TV REVIEW: Doctor Who, Series 7 Episode 3 – “A Town Called Mercy”

Doctor Who Logo - 2010 Version

Doctor Who. Western. Makes perfect sense. And yet, the concept has only been used on-screen once before, in 1965’s oft-lamented The Gunfighters. With the closer production links that the show has with the US, it was perhaps inevitable that the crew moseyed on over to Spain to film A Town Called Mercy.
The time-travelling companions arrive in a Wild West town where the residents are being terrorised by a cyborg killing machine. The relentless gunslinger will stop at nothing until it has terminated the remaining name on its hit list – and unfortunately for the Time Lord, it turns out to be targeting an alien doctor.
The script was penned by Being Human creator and former-Who scribe, Toby Whithouse. Will the episode leave you begging for “mercy” in a good or a bad way? Find out after the wee break, partners….

Following a voice-over narration by an unknown American, we’re thrown straight into the action, as an alien craft is shot down over the desert and it’s occupant terminated by a large being with a laser-cannon for an arm, and a very western hat. “Am I the last one?” the victim asks. “There’s one more. The Doctor” … Cue titles.  The TARDIS crew find themselves (unintentionally) at the gates of the small, secluded desert town of Mercy. I really liked this unintentional landing. It harkens back to an earlier age, when the Time Lord had little to no control over his adventures. A time when he was like the white-hatted hero, sauntering into town and saving the day before moving on again. Which brings us back to Mercy. There are several Western tropes in this story, yet the story doesn’t feel overly clichéd. Indeed, there’s another link back to old-school Who, as this is very reminiscent of the “secluded base” story particularly prevalent from 1966-1969. Another plus for me!

The residents of Mercy are given enough life without seeming to be pure caricatures. Ben Bowder, in particular, as the town’s Marshall Isaac provides a winning and truly heroic-performance.  Isaac is down-to-earth, won’t allow even strangers to be sacrificed and is clearly a thinking-man. On being given particularly bad news about one of his protectorate, the first words out of his mouth are “Why? Why would you do that?” and not in an accusatory manner – but genuinely enquiring.

It seems to me that the Doctor’s regular companions were somewhat sidelined this week and I think this is in part due to Toby Whithouse wanting to give the characters of Mercy (and the Doctor’s temporary companion, Susan) a chance to breathe and grow. Of course, the Gunslinger isn’t after OUR Doctor (he’s been keeping a low profile, remember?) and Adrian Scarborough fulfills his role sublimely. I don’t want to go too much into it, but the switches in character are perfectly executed by both actor and writer.

Toby Whithouse also laces his script with some magnificent dialogue and one-line witicisms. The script is clever, funny in parts and moving. The funny happens almost exclusively in the first half and rightly so.

I’m deliberately not providing a blow-by-blow account of the plot as I think this is the story’s ultimate good point. Rather than being a straight out action adventure, with the Doctor (almost literally) playing the A-Team, Whithouse has presented a superb morality tale. I’m sure there are moments in this episode that some will rebel at. Probably vocally. But even on first viewing, I (remember I’ve been a fan of this series in its many forms for probably twenty-nine of my thirty-three years) wasn’t. Yes, moments were … uncomfortable. But deliberately so and we’re reminded why the Doctor should not spend a great deal of time alone, a-la The Waters of Mars. We’re also given insight into the Doctor’s guilt and, rather tellingly, sense of inadequacy. Hell, why shouldn’t he doubt himself and act out of anger sometimes? Be prepared to witness the most angry-hunched slouch walk you will ever see. Rage radiates off Smith even in the distant shot as he marches to the edge of town.

I’ve not mentioned the score in previous reviews. I’ll be honest, I’ve found the music to be overpowering in Who over the last few years. Too loud and (particularly in the last couple of episodes) very repetitive. A Town Called Mercy however changes this. Gold provides a suitably Western score which really does enhance the mood. Top marks from me!

I’m not sure if it’s just because the episode followed Dinosaurs On A Spaceship, but A Town Called Mercy really shines for me. I say this as someone who hasn’t seen many actual Westerns, so maybe I’ve missed some obvious tropes or parallels. But I think it’s the morality of the piece that really prompted me to give this story the rating I have. Definitely the high-point of the series so far.

Rating: 4.5/5
Reporter: WedgeDoc

More from the world of Geek Syndicate

%d bloggers like this: