Contributed by Matt Donnelly
In my review of last week’s Doctor Who I complemented the writing team for bringing back the show to its roots and making an episode that the whole family could enjoy. Having watched the trailer for this Western-themed instalment, entitled A Town Called Mercy, I got the impression that once again we’d have a jovial knockabout affair with the genre well and truly turned on its head by The Doctor and company. I was wrong however as this episode is arguably darker than The Asylum of The Daleks as it focuses on the way The Doctor has changed since his companions are leaving him for large amounts of time as well as explaining why The Doctor actually needs companions in the first place.
A Town Called Mercy is written by Being Human creator Toby Whithouse, a man who is able to easily mix light and shade, who has obviously been watching plenty of classic westerns in order to pen this homage to the genre. The Tardis trio of The Doctor, Rory and Amy are transported to the outskirts of an Old West town called Mercy and upon entering the town find out that they are now three more people who are being stalked by a cyborg gunslinger. The Gunslinger, who here is robot equivalent of Clint Eastwood’s The Man with No Name, is holding the town hostage until he is able to get his hands on the alien Doctor however he is not referring to our hero but rather Kahler-Jex (Adrian Scarborough) whose ship crashed outside Mercy some time ago. Jex has been a great asset to Mercy as he has been able to cure the town of a cholera outbreak and has also provided the town with electricity, years before anybody else was able to do so, by transforming his ship into a generator. As a means of assisting Mercy, The Doctor uses Rory and Isaac the Marshall to create a diversion in order for him to regain the Tardis and used it to transport everyone to safety. On his way there however he finds Jex’s ship and studying the records discovers that he wasn’t the kindly doctor he thought he was.
It instead transpires that Jex took volunteers and fused their bodies with machines in order to create an army of cyborgs that would finish the war on his planet. The Gunslinger was one of these cyborgs and now wants revenge against Jex who killed many of the people who volunteered for the cyborg programme. The Doctor then starts to get angry, dragging Jex to the edge of the town in order to face his maker he is stopped only by Amy who is able to talk him down and reminds him what a good man he is. Therefore a separate plan is called for however with Jex becoming even more difficult and the Mercy given a time limit before it is completely destroyed what will happen to our heroes?
A Town Called Mercy is an incredibly interesting episode with Whithouse exploring the morality of The Doctor who is becoming increasingly frustrated with the thoughts of the people who have died because he let the bad guys live. Whithouse makes it clear that Amy is The Doctor’s moral compass and comments on how much he has changed since they last saw him which does make you wonder what he’ll do when they’re no longer by his side. We also see The Doctor become more detached occasionally drifting off into space and paying no attention to what is going on around him while generally losing aspects of his cheery persona that we’ve come to love.
Though the regular players all do their jobs well it is Scarborough who is the star of the show here playing both the stereotypical Doctor character from the westerns as well as the dastardly scientist who believes himself to be a war hero after all the good he did for his planet. Scarborough turns Jex into someone who can really get under The Doctor’s skin by telling him that his morality is the prison he carries on his back while later on claiming that they are both similar people only Jex can follow through on what he wants to do. My favourite scene between the pair though is when Jex points out that The Doctor only sees events in black and white claiming that it would be easier for The Doctor if he were either the kindly physician or the killing machine however he is baffled that he is both. Scarborough portrays both sides of his character splendidly and also delivers possibly Matt Smith’s best performance of the three episodes we’ve head thus far.
Whithouse has also gone to great lengths to get the western genre settings dead on with his biggest influence clearly being The Magnificent Seven as they both were shot in the same Spanish town and the music used in A Town Called Mercy also bears great similarities to Elmer Bernstein’s classic theme. As the opening and closing narration are also performed by a young girl there are also elements of True Grit in the episode while in addition there’s the obvious High Noon comparison. It is this western theme where the majority of the humour is obtained especially when The Doctor informs a bemused townsman that his horse is called Susan.
A Town Called Mercy isn’t a perfect episode, one criticism would be that Rory is used sparingly throughout often coming across as a spare part, but overall it is a fairly enjoyable mix of western pastiche and dark moral fable. Looking at the bigger picture we only have two episodes till the departure of the Ponds and when that happens, going on this episode alone, it seems The Doctor may well go off the deep end unless he finds someone else to accompany him. I’m not sure if the kids would’ve enjoyed this as much as Dinosaurs on a Spaceship but for me personally it was a superior episode to last week’s but still doesn’t match the spectacle of Asylum of The Daleks.