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Doctor Who Review: “A Town Called Mercy” (MINOR SPOILERS)


It has been said elsewhere that the TARDIS is not simply a time and space machine; it is also a genre machine: Step out of its familiar blue doors and enter any kind of story the writer’s mind can concoct. With “Asylum of the Daleks,” we had horror; with “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship,” we had comedy; and now with “A Town Called Mercy,” we have, ostensibly, a Western. Sort of.

In the entire nearly-50 year history of the show, there has only been one other attempt at the Western, the First Doctor story “The Gunfighter,” a serial that was mostly a comedy despite the OK Corral setting and quite a well-shot gunfight to go with it. It’s difficult, I’d imagine, for a show as supremely British as Doctor Who to tackle something as supremely American (or Italian) as the Western.  “A Town Called Mercy” has all the physical trappings that one would immediately point to as belonging to the Cowboy movie, but there was something strangely missing, something that WAS present in “Dinosaurs.”

Landing in the middle of nowhere in the 1880s, the Doctor, Amy, and Rory come across a town called Mercy (get it?!?) which is surrounded by rocks and logs creating a perimeter. Upon entering the saloon and pronouncing himself, the townsfolk run him out as a mysterious cyborg called “The Gunslinger” teleports ever-closer. The town’s marshal, Isaac (guest star Ben Browder), saves the Doctor and takes them all to his office, where he’s introduced to the OTHER Doctor, Kahler Jex, the town’s benevolent physician who is being pursued by the Gunslinger. Taking a visit to Jex’s spaceship (which was not in the plan), the Doctor discovers that Jex and others were responsible for genetically-engineering their own people to be the perfect weapons, which ended the Kahler’s 9-year war in a week. Knowing Kahler to be a war criminal that has perpetuated hundreds of atrocities, the Doctor decides to push him out of the town for the Gunslinger to kill. The Doctor claims that he won’t let more people die because of his “mercy,” the same mercy he’s shown to the Daleks, the Master, and many others time and time again.

The real conflict of the episode exists within the Doctor. He can’t wrap his brain around Jex being both a butcher and a savior, and it’s his own inner turmoil about having done the same thing during the Time War (though it’s never spoken out loud) that makes him react the way he does. After Isaac is killed (he should have been in it much longer) by the Gunslinger, accidentally of course, the Doctor becomes the marshal and must find a way to save Jex without the entirety of Mercy being slaughtered by the Gunslinger in the process.

Now, as I said, on the surface, this is a Western in the traditional sense; it takes place in a totally deserted small town; there is a town lawman who is the moral authority of the place; there’s horses and guns and Stetsons; and there’s even a showdown at High Noon. Shooting the episode in Almeria, Spain, in one of the very standing towns built for Sergio Leone’s Italian Westerns of the ’60s (not to mention a few dozen thereafter) added an air of legitimacy to the look and the visual style of the episode. They even got a genuine American in the form of Browder, someone with sufficient geek cred to boot, to be the marshal. They certainly did everything they could to make us all think we were watching a real, honest-to-goodness Horse Opera. But, Toby Whithouse’s script lacked the most important element: a bad guy. Seems easy, doesn’t it? And they certainly had a character who LOOKED like the bad guy, but he wasn’t.

I absolutely love Westerns, so please forgive me this brief history. Hollywood Westerns generally had a good guy, a “White Hat,” who was often a sheriff or a marshal and they and possibly a few deputies or other helpers defended their town from the “Black Hats,” or bad guys. You’ll find this in movies like Rio Bravo or My Darling Clementine. In the case of something like High Noon, which at least partly inspired this episode, the sheriff is on his own as the town has essentially turned its back on him, but he still defends them. In all of these films, the key is that the good guy is defending the town and its people from bad guys who want to do bad things.

