Who Review: A Town Called Mercy

Last Saturday’s installment of Doctor Who saw the TARDIS crew in the Wild West… again. Granted, the last time was 46 years ago, in an adventure called “The Gunfighters,” which featured the Doctor trying to get a tooth repaired by Doc Holliday, and the infamous Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon (which I hoped they would get Billie Piper to re-record as a special video treat for the DVD release–but alas… ). So, needless to say, this new adventure was a little darker.

On their way to the Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations, the Doctor, Amy, and Rory mistakenly end up in the small town of Mercy in the American Wild West. But the town has electric lights ten years ahead of its time. It appears these have been provided by a seemingly kindly alien by the name of Kahler-Jex. And not only has Jex used his advanced knowledge to heat and light the town, but he also recently cured the town after an outbreak of cholera. This he did in gratitude for the town giving him a place to stay, and asking no questions. Indeed, the town is called Mercy for a reason. But Mercy isn’t just a place for Jex to stay: it’s a place to hide. The laser-toting Gunslinger, half-man, half-fighting robot, is after Jex, and has threatened to destroy the town and everyone in it if they don’t surrender him.

Things become complicated when the Doctor discovers the truth about Jex: that he’s a war criminal, responsible for experimenting on his own people to create cyborgs in an effort to end a long war. The Gunslinger is the last of the cyborgs bent on delivering final justice to the men who made him what he is. Does the Doctor hand Jex over for the justice he deserves, or does he try to find a way to placate the Gunslinger and save the town?

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen the episode. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

And I might have said a little too much about Kahler-Jex and the reason why the Gunslinger is after him. But it seems the point of this story is really to throw the Doctor onto the horns of a moral dilemma. Toby Whithouse, the story’s writer (who also wrote “School Reunion” from series 2, “The Vampires of Venice” in series 5, and “The God Complex” in series 6), puts the Doctor into a very difficult position. Handing Jex over to the Gunslinger is as good as killing him with his own hands. Extending mercy to Jex puts the entire town at risk.

Again, some found the Doctor’s initial reaction, to force Jex out of town to face his judge, uncharacteristic–especially when he pulls a gun on Jex. The Doctor expresses his frustration at always paying later for the mercy he has extended to his foes, be it the Daleks, or the Master. But, as I noted last week, the Doctor has behaved this way before, and a repeat performance of this merciless side only reinforces (I think) the fact that something’s coming. It’s Amy who brings the Doctor back to his senses, reminding him that this is why he needs companions, otherwise he loses perspective. This little speech reminded me of something very similar Donna Noble said to the Tenth Doctor at the end of The Runaway Bride. Perhaps this is all just foreshadowing the loss of Amy and Rory, and the coming of the new companion? Perhaps. I’m keeping all options open, though.

So, to the nitty gritty. Yes, I enjoyed this story. Not as much action, a bit of a slower pace, but that’s good. If I was twenty years younger, I might go for the weekly 45-minute adrenaline rush kids these days seem to want. But I like it mixed up a bit. An action romp one week, something a bit slower and thoughtful the next. There were some plot points that seemed to be skated over. The Gunslinger could, at any point, have targeted Jex and killed him without any collateral damage. Perhaps he was testing the townspeople to see if they would do the right thing (according to the Gunslinger), or maybe he was afraid someone would try to save Jex and get killed? I liked the fact that the Gunslinger wanted to avoid killing innocent people (though I’m not quite sure, then, why he hunted down Isaac and Rory while the Doctor was going to get the TARDIS–did I miss something?)–it showed that he wasn’t all robot. But the fact this seeming plot hole was never really dealt with betrayed the fact that the plot was really just window dressing for the moral dilemma.

But what nice window dressing! Seriously, plot hole aside, it was a good story, well-acted (as usual), and with another setting the classic series could never have afforded (Almeria, Spain–and the same set used for some of the most famous classic Westerns). I’m so glad the BBC is throwing money at Doctor Who, and I think the production team are putting it to good use.

Did you see “A Town Called Mercy”? What did you think, if you did? Feel free to comment on the show, or share your thoughts on Doctor Who in general.

6 Responses to Who Review: A Town Called Mercy

  1. I quite like the Doctor’s dark side, especially when Matt Smith’s Doctor is usually so bubbly, and I thought the same thing about it foreshadowing something sinister. Once again we’re seeing a darker side to the Doctor and I doubt it’s a coincidence. I always wondered if they were going to do something Jekyll/Hyde with him since series 5 and the episode Amy’s Choice. The Doctor sees the reflection of that Dream Lord instead of his own and I always been curious about whether it’s something they were ever going to develop.

    I enjoyed it. I’m liking series 7 a lot more than last season so I’m pleased about that. I quite liked the little Frankenstein-esque theme to the episode although I didn’t quite understand why the Gunslinger couldn’t cross into the town. But I enjoyed the ending, turning this gunslinger into a legend for the future. Usually it’s the Doctor who becomes a legend so it’s nice that they’re still keeping him unknown from the universe.

    • Two weeks in a row now they’ve had the Doctor act judge-jury-executioner, so I think it’s definitely something we need to pay attention to. Again, it might just be setting us up for a new companion (as with “The Runaway Bride”), but perhaps it’s bigger than that. We’ll see, I suppose.

      As I understood it, the Gunslinger set up the rock-and-stick barrier to say he would not cross that line unless he absolutely had to, and as soon as Kahler-Jex crossed over, he would be dealt with. However, the longer Jex took to come out, the more the Gunslinger’s patience (or mercy) with the town would wear thin, and he would be willing to destroy the place to get to him. If I’m right, it seems to be an extension of the theme of mercy (the name of the town, the town’s attitude to Jex, the Doctor’s struggle over extending it to Jex, etc.). But if the Gunslinger could have used his heat-seeking eye to find him, and aim his weapon from his side of the line, then it all becomes moot: he could have killed Jex without threatening anyone else. Maybe his aim isn’t that good? :)

      I also liked that the Gunslinger became the town’s protector as opposed to just self-destructing. Series 7 is going well, so far. Let’s hope it continues to be good! :)

  2. This was a fun episode. It didn’t have much substance, but unlike Dinosaurs In A Spaceship it also didn’t make any big enough mistakes to knock me out of the story.

    Completely agree that him going after Rory and Isaac made no sense, though. It seemed to just be a convenience to get the Doctor from A to B, which is weak storytelling.

    • Like I said, I think the story was really just an excuse to explore the moral dilemma–and maybe expose the Doctor’s frustrations over the fact that whenever he extends mercy to his enemies, it always seems to come back to bite him later. That why I think the story was not as strong as it could be. Like you, I still enjoyed it, but you know what any decent literary agent would say if you submitted a ms where the story played second fiddle to the message–you just don’t do that! :)

  3. I enjoyed the episode, but the Doctor has actually done worse than this before… He knowingly killed Solon with cyanide gas, blew up the Graff Wosisname in The Ribos Operation. This judge, jury and executioner aspect of his character has always been there. I think they should only be pushing this if it’s really heading somewhere new.

    • Indeed. I don’t think the Doctor’s “dark side” comes through as often–especially in the New Series–and I don’t have a problem with that. The basic idea is that the Doctor tries to resolve problems through peaceful means, and only resorts to violence if all else fails (e.g., Warriors of the Deep: “There should have been another way…”). But the “dark side” has always been there, and I think it’s especially disconcerting to new series fans because it’s not something they’re used to seeing. And because of that, if that aspect of the Doctor is being played up, I think there has to be a reason for it. It’s an indicator of something coming.

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