Doctor Who: A Town Called Mercy review

Review Simon Brew 15 Sep 2012 - 02:30

Doctor Who series 7 episode 3 is A Town Called Mercy. Here's our spoiler-filled review...

This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.

7.3 A Town Called Mercy

“Today, I honour the victims first”.

Appreciating we’re going to sound a bit grumpy and miserable, the thing with A Town Called Mercy – a good, solid episode of Doctor Who – is the nagging feeling that there was something a bit better here. The Doctor doesn’t get to go to the wild west often (heck, that's an understatement and a half), and never has he done so with such a lavish location shoot, and a script from Toby Whithouse (whose episode last series, The God Complex, was simply superb). Perhaps that raised expectations to a slightly unfair level as a result. We were hoping to be able to talk about a real highlight of an adventure here. We can't do that, unfortunately, although it's perhaps testament to the strength of Doctor Who though that even an episode that disappoints a little still has a lot going for it.

A Town Called Mercy does get lots of things right, after all, so let’s start with them.

Firstly, it looks sizzlingly wonderful. It’s no secret that the episode was shot in a sun-baked Spain, doubling up for the American west, and the investment in taking this production overseas was clearly well worth it. Director Saul Metzstein ensures the camera spends a good and proper amount of time soaking up the beautiful surroundings, and once again, there’s a real big screen feel to what’s been put together. Every penny you spent on your nice telly is justified right here. Murray Gold's score very much captures the genre, too. His work is similarly excellent.

Furthermore, the episode opens quite brutally, too, and grabs the attention quickly as a result. This is when we see the gunslinging cyborg, who we’ll come to meet later in the episode, blowing someone to smithereens. The gunslinger is great. He’s part Terminator, part-Yul Brynner in Westworld, and he’s a convincing creation. Practical effects and make up go a long way here, and he’s the kind of character we’d love to see return. Not that it looks like he will: A Town Called Mercy is a self-contained story, almost a legend of the old west. If he remains a one-off, though, he's a memorable one.

As for the Doctor himself? Well, he's back with Amy and Rory again when we meet him, and the initial scenes as he walks through the lowly-populated town of Mercy are excellent (even if some of the residents speak with odd-sounding takes on American accents). These early moments hark back to the fish-out-of-water approach that serves many westerns so well, a mechanic that was gloriously played with in Back To The Future Part III. In this instance, the Doctor walks into the saloon and asks for a cup of tea. Just lovely.

Then the story kicks in proper. As it turns out, there’s another alien Doctor in town, and it’s not David Morrissey this time. Instead, it’s a Doctor who’s being hunted by the aforementioned gunslinger, for reasons that very quickly feel apparent. That notwithstanding, the gunslinger’s first appearances on the outskirts of Mercy are extremely strong. Flickering in and out of view, as the residents stand on the edge of the town, it’s strongly staged and very effective. Even Clint would be impressed.

Enter, then, Adrian Scarborough as Kahler Jex. He’s the aforementioned other alien Doctor of the episode, and Scarborough’s performance is a solid one. It feels like we’ve seen characters like him before - in different forms - in Doctor Who. Jex is, after all, a man who has done terrible things, who proves to be the truer ‘foe’ as such of the episode. There's nothing massively interesting about his character itself, however. Instead, where he's most effective is in the emotions he brings pouring out of the Doctor. Yet that means the Doctor's eventual battle to protect Kahler Jex (and, more importantly, the town) doesn't quite have the impact it feels it should.

A Town Called Mercy also gets bogged down with one or two other parts that also don't seem to gel as well as they might. Take the sacrifice of Ben Browder’s Isaac. When it happens, it feels like it had been coming for some time (nice to see Ben Browder in Who, though), and that lessened the impact of his death, too. Similar minor quibbles can be directed at the eventual redemption of sorts of Kahler Jex - save for his speech about the weight of souls, and the monsters he created (a real highlight). 