The other variation is an heroic stranger who comes through town and, though perhaps he doesn’t want to, he defends the town out of nothing but duty. The best example of this is Shane. With Spaghetti Westerns (or Westerns made by Italian filmmakers for Italian/Spanish/West German audiences), the tropes became a lot more cynical. The “White Hat” didn’t wear a white hat and wasn’t overly good, usually helping people out of his own desire for money, which is the case in movies like A Fistful of Dollars and Django. The “Black Hats,” however, couldn’t have been more evil, often committing really horrifying and violent acts with a delight that caused many of these films to be censored in a lot of places, especially the UK.

I give you this context so that I may make this point: All of these Westerns have a very clear, discernible, and reprehensible villain. In this, there are two possible villains, each with a point of view that is, if not condonable, at least understandable. It went along okay for a bit; the Gunslinger was scary and seemingly unstoppable and the nice alien doctor was the innocent victim of his unexplained wrath. Then, we find out that Jex has done inhumane and deadly experiments in an effort to win a war, not unlike Davros when he created the Daleks. Our sympathy then switches from the doctor to the Gunslinger. Revenge stories are one of the most powerful and prevalent in the Western genre. However, we’re meant, through the Doctor’s conversations with both Amy and Jex, to come down on the side that there are no black and whites in any situation.

This is the problem. This story BADLY needed a villain. Not just to fulfill its Western roots, but to give it some kind of tension. This type of setting needs certain constants. Either Jex or the Gunslinger had to be a true villain, and since both somewhat redeemed themselves by the end, it made everything that came before it happen in vain. I understand this is what Whithouse was going for, making us not side with anyone outright; fine, I get that. But this comes only one week after an episode that, for all its zaniness, had an unbelievably evil villain who would have been perfect in a story like this. And, if the point was that the Doctor should be above revenge or killing no matter how justified, then why show us that immediately after he allows Solomon to be taken out entirely for doing essentially the same thing that Jex did. If the Doctor’s going to learn the lesson that killing is wrong regardless of motivation, then he needed to be defending someone as bad as Solomon, not himself.

This could have, and I think should have been a Good/Bad/Ugly setup, with the Doctor representing the “Good,” Jex representing the “Bad,” and the Gunslinger representing the “Ugly.” As it stands, we had a Pretty Good/Fairly Bad/Somewhat Ugly setup and it just didn’t work. Westerns, at least in the early days, were morality plays that worked because the hero had to be faced with ultimate villainy. This tried to be a morality play where everyone was basically the same. The Doctor refused to hurt anybody, Jex repented his past crimes, and the Gunslinger didn’t want innocents to be in the way. There are no stakes at this point. When nobody is doing anything at each other, it becomes a pretty boring Mexican standoff. How boring is it? The resolution comes when one person kills themselves and is said to have done the “honorable” thing. Clearly, Toby Whithouse hasn’t seen as many Westerns as I’d have thought if he thinks someone committing suicide would ever have been seen as the high road in a John Ford film. Sacrifice? Sure, but not suicide.

At any rate, this was my main problem with the show. It wasn’t a Western and it wasn’t an adventure; basically, it squandered the fantastic location and some more phenomenal direction by Saul Metzstein. Even Murray Gold, who I’m not the hugest fan of, got to play around with familiar themes. When the Doctor rides away on Joshua/Susan, the music cue is very reminiscent of The Magnificent Seven. It’s just kind of a shame. This was a very dull episode.

 

Next week, we’re going back to Chris Chibnall already for “The Power of Three,” which I know very little about and am extremely intrigued by given the trailer. Check it out!

-Kanderson’s TWITTER and PODCAST

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41 comments

  • First time reader here, just to say that I wholeheartedly disagree with this assessment of this episode. I watched it and immediately loved it. It was the kind of “breather” episode that we needed, without feeling too much like (as my sister in law put it) filler. This episode showed us an introspective and vulnerable version of The Doctor that I, personally, and quite a few other fans, have been dying to see. It provided a glimpse of what The Doctor is like when he lets his loneliness get the better of him. Again, that particular theme is something we haven’t seen since David Tennant was in the role. I think this was definitely a flawed episode, but it wasn’t terribly hurt by the flaws.

    As for the villain argument, I think it’s pretty safe to say that in this episode, The Doctor himself was the villain. The obstacle that he had to overcome was psychological, and Amy, though underused, was pretty much his conscience. The scene where she pointed the gun at him was added to show an external version of his very internal battle. He was feeling guilt and Amy was there to show him that.

    Long story short, I think this episode was much better than this review gave it credit for. They can’t all be golden.

  • I was amazed by how great Asylum of the Daleks was, so I am looking forward to another Moffat written story…

    but I think this set of stories focus more on how the Doctor, Amy, and Rory have done…lets call it…almost “everything” together, I think the situations are meant to be iconic because you are subconsciously left feeling nothing is left out, and you can see that by the Doctor suggesting less grandeur adventures than that of a Western or as strange as Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, as well as the increasing non-cholance of Amy and Rory.

    So I personally am not left feeling I wanted “more” of the genre each episode entails so much as using it to augment or juxtapose the relationship between the three.

    Something to think about!

  • The town was totally deserted? Then what were all those people doing there?

    I have to disagree with you on this one. You’re too hung up on what a Western is supposed to be like. I like that the villains were not all bad, just as the Doctor is not all good.

    Besides the Susan line I liked when somebody walked into the jail and greeted the Doctor (Doctor) and Amy (ma’am), but didn’t know what to call Rory, so just said, “fella.”

  • ah…this review perfectly sums up why the episode didn’t really work. I couldn’t put my finger on it before, but now it makes no sense. I’m not sure it absolutely needed a “black hat” figure… but the cyborg and jex could have both stood to be a lot more threatening…there was no tension or suspense throughout the entire 3rd act. Everything felt a bit generic…especially the townsfolk (aside fromthe sheriff, who was great). The confrontation between the doctor and the young kid who wanted to get jex was painfully cliche, and that was really the most detail we got to see of the townsfolk.

    I didn’t HATE this episode, but it was nowhere near as good as the last 2. This season is shaping up nicely, though…next week looks good!

  • Am I the only one who heard the doctor say (early on) “I’m twelve hundred years old”? Wasn’t he nine hundred and seven the last time he mentioned his age?

  • Any way you could elaborate on the “not the hugest fan of” Murray Gold comment, or point us to where you may have already touched on that subject? He’s not my favorite TV score guy, and he’s done some things to the DW theme that I could definitely have lived without, but a lot of his work on this show is just friggin’ amazing.

  • I was really looking forward to this episode, and ended up finding it very disappointing. I thought Ben Bowder was a great choice for the Marshall, who was infuriatingly under-used, as other have said.

    I have to disagree that there’s no villain, though. I think it was muddled because of the whole plot being muddled, but Kahler Jex was pretty villainous for most of the story. Sure, he helped the town and all that, but as the Doctor said, he was trying to pick the nature of his own penance. It was pretty clear that while he felt some guilt about what he’d done, he still felt justified in his actions during the war, as expressed several times to the Doctor and others. Jex tried to do good, but he tells the others that his people believe that they will be forced to carry the souls of those they’ve wronged in the afterlife, and he’s been trying to lighten his load a bit. The good things the doctor did in Mercy were motivated out of fear and an attempt to head off future punishment, not an honest expression of his internal guilt and recognition that what he did was monstrous. Jex really only achieved any sort of redemption when he finally recognized what he had done to those people and himself, and decided to sacrifice himself to stop the cycle of violence. You could argue that it’s not in true Western fashion to end with a suicide, and maybe that’s true, but given the options at hand, it was no less heroic. The gunslinger was implacable, at least in the time allowed, so Jex’s other options were to run, and carry the war with him to a new place, or to let the gunslinger kill him. The reason that the suicide route was the more heroic option than letting the gunslinger just shoot him, was that he gave up his own life so that the gunslinger could be done killing, and wouldn’t have to be the monster that Jex had made him into anymore.

    I still don’t think the episode worked, but I think it was less grey than it seems.

  • Thanks for a very interesting review. I was also disappointed with the episode. I found it quite hard to suspend disbelief, which is not a problem I usually have. I think you are right that a clear “black-hat” character would be the easiest way to rescue the episode, but I would have like to seen the episode go a different way entirely.

