DOCTOR WHO SERIES 7: EPISODE 3 - A TOWN CALLED MERCY
Air Date: Saturday 15 September **
Channel: BBC One (UK), BBC America (US)
Starring: Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill, Andrew Brooke, Adrian Scarborough, Ben Browder
Reviewed by Helen Henderson
Reviewed by Helen Henderson
The Doctor is faced with the ramifications of his own past in this tale of Wild West mayhem.
After last weeks’ tepid outing for the Doctor, A Town Called Mercy finally brought drama that packed a powerful punch back to our screens this Saturday. Written by Toby Whithouse, responsible for previous episodes including The God Complex, Vampires of Venice and School Reunion, this fantastic morality tale not only presented a compelling storyline but also boasted great performances from all involved and a tale where the line between good and evil are considerably blurred. It was a fresh spin on both the Sci-Fi and Western genres, and added further pathos and dimension to the series by showing that the consequences of the Doctor’s travels and interventions are not always beneficial to all.
The episode opened intriguingly with a man desperately (but fruitlessly) scrambling away from an unknown assailant who towered above him, instructing him to make peace with his Gods, name dropping The Doctor as curiously the ‘only one left’ and then sending the unfortunate man to his maker. It was a fittingly ‘Western’ opening to the episode, made further so by touches such as the shows title logo being displayed as made of wood, and a suitably accented opening narration.
The show then cut to the Doctor, Amy and Rory who found themselves outside the titular town, curiously surrounded by a perimeter of wood and stones, by way of a miscalculated journey to the Day of the Dead festival in Mexico. Despite signs urging them to Keep Out, the trio moseyed into town, facing stares from dirty windows and an atypical Wild West locale. Not so typical, however, was the presence of electricity in the town ten years before it’s invention, the Doctor being hurled out of the town by it’s citizens upon introduction and being forced at gunpoint to face a distant foe. The mayhem was halted by the intervention of the town’s Marshall Isaac (Ben Browder), who took the Doctor and companions with him and explained the town’s plight was due to a mysterious cyborg terrorising the town. The creature was demanding the ‘Alien Doctor’ and was refusing to allow anything or anyone in or out of the city, essentially strangle-holding its supplies and economy.
The episode also saw the introduction of a new species to the Doctor Who universe in the form of the Kahler, a technologically gifted humanoid race represented here by Kahler-Jex (Adrian Scarborough) a prisoner of Isaac’s. Jex was revealed to be responsible for the presence of heating and lighting in the town, and had also provided healing and remedies for the townsfolk on his arrival, being a ‘Doctor’ himself. It created a curious enigma of exactly which ‘doctor’ the assassin was intent on destroying, further compounded by Isaac keeping Jex prisoner supposedly for his own protection.
Naturally, the Doctor set out to investigate, heading out into the Wild West on top his faithful steed ‘Susan’, only to uncover more secrets, twists and revelations surrounding the various alien characters involved in Mercy; discoveries that led to dangerous situations for Amy and Rory and eventually heated, tense confrontations between all involved, including a desperate Amy holding the Doctor at gunpoint and an unforeseen tragedy that would lead to further unrest in the town. Eventually the Doctor deduces a plan to save the town but not everything would go as planned.
This was Doctor Who storytelling at its finest, with a richly textured plot both borrowing from and adding new elements to the familiar territory of the Wild West, including an obligatory face-off between the Doctor and the gunslinger. With a shifting focus on who can be considered the antagonist of the piece, a great deal of light is thrown on the nature of morality and whether doing something for the greater good is always a guilt free business. The chance to explore whether or not the Doctor himself was a good man considering some of his past actions was a fascinating study of the man and the guilt he carries. It is a concept that has been dealt with in the show before, and it was nice that such a weighty concept was given conviction and attention in an episode that could’ve been a far lighter, more derivative affair. And Mercy itself was justly named - a place where mercy is administered even if it means the destruction of innocent lives.
As well as the moral explorations and questioning, the episode presented a nice opportunity for Amy, who gets to see firsthand the changes in her beloved raggedy man when faced with someone who is neither wholly good nor evil. With her upcoming departure, could her perspective and opinions on the man in the blue box be altered for good? Some fans may be disappointed with the lack of a continuing arc throughout this series (along the lines of ‘Bad Wolf’, ‘There’s something on your back’, the tears in time and space etc.) but it could be argued that the subtle aggression building within the Doctor could be leading to consequences unknown but significant for the show.
Another nice change for the show was to see this week’s story taking place on Earth, given that both Asylum of the Dalek’s and Dinosaurs on a Spaceship have taken place predominantly in space. The move to the Wild West not only grounded the show and gave a welcome aesthetic shift from previous episodes, but it was nice to have just a hint of sci-fi with the backdrop of the Wild West – even just to see Matt Smith riding a horse and wearing a Stetson. Aesthetically impressive and with a plot and story swathed in emotion, A Town called Mercy was a welcome return to the great storytelling within Doctor Who that felt somewhat lacking in the previous two episodes.
With stars such as Adrian Scarborough (The King’s Speech, Psychoville and Cranford), Andrew Brooke (Phoneshop) and Sci-Fi favourite Ben Browder (Stargate and Farscape among others) the episode was bursting with talent. Ben Browder was perfect as Marshall Isaac, swaggering around town with suitable grit and gusto and Adrian Scarborough was the perfect foil for the viewer’s emotions - could someone so gentle really be so terrible? Andrew Brooke was also impressive as the terrifying gunslinger and despite being robotic as intended, there were moments where emotion and empathy slipped through, allowing the audience to harbour a little sympathy towards this giant.
In all, A Town Called Mercy is the best episode that the new series has offered so far, with a perfectly pitched atmosphere and brilliantly-paced, satisfying and dramatic plot that probed at some of the greater issues and moral questions surrounding the Time Lord and his adventures.
It is difficult to see how next weeks instalment, The Power of Three will be able to top this, but with the return of UNIT, and Rory’s dad making a welcome reappearance, as well as it being Rory and Amy’s penultimate episode, there’s clearly plenty still in store for the Doctor over the coming weeks.