Once upon a time, stories of the Old West were the epitome of straightforward, uncomplicated adventure storytelling. Then, in the last two decades or so, the long out of fashion genre was revived, demythologised, and put to use to tell deeper stories in movies like Clint Eastwood's magnificent Unforgiven, or the more recent television series Deadwood. In the science fiction arena, Joss Whedon's ill-fated Firefly constructed its background universe using an intriguing mix of Western and SF elements. Now Doctor Who has taken its turn to use a Western backdrop to present a story with some moral complexity. It's not quite as compelling as it could have been, with the ultimate resolution being taken out of the Doctor's hands, but "A Town Called Mercy" is still a beautifully produced and well told tale.
This is an episode that is, first and foremost, a pure pleasure to look at. The story is given an expansive canvas thanks to an extended location shoot in Almería, Spain. The little frontier town of Mercy (population 81) in the year 1870 looks totally authentic—if not to what the Old West was really like, then at least to our shared cultural impression of it, due to the Who team being able to make use of many of the locations and sets used in classic Westerns like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. This production is full of wide open, sunny vistas that are even more striking coming after the dark interiors that dominated the previous two episodes.
The Doctor (Matt Smith) and his companions Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill) have arrived outside the town by accident—apparently, they had intended to visit Mexico for the Day of the Dead festival. Oddly, Amy and Rory's relationship with the Doctor in this episode doesn't really feel like it's following up on the recent hints that the Doctor is gradually disengaging himself from their lives ("weaning us off you," as Amy said to him last week). Instead, it's as if we've gone back to when they were permanent travelers aboard the TARDIS, before last year's "The God Complex". On the other hand, the Doctor does let slip the fact that he's now 1200 years old—considerably older than the age he claimed to be at the time of his "death" last season—which may or may not become significant later. It's still an open question exactly where these last few adventures for Amy and Rory take place along their and the Doctor's timeline—or even what order they are taking place in. Hopefully the next two episodes will make that clear.
Writer Toby Whithouse's previous Doctor Who episodes ("School Reunion" in 2006, "The Vampires of Venice" in 2010, and the abovementioned "The God Complex") have all been heavily concerned with Doctor/companion relationships, but this one is different. Apart from one scene between Amy and the Doctor, she and (especially) Rory are very much in the background here.
Their initial entry into the town gives director Saul Metzstein the first of several chances to riff on classic Western tropes—the slow tracking shots following them down the empty main street, the suspicious stares of the townsfolk watching them, and so on. Naturally, when they enter the saloon, the honky-tonk piano immediately stops and everyone turns to look at the strangers in the sudden silence. Matt Smith's skill at physical comedy makes for a wonderfully hilarious moment as he saunters over to the bar and growls to the barmaid, "Tea, but the strong stuff. Leave the bag in"—and then gets the toothpick he had been chewing stuck with his mouth wide open. (Incidentally, it was interesting to hear him called "Son" a couple of times in this episode—one of the relatively few occasions when the youthful appearance of Smith's Doctor has actually been commented on. As usual, when the story turns serious, Smith has no difficulty in being a dominating presence even opposite much older actors.)
It becomes apparent that this is not going to be just a historical tourist visit to the Wild West when the Doctor's announcement of his title brings an immediate reaction from the townsfolk, and one of them asks him straight out, "Are you an alien?" When the Doctor admits he is, they grab him, carry him to the edge of the town and throw him across the line of sticks and rocks marking the town's boundary. Prevented at gunpoint from coming back in, he can only watch as a menacing figure—the Gunslinger (Andrew Brooke)—comes out of the desert towards him. This creature is a hugely effective piece of costume and make-up design, with the silhouette of a classic Western gunfighter augmented by technological components such as a bionic eye reminiscent of the Borg from Star Trek. We had already seen him in the teaser at the top of the episode, at the end of a battle in some other place, killing a man with the futuristic weapon built into his right arm. When his victim asked if he was "the last one," the Gunslinger replied, "There's one more—the Doctor."
The Doctor is saved by the town's marshall, Isaac, who allows him back inside the boundary. The episode's most hyped guest star, Ben Browder (of Farscape and Stargate SG-1 fame), is surprisingly underused in this role—his main function, at least initially, is to deliver some necessary exposition. Isaac explains that the Gunslinger has kept the town isolated for three weeks—he put up the boundary line around the town and has been preventing anyone from going in or out. Everyone will die of starvation unless they hand over the "alien Doctor" the Gunslinger is demanding.