    As you put it, one common plot in Westerns is “an heroic stranger who comes through town and, though perhaps he doesn’t want to, he defends the town out of nothing but duty. The best example of this is Shane.” This is also a common plot in Doctor Who, and I think it is the most natural fit for a Doctor Who Western. (Just two days ago, I saw a clip of Steven Moffat describing the Doctor in essentially those terms, but today I can’t find it for the life of me. Damn Internet.)

    Shane is my favorite Western, and I think something interesting could have been done with the characters in that movie in the context of the Doctor/Amy/Rory relationship. Of course, the Doctor is Shane, the heroic stranger. Rory is a perfect fit for the father character in Shane, the fundamentally decent man whose true heroism is not apparent to his young son. This makes Amy the mother who loves her husband, but is attracted to the stranger, although Amy is considerably feistier than that character.

    At first, I was trying to make River Song Joey the son character, who is idolizes Shane, but that does not fit with River, at least not as we have seen her so far. Without a son character the comparison to Shane falls apart, as it is that character which really distinguishes Shane as a Western. Then it hit me, the character with the adoring, worshipful attitude to the Doctor is young Amelia Pond. The timey-wimey possibilities expand…

    I’ve gone on long enough here, I just need to say the obvious thing;
    “Doctor!…. Doctor! Come back!”

  • I’d argue that, though this was ostensibly an homage to Spaghetti westerns, it followed the structure and themes of the darker, more critical American westerns of the mid-to-late-50s. (Sometimes termed self-reflexive; The Searchers is kind of the go-to example of this.) Playing with the tropes of earlier, more cut-and-dry good vs. bad, you end up with heroes acting the way they would have in the earlier films but placed into a more realistic and critical setting, forcing the hero to realize he’s out of touch with what is really going on and may have outlived or misunderstood his place in the world. These movies often lack a clear-cut villain as well; if they have one at the start, you end up understanding where they’re coming from by the end of the movie, when everyone’s tired of fighting.

    The doctor’s journey in this episode is more reflective of that hero’s journey: falling into a clearly set path (save the town, sacrifice the criminal), only to discover that no one else really thinks that’s the best idea, and having to re-examine himself in order to find a new path forward.

    Thinking this through just now has actually made me appreciate the episode a little more, but I do agree that it was awkwardly paced and the Ponds were under-used. It was kind of boring, but I do understand what they were going for.

  • It seems to me you missed the point a little bit. The only part of Dinos on a Spaceship I didn’t like was the in cold blood killing of Solomon. It was very un-Doctor like. This episode took that plot point head on and gave reason for the actions last week as well as brought the Doctor back to the morality he always should have had, but due to events that resulted in his “death” and traveling alone he had moved away from.

    As for the genre need for a villain, the episode played with the genre in that sense much the same way it played with the actions of the Doctor. The Doctor had been acting in a “redemptive violence” mindset (something White Hat heroes in Westerns stand for), and it took a setting where that was expected to really make him recognize (again) that violence was not the answer. A perfect choice of genre for that realization to be made since the Doctor rarely does the expected, a point made in the episode when he reveals the original plan to simply evacuate everyone with the TARDIS, which the episode then quickly points out seems way to simplistic and straightforward for the Doctor. Having a Black Hat villain would have been far too simplistic and straightforward for a Doctor Who episode.

    This season has been top notch so far.

  • Loved this episode! Thanks to you guys for getting me back into Doctor Who! I finished this beauty just in time to celebrate the new season. Please help me get the word out! I hope you love it as much as I do! https://www.etsy.com/listing/103952672/doctor-who-applique-patchwork-quilt. Getting this sold to a fellow Whovian would help me pay for grad school this semester! Help a future scientist and Whovian crafter! Thanks. Love the podcast! And thanks for getting me back into Who!

  • I was really looking forward to this episode, mostly because of Ben Browder. As it turns out Ben was completely underused (aka he never should have been cast in this) and the episode was a bloody joke. No tension, ridiculous conflict and a wibby-wubby villain (as the review pointed out).

