Tumbleweed and dusty ground was in order this week on Doctor Who as the programme went Stateside for “A Town Called Mercy.” Also: face paint. Also: stetsons. Also: cyborgs. All the makings of a cracking episode, right? Not so much. At the risk of constantly sounding like a cloister bell of melodramatic doom, I was once again massively disappointed with the episode. It felt empty, dry and although it was full of one-liners, it was devoid of any sort of real dialogue.
In fact, I started keeping score. Snappy one-liners in this episode:
- “I see keep out signs as suggestions more than actual orders, like: dry clean only.”
- “All the people who died because of my mercy.”
- “We can’t be like him, we have to be better than him.”
- “This is their home, not the backdrop for your revenge.”
Nicely executed dialogue:
- “Is he really worth the risk?” “Don’t know. But you are.”
I don’t mind a one-liner when it’s embedded effectively into an episode but “A Town Called Mercy” seemed to put the “clever” lines first and story second, as though the story formed around the smart things the Doctor said rather than the complex way in which he behaved. As a result, there was very little complexity and only things that were, well, bothersome, from pretty poor transgender jokes to the episode’s treatment of suicide.
When the dialogue and narrative of an episode bothers me I normally switch my focus on the other bits: the effects, the set and the framing; but in these I found no relief. The Doctor Who writers have a bit of a love affair with voiceovers and used sparingly voiceovers can be an intriguing way to frame the episode but we’ve already had voiceovers with “Asylum of the Daleks” and those at least didn’t have a dodgy U.S. accent. I don’t want to spend the opening titles questioning how genuine an accent is because it takes you out of the story and I have no vested interest in the person doing the voiceover.
Even though “A Town Called Mercy” was filmed on location in Spain, I couldn’t stop thinking about how fake the set-up looked, particularly the town buildings. Everything was a distraction to a storyline that didn’t push as hard as it could have on the complexity of morality, the confusion of a person who is more than “one thing,” more than “good” or “bad.” The episode might have been a strong allegorical comment on retribution and the meaning we ascribe to someone’s death when we act with vengeance, making their lives mean nothing, “just another casualty in the war.”
This is what frustrates me about the current era of Doctor Who. It’s almost there. There’s almost something. The puzzle has all of the corner bits and edges but none of the middle bits that provide us with the story or the satisfaction. The silence that fills the gaps between the one-liners isn’t stylistic or any sort of contribution towards building the tension but indicative of an absent storyline and it makes me so annoyed because I love this programme so much and want it to be so much more.
Next time, we’re at home with the Ponds and episode four, “The Power of Three” and the next time trailer made me laugh, so there’s something. What did you think of this week’s episode? Let me know your thoughts in comments (and feel free to call me a huge cynic.)