Doctor Who: A Town Called Mercy review

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.

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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.

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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.

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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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