    Was i supposed to feel something at the end when the “cyborg” wore the tin star? Cause all I felt was relief this episode was over.

  • Odd, I’m surprised more people didn’t like this episode, especially for the reason that you’ve described. Bad guys are great and all but I often find that many of the best Doctor Who episode DON’T have bad guys and are really about the struggle of two opposing viewpoints (God Complex comes to mind).

    Then again, I also really did not like Dinosaurs because the set up really bothered me (having Nefertiti on a spaceship sounds like fun and all but she was clearly taken before Akhenaten’s reign, so wouldn’t it ROYALLY fuck up the timestream if something happened to her? It just seemed really irresponsible) and I just couldn’t get into the silliness of it. To each their own, I suppose.

  • I also really like how the episode re-established the importance of the companions and why they are there.

    Without them, the Doctor lacks a moral compass. Hell, take a look at the First Doctor! He was just another asshole Timelord until he got himself some moral bound human companions.

  • I thought the episode was okay. It wasn’t great but wasn’t bad either. I disliked the “noble” suicide ending and I also thought the western set felt a little wasted.

    What I did like was how the Doctor saw himself reflected in Jex. I mean he wiped out his entire race in order to take down the Daleks, so how couldn’t he? I liked how this was never directly addressed but seemed to fester beneath every scene between them.

    I thought those parts were brilliant and well handled.

  • I think the review summed everything up nicely. Well done.

    I detected something off about the episode. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what was lacking. I do think the lack of a true “black hat” was certainly part of the problem. But I also think Whithouse also missed the mark on the reactions and interactions of the townfolk. Imo, anything post Deadwood that doesn’t try to at least achieve some level of realism in that regard is going to seem discordant.

  • There are some rather entertaining moments in this episode (Susan the horse wanting his life choices respected), but I think you hit the proverbial nail on the head in your review Kyle , can I call you Kyle?

    I felt it throughout the episode, but you were able to explain it in a much clearer way than I would have been able to, well done.

    The point about Solomon especially rang true for me. I watched “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” (I have had it with these mother-fucking dinosaurs on this mother-fucking spaceship!) and “Mercy” directly back-to-back and that point back-handed me in the face.

  • Matt Smith is a decent enough Doctor but this season is a big let down:
    1) Daleks were not scary
    2) Dinos were dumb (really? they learned to operate elevators? maybe they’re not dumb!)
    3) Western was a snooze-fest

  • typo above..”along” was supposed to be “alone”

    bibliohoic29: WOAH…after i posted my comment, i read some just above it and saw that you posted almost the identical thoughts and comparisons to the tennant stuff!?! great minds think alike!

  • Weirdness…i LOVED this episode. Particularly the scene where the Doctor drags the guy outside the ring to offer him up to the gunslinger and Amy tells him “this is what happens when you travel too much along”. It was reticent to some of the final Tennant episodes where the doctor realizes that he’s letting emotion trump logic and reason. This season is shaping up to be more cinematic than story-arc and i dig it….big scale episodes in fun settings…it makes me giddy to see what happens with the Angels in episode 5….giddy i say!

    Peace n the strongest cup of tea..with the bag still in it.

    3ToF, companions companion.

  • This episode, while not the greatest, served as a morality play for the Doctor. He was essentially a mediator in what was a reflection of his own past, present, and future. Jex reflected the Doctor of the Time War. The Gunslinger was a reflection of what the Doctor has become since – part vigilante/part savior. It was like an out-of-body experience for the Doctor. His demons were playing out in front of him and he was forced not only to try and solve the current dilemma at hand, but he was forced to deal with all the inner-conflict he feels about his past and the way he handled it.

  • Amy pointing a gun at The Doctor and indicating “… that’s not how we roll.” was more disbelief (and against type most certainly) than I have in me to suspend. All thoughtful arguments aside – and with which I agree, BTW – that ALMOST made me change the channel.

  • I agree with James. I loved the grey that came into this episode.

    I’d like to add the importance of seeing how the Doctor has changed without a steady companion traveling with him. We saw some of this at the end of Tennant’s run (best during Waters of Mars) but having Amy, who knows him so well, talk about both how badly the Doctor needs someone with him and that she and Rory can’t really afford to travel with him regularly is a good set up for the new companion.

