A Town Called Mercy
The Doctor. A Doctor. Two sides. One coin.
The latest Who offering promised a Wild West adventure… and we most certainly got it!
It’s probably best to say that, whilst A Town Called Mercy isn’t quite the beautifully dark Asylum of the Daleks romp, or the madcap hi-jinks of Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, it does manage to place itself rather squarely between them – and even finds a few moments for quiet contemplation that the first two speedy entries to Series 7 could not!
Mercy begins quite simply compared to the others as well; rather than a reasonably long teaser before the opening credits, we get a brisk scene setter that both sets the piece as a legend of the Old West, and introduces us to the enemy of the piece, the Gunslinger – a beautifully created cyborg assassin. I give much praise to the costume, props and make up departments of nuWho, and to acting of Andrew Brooke, who brought this menacing figure to life.
We are then back with Eleven and the Ponds (there is no scene of him picking them up in amusing circumstances) as he has popped back into their lives; he’s supposed to be taking them to the Mexican Festival of the Dead, but fate being fickle, they’ve somehow landed on the outskirts of the town of ‘Mercy’, which is surrounded by a ‘barrier’ of wood and stones and Keep Out signs.
“Has someone been peeking at my Christmas list?!”
So naturally they head into town…
It really sells the piece that the production team went all the way to Spain and the filming site known as Fort Bravo, to film this adventure; the set is a classic example of an authentic Western town, right down to the Grand Central Bank! It probably helps to no end that various films over the years have been made at this site and has firmly cemented in viewers mind that this is what the Wild West would have looked like. But even then no CGI can compare to the real dust blowing across the ground, and the vast vistas of barren land.
The writer, Toby Whithouse, has crafted a marvellous story that weaves the best of the Western tropes (showdowns at noon, gunfights, mysterious strangers, gunmen) and included a few sci fi tropes for good measure; combined with the direction of Saul Metzstein, a real physical world that exists within the Whoniverse is very much present, and crucially, alive.
The guest stars this week are Adrian Scarborough (as Kahler Jex) and, deep breath now, Ben Browder (as Marshall Issac). Jex is the other alien of the adventure (separate to the Gunslinger), presented as another alien doctor who has dedicated his life to healing the sick; the townsfolk are very protective of the man, especially Issac, who believes that America is a land of second chances…
Adrian gives a very nice turn as Jex with a curious tilt to his accent that steps just the other side of English; determined, fearful and enigmatic. Unfortunately, for this reviewer, his role is somewhat sidestepped by the entrance of Issac, a character who sweeps in and takes control of a volatile situation, but without stealing the whole show from the main cast; but given that this role is played by Ben Browder of Farscape (possibly the most creative science fiction television I have had the pleasure of watching) and Stargate SG1 fame, it’s particularly thrilling to see him involved in nuWho. It’s a very selfless performance, where Browder gives much more to the characters and actors around him than the role probably calls for (until the moment where everything relies on what Issac does and the rest of the episode must inevitably follow!)
It turns out the Gunslinger is hunting down this Doctor Jex, and when the purpose why is revealed, it’s somewhat of a surprise how the story twists in the light. It turns out that Jex is responsible for creating the cyborg, through heavily implied disturbing experiments, all in the name of stopping a war on his home planet – he is regretful and seeking his own redemption for what he did in the name of war – but also firm in his choice.
Eleven is somewhat, understandably, horrified; this was a man who he saw some semblance of himself in. In one of the more shocking moments of the episode, but completely forecast by previous moments, Eleven, prompted by Jex to see similarities in their behaviour, forces Jex to cross over the Keep Out line to where the Gunslinger can get to him, and to make sure he can’t back across, he steals a gun and holds it point blank at Jex. Only a short regeneration ago, this is the man who never would…
“Today I honour the victims first! His, the Masters, the Daleks! All the people who died because of MY mercy!”
It’s here, now, that Amelia Pond steps up to the plate; acting as the voice of reason, and the audience, telling Eleven why he can’t do this, why he has to be better than this. It’s a great moment, between Karen Gillan and Matt Smith, where she has to out-Doctor him.
When reason, or better judgement returns, a quiet moment in the cells between the two Doctors is quite telling; Eleven sees too much of himself in the man. Jex has dedicated himself to healing the sick for his atonement, as has Eleven, in his own way, for all his sins.
“We all carry our prisons with us.”
Matt Smith is given a plethora of emotions to work with this week; elated at the mystery, horrified at the discovery, thrilled at finding someone like him, terrified by finding someone like him… You can see why Eleven still has so much more to explore as he keeps changing and growing as a character; in the darkness there is much good to be found.
It’s a shame really that Amy and Rory are not given as much to work with; but maybe that’s the point. They are just stopping in the Doctors’ life now; he has no one with him to ground him, to keep him seeing everything through fresh eyes – more than ever, this episode is more about how the Doctor sees things than the companions – perhaps that why there is no sequence showing Eleven picking up the Ponds.
The episode isn’t all doom, gloom and grit; there are plenty of laughs and humour found too. I’m torn between the Doctor proudly swaggering into a saloon and ordering a drink (“Tea. The strong stuff. Leave the bag in…”) and his latest ability to be revealed: “I speak horse…”
I’ve been a bit of the fence about how much is Eleven being silly and mysterious, and how much is truth, but given that he maintains a conversation with the horse (…[Her name is] Susan… and she wants you to respect her lifestyle choice…”) after he has ridden out into the desert and there is no one else around… I’m more inclined to believe it.
By episode’s end, events have taken an optimistic tone; wrongs are righted by those who committed them, and a new legend in history of the Old West has been born. We are left as viewers not really knowing who to condemn; as a wise man said, America is the land of the second chances… this episode of Doctor Who reaffirms that who we have been and the things we have done, do not have to define us for the rest of our lives… and sometimes they do…
“You’re both good men… you just forget sometimes.”
This episode isn’t quite as complicated thematically as Whithouse’s last episode from Season 6, The God Complex, (which I enjoyed very much by the way) and I’m inclined to say I’d like to give these episode 3.5 horses racing across the desert out of 5, but that just seems unfair given that there was more of an emotional story at the heart of this offering than last weeks Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, but they are two very different beasts… I’m going to have to settle on a very strong 3 and a half!
Next week: the slowest invasion of Earth ever… and the Doctor comes to stay. In your spare room. Bring on The Power of Three…