DOCTOR WHO 7.03 ‘A Town Called Mercy’

The Doctor and his friends arrive in the old west as a cyborg gunslinger menaces a small town.

Blair Marnellby Blair Marnell

Episode Title: "A Town Called Mercy"

Writer: Toby Whithouse

Director: Saul Metzstein

Previously on "Doctor Who":

Episode 7.02 "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship"

Story:

Somewhere in the American old west, an alien cyborg known as the Gunslinger (Andrew Brooke) hunts down and kills another alien known as Kahler-Mas (Dominic Kemp) before noting that he has only one more person to eliminate. Later, the Doctor (Matt Smith), Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill) arrive on the outskirts of a town called Mercy, having missed their target destination in Mexico thanks to the TARDIS malfunctioning. The Doctor is practically joyful when he sees that the town has electricity about ten years too early, but the townspeople react with alarm when he introduces himself and admits to being an alien.

The townspeople pick the Doctor up and carry him to the edge of town before throwing him across a makeshift border. While the Doctor is forced at gunpoint to remain outside of the town, everyone sees the Gunslinger begin to materialize nearby and edge closer to the town. However, Isaac (Ben Browder) — the town's Marshal —  forces the townspeople to let the Doctor back inside the border before the Gunslinger arrives. Isaac takes the Doctor and his companions back to his office and explains that the Gunslinger has been holding the town hostage for three weeks. until they turn over the alien Doctor.

The Doctor quickly deduces that Isaac and the townspeople know exactly whom the Gunslinger is after, so Isaac is forced to introduce them to Kahler Jex (Adrian Scarborough), an alien doctor who crashed on Earth and devoted himself to improving the lives of the people in Mercy. Isaac notes that Jex saved the town from a cholera outbreak and provided electricity from his ship. Rather than confront the cyborg directly, the Doctor offers to use the TARDIS to evacuate the town before the people run out of food. Towards that end, Rory and Isaac fool the Gunslinger into thinking that Jex is making a run for it while the Doctor borrows a horse named Joshua (who prefers to be called "Susan") and rides back to his TARDIS.

Along the way, the Doctor is sidetracked when he discovers Jex's undamaged ship and learns that Jex is actually a war criminal who experimented on soldiers like the Gunslinger. Back in the town, Jex realizes that the Doctor is on to him and he attempts to take Amy hostage and make his escape… before Isaac and Rory catch him in the act. At Jex's spaceship, the Doctor is confronted by the Gunslinger, who explains that he has been programmed to refrain from harming innocent people. However, the Gunslinger rejects the Doctor's offer to help bring Jex to justice and he demands that Jex be forced from the town so that he can be executed.

Back at the Marshal's office, Jex tries to play off his actions as innocently as he can before the Doctor arrives and angrily confronts him about his true identity. Jex argues that his actions were abhorrent, but necessary to save lives and end a fruitless war. But the Doctor's rage boils over and he forces Jex to stand outside of the town's border and wait for the Gunslinger to kill him. The Doctor even holds Jex at gunpoint to ensure his compliance, forcing Amy to briefly aim a gun at the Doctor himself if only to make him listen to her. Amy reminds the Doctor that he has to be better than his foes and he is moved by her resolve.

But it's already too late, as the Gunslinger arrives to finish off Jex. Although Jex pleads that he has changed, the Gunslinger fires… and hits Isaac, who threw himself in front of Jex to protect him. While the Gunslinger hesitates, a dying Isaac asks the Doctor to become the new Marshal and protect Jex and the people of his town. The Doctor accepts the position, but the Gunslinger gives them an ultimatum: hand over Jex by noon the next day or he will kill everyone in the town. During the night, several townspeople approach the Doctor and ask him to let them hand over Jex to protect themselves.

However, the Doctor manages to defuse the situation by telling them that surrendering Jex would render Isaac's death meaningless. And while the townspeople ultimately relent, the Doctor himself is fuming with rage towards Jex. Although Jex concedes his guilt, he emphasizes the remorse that he feels and admits that he fears the afterlife because he will be forced to answer for all of the victims of the cyborgs he created, including Isaac and the Gunslinger himself. Inspired by Jex's story, the Doctor devices a way to fool the Gunslinger when he arrives in town the next day. Several townspeople (and even the Doctor himself) have fake alien tattoos painted on their faces in an attempt to confuse the Gunslinger while Jex makes it safely to his ship.

