These two episodes cement my impression of the half-season so far as a collection of “good, but” stories. They’re all good, but there’s something about each one that feels like a mistake, or a missed opportunity, or just enough of a half-baked idea that the episode as whole ends up not feeling anything other than just okay. This is actually a welcome change from the last season, where the transformation of the show into “River Song and her Amazing Friends” gave us a slew of stories that aped ambition but were also frustratingly failing to live up to their promise.
“A Town Called Mercy” is a good example of this missed opportunity trend. The Doctor, Amy and Rory stop off in an Old West town and find themselves trapped between two aliens along with the townspeople. It’s an interesting setting, the kind we rarely see on the show, with a good guest cast and some jokes that aren’t cringe-worthy. But the cracks show very quickly, as before long we find out that the “good alien” doctor is actually, essentially, Space Mengele, and the “bad alien,” essentially, a concentration camp survivor out for revenge. And the Doctor, quite understandably, is more than happy to hand him over and see justice done until Amy pulls one of the most wrong-headed “we kill people now?” moments I’ve ever seen on this show. Because, yes, Amy, the Doctor kills. The Doctor has always killed, or at least allowed to die, or maneuvered his enemies into positions where their death is likely to occur. The notion that this behavior is somehow out of character for the Doctor is over-played in order to set us up a “dark Doctor leads to tragedy” bit of foreshadowing. There’s also the fact that, of all characters, for Amy Pond, who has killed herself, to raise this point is more than a tad hypocritical. From Rory, the nurturing/caregiver character, I would accept this, but the woman who left Madame Kovarian to die a painful death by Silence? No, I don’t buy her sudden conversion to pacifism. But that’s not even the part that bothers me about this episode. No, what really bothers me is that Space Mengele is left to go out and “redeem” himself on his own terms, with an implied scolding for his victim for having the nerve to not let a mass murderer try and escape justice just because, after the fact, he decided he felt bad about the things he had done. Sympathetic portrayals of war criminals is not an element I want in my escapist sci-fi-fantasy programs.
In comparison “The Power of Three” is much better, but it still suffers from some lazy storytelling choices. It’s set up as a “romp” episode, with wacky-Doctor being forced to live with the Ponds for a year to solve the mystery of small cubes that appear all over the world. While the public reaction to the MacGuffin is rather unrealistically blase, it’s an entertaining set-up, and in general wacky-Doctor is fun to watch. The nods to past history with the introduction of the Brigadier’s daughter is a welcome element as well. But the enterprise as a whole feels rather low stakes until nearly the end, when suddenly, yes, it turns out that the cubes are an alien master plan to destroy humans “before they spread” through the universe. And the masterminds behind it are an extremely powerful race that the Time Lords feared that, coincidentally, we’ve never heard of before now. In general I have no problem with retcons/world-building of this nature, but pulling the “Gallifreyean Boogeyman” card again doesn’t work. You may as well reveal that the cubes were sent by the Terrible Zodin (actually I’d be all for it in that case). And the fact that their plan would result in a time-paradox is the sort of thing you would expect a massively powerful alien race to perhaps realize earlier in the planning stages. It’s an acceptable light episode, but like “Asylum of the Daleks” it doesn’t hold up to even the slightest bit of thought.