time away from Amy (and to a lesser extent Rory, who I guess gets lumped in with “any other generic companion,” but they were. When you line them up against one another, that’s what all three have been about. And instead of giving us even a single episode without Amy or Rory (because they “deserve” a send-off), the show’s kept them around and just provided throwaway lines about the passage of time between each episode. That’s awful serialized storytelling. It’s cheating. Call whatever you want, it’s not good. 

Not to return to the production realities again, but they’re so obviously impacting this season (well, along with Moffat’s sloppy showrunning). Before this season began, we would all say that these first few episodes had accomplish one, maybe two things: Provide a satisfying “conclusion” for Amy and Rory and also further the complexities of the Doctor. I’d argue that the latter should always be most important but I understand that some fan service is involved in a show like this, so the former probably takes precedent. However, thus far, this season has been at war with itself in that it’s been much more focused on the standalone adventures, the third “part” of the Who equation. By diverting so much of the narrative attention to that third part, this season has neglected the two more important parts of the story. If the show wanted to push the Doctor to the background a bit to focus on Amy and Rory, that’d be fine. If it wanted to do the reverse of that, that would be fine as well. But it’s sacrificing both of those things to serve its procedural master. And again, that’s fine. But don’t then ask me to care about the Doctor, or Amy and Rory. 

One final note: I think the “it’s just a cheesy science fiction show” line of thinking is kind of garbage. The show can be cheesy, but it’s also worked really hard over the last few years to make sure it takes the characters and their emotions seriously. And what I think is frustrating to Myc and to me to a lesser extent is that after asking us to care about these people for two seasons, it’s now pulling back and saying “well, let’s just do fun stuff.” You can’t do that. Well, you can, but the show is going to suffer. 

Myc: Thank you Cory. You’ve restarted, far more clearly and eloquently, my feelings exactly. I get the sort of production realities that this show is hamstringed (and I choose that word intentionally) by. The short seasons, and this year the split season, have really hampered what they can do from a narrative point of view and what has resulted is sort of a mess. I mean I like each of the individual episodes we’ve seen so far to varying degrees, but overall I am very disappointed with what seems like sloppy/lazy/whatever writing and showrunning. I mean hopefully this is all intentionally and builds onto something later in the series, but right now I’m more than just a little frustrated, disappointed and annoyed.

Tony: While I agree that just labeling the show “cheesy” isn’t a fair excuse to write off bad episodes, I don’t think it is entirely inaccurate. We can’t expect the show to change from what it’s been in the past. Characters have routinely voiced their emotional state and the program has often failed to contextualize larger themes. To expect that to suddenly change isn’t fair to the precedent set by previous seasons and asking to be unhappy with each new episode.

That being said, I don’t think it has been a secret that we haven’t exactly been overjoyed with this season thus far. I can’t escape the idea that the production realities are weighing heavily on our experience viewing the show each week. We know Moffat can craft an entire season that flows well (season five was solid throughout). In that struggle between telling the story you want to tell and telling the story you have time to tell, Moffat appears to be leaning towards the former. It isn’t working that well.

Travis: In referencing Cory’s last thought, I think that pulling back after the huge emotional build up is something that the show does. This is something that has made the individual episodes more problematic in the Matt Smith era of the show, since they seem to detract from the overall narrative that Moffat is building. I know this is why some people had issues with season six, that it felt choppy and off with non-main narrative stories peppered in between the other episodes. Doctor Who has always been more focused on individual, procedural-like episodes before Moffat took the reigns and I don’t see this recent string of episodes to be bad or traitorous to the concept of the show.

I was not as clear as I should have been when I made the state about cheeky sci-fi. I was not arguing that the show should not or cannot be anything great. I also wasn’t arguing that the people shouldn’t be critical of the show or that the show should be analyzed through a critical lens. What I meant was that we also need to keep in mind what this show is and be honest in the analysis. Now it hasn’t gotten to this point, but I feared a trend getting to the point of arguing that this show needs to be a certain way or needs a certain payoff. These three episodes have gotten some scrutiny based on our expectations for the show, and it seems to increase. I felt that going down the line of “this show is telling, not showing” leads to a type of argumentation that is highly critical of the show that might be unfair. I personally feel that the show often does a big more telling than showing, and ignoring all the value and artist merit of these approaches, calling for the show to be different seems intellectually dishonest to the show.

tl;dr version: I felt the conversation might have been turning towards the direction of criticizing the show for being something that it is, which can be unfair.

Myc: I see what you’re saying Travis – and it’s a fair point. I think we maybe just have different views of where the show has been in the past. Overall I feel like Moffat has done an incredible job of expanding the scope and presentation of Doctor Who, but I also kind of feel like he’s lost control of it and he makes up for that with industry tricks that come off as lazy. Telling instead of showing is one of the biggest criticisms that can be levied against a serial in my opinion, and I feel like in previous series/episodes the narrative often did a better job at justifying things like the Doctor’s bitterness/anger.

However, I agree largely with Cory’s point: the show has asked us to go along and care about these characters for the past 2+ series, and we’ve willing obliged. Now, in order to serve a procedural reality and what appears to be a marketing campaign (the mini-films thing complete with posters) we’re sort of seen the emotional investment in and character development of the Doctor and Amy/Rory waylaid in order to do “fun stuff” (which we justify by telling our audience actual important things, instead of showing it to them). This is cool and all but like Cory said, if that’s what we’re doing then either: A) expect your audience to be upset at the lack of true payoff/development or B) don’t expect your audience to continue to care about the characters.

I’m kind of really hoping for a very character heavy episode this coming week though in “The Power of Three”. The previews seem to suggest a very real look at the Pond’s life away from the Doctor – and I think that is what some of us have really been waiting for with this new season as we prepare for their departure.

Cory: Travis, you might be right. It’s easy to be critical, especially when talking about the show on a weekly basis. I guess I’m just disappointed because I think the show can be better and appeared to want to be better, until these first three episodes. 

Still though, I must return to my opening point about actually liking this one. We’ve talked enough about some of the character beats being super-obvious but at least they were there. I also actually liked how the episode addressed The Doctor’s morality by constructing the parallel story with Jex. The previous two episodes showed us a slightly different Doctor without actually delving into how or why he was different, so we must give “Mercy” some credit for making an effort to consider the impact of The Doctor’s solo missions. And even if some of the dialogue was on-the-nose, I thought Matt Smith turned in a really good performance, especially in that scene with he and Amy out near the boundary. 

Plus, the episodic story worked pretty well. It had some solid twists and turns and like a few you have said, the show succeeds when it plays around with different generic tropes. The show is still a work in progress but it’s also still solid. 

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