Yet for all our slight miserableness here, there are real merits to A Town Called Mercy, and the darkening once more of Matt Smith’s take on the Doctor – for which Kahler Jex is the catalyst - is a major, major plus. Here, he’s picked up a gun, he’s bursting with rage, and we get a stark reminder of what happens when he travels for long periods without a companion. It harks back in some ways to where David Tennant's Doctor got to as he approached his exit. The difference is that Smith's excellent Doctor isn't going anywhere anytime soon. It's a reminder of the rage that's never far from the surface of the character.

Pitching the two alien Doctors against each other does have its merits, then, not least because there are obvious comparisons between the two (the episode leaves you in no doubt about that). It leads to some weigthy, impactful dialogue between them, too. When Smith’s Doctor accuses the other one of being a murderer, his riposte is “I’m a scientist”. It’s a bit like a Shakespearian foil, then. Kahler Jex believes he’s a war hero, and people have died in his pursuit of trying to make things better, and in attempting to save millions of lives. Does any of that sound familiar? Perhaps that’s why he gets under the skin of the Doctor quite so much. Both, as the episode tells us, carry their prisons with them.

So angry does the Doctor become, then, that he needs a counterweight to the thoughts that are running around in his head. Amy provides that here (Rory gets slightly less to do this time around). Their impending parting feels like it’s going to be a dramatic one, and these exchanges were amongst the further highlights of the episode. When the Doctor pushes Kahler Jex over the perimeter of Mercy, there’s a sense of uncontrolled vengeance we’ve not seen for a while. It's just a shame that, arguably, the air goes out of it all a little from that point onwards.

One further positive, though: the comedy is strong again, as it has been all series. What we learned from this episode in particular was that The Doctor should be allowed to talk to horses more often. He's good at it.

So let's sum it all up. A Town Called Mercy is a good episode, and an entertaining piece of television. At points, it’s excellent, and rarely has a Doctor Who location shoot looked as sun-drenched and exquisite as this one. But we end where we start: it felt like it should be something just more than it is. It's a fun, bumpy adventure to spend 45 minutes in the company of, and it demonstrates the real range in Matt Smith's performance. But it doesn't add up, when the credits roll, to much more than that. We suspect more than usual will disagree, though.

The standard of series 7 is still good, then, but Asylum Of The Daleks towers over the two entertaining adventures that have followed it. Next week? Mark Williams returns as Rory's dad once more. And we're already looking forward to that...

Our review of the last episode is here.

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Worst so far this season - just really boring and predictable.

I thought that was fantastic, after the fun and silliness of last week. We got a proper grown up morality tale that was darkest the series has been in a while. With echoes of Frankenstein. Where the mad Doctor creates a monster and then sets out to destroy it creator. Matt Smith has been the darkest doctor since Slyvester McCoy. His rage and anger at Jex was actually scary. Did anyone else think of the Valeyard? Brilliant Sci fi makes you think. This was a story with a deep philosophical questions. I loved it

Yeah that was truely awful. It was all over the place and why were the Ponds even there?!

what happened in that episode? Nothing at all? I can't remember a single thing, moments after it finished.

I enjoyed it. Not brilliant, not awful. Just a nice entertaining 45 minutes.

Superb stuff, loved it! Not a rip roaring epic but instead something far more interesting. Fabulous acting all round but Smith yet again brings huge range to the Doctor and stands out. We're so lucky to have someone of his caliber in the role. Looked fabulous too and for the third week in a row I never glanced at the clock and was surprised when it finished, never thought 45 minutes had passed!

I loved it. Quite a dark episode and my wife, who only watches occasionally, was gripped from start to finish. Good work Mr. Whithouse!

Nuff said.

Good episode, but personally i just feel like these one off episodes are just kinda getting in the way until the story of the ponds leaving and the new companion. I bet i will enjoy these a hell of a lot more once all thats happened.

There's the contrast with what the Doctor did in "Dinosaurs in a Spaceship". Last week has echoes.

