Doctor Who “A Town Called Mercy” Writer Toby Whithouse Interviewed
The Doctor crowd-surfs in the Wild West.
The Being Human creator takes the Doctor, Amy and Rory to the Wild West in the third episode of Doctor Who‘s new season
Was it you or Steven Moffat who came up with the idea to send the Doctor to the Old West?
It was Steven’s idea – he said he wanted to do a Wild West episode because this year, certainly for the first half of the series, it’s these big kind of movie marquee ideas. The pitch he gave was just, “There’s a town that is being terrorised by some kind of robot.” It was much the same as when I did “The God Complex”. Steven’s pitch was that the Doctor, Amy and Rory find themselves in a hotel where the geography keeps shifting and it’s like a maze. And in that instance my first thought was, “Okay, a maze, that kind of reminds me of the story of the minotaur.” And with the robot terrorising the town, I thought about what it was in the town that the robot wants. What if it’s a person? Then the idea kind of fell out from there.
Are you a Western fan yourself?
I used to be, when I was a kid. I was a huge Clint Eastwood fan, so I’d seen all of the old Spaghetti Westerns, The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, A Fistful Of Dollars, A Few Dollars More… I’d seen all of them countless times, so I had a pretty good bedrock of knowledge and influences to begin with. Also we agreed that this would be certainly as authentic a representation of the West as we could possibly get on BBC primetime. You know, if you look at some of the depictions of the West, particularly in old black-and-white films, it’s a very kind of clean-laundered, clean-shaven and slightly sanitised version, where actually the reality of it was much more like the Sergio Leone films, where it’s sort of sweaty and dark and grimy and dusty and very harsh.
Were there any key Western archetypes you felt had to be in there?
Without a doubt, there are certain tropes and traditions that I think the audience would feel very cheated by if you didn’t include those. You know, you need the scene of the Doctor riding a horse across the dusty landscape, you need the Doctor wearing a hat, you need the showdown, you need the face-off between the hero and the villain… You need all of those things.
Westerns aren’t as big a part of popular culture now as they were 30 years ago. Do you have to adapt the Western beats to suit a modern audience?
To a certain extent I don’t think there’s any difference if one were writing an episode set in the Victorian era. I think audiences are pretty sophisticated, and children particularly have countless influences and reference points. It was enormous fun inventing, so to speak, a kind of new rhythm of speech for the guest characters. I rather enjoyed that.
Was it exciting to get an international sci-fi star like Ben Browder in there?
Absolutely. It’s amazing that Doctor Who can attract these international stars. He was fantastic. I was really, really pleased that we got him because it’s an odd part, that character Isaac, and you need somebody who has… Ben has this rather beautiful innate nobility that he manages to just convey, very simply and very economically. It was absolutely how I saw the character, so I was really thrilled with him, and delighted with his performance.
The episode features a cyborg cowboy villain. Did Westworld come into your mind at all?
Rather than just a sort of soulless automaton, I wanted something that the Doctor could interact with, and also a villain that has a journey of its own. That’s very difficult to do if you’ve got something that is just cogs and gears and circuits, so I wanted it to have some kind of living consciousness. Otherwise it would be very difficult to write, and it’s nothing for the Doctor to sort of play against. Also, I think that I always make an effort to make the villain either sympathetic in some way, or at least that their evil plans have a degree of logic to them. All of the best villains tend to actually think they’re doing good – it’s hard to get a three-dimensional villain who just wakes up in a morning and thinks they’re going to do evil. You need to dig into their agendas and motivations. So with the cyborg I wanted him to be doing, as far as he was concerned, the right thing – and there actually is an argument that what he did was a noble thing.
The Doctor ends up in a Sheriff-type role in the episode. Sheriffs usually carry a gun, but the Doctor doesn’t like firearms. Is that something you address?
That was the sequence that took the longest time to get right. The sequence where the Doctor is kind of forced to use a gun, giving the right sort of emotional journey to that took a lot of finessing, and that was the scene that, from draft to draft, would change the most regularly because the Doctor is a confirmed pacifist and so putting him in that situation is a wonderful opportunity in that it forces you to confront it, and provides you with enormous tension and drama which, as a writer, is what you want.
The Doctor’s been travelling alone for a while, without companions to act as his Jiminy Cricket. Did you have to think about him in a different way?
Yeah, and that was enormous fun because to write him as a slightly more kind of volatile and unpredictable character was really refreshing and exciting – to make him a little more dangerous in that sense. And, you know, it was interesting to mark the other characters’ opinions of that. I really enjoyed it and I think it added a nice kind of frisson to the character.
The Doctor’s been to the Old West before, in William Hartnell story “The Gunfighters”. Did you give that a watch before you started writing?
I thought about it, and I think either Steven or Mark Gatiss forewarned me and said not to bother. They said it’s not exactly the jewel in the crown, so probably best to steer clear!
Doctor Who “A Town Called Mercy” airs on Saturday 15 September, on BBC One.
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The natural heir to Yul Brynner's Westworld gunman.
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