TV Recap: Doctor Who - A Town Called Mercy

By Edwin Davies

September 17, 2012

Fine. George Lucas is a wonderful director whose reputation I should not have besmirched.

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I've mentioned in the past that Doctor Who has a somewhat volatile, bordering on manic depressive attitude towards its own tone. Since the show has such a broad canvas - i.e. the entirety of space and time - it can weave sharply between tone, style and genre without ever losing its identity: As long as The Doctor is in it, pretty much everything else can change. In keeping with this idea, the show shifts from the silliness of "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship" to the altogether more serious tone of "A Town Called Mercy" with a whiplash-inducing suddenness.

Not that you would be able to tell from the opening few minutes of the episode, which initially suggest that this is going to be a typically exuberant, slightly daft genre exercise in keeping with its immediate predecessor. The Doctor, Amy and Rory show up in the Old West town of Mercy circa 1870, and right from the off things seem a bit weird. Setting aside that the town looks like the setting for every Western ever made, it's surrounded by an almost ritualistic barrier of sticks and stones, has a big KEEP OUT sign on its main road (though The Doctor considers such orders to be mere suggestions) and the town has electric lighting ten years earlier than should be possible. Oh, and there's a cyborg cowboy who has been terrorizing the town as it searches for an alien doctor, and one just happened to stroll into town.


From that set-up, it seems like "A Town Called Mercy" is going to be a fairly straightforward episode riffing on Western motifs (or songs by The Jam), and it is for the first third. In addition to the town itself, which seems to distill every Western with a big "W" image ever committed to film, there is a scene in which The Doctor walks into a saloon, only for the music to suddenly stop, the music deliberately mimics the bold strings of Western scores, and there's even a noble, pragmatic Marshal in the form of Isaac (played by Ben Browder of Farscape fame). Yet the script by veteran Who writer and Being Human creator Toby Whithouse is a lot trickier than that, and one of the delights of the episode is seeing the ways in which it sets things up to look one way, then suddenly flips everything on its head.

This starts from the pre-credits scene, which finds The Gunslinger (Andrew Brooke) chasing down a mysterious figure who he promptly kills, though not before asking him where he can find The Doctor. So, he must have some gripe with The Doctor that can only be resolved violently? Well, no. He's looking for a Doctor, but not The Doctor. Specifically, Kahler Jex (played by Adrian Scarsborough, a terrific British film and television actor who I always remember for his role as Mr. Jelly - sorry, Mr. Jolly - in Psychoville), a doctor and member of the Kahler race who crash landed outside of Mercy some years earlier. Unable to repair his ship, he was taken in and served as the town's physician, in the process saving the lives of everyone in town by combating a cholera outbreak. He's been hiding in the town ever since, an arrangement which has led to tension between some of the townspeople who think that they should sacrifice Jex so that The Gunslinger will leave them alone, and Isaac, who firmly believes that America is "a land of second chances,” and that whatever Jex may have done in the past to warrant being pursued by The Gunslinger, it is his subsequent actions that matter most.

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