Doctor Who and A Town Called Mercy

‘A Town Called Mercy’

Written by Toby Whitehouse
Story 7.03
Transmitted 15 September, 2012

“Frightened people.  Give me a Dalek any day.”

The Doctor arrives in the old western town of Mercy and is almost immediately thrown back out of it by the angry townsfolk. There is clearly something odd going on as the inhabitants are wary of strangers and benefiting from electric lighting and heat. When the sheriff Isaac takes the Doctor in, he reveals the reason behind the fear and the savior of the town known as Mercy, a man who fell from the stars named Kahler Jex (or the Doctor). A gunslinger from another world, his body fused with his weapon, waits for Jex on the outskirts, but refuses to take action for fear of harming an innocent. Mercy has come into to the crossfire of a conflict far outside of its understanding, and it will take the Doctor’s intervention to set things right.

Just why the Doctor is once more travelling with Amy and Rory is unclear. In the classic program, the companions were stuck with the Doctor, unable to get back home and often in a panic at the non-stop dangerous lifestyle that the Doctor led. However, the new series sees the TARDIS as a pleasure yacht used to see Ian Drury in concert or pop round to Mexico for the Day of the Dead festival. It’s all very odd and I’m sure it only strikes some viewers as peculiar… but I’m one of them.

A Town Called Mercy is the first story of the BBC Wales Doctor Who program in quite some time to actually be about something. At first sight the Doctor sees Jex as an innocent on the run from a monstrous alien cyborg looking suspiciously like a certain terminator (he even has the same grid-like vision issues). However, when the Doctor breaks into Jex’s ship he finds that the alien doctor is not the saint that he appears to be.

When he returns, the Doctor proclaims Jex for the war criminal that he is and is unsure of how to proceed. The ‘monstrous’ cyborg is just one of an army of such creatures made by Jex and those like him to fight in a war on an alien world. When the war was over, one of the cyborgs broke free from his programming and sought revenge on its creators for the crimes it had endured. Just sending Jex to his fate as the townsfolk would want seems the most obvious solution and for once the Doctor agrees.

Frustrated with a life of mercy that has led only to more death, the Doctor seems prepared to try another way, one that would spare the universe of more killings from the Master, Daleks or countless other monsters. But, as Amy points out, this reduces the Doctor to the level of his nemesis, making him no greater than the evil that he fights against. The moment when Amy Pond stops the Doctor from sacrificing Jex completely validates the quandary of  ‘why is the Doctor still travelling with Rory and Amy’ that has bothered me this series, well, at least partly. Rory still has sweet FA to do.

The only real problem with A Town Called Mercy aside from its suspicious similarities to the Red Dwarf story ‘Gunmen of the Apocalypse’ is that it has more to say than the shortened 45 minute format allows. Once the Doctor accepts that he must find another non-violent solution to the problem, very little time is left in which to hatch said plan.

In the end, the solution is rather slapdash and hackneyed. Getting the townsfolk to wear a facial tattoo similar to that worn by Jex is a flawed notion since not long ago the cyborg was fooled by someone nothing like the alien wearing the same hat and coat. Clearly the gunslinger’s effectiveness is hampered by the constraints of the plot. Also, the Doctor’s plan of helping Jex escape is not a very good one at all and only postpones the problem while extending the danger to another planet. Even Jex sees the flaws in this, leading to him taking the coward’s way out.

So, if this story had a sophisticated statement to make about violence and justice cleverly shot in the same locale as many spaghetti westerns, that kind of falls flat in the juvenile resolution.

The Doctor is not the great hero here, nor is he the clever wizard that he has been portrayed as in the past. He is instead a buffoon and a danger to himself and others. What was he doing even wearing a six-shooter in the first place, never mind aiming one at another person? The Doctor’s history with pacifism is dodgy, I know, but to see him meet violence with violence and accept suicide as an end to his problem then gleefully skip off to the next adventure alludes to some dubious issues in the writer’s shed.

Additionally, is no one concerned about the corruption of the web of time caused by an alien cyborg marshal or electric lighting and heating used a good decade before its invention? I only mention it because the new series seems to be interested in that kind of thing… from time to time. Plus, why was the gunslinger wearing a hat and bandolier?  Was he trying to blend in?  Did he think the massive ray-gun arm and glowing robot eye would be obscured by contemporary dress?

To date, A Town Called Mercy could be the best of the new series. Granted, previous to this we had the Daleks looking to eliminate all love and ball-sniffing dinosaurs, but the production values, direction and cast of this one were all quite good. Guest actor Bed Browder (of Farscape fame) was quite good as Issac and award-winning actor Adrian Scarborough was superb as the alien war criminal Kahler Jex. Not a perfect episode, but one that showed promise and had at least some interest toward telling a compelling story of some importance.

