Sunday, 16 September 2012

DOCTOR WHO, 7.3 – 'A Town Called Mercy'

Sunday, 16 September 2012

"We all carry our prisons with us. Yours is your morality." – Kahler-Jex to The Doctor

The brief was to deliver weekly "blockbuster" movies for series 7, and "A Town Called Mercy" obviously had the Western genre as its chief inspiration, but also managed to weave in riffs on Frankenstein, Westworld, The Terminator and Universal Soldier. That makes it sound like a huge amount of fun, but too much about Toby Whithouse's story fell flat and the story had problems justifying its runtime.

The story this week had The Doctor (Matt Smith) taking Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill) to the Wild West, where they stumbled upon a small town called Mercy that's under siege by a cyborg known as The Gunslinger (Andrew Brooke), whom we soon discover has a strict ethical code and only wants to terminate "the doctor"—specifically his creator, Kahler-Jex (Adrian Scarborough), an alien responsible for giving the townsfolk advanced electricity and medicines.

"A Town Called Mercy" did a great job keeping the morality of its hero and villain slippery, as the fearsome Gunslinger was revealed to be an aggrieved victim of immoral experimentation looking for justice, and the altruistic doctor Kahler-Jex was exposed as a murderer with similar ethics to Dalek creator Davros. It was perhaps an obvious switch to pull in retrospect, but it worked nicely, and having The Doctor grapple with an ambiguous situation gave the story more maturity than a great many other episodes. Doctor Who often works as a fairy tale, with clearly defined good people and bad people, so I respected what Whithouse achieved by muddying the waters somewhat.

Speaking as someone who tends to dislike Westerns because they often cover similar material, it was unfortunate that "A Town Called Mercy" was so full of genre clichés. In some ways it would be unforgivable if they didn't have a scene with The Doctor moseying into a saloon as the "stranger in town" and ordering a drink from a barman as the clientele stare him down, so I can forgive the odd moment like that, but there also comes a time when you're just waiting for certain inevitable sequences to be arrived at (like the climactic duel at high noon between The Doctor and The Gunslinger in the town square). Tolerances will vary, but when you add the Western tropes to the fact the script got stuck in a loop for a while, I think it was a shame there wasn't more happening that felt fresh and unique. As I mentioned, the constituent parts of "A Town Called Mercy" were largely taken from ideas and visuals found in the movies.

Overall, "A Town Called Mercy" was adequate work but it won't linger in my memory. The location shooting in Spain's Desert Of Tabernas (where classic Westerns A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More were filmed) looked great, but it was still unconvincing because the budget didn't stretch to include enough extras and horses; The Gunslinger was a surprisingly badass yet sympathetic character (as intended); and there were decent guest star turns from Scarborough as Farscape's Ben Browder as the Sheriff. However, beyond some intriguing moral viewpoints, "A Town Called Mercy" just didn't have enough up its sleeve once the twist with Kahler-Jex happened (too early), and the bookending narration was wishy-washy nonsense.


  • Maybe it's just me being grumpy, but I really hate the recurring joke that The Doctor can speak to babies, and now horses. It just strikes me as stupid when The Doctor was talking to "Susan" the horses, so I like to think he's just joking around whenever he has these "Doctor Wholittle" moments.
  • I can't take credit for this, but it's been mentioned that every episode this series has included a malfunctioning light bulb (most notably in last week's episode with Rory's dad fixing it), and it feels like a strong possibility this will factor into the loss of Amy and Rory to the Weeping Angels in a fortnight's time.
  • I guess The Doctor's officially over his hatred of guns? Last week he had befriended a big game hunter, and this week he's pointing a weapon at someone's head!
  • Did anyone else cringe at The Doctor miming a gunfight with the young boy before disappearing in the TARDIS?
written by Toby Whithouse / directed by Saul Metzstein / 15 September 2012 / BBC1

Next time...