It was kinda like fluff. The Doctor didn't have to be there, neither did the ponds, and there never was any scenes where they played off each other. If the point is to show that they are becoming distant, I got that in Asylum, can't the Doctor just come back to take them on a trip weekly, like he is with us? Also, time travel being what it is, can't he drop them off, time travel forward to whenever the ponds want picked up, get them and time travel again to whatever interesting adventure there is to be had? Then the doctor doesn't need to go psycho because he doesn't have the ponds to hang out with. It was an alright episode, it was just weaker than the last two. I honestly thought Dinosaurs would be the weakest of this half of the series, but it turns out this is (I hope!). Do we know if the 'blockbuster' feel will continue in the second half of the series? I hope not, because I'm really missing the building tension and mystery that we've had for the past two series.

Surely one of the best, if not best episodes of Doctor Who ever. I have seen most of them go out live this had me enthralled from start to finish, with strong characters and even stronger acting and beautifully photographed, this was what Doctor Who is all about, good solid adventure anywhere in space and time with a Star Trek morality tale thrown in for good measure, awesome, fantastic, its seventh year and going from strength to strength!! Ten plus

"Deep philosophical issues" were not present in that episode. No, sir.

I liked the way the episode reflected on The futility of violence, the pointlessness of revenge, and the power of guilt. Its not what you usually get on BBC1 on a Saturday evening. It also showed the Moral Ambiguity of the Doctor.

It was hinted in the last episode and in Pond Life that the Doctor was 'weaning' them off of him. Perhaps he was also weaning himself off of them too.

My opinion of this, particually as we got to the end of the episode was this is Boomtown done right (or better, I liked Boomtown), lots of interesting opinions on the nature of good and evil with a fair smattering of comedy

The one thing that really struck me is that I am going to be *devestated* when Matt Smith leaves, he so *is* the Doctor, he is even coming close to beating Pat Troughton as my favorite Doc and there is no higher praise than that IMHO.

Well, Amy was there to keep The Doctor in check

don't u mean eleven plus. LOL!

The futility of violence angle was totally under mined when he blew himself up. And the power of guilt led him there so is a violent suicide a valid vehicle for redemption? If so, then violence isnt futile at all. These arent philosophical issues, these are blatant and shallow thematic devices to darken the scenario and characters. This episode was all over the place and surely the worst Dr Who we've seen in quite some time.

Think we've seen the 'companion keeps the Doctor humane' storyline a little too often. Does he suddenly forget that he's supposed to be moral!?

I miss the days when the episode would start with the TARDIS materializing and the Doctor and co getting out (with the TARDIS door creaking) and looking around with wonder and curiosity. Eleven rarely does this anymore (nor proper invasion stories but we'll see one next week!) and instead has the most wacky, epic or memorable entrances but this episode he is introduced soberly and quietly for a change as he's the one to read the sign while Amy and Rory are already mentally back home. Wendy is starting to outgrow Peter Pan.

Was it guilt that led him there? He knew that if he fled then the gunslinger would catch up with him eventually. More like the coward's way out disguised as a final act of altruism.

You ought to see a doctor about that memory and/or attention span of yours :-p

The horse was called 'Susan'. Why didn't the Doctor remember his granddaughter, then?!

Best episode of the season so far and the best one they have done for a while.
Now that how you to a cyborg. (he made the Cybermen look like pussies)
An the doctor is growing darker each episode. An this is the third time this season we have met a enemy that have carried out a massacre, an the third time we have met someone that did something terrible for what they thought were good reasons. Third time mention of eggs, third time we seen faulty electrics.
So we have a new defender of the earth, hope we get to meet up with him again in the future.
Adrian Scarborough's played his role perfectly as Kahler-Jex an he force the doctor to look into the mirror. They both do and did what is necessary and they both regret doing it. An what Kahler did is no worst than what the doctor has done in the past, what he did to his own kind.
As for the ending, it was a let down, it did not gel together, plus it was a tad unoriginal,. I thought Kahler sacrificing himself was a bit of a let down, I think it would have been better if he simply flown off into the stars, just like the Doctor does after he a destroys a species or goes to far, he runs away an keep running, in his own prison.

Wish every episode of Doctor who was like this.

Perhaps I am still reverberating with the nuances of the 10th Doctor, but even then the thought of the Doctor picking up a gun and apparently coming that close to actually using it on someone. Especially for an execution rather than self defence took me out of the moment. Recovered quickly from that and still an good episode. I know the Doctor is meant to evolve/change with each re-incarnation but that side of him just isn't something I can get my head around.