Next time: ‘The Power of Three’

Overnight ratings from Doctor WhoTV:

1. Asylum of the Daleks – 6.4 million (overnight) 8.33 million (final figure)
2. Dinosaurs on a Spaceship – 5.5 million (overnight) TBA (final figure)
3. A Town Called Mercy – 6.6 million (overnight) TBA (final figure)
4. The Power of Three
5. The Angels Take Manhattan

8 thoughts on “Doctor Who and A Town Called Mercy

  1. Ahhh, you see you quite liked it, well, you know relatively speaking! As I said elsewhere I found it “meh”, a few nice ideas pretty poorly developed but I’ve seen much worse in modern Who. The major problem I have with it (apart from it obviously having pretensions to being something *far* more sophisticated and thought-provoking than it is) is that in order to say something meaningful about the Doctor, it has to bend his character every which way and it revisits the tiresome concept of him needing human companions to keep him on the straight and narrow track. In modern Who terms this goes back to RTD and it ties into the present-day incarnation’s pretensions to complexity sitting cheek-by-jowl with spelling things out for the hard-of-thinking though some of the things it chooses to “spell out” are debateable anyway. So the idea that the Doctor “needs” companions so as not to be a monster was introduced and has been reiterated ad nauseum. The particular problem with that concept at present is – as you alluded to in your review – that Moffat has introduced the idea that the Doctor has spent a great deal of time away from Amy and Rory yet keeps popping back into their lives, therefore rendering that central point even more dubious, something actively worsened when a story such as this one tries to concretize this “fact”. All in all it’s *illogical* that the Doctor has become so seemingly obsessed with the idea of Amy and Rory being his essential companions, usually he’d have stumbled onto others because that’s *what he does*. The only reason why Amy and Rory are still “companions” even though they uhrm *aren’t* really any more is that Moffat is fixated on this idea, despite the minor manner of its senselessness. Cont’d


  2. Cont’d (afraid so!)
    The notion of “mercy” about which the story revolves is interesting but I’m not quite sure how well this actually “fits” the Doctor. In fact the idea of “mercy” being central to the Doctor and *defining* him only goes back to the Tenth Doctor and his comments about once having so much of it. The scene where the episode’s theme is baldly stated in the to-and-fro between the Doctor and Amy leaves me feeling that Modern Who is stuck on repeat, trapped in a “chronic hysteresis” – the Doctor loses faith decides to take a hardline or merely finds himself losing control, then a companion steps in and gives him a talking-to and he resolves to find a better way, and then we start all over again. The major problem is that it’s only now and again that the show decides to deal with something like this, most of the time when the Doctor does things that some might argue to be ethically dubious no attention is paid which suggests that this isn’t the Doctor’s problem but the writers’.
    It could be said to be laudable that the episode deals with moral greys, but as you point out it doesn’t do the issues justice and makes the Doctor look like a fool who always requires an Amy (not exactly a model of moral probity herself) or a Rose to get him behaving properly. The most important thing to note is that in the best of the original run, the Doctor though “good” was actually far more complex morally, his companions could inform his outlook but they weren’t there to control it. Cont’d Again!


  3. Cont’d Episode 3
    Also, the audience were often allowed to make up their own minds rather than being *told* what the Doctor stood for, and what his flaws were. The Doctor was rightfully disgusted when the Brigadier blew up the “Silurian” hibernation chambers (tho’ the Brigadier had his reasons) and debated whether it was correct to destroy the dalek embryos (note that there his companion Sarah urged him to do it, if it was present-day Doctor Who I doubt that they’d be so brave, they’d probably have Rory convince him *not* to do it) but he also blew up many an alien and manipulated Davros and the Daleks into basically destroying Skaro and themselves (it didn’t last!).
    You are totally right about the rushed denoument in which the Doctor’s supposed mercy looks more like stupidity (which somewhat damages the theme one would have to think), while the Doctor straps his irons on more for reasons of western convention than logic. As for the cyborg’s cowboy drag – Ahahaha! So stupid, once again a (dumb) visual trumps logic. This too worked against the po-faced would-be meaningfulness of this flawed story. While Town Called Mercy *doesn’t* really resemble Gunmen of the Apocalypse apart from in its setting (it may not be a favourite of mine but it’s funny and makes better use of western iconography than Mercy, while also being better sf) but the Cyborg really does look like a refugee from Red Dwarf! He looked like a rogue simulant. Amusing.
    For all the comments about the location Mercy didn’t really *convince* as a western, it felt hollow and the tone was wrong, it was didn’t feel alive while the people weren’t *alive*, Browder wasn’t bad but it all felt flat and too artificial. They might have been better off in playing up the iconography a la The Gunfighters, instead it felt “off”. Too much pompousity and straining for “significance”. And the tattoo idea? Ouch. Go watch Battlestar Galactica The Magnificent Warrior instead. Silly but a better sf western than this which is a shame. Also, there’s a Cylon named Redeye!


