5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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A TOWN CALLED MERCY
Oh. That wasn't quite as good as we were expecting.
We had high hopes for this one. For a start, as far as we're concerned when it comes to Westerns the First Doctor set the bar high with The Gunfighters. We know most people think it's terrible, but we love it: it's consistently entertaining over four episodes and is some of the funniest Doctor Who ever made. In the intervening decades nobody's been game to have another go, until now. Our feeling: they did it splendidly before, so they should probably be able to pull it out of the bag again.
And then there's the Toby Whithouse factor. He's one of our favourite Doctor Who writers, and so we were expecting a lot.
And yes, the first half of it's very good indeed. The cyborg gunslinger's appropriately scary and intriguing (and the makeup is fantastic). The location shots look gorgeous (ole!). And it's very funny: ten out of ten, especially, for both the line and the delivery of "Leave the bag in". Not to mention "We're like buses", "They could build a spaceship out of Tupperware and moss" and the toast crumbs on the console.
Then Ben Browder turns up as Isaac and really classes up the joint. We love this character: you get, instantly, who he is and what he's about (and the genu-wine accent doesn't hurt either). He's completely believable.
But it's not all tea and toast crumbs. The tone shifts from lighthearted to something very much the opposite when they lay out the moral dilemma: Jex may be dedicated to the town's welfare now, but he has a dark past as the Dr Frankenstein of the Kahler. This is an interesting contrast to the previous episode, in which they go to great lengths to paint Solomon as the blackest villain possible in order for the Doctor to take the audience along with him when he sets up Solomon's death. Nothing so cut and dried here: the Doctor can't just dismiss Jex as an evil scientist. What's more, the parallels with his own conduct are all too apparent.
At this point we're about 21 minutes in, and those 21 minutes are near to flawless. It's a bloody good start. However, it's always a lot easier to set up a story than to resolve it, and it's at this point that the wheels, if not precisely falling off, do wobble a little bit.
The first disappointment is that they set up this fascinating moral quandary, but don't trust the audience to understand it for themselves. Instead, they have to laboriously spell it out. Just when we're seeing the similarities between Jex making the cyborgs for the greater good and the Doctor's behaviour in the Time War, Jex starts in with "Looking at you, Doctor, is like looking into a mirror...". Le sigh. It would have so much more impact if we'd been allowed to work it out for ourselves.
After a very styly sequence involving a scrolling screen reflected in the Doctor's eye, he gets a bit tetchy and decides to throw Jex to the wolves. In the course of which he points a gun at him. Although this is usually a big no-no, we don't have a problem with it: the line "I genuinely don't know" for us pulls it back within the range of things the Doctor might conceivably do. Amy doesn't like it, though, and gives him a right royal telling-off. This scene on the face of it is pretty powerful, even if Amy's line "When did killing someone become an option?" drips in unintentional irony so close to Solomon's death. However, when you look at the conversation closely, it turns out in fact to weasel past the issue in a decidedly slippery manner.
The Doctor says "I honour the victims first...all the people who died because of my mercy" - a very good point, and one that's previously been consistently overlooked. Going way back to "Have I the right?" days, the Doctor's frequently merciful to species like the Daleks, which is all very nice at the time but glosses over the millions of deaths of innocents that happen subsequently as a direct result. So the Doctor actually acknowledging it is something very new indeed. It's an agonising dilemma that goes right to the heart of who the Doctor is. In fact, his realisation that his mercy has had severely negative consequences must surely be the reason he took such extreme action in the Time War.
Unfortunately, however, while his conversation with Amy appears to address this, it actually doesn't. Amy's rejoinder of "We can't be like him. We have to be better than him" undoubtedly has some force, but it's not an answer to the point the Doctor has raised. Just like the Doctor's behaviour in being merciful, it completely fails to account for or even address the consequences of that mercy. It's no answer, therefore, to the Doctor's dilemma, but the Doctor treats it as if it is. For us, this is the central weakness of the episode. Engage with the big questions, absolutely, but don't raise them unless you are willing to face them completely. We don't expect them to tidy it up into a neat little parcel, because that's impossible. But just reiterating the Doctor's usual position, that doing good now lets you out of examining any negative consequences of that, isn't good enough. The Doctor knows in his hearts this isn't really the case: that's why he did what he did in the Time War and it's why he left Solomon to die. So why would he swallow it whole now?
On we go. Up till now, they've done a good job in patching potential story holes: why the gunslinger doesn't just walk in and grab Jex, for example. (Whether or not you think it's a strong enough reason is up to you, but at least they made the effort.) However, Jex's behaviour when the Doctor urges him back inside the line has us mystified: he just stands there, allowing the gunslinger to catch up with him. At first we thought he was already flirting with getting it all over with, but he begs the gunslinger for his life, so it's not that. We can't see a single reason for this other than a pretty clunky plot contrivance.