It was not a coward way out according to his believes, remember they believe that when they die they have to drag the souls of every life they done wrong to up a mountain.

An the Doctor never has that kind of control over the Tardus, the girl take him where he needed, not where he wants to go,

or perhaps we better call in the Doctor again, it seems the Silence are up to no good again.

Those Dalek nano machines are no good for you, I think they are slowly changing the doctor. There will come a time when Amy will not be there to stop him.

A couple of thoughts I had. 1st - Kahler's spaceship looked quite egg-like. What with dinosaur eggs last week and of course eggs-terminate the week before, this could be a thing, the 'cracks' or eyepatch lady of this series. Also the repeated mention of Christmas lists. But most of all, the lights. They were flickering. Again. What with I think the last Amy and Rory adventure featuring weeping angels, that opens up a whole realm of possibilities for how they leave us.

It wasn't guilt that led him there; he clearly stated he was killing himself to prevent more innocents from being harmed, he was stopping the war right then and there. He didn't want to die, he was scared of death because of his religous beliefs. The writer clearly went to great lengths to make sure your analysis was NOT a valid one.

I agree that the scenery was beautiful and the parallel to old Western format was excellent, but the anger felt flat to me. I liked that the Doctor got angry, but it felt too quick, too easy. Rushed. Intellectually, I know and understand the Doctor's anger, but emotionally, I felt the scripting went on so quickly that I missed really feeling it. And, as a result, it felt off.

I did enjoy the ending very much though.

Disagree with this review. I thought this was excellent, perhaps the best of what is a very strong series. All the ideas of guilt, responsibility, moral anguish and redemption were there and handled well. Perhaps trying to do a lot within the 45 minute time frame makes all these episodes feel a little rushed at times but I thought the pacing of this one to be the best of the series yet. 9 out 10.

I don't really know what to make of this episode. It wasn't bad but it wasn't that good either. I hate it when writers try and be all morally complex with the Doctor and then don't answer anything. It was all so obvious that Jex would kill himself and the gunslinger would be the new sheriff.

As for the "his name is Susan and he wants you to respect his lifestyle choices" not funny, not edgy, just toss!!

oh and by the way....."sizzlingly wonderful?!" OTT much?

I wouldn't say it's sudden. He did kill Solomon in the last episode, after all.

Best yet this season, noticed though that he now is 1200 something years old, so in his character span he is spending alot of time travelling without companions hence the comment made by Amy about travelling alone for too long

Strong stand alone episode - decent story and superb production values (even with the improvements in CGI we have seen over the series', episodes always look so much better with decent "real" fx).

What was going on with the sticks and stones around town...why didn't Gun-slinger just step over in the first place?

Those posting about the recurrence of eggs could be onto something.

I did feel like the episode was a spiritual successor to Red Dwarf's "Gunmen of the Apocalypse", with the wild west and cyborgs threatening the Marshall at high noon, only to be confused by software.

It was by no means a bad episode, but it wasn't original or inspiring either.

"raised expectations to a slightly unfair level" You should stay off the web, you'd enjoy things a great deal more. There is nothing wrong with a bit of fun, there is nothing wrong with a bit of adventure and for the love of God there is nothing wrong with a stand alone episode. I watched this with my son and he was thrilled because he has no expectations. There was nothing at all wrong with this episode, bar the fact that the reviewer wants to be at the end of the season and have all the answers already. Not every episode can be The Godfather.

Well, that's what's looking to be the overarching theme of this series: The Doctor's legacy. Now nobody in the universe, not even the daleks, knows who he is, what expectations does he have to live up to? I personally thought the dialogue between Amy and the Doctor was a series 7 highlight, tackling an issue we haven't seen before: 'See, this is what happens when you travel alone for too long.'

Good point, well made!

