Dear Steven Moffat: A Town Called Mercy

Dear Steven,

Long after the pain of last week’s episode had eased, the memory was still vivid; it was the sort of agony that gets seared into the hippocampus, like testicular torsion. Consequently, like a man who’d extended his hand in friendship only to have the fingers bent back and broken, I approached Toby Whithouse’s frontier-fart like a hungry fool returning to a month old sandwich. God knows I wanted to like it, which is incredible as he’s a myth, but I expected something rotten, and I don’t mean good like Johnny Rotten, I’m talking something like endurance; the TV equivalent of a John Barrowman sings Jacques Brel album.

In the event it was better than I imagined; slight but fun in its own way; a story that invigorated a moribund American genre with a smattering of British eccentricity. However, watching it reminded us of the dangers, oft flagged but seldom conquered, of sci-fi that liberally dunks its trunk in other species; the allure of pastiche.

As a Star Trek fan I grew to accept the occasional letting down of hair that was the genre dunk: the Next Generation’s Holodeck made it a franchise institution. ‘Look’, we’d cry, ‘this week the cast get to do Robin Hood, or Phillip Marlowe, even Sherlock Holmes’. It’s a lot of fun for writers because it allows them to visit their other interests while drawing a salary for an unrelated assignment.

The problem is that pastiche tends to overwhelm a story and limit its scope. You must include the elements that aficionados expect – in the case of the Western, gunslingers, saloons, the town whore, a sheriff, the shootout – preferably at high noon – and by the time you’ve ticked off all that shit, because as a scribe on a TV show like Doctor Who, this will be the only chance you ever get in your life to enjoy this fantasy, there’s 6 pages of script left for original material. Is 6 going to be enough? On this evidence, no.

Look Steven, it’s not Toby W’s fault – he got his fork out and made a genre mash; a mash we all enjoyed. But anyone that tells you that a pliable mound of potato is a satisfying meal when you’re this ravenous, should do the decent thing and offer themselves as a main.

Old Trekkies now milling around the Whoniverse without a care in the world should remember that the Enterprise crew got 26 adventures a year. In a season that long you could afford to take the occasional respite; fans needed it, after all we’re not machines, there’s only so much intensity and emotion we can take in successive weeks. This is why we were happy to see Data dressed as Friar Tuck, or Worf playing the Hog Roast, because the season was a marathon and marathons require rest stops. A series of Doctor Who is now 14 episodes max, and we only get to enjoy 5 of these before an enforced two month break, because Auntie’s too fucking thrift to pay for more. That being the case we can’t afford padding. A Town Called Mercy was a hoot – a hoot from a mechanical owl, but that’s now two weeks in three where we’ve shown up to drink only to be told that the barrel’s off but the public water fountain is working. Steven, you’re killing us out here.

Thinking about the problem more closely I wonder if this is further evidence that the 45 minute format doesn’t really suit our Timelord. I know the marketeers that bank on selling the show to other territories, especially the US, won’t countenance a change, but your priority should be the programme itself and what kind of structure best matches its potential. Back in the 80s, when that cultural vandal Michael Grade threatened the axe, like the backward, TV-illiterate office boy that he is, there was the long episode experiment, in which 25 minute bits were consolidated into larger chunks. It didn’t quite work, perhaps because a serial plays best in small portions (with greater cliffhanger opportunities), but the scope of each story was unaffected; it remained a serial. No dunce suggested trying to compress each story into a lone episode.

Last season you revived the traditional long form Who, using a combination of two parters and your own, infuriating, non-sequential approach, but this year, perhaps under pressure from the DG (and the head of exports), we have these bitesized stories. They never felt substantial during Russell Dust’s tenure and they don’t now; there’s just no time for the material to breathe – no time for anything but a fleeting character moment; and consequently I feel like a man having an affair with his best friend’s wife, forced to settle for the one hour a week he’s out playing darts down the Horse and Riot.

Anyway, enjoyed as the aforementioned pastiche, the episode yielded limited pleasures. Murray Gold showed up for work, perhaps for the first time, recasting himself as the bastard son of Morricone and Bernstein. I’m glad The Doctor’s officially three hundred years older than he was at the point of regeneration: thank God, a writer who actually understands that there must be oodles of time unaccounted for on screen – space for missing adventures, audio jaunts, fan speculation and the like. I think The Doctor, during your predecessor’s stint, only aged 5 years. He got through two incarnations in that time. Makes you think. I still believe that this Doctor is too young; I’m sure he was already older than 900 years when the classic series ended, but if you keep aging him between seasons, eventually, perhaps in time for the 50th anniversary, he’ll finally have clocked up the right number of years.

So what’s left to say? There was a horse with a human brain, which I despise. Let’s leave that bullshit to Matthew Morpurgo and sloanes. We had The Doctor flip out, with Amy acting as his beautiful conscience. There’s something of interest there for sure, it’s just a pity that this script only allowed two minutes to dwell on it. Also, because of this throwaway format, Rory and his blush haired bride hardly had a thing to do, and they’ve only got a couple of episodes left! I just watched the clock tick down and lamented the wasted minutes. Still, Amy’s expression, “colour me reassured” – yes, I’ll be using that. If I can.

Yours in time and cyberspace,

Ed

Season’s greetings so far:

Last year’s remnants:

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