  4. Once again Moffat (I know he didn’t write this, but obviously he instructs all writers to do the same thing as he) borrows from episodes past…

    The Doctor traveling without companions gets meaner? Seen that in Tennant’s final series of specials… so, umm… why is the same plot being rehashed this series? Whether I agree or not, the notion of the Doctor “needing” companions has been tread before, and not that long ago.

    Meanwhile… Ok… so last week a bad guy kills a bunch of Silurians so he gets sent off to die… but this week a bad guy has killed a bunch of other aliens that the Doctor is not friends with, so he gets to go (until he decides to sacrifice himself)… Huh?

    The farther we go into Moffat’s reign… the more the stories are starting to play out like fanfic… seriously… it’s like they troll the message boards looking for random “wouldn’t it be cool if” stuff and then throw it all out there to film.

    Some parts of this episode had promise… other parts were just more of the same.

    And for no apparent reason, the Doctor announces he is now 1200 years old… which means 100 years since the last time we knew his age… and he keeps giving knowing glances at the Ponds… as if he knows he is seeing them for the last time because he knows what is going to be happening.

    Remember when the Doctor was surprised when his companions left or died? Now he’s giving a going away tour it would seem as he knows… I guess he’s been reading the internet spoilers!😉

    Oh… and someone else not the Doctor being called “The Doctor”? Saw that already in the first of the year of the Tennant specials… so more retread again.

    For those playing along at home… Remember how I said I liked the beginning of series 5 but not the payoff second act? and similarly liked the start of series 6 but not the payoff last year? Well… they’ve flipped the script as I’m not liking these episodes as much as I did early episodes the last two years… so either the second half is going to have to pickup steam OR I’ll remember the 50th anniversary celebration as the year I stopped caring about Doctor Who. That would be sad.


  5. Astute analysis, SJV. As I say above the repetition is ridiculous. Providing an arguably spurious reason why the Doctor “needs” companions seems a sop to the dim, it also weakens the Doctor as a person. Whether it was intended or not the ending makes him look like a dithering, ineffectual idiot. All that talk of the problems with the Doctor’s “mercy” yet after he relies on Amy to turn him around – in a manner that we are supposed to approve – he becomes less than effective which one must suppose was not intentional on the writer’s part. Some have described the episode as thought-provoking but I felt it tripped over it’s own pretensions. There was a lot of potential here but it remained unfulfilled which was a shame. And what *is* it with Amy and Rory? Moffat keeps talking about providing a fitting ending for the “glorious Amy and Rory era” but it feels like the Doctor and series has them hanging around for no good reason. If anything this “era” has shown that having a married couple in the TARDIS is *not* a good idea!


    • Specifically regarding Amy & Rory so far this series… Honestly, as you and James have essentially both said… what is the point of them this series? In the past, Rory got to evolve a bit… and I didn’t think they could give Amy less, but they got me!

      I swear you could replace Amy and Rory with any two random characters with ZERO backstory, and you wouldn’t have to change anything else about the 3 episodes we have seen thus far. To me that says two things… Poor writing, and poor characterization (arguably the writing is to blame for that too).

      IF you can replace a character with anyone else and not effect the plot or the tone or the emotion of the story… then what purpose did that character serve?

      Even with the plotholes… the marshal (Browder) served a role in the story, as did the alien Doctor and the gunslinger… but Amy & Rory were essentially indistinguishable from the other couple dozen or so extras in this episode… heck, this episode could have been EXACTLY the same without Amy or Rory, and instead having one of the townsfolk pleading to the Doctor to let that alien live…

      That says the story was weak… you can’t do that with a strong story. For as crap as Adric was in classic Who… you actually can’t take him out of some of those stories without changing the meaning of the scenes. Think about that and how odd of a thing that is for a second!


  6. You are so right. I could make a comment about scenes being improved no end by Adric’s absence (at least Tegan and Nyssa looked foxy in their Season 19 outfits!) but he did have a particular function to play even if it *was* often being a callow idiot who was – for some reason – an object of fascination for older men! The other thing to note is that when it dawned on the ’80s production team that three companions was one too many, they got *rid* of Adric. Now to be fair they didn’t no what to do with Nyssa but after she too departed both Tegan and Turlough, like them or loathe them, had clearly defined roles, she the hectoring mouth-on-legs he the amusingly untrustworthy coward. Amy served the role of generic companion here, the Moral Conscience previously taken by Rose, Martha, and even Donna. The problem is as you say the “genericness”, is this *really* true to Amy’s particular character or is it just the kind of thing that modern Who companions *do*, “just because”? You hit on some important points here, and I *do* think this is bad writing (and poor showrunning from Moffat). I may have major problems with the story anyway but you are also quite correct about Kahler-Jex, the sheriff, and the Cyborg at least performing logical roles within the story, even the Doctor does despite being written sloppily, sentimentally and sententiously. Amy and Rory? Not really. Stimulating stuff, SJV…


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