There’s been a lot of negativity in my recent Doctor Who reviews, so I wanted to make it clear up front just how much I love this episode. It has everything it needs: an intelligent script, fleshed-out sympathetic characters, great performances, and emotional resonance. “A Town Called Mercy” by Toby Whithouse is Doctor Who at its best. The only other episode as good as this in the last two years is Neil Gaiman’s “The Doctor’s Wife” from last year. For the first time in ages, I was utterly enthralled while watching this episode, and having just watched it a second time before writing this review, I remain on an absolute high. Welcome back, Doctor Who!
It’s been a long time since Doctor Who last did a western. In fact, the only other one in its nearly fifty-year history is 1966’s “The Gunfighters” with William Hartnell (which is also a lot of fun to watch and generally highly underrated), so it was probably well overdue time that Doctor Who returned to the genre. The episode doesn’t shy away from standard western clichés, such as the saloon, mob lynchings, and the showdown at high noon. Instead, it embraces these clichés and spins a captivating tale of morality, throwing in elements of Frankenstein and Terminator along the way.
I’ve commented a lot in recent reviews on my displeasure with the characterization of many recent Doctor Who stories, feeling that characters are often little more than caricatures, there to say a witty line or two, but having no real motivation or background to them. It really doesn’t take much. A line or two here or a subtle action there can reveal far more than is actually said. In “Mercy”, Toby Whithouse pulls this off with aplomb. Even before the titles role, we have a great insight into the Gunslinger:
“Make peace with your gods.”“They were your gods once, too.”“Not anymore.”
In just a couple of lines, we know that this is someone who has gone through a drastic change, and probably had something terrible happen to him. Throughout the episode, we see a tormented character, one who has been programmed to kill, but desperately doesn’t want to. He makes threats, but rarely follows through with them. He makes a line around the town and tells the townspeople that if they cross it, he will kill them, yet when they do, the most he does is fire warning shots and say that next time will be for real. When he accidentally kills Isaac, who jumps in the way of the shot to save Jex, he hangs his head in shame and just stands there. For some time afterwards, Jex is just standing there in the open. The Gunslinger has every opportunity to kill him without harming anyone else, but he’s too ashamed of having just killed Isaac to take action. He then tells the town that they have until noon tomorrow to turn over Jex or he will kill them all. When noon arrives, he enters the town and kills...no one. This is brilliant characterization.
Then there’s Kahler-Jex. Last week, we got Solomon, the ultimate in cardboard cut-out villains, who had no motivations or personality. He just did nasty things. This week, we get a villain who honestly believes he did the right thing, but still feels guilty for it. Someone who’s trying to make up for what he’s done, but still is afraid of dying and panics when he believes that death might be soon. In short, we get a real person, someone capable of both good and bad.
And into all this walks the Doctor, someone else with blood on his hands, trying to make up for his past, full of his own self-righteousness as always, but with vulnerabilities. We see those vulnerabilities here so much better than in “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”, which attempted to do something similar. The Time War is never mentioned in words, but when Jex speaks of seeing some of himself in the Doctor, we can see the hurt on the Doctor’s face, the guilt for his own actions in that war. When the Doctor is raging against Jex and ready to kill him, we can sense that he’s almost trying to kill himself. Matt Smith gives one of his best performances in this episode, truly showing us a Doctor who can occasionally go just a little too far.
The Doctor’s initial willingness to kill Jex is obviously meant to build on what we saw in “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”, but luckily it stands on its own. If anything, the Doctor’s killing of Solomon last week weakens what happens this week instead of builds up to it (because “Dinosaurs” handles it so poorly), but this is a minor issue for this episode. We get a true examination of the Doctor as a character, and we see his need for companions, as it’s only through the intervention of one of those companions that he stops short of crossing that line.
On the topic of Amy, it’s interesting to note that she manages to be somewhat likeable in this episode again. It’s also interesting to note that Amy is at her best when she’s not written by Steven Moffat, her own creator. Even the reference to her motherhood in “Mercy” comes across as heartfelt and true. For a moment, there is a distinct impression that Amy feels real sadness, regret, and anger over what happened to her baby. Moments like this have been far too few in the series of late.
I mentioned in my review of “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” that I had to try very hard to find something good in that episode. This episode, however, is the opposite. I actually have to try very hard to find something bad. The only thing I might say is that Rory is underused. He spends much of the time not really doing anything, and his support for killing Jex does seem a little out of character for him, though not so much that I don’t believe it. A bit more Rory would have been good, but the episode does have only so much time in it.
I could also say that I wish guest star Ben Browder (from Farscape) had more to do. That said, while Isaac’s death may be a little formulaic, it works within the context of the episode. His death, even more so than Amy’s words are what bring the Doctor back from the edge. The Doctor may have already agreed to let Jex live, but it’s Isaac’s death that makes him truly realize what he nearly did. We see this in his confrontation with the young man leading the lynch mob against Jex. “Don’t you see? Violence doesn’t end violence. It extends it.” Browder gives an excellent performance as Isaac, giving him a warmth and a sense of purpose. Viewers can truly believe that the rest of the town looks up to him for guidance.
Overall, “A Town Called Mercy” is one of the finest Doctor Who episodes in quite some time. It’s a simple and straight-forward story, but that simplicity hides a complex examination of morality and conscience, a theme beautifully summed up in Isaac’s dying words: “You’re both good men. You just forget it sometimes.” Bravo.