We’ve been here before, of course. Most of the time the Doctor dispenses justice without worrying too much about whether he has a right to do so. Every so often, though, he’s forced to confront his own moral code. It happened in Genesis of the Daleks, again in Resurrection of the Daleks. It was 2005’s Boom Town that first gave over an entire episode to the debate on capital punishment against second chances. A Town Called Mercy does much the same, but is rather better, managing to spin a more entertaining story around the central dilemma.
The core of this episode – Kahler-Jex versus the Gunslinger – is nicely handled. Although we naturally expect there to be a hidden truth behind the apparent set-up, the reveal that the killer cyborg is not a straightforward villain is satisfying. Jex’s crimes are illustrated perfectly by nothing more than a few snatches of blurred footage and some screams; our imaginations do the rest. A couple of mentions of “deaths on the operating table” convey the horror of becoming a cyborg far better than any graphic imagery could ever have done (and more effectively than a whole two-parter about the birth of the Cybermen). The success of the episode hinges on the cast convincing the audience of the gravity of the fictional situation. Thankfully, all the cast are up to it. The star of the show is Adrian Scarborough as Jex, thoroughly convincing as a very English extraterrestrial whose mild manners hide a terrible past. It’s a credit to him that, even at Jex’s most loathsome, carping on about being a war hero, he remains respectable and strangely admirable.
Almost as good is Andrew Brooke as the Gunslinger. Saddled by a hefty load of prosthetics and with some overdone voice modulation, Brooke conveys the hopelessness of the cyborg’s situation through little more than expressions. There’s a weariness and frustration there, and a vulnerability. Ben Browder, a familiar face to TV sci-fi fans, is another brilliant casting choice. His noble Marshal, Isaac, provides the emotional heart of an episode in which Amy and Rory are mostly kept to the sidelines.
While it’s true that Amy gets a couple of decent scenes and Rory is relegated almost to an incidental extra, the Doctor gets to be the core of an episode for the first time this series. Asylum and Dinosaurs both focussed very much on the Ponds’ relationship and their interaction with the Doctor; here, the Doctor gets to be the centre of attention. Matt Smith rises to the occasion. His Doctor can sometimes come across as a little ineffectual, but here he dominates his scenes, roaring at Jex with an anger we rarely get to see so plainly in this version of the character. Predictably, fans in some quarters are up in arms about the Doctor packing a gun. It’s a common claim that the Doctor doesn’t “do” guns, but this is not, in fact, the case. I can think of five incidences off the top of my head in which earlier incarnations have picked up firearms, and there are probably more. These are often in times of extreme peril and the Doctor usually bottles out of actually using the weapon; again, Resurrection of the Daleks, with the Doctor facing down Davros, springs to mind. However, he’s blasted down Cybermen, Ogrons and Daleks in the past. As I said last week, the Doctor is far from a pacifist, but it’s only when he threatens humanoid characters that most people take exception.
A Town Called Mercy is a strong episode that skirts the debate on capital punishment, war crimes, weapons of mass destruction and personal culpability in times of conflict. However, there’s plenty of fun to stop the episode from becoming a depressingly grim affair. In perhaps the core scene, in which Amy confronts the Doctor about his behaviour, she looses bullets through clumsiness to lighten the mood, and this sort of thing keeps the episode fun. There are nudges to classic Western films throughout, some exciting action scenes and some very funny gags. The spacepod’s security system is very Hitchhikers, although the “Kahler-Alarm” pun is groanworthy. As for the Doctor speaking horse; well, that’s just silly. I’ll accept him speaking baby, but not horse. I reckon he’s making up and talking to himself to aid thinking, although that would imply that he’s named a male horse after his own granddaughter…
Topped off with a stirring score, some beautiful location shooting in Almeria and a guest cast who give it their all, this is a memorable episode that isn’t afraid to spend time talking about the issues instead of racing through them. After two frenetic episodes, it’s satisfying to have a more thoughtful instalment to slow things down a little before the finale approaches.
Thoughts and nitpicks: So, are all the Kahler called Kahler-something? The other scientist killed in the opening scene is Kahler-Mas, and the Gunslinger used to be Kahler-Tec. Not only is that very odd, but there are only so many syllables, so they’re going to run out possible names very quickly. Why does the Doctor not return to his original plan and get everyone evacuated by TARDIS? If Jex can make it to his ship, surely the Doctor can do too. What does the line around the town actually do, anyway? The Gunslinger has no problem stepping over it when he wants too, and it’s not like finding and isolating Jex would actually be that hard. The Gunslinger also gives the Doctor, Amy and Jex plenty of time for their moral debate when he could just ‘port in and blast away.
Doctor Data: Gives his age as 1200 now. Assuming he’s not just giving random figures now, ninety-seven years have passed for him since The Wedding of River Song.
Links and References: Choc-full of Western tropes, but I’m no expert on the genre so I shall leave it to those better qualified to list references. The Gunslinger seems to be inspired in equal parts by the Terminator, the Westworld Gunslinger and the Borg. This is only the second Western-themed Doctor Who story on television, the first being The Gunfighters from 1966 (which I adore). There have been several in other media, though, many with a title that features “A Town Called Something-or-other.”
Best Line: “Tea – but the strong stuff. Leave the bag in.”