Once on board his ship, Jex contacts the Gunslinger and the Doctor and insists that he must be the one to end the vendetta. Jex apologizes once again and he sets off the ship's self-destruct. Lamenting his lost vengeance and his inability to ever return home as a "monster," the Gunslinger tells the Doctor that he intends to march into the desert and self-destruct as well. However, the Doctor persuades the Gunslinger to reinvent himself as the town's new Marshal, an immortal protector who watches over the town for generations afterward. As the Doctor prepares to leave with Amy and Rory, they ask him to return them to their home before their friends and neighbors eventually notice that they are aging faster than anyone else because of their extended stays on the TARDIS.

Breakdown:

With just a few episodes remaining before Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill depart from the series, I was hoping that "Doctor Who" would give us more Amy and Rory-centric stories before they leave the TARDIS for good. In that regard, "A Town Called Mercy" didn't even really try to make the Ponds all that important to this story at all. While it may have been smart for pacing issues to skip the Doctor picking up the Ponds again, it made the episode feel like it could have taken place at almost any time during their TARDIS tenure… aside from a few moments.

Rory in particular had so little to do that his best (and funniest) moment comes when he reacts incredulously to one of the townspeople calling him "fella" after addressing the Doctor and Amy as "Marshal" and "Deputy," respectively. At least Amy got a really great scene with the Doctor in which she talked him down from sending Jex to his death. Thematically, that was continuing the Doctor's dark streak from the previous episode in which he sent Solomon off to his fiery demise. We've seen this before in the Doctor, all the way back to "The Runaway Bride" when he allowed the Arachnos to be killed as well. When the Doctor is left on his own, he can be pretty fearsome.

The implication is that this may be the Doctor's natural state of mind, which he only suppresses when he's traveling with his human companions. At one point, the Doctor mentions that he is nearly 1,200 years old now, which could mean that he has been in his current incarnation longer than any of his previous selves except for the very first Doctor. What does that do to a Time Lord? It seems that he's a lot angrier and he has less patience than ever. But the Doctor still has a good heart (two of them, even), so it was cathartic to see the Doctor humbled by Amy's reminder about his better nature. Hopefully that's not the end of the Doctor's darker turn, as Smith is even more entertaining that way.

Among the guest stars, Ben Browder had the best turn as Isaac, the doomed Marshal of Mercy. Browder just seemed to fit into the role very naturally and his exit was meaningful, even if it was pretty obvious. Unfortunately, Adrian Scarborough wasn't quite as effective as Jex. However, that failure was a product of both the script and Scarborough's performance. After Jex attempted to take Amy hostage, I never took anything he said at face value again. Thus when Jex proclaimed his remorse and made his ultimate sacrifice, it just didn't feel believable. Jex just seemed so creepy when kidnapping Amy that his character never recovered from that.

I believe that the writer, Toby Whithouse, was attempting to create a parallel between Jex's war crimes and the Doctor's actions against his own people during the Time War. It could be argued that the Doctor is a bit of a war criminal himself, but I don't think that the case was adequately made here. Smith largely saved the day with the Doctor's humorous conversations with "Susan" the horse, the Doctor's interactions with the townspeople and the sheer delight of the Doctor once he realized that he was back in the old west. Plus, the eleventh Doctor sure seems to love wearing hats.

Because Jex was the surprise antagonist of this episode, the Gunslinger's role became somewhat muddled. It was refreshing that the Gunslinger wasn't a stereotypical evil cyborg, but I didn't really buy into his decision to become Mercy's new Marshal. Are we really to believe that the townspeople would be okay with having him around after driving Jex away and killing their beloved Marshal, Isaac? I liked the way that the Doctor used that idea to talk the Gunslinger out of committing suicide, but that heroic turn still felt like it was missing a few steps. 

"A Town Called Mercy" was the weakest episode of the season so far. But there was enough good material to keep it from being simply an average episode of "Doctor Who."