Well, ok, I liked this episode. It made me laugh. It made me even tear up a bit at the impending departure of the Ponds. Amy and Rory did not have much to do, but what Amy said was so important. And again, the Doctor gave her a sad, sad look. Amy has gained a great deal of wisdom, and the Doctor knows she'll be gone soon. As for Jex, yes, it was obvious from the start that things weren't as they seemed. Yet, I thought he was a pretty good character. You can only go so deep in 45 minutes, but this episode does an amazing job within the timeframe in my opinion,

So what is with all the lightbulbs and eggs?

Just looked at Asylum again - why isn't the doctor wearing the nano bracelet when climbing down the ladder with Amy and also without it in the hallway with Amy before she hallucinates? He clearly reaches up and puts both hands alongside her head saying "scared is good it isn't Dalek" but the bracelet is not on his right wrist...a wardrobe malfunction?...or something else? Are we 3 episodes in or are we in the doctor's head and seeing different aspects of all the characters?

Doctor gets nano bracelet put on right wrist on Dalek ship - gets shot onto planet, wakes up no nano bracelet - inside ship with Amy, wearing bracelet on right wrist-
climbing down ladder, no bracelet - hallway, no bracelet - but not on Amy at those points either because she is changing. Not on his wrist when carrying Amy, this clearly contrasted by Rory's blue nano bracelet blazing away as he asks "who killed all the Daleks?" This cannot be an over-site by the wardrobe department, if it is, someone will catch a scolding...

and who is climbing down the ladder....Amy says in the hallway, "they're coming down" we get a shot of the ladder with someone in dark pants climbing down. The crew of the Alaska is dressed in white. Is it the Doctor and Amy? Is it time-wimey?
No arcs my pantaloons....

"Wendy is starting to outgrow Peter Pan" Wow what a perfect analogy. That is definitely spot on.

Small point. Since this was supposed to be the real American West, not an alien Wild West-like community, there would not have been a Black preacher with a white congregation. Sad but true.

I noticed that too. I think he needs River to keep him level. Where is she? Still in prison or not? Doesn't he visit her regularly if she is?

The dark theme of the episode was balanced quite well, I thought, but I did feel that Browder was underused. We know that he's capable of matching Smith's energy and I was hoping for something more along those lines from him, and the fact that he died? I was so disappointed at that moment.

The ending was for the kids, but the real ending was when the space-egg exploded. maybe the doctor will have to make a similar choice to satisfy his conscience and stop more people dying. This was alluded to in one of the other episodes this season too (I forget which).

This episode was so-so. My friend and I both agreed that it was pretty boring after we had finished watching it. I think the problem is that I'm used to the funny and quirky, while this episode exhibited very few of these traits. I mean, I keep reading 'a horse called susan' from everyone, which was ok, but what else? I think they were pressed for time to get the whole story in. That meant cutting out what I like and what I'm used to, like seeing establishing shots inside the Tardis, getting out of the Tardis, The Doctor going to pick up the Ponds, etc. It didn't have any of that, and to kick us while we're down, the Pond's mention another unseen adventure about Henry VIII. So they've been together for a while, even though we clearly saw they were home again after DOAS. Maybe I can forgive all that, but the fact that I wasn't given a reason to laugh or crack a smile, or feel anything, made this episode go to the bottom of the Eleven era. Beautiful location sure, but no heart(s).

That did strike me as strange. I had hoped they would explain it somehow, but they didn't bother...

I agree with the sentiments that this was the worst episode of the season so far -- it felt a lot like a British person's view of the American Old West, as filtered by Back to the Future III, a few John Wayne flicks, and (I think) Firefly. My girlfriend and I actually had a debate about whether it was the real American west, or some sort of retro reboot of it by some far future world because the inaccuracies really broke the immersion.

Ok, now that that's off my chest, here's my question: Around 34:15 into the show, Amy is in the jail with the war criminal Doctor, and we get a little 'zwoop' sound, and it pans away to the Doctor outside, where (some seconds later), we see the Gunslinger show up. _Only_, the little zwoop sound Amy hears inside is accompanied by the little jerking of the camera we see whenever someone forgets that a Silence is there.

I know this sounds crazy, and the sound is probably meant to be Amy hearing the Gunslinger decloaking, but watch the scene and tell me if it doesn't remind you of the Silence!

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