Doctor Who: A Town Called Mercy

Posted: September 16, 2012 in TV reviews
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Ok partner, just to warn you to be careful, this here review will contain spoilers…

So for the third episode of Series 7 we have a script by Toby Whithouse; The man who wrote the wonderful School Reunion, the quite good Vampires of Venice, and the fantastic God Complex, oh and also the man who created Being Human. We also see Doctor Who do a western for the first time since the Gunfighters, a somewhat derided Hartnell story.

The Doctor, Amy and Rory arrive at a small western town named Mercy (population 81) and discover a circle of stone and wood surrounding the place. Upon entering they discover that the town is being menaced by a cyborg gunslinger who wants to find an alien doctor who he wants to kill.

After a misunderstanding where the townsfolk try to placate the gunslinger by handing over our Doctor, it soon becomes clear that the man the cyborg is after is the town doctor, an alien called Kahler Jex who saved the town from cholera and had provided them with electric light and heat. As it turns out Jex isn’t quite the noble man he appears to be, and the cyborg isn’t quite the monster either. Question is what will the Doctor do when he finds a man who doesn’t fit into a neat box marked ‘villain’?

Sometimes a great idea can make for a less than spectacular story, and sometimes the opposite is true. The central conceit at the heart of A Town Called Mercy is a good one. There really is no villain as such. Jex did terrible things, but he did them in time of war, and felt they were justified to end suffering, and since arriving on Earth he’s done a lot of good, saved lives. Does the Doctor have the right to hand him over to the cyborg, even though the cyborg has every reason to want him dead.

The trouble is that, aside from the central idea, the rest of the episode seems somewhat flat. The location is excellent, a faux western town in Spain, they really couldn’t have done better short of flying to the states, similarly effort was made to cast American actors, well one at least, Ben Browder star of Farscape and Stargate SG1.

Somehow, despite this, the location never quite seems to come alive. Maybe it’s something as simple as the fact that Doctor Who and the Wild West are an odd fit. In the same way James Bond never seems quite as cool when he visits the states.

It doesn’t help that having told us the town has a population of 80 odd people, it seems strangely deserted, and we don’t see nearly enough people. Perhaps they’re hiding? This seems unlikely given there are small children milling around.  The people we do see rarely get to rise above being ciphers; the undertaker sizing up the Doctor for a coffin, the kid who isn’t as tough as he thinks, the noble Marshall…we’ve seen them all before but none really escape cliché, well except maybe Browder, but he’s killed so early in the episode that you wonder why the heck they cast him. Frankly it might have been better to cast him as the gunslinger; at least he’d have got more screen time.

The gunslinger is well realised, though you do wonder why he’s dressed as a cowboy, and also wonder at his curious tactics. He can clearly teleport, is well armed, and may be invulnerable to human weapons, yet rather than just walk into town and take Jex, he instead lays siege to the town and just waits for Jex to come to him. There’s just no logic to it.

But thenmany of his actions lack consistency. When Rory and the marshal lead him away to enable the Doctor to reach the Tardis, he first avoids shooting at them because he recognises them as innocent, but then a few seconds later he’s shooting to kill. It all seems very odd.

Matt Smith is excellent again, and there are some funny lines, but Rory is side-lined and Amy is just used as the Doctor’s conscience, the episode could have worked just as well without them. It’s fun to see the Doctor as a marshal, and always nice to have a story with no sneering, complete and utter bad guy, it’s just a shame that so many elements of the story make little sense and there’s so little drama, and whilst the use of well-known Western tropes is unavoidable, it’s a shame more wasn’t done to give us something a little different.

Weakest episode of series 7 so far for me, but even average Who is better than most stuff on telly, and they can’t all be fantastic…

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