    I like that they’re taking the time to set up the change and remind the Doctor of just why he travels with others. During Davies’ tenure, it seemed like the Doctor spent his time companion-hopping, even with Rose, it didn’t take him long to move on. Here we get a more real ending to the relationship between he and the Ponds. A more gradual (yes I know big stuff is coming in a couple weeks, but at the moment it’s gradual) separation. It’s realistic, friends drifting apart. Especially when we consider Amy’s age throughout the series. This episode seems like a good segue to the end.

  • One critical thread that was covered again is the purpose of the Doctor’s companions. They are his muses. They are there to focus and examine his inner conflicts as well as to balance his wild tendencies. Without them he is less confident and lacking a moral compass. IMHO.

  • I can’t believe there hasn’t been another Western episode since “the Gunslingers.” I guess we’ve seen so many Sci Fi/Western mashups since then, like Firefly or Brisco County Jr, that it seemed to me that Dr Who must have done another at some point. And this episode felt more like an America Syfy Channel show than Dr Who.

  • I’m also a bit tired of the British writers of Who thinking all Americans are gunslingers (see also the agents in last season’s Nixon episodes). That the Doctor is a bit too trigger happy seems to fit into this. Enough with the guns… Either on the Doctor or on every American they are trying to portray on screen.

  • I found myself wondering the same thing. The bad guy was just doing what he was made to do. The “doctor” was helping after the realizing he could help mankind..and the terrific trio came and Amy jumps in to put things right …or back on track or..I dunno..I was also confused…the horse phrase was possibly the best comment in the show…going to watch it again…maybe I missed something…I guess not all the episodes can be so gripping as Van Gogh…maybe I expect too much….nice to know I wasn’t alone in the cofusion

  • I also found the episode dull. I think a large part of it was the poor story structure. There was hardly an intro – the story starts in a matter of seconds with no build up or explanation. A lot of the plot was easy to guess. The current season is continuously pushing the morals of the Doctor, but it’s getting overwhelming. We get it.

    I don’t want to completely blame the writer because as we all know, so many changes happen including the editing, direction and alterations from the network/higher ups, but this episode felt really flat. As I watched, I kept hoping for something surprising or some big hook but it never happened.

    The episode was beautifully filmed and the sets were great, but that’s not enough to make a fantastic episode. That said, I still love the show and look forward to the next episode.

    One last thought – the woman at the saloon looked a lot like River Song. Not sure if I’m reading into that, or if it’s just a fluke.

  • I actually respectfully disagree, and not for the sake of whovian love, but rather I think this was a very self reflective episode on the part of the Doctor.

    We actually see a lot of the Doctor in both victims/villains, and to condemn either of them would to condemn part of who the Doctor is as well. We’re learning more and more than his wisdom may be compromised and the seemingly untouchable brilliant Doctor may face some inner demons sooner than we think.

    We see Jex, who is trying to escape his past of trying to “do what was right” but in turn murdering thousands, runs to a new world and takes on a new name and persona, as the Doctor (in a town called Mercy). Sound familiar? *The* Doctor, needless to say, also ran from his homeworld after doing what he believed was the right thing to do, and in turn killed an entire civilization. I think in a way, he’s always been looking for “Mercy.”

    And on the flip side, we have the Gunslinger, who we learn is trying in part to punish evil and serve an idea of justice, in a similar fashion we’ve seen the Doctor (at his worst) perform, and in a way, he’s done it to his own people, and in the previous episode, he did to Solomon.

    If we side with Jex’s search for redemption, is the Gunslinger wrong for trying to do what he believes is right? If we side with the Gunslinger, are we saying there are no second chances? If we side with either, how do we side on a man who has been cruel, but also good? How do we address those parts of the Doctor, and is he the one to be deciding the fate of these two people with a past such as his own?

    These are the questions I think they were asking us this week. I don’t think we really got an answer in the end, and they are leaving it up to us to ponder… For now.