There's a moment of humor from Amy ("Why would he want to kill you? Unless he's met you…"), but the confusion is soon resolved as Isaac introduces a man named Kahler-Jex (Adrian Scarborough). He is indeed an alien, the last survivor of a group targeted by the Gunslinger, who crashed here and has become accepted as a valued member of the town, thanks to his medical skills which saved the people during a cholera outbreak, and the lighting and heating he has provided for the town using the power from his ship. The episode will end up exploring Jex in depth, and Scarborough gives a brilliant performance throughout, bringing out all the many facets of this complex, contradictory man.
To start with, though, it looks like a simple rescue operation is in order, and with Rory and Isaac distracting the Gunslinger, the Doctor borrows a horse (whose name is a clever riff on the Johnny Cash hit "A Boy Named Sue") to ride back to the TARDIS. Meanwhile, Jex and Amy share a moment, as he tells her why he is happy to stay here rather than return home. "Here I could start afresh—could remember myself and help people. That's all I ever wanted to do, end suffering."
Ironically, Jex's own compassion for the town ends up being the seed of his downfall, as the Doctor stumbles across the cable running from his ship to the town, follows it back to the crashed ship, and manages to access Jex's personal files. He rushes back to confront Jex with the truth—Kahler-Jex's people were involved in a years-long war, and Jex was a member of a weapons development team conducting experiments on people in order to develop cyborgs like the Gunslinger. At a horrific cost, they won their war, after which the cyborgs were decommissioned—except for one which went rogue, hunting down and killing its creators.
The Doctor: "What I don't understand is why you haven't just walked into town and killed him."
The Gunslinger: "People will get in the way."
The Doctor: "Look, you want justice, you deserve justice. But this isn't the way. We can put him on trial…"
The Gunslinger: "When he starts killing your people, you can use your justice."
And so the scene is set for the central conflict of the story—a debate on whether Jex's undoubtedly good acts since he arrived in the town can balance his deeds of the past, and what, if anything, should be done to punish him—and indeed, who has the right to make that judgment. The varied ethics of all the characters (including the Gunslinger, who deliberately refrains from attacking Jex while there is a chance that innocents might be caught in the crossfire) are examined. Isaac sticks to his contention that Jex's past is irrelevant ("America's the land of second chances"). Rory is quite willing to hand Jex over to the Gunslinger for execution, to Amy's dismay—but one can imagine him, as a medical man himself, being particularly revolted by Jex's actions. Amy demands another solution be found, and turns to the Doctor—but he's brooding in silence, having already figured out that there are no good options.
As for Jex himself, he first expresses an "ends justify the means" attitude, telling how the cyborgs' creation actually saved lives by bringing a quick end to the war (an obvious parallel to the arguments over the atomic bombing of Japan in 1945). But when the Doctor angrily yells at him ("How many died screaming on the operating table before you had found your advantage?"), he fires back, showing a perceptive insight into the similarities between them:
Jex: "Looking at you, Doctor, is like looking into a mirror—almost. There's rage there, like me. Guilt, like me. Solitude. Everything but the nerve to do what needs to be done. Thank the gods my people weren't relying on you to save them."
The Doctor: "No, but these people are!"
It's an excellent piece of scripting that turns the Gunslinger's search for an "alien Doctor" from a bit of clever plotting sleight-of-hand (designed to mislead the audience into thinking at first that he's after our Doctor) into a central thematic strand of the episode. The Doctor's harshness toward Jex is driven partly by his consciousness of his own questionable past actions—in particular, of course, the destruction of his own people in the Time War, which has hung over him since the beginning of the revived series in 2005. Matt Smith does a fine job of showing the Doctor's disturbance at the parallels between himself and Jex; after Jex's taunt he erupts into anger, dragging Jex to the town boundary and throwing him across it.
In her best scene of the episode, Amy grabs a gun and orders the Doctor to let Jex back inside. The Doctor explodes at her, yelling about all the people who have died because he showed mercy to villains like the Daleks or the Master, who have killed again after he has let them go. I got the impression that the Doctor knew he was not being entirely reasonable here, since Jex is clearly not like those unrepentant enemies at all—and indeed, Amy manages to snap him out of it with an unwitting callback to the dangerous psychological places David Tennant's Doctor went to at the end of his tenure ("The Waters of Mars"): "See, this is why you shouldn't travel alone."
The Doctor: "Fine, we think of something else. But frankly, I'm betting on the Gunslinger."