What's more, the cyborg might choose not to come inside the line to protect innocents, but that pretty much falls down when Jex is standing right in front of him. All that's protecting Jex is a line of the cyborg's own making. Shooting Jex is his sole purpose. Why doesn't he just do it? It's not that he's worried about others being caught in the crossfire, because he's quick enough to shoot Isaac when he steps over the line. What's more, his threat to the Doctor that he'll shoot the next person over the line whoever it is, not to mention his subsequent threat to kill everybody if Jex isn't handed over at noon, makes a nonsense of the entire protect-the-innocents thing. This is unfortunate. When things are simple, it's important to make them watertight, because the leaks are so much more visible than they would be in a big, overstuffed plot.
Then the lynch mob assembles in traditional fashion. We weren't expecting the Doctor to respond by shooting the town up, but we do think there were other ways they could have dealt with this without making it a talkytalky talkfest. "But that's how all this started. Jex turned someone into a weapon. Now that same story's going to make you a killer too. Don't you see, violence doesn't end violence." Argh! Stop talking! We were shouting "Show, don't tell!" at the screen. There are infinite ways they could have got the point across with a lot more, er, punch than a sermon manages.
They're not finished with underlining the obvious, either. For the benefit of the slack-witted viewers still fumbling to grasp the nexus of the thing, apparently, Jax waxes forth: "It would be so much simpler if I was just one thing, wouldn't it. The mad scientist who made that killing machine, or the physician who's dedicated his life to serving this town. The fact that I'm both bewilders you." Well, it bewilders us why you'd set up a nice dark complex moral dilemma then rip it to shreds by spelling it out as with shiny plastic letters on a fridge door.
Then the Doctor puts his plan into action. Although he has no reason to believe that it's the facial markings the cyborg's using to identify the Kahler - after all, they were using Jex's clothes before and the cyborg followed them - he gets everybody inked and sends them scuttling around the town. This appears to be the sum total of his plan to "save the kids". It's lucky the cyborg decides to show mercy to the townspeople rather than kill them as promised (yes, themey), as if not the church would be full of corpses. A mercy which the Doctor could scarcely have counted on. Yep, more potential victims of the Doctor's mercy, although this time rather than spelling this out they conveniently ignore it altogether.
Meanwhile, while the decoys are scrambling back and forth, the Doctor shoos Jex out of town. We don't get the thing about the spaceship. Presumably the Doctor knows Jex's ship is actually spaceworthy given that he's been in it, but why did Jex lie and say it's badly damaged?
Jex correctly points out that if he does leave, it will just shift the problem onto another set of innocent bystanders. The Doctor ignores him. Luckily, Jex takes the honourable way out, making it a tidy little parcel after all. Like we said, weaselly.
So what else? Adrian Scarborough does a good job with Jex. It's a fantastic episode for Matt Smith, who gets to show off his range from comic to deadly serious and is brilliant all the way along the spectrum. We particularly like the way he looks at the faulty electric lights: you can actually see him thinking, which awes us. Amy and Rory are good but, Rory especially, at a loose end for much of the episode. (Rory's uselessness is achnowledged right in the script when the preacher calls him "...fella".) And again, if Amy and Rory aren't that fussed about being there we're not sure why we should care whether they are either.
And about those lights: there's clearly something arcy going on here, and we're not just talking about the jumping sparks. That's not the first time we've seen faulty lights, or the first time they've referred to eggs, or Christmas lists. And didn't that voiceover lady lean rather heavily on the word "angel" in her closing homily? All, we're sure, will be revealed.
It's by no means a bad episode. Like we said, half of it's damn near perfect. And we love the willingness to introduce moral complexity and (fifty?) shades of grey. It's just a shame that having had the bottle to bring up the tough stuff the follow-through isn't quite as well executed.
MORAL: Be careful what you wish for. It just might get you.
Wouldn't that "warning shot" have gone straight through the hat wearer's head?
LIKE THE CORNERS OF MY MIND
Jex refers to remembering himself - yes, another remembering reference. We really hope all this stuff is going somewhere.
"You're a mother, aren't you?..There's kindness in your eyes. And sadness. And ferocity too." The mother thing again?
IF AT FIRST YOU DON'T SUCCEED
Why does the gunslinger use the clothes to ID Jex at first then later the facial marking?
GO WEST, JUNG MAN
Wild 'n' crazy theory, anybody? The name of the software in Jax's ship is spelled Abaraxas there but pronounced Abraxas. Check out this reference to Abraxas by Carl Jung: "There is a God about whom you know nothing, because men have forgotten him. We call him by his name: Abraxas." A- ha! Also, there's this ref from a Herman Hesse novel: "The bird fights its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Who would be born must destroy a world. The bird flies to God. That God's name is Abraxas." Eggs! Make of that what you will.
RETURN TO SENDER
Why does the Doctor offer to take the cyborg back to his world? It's pretty obvious why he can't go, as he's already pointed out. And even if he did try it, he'd probably be immediately decommissioned.