‘A Town Called Mercy’, written by Toby Whithouse, effectively used the background of the Old West to produce an enjoyable companion piece to ‘The God Complex.’ Once again Whithouse explores the Doctor’s methodology, especially in regard to the nature of mercy, to produce a solid piece of entertainment.
Spoilers from here on!
Science fiction and Westerns have always been an effective mix. ‘Westworld’, ‘Cowboys & Aliens’, ‘Firefly’ are but a few examples, with everything from ‘Star Wars’ to ‘Star Trek’ touching upon the idea of pioneers in an inhospitable environment.
Out on the fringes people have to create and enforce their own laws. These are important ideas for Doctor Who to explore, since the character has increasingly taking the law into his own hands, becoming both judge and executioner.
The story itself is rather simple. A cyborg has cut the small town of Mercy off from its supply route, slowly starving the inhabitants unless they hand over the alien doctor who turned him into a monster.
This is communicated well in the opening, clearly evoking ‘The Terminator’. We get another misdirect regarding the Doctor (we are led to believe he is the next target) but at least we know what the cyborg’s goal is.
The audience is therefore one step ahead of the Doctor when he breezily enters Mercy with Amy and Rory in tow. He is tourist-mode here, much as he was in ‘The Curse of the Black Spot.’ The inhabitants and the puzzling anachronistic technology are entertainment for him.
This soon backfires when he casually reveals he is an alien and ends up being thrown across the town border to face the cyborg. The cyborg itself, later identified as Kahler-Mas, has a passable prosthetics but I found the highlight of the design was its burst of cloaking/teleporting. This added the right quality of other worldliness to the character.
Luckily for the Doctor the town’s sheriff, Isaac, arrives to calm the townsfolk down. Played by Ben Browder, no stranger to science fiction since appearing in both ‘Farscape’ and ‘Stargate’, the character helps counterpoint the hostility of inhabitants.
Isaac explains the towns plight and the hardships that they’ve suffered, allowing the viewer to sympathise with them. We are also introduced to the alien doctor the cyborg is really after, Kahler Jex, played by Adrian Scarborough.
Kahler Jex is an affable character, helped by the Doctor joy at meeting a member of his species. Having cured an outbreak of cholera and providing the town with electricity it is obvious why Isaac feels they owe him a debt.
It doesn’t take long for Jex to reveal his true colours when the Doctor finds his ship and learns that the alien is responsible for creating Mas, along with carrying out horrible medical experiments on others.
This is where the simple plot is revealed to be a strength, rather than a weakness. With the basis setup established the plot is now free to explore the ethical dilemma that it creates. Much as in ‘The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People’ everyone has an opinion.
The cyborg Mas is not a senseless killer. He was wronged and is seeking revenge for what was done to him and others like him. He has gone out of his way to prevent injury to the innocent townsfolk, finding a way to pressure them into handing over Jex so he can have justice.
Jex is no monster. While he did terrible things it was driven out of a need to save lives. Adrian Scarborough does a good job of communicating the guilt he lives with and his hope that he’d have a chance for redemption in Mercy.
The parallel with the Doctor is made clear when Jex points out their similarities. Matt Smith almost allows you to read the Doctor’s thought process on his face as he listens to the conversations around him.
The Doctor has done bad things in the past, things that he regrets. Whether it be his manipulations in his 7th incarnation (particularly if you include the New Adventure books), what he had to do during the Time War or even more recently what he was going to do to the space whale in ‘The Beast Below’ it has always been clear he is haunted by actions, rationalising them as things that needed to be done.
Hearing Jex use this has justification angers the Doctor. So great is his rage the Doctor actually points a gun at Jex, to prevent him from stepping over the boundary. When Amy objects the Doctor says he is taking a stand for all the victims of those he has shown mercy to in the past.
Other people suffering or being killed by people trying to get to him is another sore point for the Doctor. ‘Human Nature/Family of Blood’ is probably the best example of this, while Amy and Rory effectively lost the chance to be parents because of him recently. Here that guilt is redirected at Jex.
This leads to an astonishing scene in which Amy points a gun at the Doctor. Although this is soon undercut by a comedic scene in which Amy accidentally discharges the weapon this communicates another theme of the episode.
Having a gun makes using violence easy. The question is whether the wielder is the sort of person who can live with the consequence of their actions. Finding another solution is harder but more worthwhile.
The death of Isaac, sacrificing himself to save Jex, has the impact it does because of Ben Browder’s performance. It was disappointing that he didn’t have more to do but his death raises the stakes for the final act, which appropriately enough will take place at high noon.
This final section. in which decoys are used to confuse the cyborg, is a ploy from several westerns, not least of which is ‘The Three Amigos’. This in turn makes Jex realise that he can never atone for his actions as long as he continues to put people in danger sacrifices himself, hoping the souls of those he killed will show him mercy.
The conclusion, book ending the opening narration, reveals that Kahler Mas will be the towns new sheriff for several generations to come. This is a satisfying ending as he was never the monster he thought he was and now had gained a new purpose.
Recent series have made excellent use of location filming and this episode benefits greatly from it. The dusty, open plains made a welcome change to the claustrophobic settings of the previous episodes. The cinematography and sets helped evoke this particular time in history.
While light in action this allowed the story to focus on ethical issues. Cleverly even these scenes pushed the plot forward, each action having a great consequence. There was real sense that the Doctor and his companions were growing increasingly apart in how they viewed the world.
In this episode we learn that the Doctor can speak horse, which like the Doctor speaking baby in ‘Closing Time’, I’m unsure if we’re supposed to take seriously or not. While I can accept that the Doctor can speak to any alien race it becomes a little cartoony if he can talk to any living creature.
In conclusion I enjoyed this episode as I think the series is strongest when it centres around ethical and moral issues that can’t easily be answered.