At this point events spiral out of control, as Jex is confronted by the Gunslinger, and Isaac is accidentally killed protecting him. Before he dies, Isaac makes the Doctor promise to protect Jex—even as the Gunslinger threatens to kill everyone unless Jex is surrendered to him by noon tomorrow. Now the acting marshall of the town, the Doctor orders Jex placed in a cell, as the townsfolk become nervous and a lynch mob forms. In a nice reversal of the confrontation with Amy, the Doctor manages to talk them down from violence—so much so that the young guy (Sean Benedict) who is (somewhat implausibly) their spokesman becomes an active ally. On the whole, though, the townspeople are very much in the background during the second half of the episode—although there is a nice touch for classic series fans as the town's undertaker (with his running gag of measuring the Doctor for a coffin) is played by Garrick Hagon, looking considerably different than when he was a fresh-faced rebel leader in the 1972 story "The Mutants."
The debate between the Doctor and Jex continues, in an extended scene where both Smith and Scarborough are brilliant. Toby Whithouse is excellent at distilling the essence of his story down to a one-on-one confrontation between the Doctor and his opponent (there are similar scenes in "School Reunion" and "The Vampires of Venice"). After his outburst of anger earlier, Scarborough keeps Jex carefully restrained, needling the Doctor (though not really maliciously), until a crucial moment:
Jex: "It would be so much simpler if I was just one thing, wouldn't it? The mad scientist who made that killing machine, or the physician who's dedicated his life to serving this town. The fact that I'm both bewilders you."
The Doctor: "Oh, I know exactly what you are, and I see this reformation for what it really is. You committed an atrocity and chose this as your punishment."
The Doctor's passionate climax ("Justice doesn't work like that. You don't get to decide when and how your debt is paid!") seems to impress Jex enough that he opens up about his true fears. Scarborough is particularly moving as Jex tells how his culture believes that the soul after death must climb a mountain carrying the souls of all the people it has wronged: "Imagine the weight I will have to lift."
By the end of the scene, they have both come to an understanding that the Doctor is not going to give Jex up to the Gunslinger. Jex tells him, "We all carry our prisons with us. Mine is my past, yours is your morality." It's a slightly forced moment, but this gives the Doctor an idea for how to get Jex past the cyborg—a creature whose "prison" is its reluctance to risk harm to innocents. In another excellent usage of a standard Western trope, we have a high-noon showdown between the Doctor and the Gunslinger in the center of town. Except that instead of him using a gun, the Doctor's sonic screwdriver disorientates the creature, and the Doctor and his friends provide a distraction that allows Jex to flee back to his ship.
As I suggested at the top of this piece, the conclusion of the story is a slight let-down after the excellence of what has preceded it. The Doctor doesn't manage to come up with a real conclusion for the story; the best he can do is ensure that Jex escapes, drawing the Gunslinger after him to continue their fight elsewhere. The town and its people are saved, but the issues between the Doctor and Jex that loomed so large earlier are basically left unresolved, thereby allowing the story to avoid making a specific commitment about who is right and who is wrong. Instead, a definite ending is provided by having Jex decide to activate his ship's self-destruct sequence. Scarborough sells the moment very well, but it makes nonsense of the whole elaborate showdown scene—Jex could simply have walked up to the Gunslinger and given himself up.
The framing sequence enclosing the whole tale, where a woman's voice tells us how the Gunslinger became an almost mythological figure—the outsider perpetually protecting the town of Mercy—seemed like an unnecessarily sentimental finishing touch. But on the whole, "A Town Called Mercy" is a very enjoyable episode, with a great guest cast and an excellent production. Despite the Western background, it's not action-packed—an unusually talky episode, in fact. But then, it's an episode with quite a lot to say.
Next Week: It's back to the present day, with the Doctor, Amy and Rory dealing with an unusual alien invasion, in "The Power of Three."
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: Doctor Who's previous foray into the Western genre came way back in 1966, during the classic series' very eclectic (and, alas, now mostly lost) third season. "The Gunfighters," starring William Hartnell, with Peter Purves and Jackie Lane, places the Doctor and co. among the events of the famous 1881 gunfight at the O.K. Corral. It's also a deliberate comedy, which for a long time had the reputation in Who fandom as the worst Doctor Who story ever made. Once it actually became available again on video (and later DVD), though, it was rapidly rehabilitated as its wit and charm were recognized. It's not without its goofy aspects (the American accents, in particular, range from hilarious to painfully bad), but I think it's great fun and well worth watching.
Steven Cooper is a software developer and long-time Doctor Who fan, living in Melbourne, Australia.