Doctor Who: 703 “A Town Called Mercy” Full Review
Reviewed by Adam James Cuthbert.
Themes of humanity, and indeed morality, have always defined the Doctor’s character. Since the character’s conception, he has been defined, in part, by his proximity with his human companions. Over time, the role of the companion has transgressed from incidental traveller in the TARDIS to functioning as the Doctor’s conscience, curbing his more tenebrous tendencies in his heroism. They effectively embody his desire for goodness and justice, as well as his compassion for innocent lives caught in the heart of darkness.
One of the motifs associated with Toby Whithouse’s stories, and indeed at the forefront of A Town Called Mercy, is the Doctor’s darker side and how that tempers his relationship with his companions. Whithouse portrays the Doctor as a multi-layered, morally complex character within his stories; his idiosyncrasies skilfully counteracted by the character’s loneliness, moroseness, and desire for good, accentuated by the Doctor’s guilt-ridden conscience in recent years. This has been achieved through a variety of techniques, notably by creating sympathetic antagonists (Rosanna in The Vampires of Venice, and the Minotaur in The God Complex) that challenge the Doctor’s morality, imperceptibly through Whithouse’s sharp, poignant dialogue. The Western genre itself is traditionally associated with tales of morality, grounded in frontier, often post-war, communities that depict the duality of nature: both in terms of human (and alien) nature, and communal life versus the hostile wilderness. Whithouse brilliantly uses the iconic setting (filmed in Almeria, Spain no less) to explore these enriching themes.
The Doctor, Amy and Rory arrive at the eponymous town of Mercy. The outskirts of the town are being patrolled by the Gunslinger, a cyborg seeking its revenge on the alien scientist who created him, Kahler-Jex. Jex has established himself within the town as the resident doctor, having cured the townspeople of an outbreak of cholera and giving them rudimentary heat and lighting. At first, the Doctor is willing to save the townspeople and Jex from the Gunslinger, bringing the TARDIS to them. However the Doctor soon discovers that Jex is a duplicitous, sinister and self-righteous character who experimented on his own people, beyond their will, engineering instruments of war that brought peace to his world. Jex defends his actions: “War is another world. You cannot apply the politics of peace to what I did.” Adrian Scarborough delivers a nuanced performance, bringing a dark and disturbing yet ambivalent edge to the character. We later learn that Jex is also repentant for the innocent lives that were sacrificed in the name of war: his people believe that when they die, their souls must scale a mountain, bearing the weight of those they wronged in life. The religious facet of Jex’s background alters our perceptions of him, making him out to be a tragic, sympathetic and flawed character. Jex becomes a reflection of the Doctor himself: both have experienced a war, doing what they thought was right to save their people; in the Doctor’s case, saving them from their monstrous fate in the Time War.
Whithouse emphasises the parallels between the characters through Jex’s dialogue (“Looking at you Doctor is like looking into a mirror, almost. There’s rage there, like me. Guilt, like me. Solitude. Everything but the nerve to do what needs to be done”), Jex enraging the Doctor by accusing him of cowardice. The Doctor forces Jex out of town and aims a gun at his head. Like The End of Time, when the Tenth Doctor pointed a gun at the Master, similarly accused of being a coward, the Doctor debates whether or not he should kill Jex. Matt Smith excels at conveying the Doctor’s rage and inner turmoil: a man still haunted by his actions in the Time War, attempting to redeem himself each step of the way. I was genuinely unnerved by Matt Smith’s masterful performance, like only the Time Lord Victorious before, when the Doctor challenged his own moral code; here the Doctor contemplates an act, in his eyes, of justifiable murder, saving the townspeople from the Gunslinger by eliminating Jex from the equation. Amy bravely opposes the Doctor. The Doctor is haughty, refuting the possibility that Amy will shoot him because her humanity, her faith in the Doctor’s principles, prevents her. Whithouse presents an intriguing sequence as Amy questions if the Doctor is so desperate he will “hunt down everyone who’s made a gun, or a bullet, or a bomb”. I found the Doctor’s following dialogue to be epiphanic, because it’s so true: every time he negotiates or compromises, evil always finds a way to resurface, making the Doctor’s victories appear inconsequential from that perspective, as innocent lives will invariably be lost in the battle. I have to say that is brilliant writing from Toby Whithouse. The Doctor’s fatal flaw is his pride; the danger of his reputation, and the visible impact he leaves on his companions. An intricate touch in the story is the Doctor being measured by the undertaker. This again addresses the motif of the Doctor’s ‘death’, but also relates to the story’s wider exploration of themes relating to morality. This is seen through Jex’s fear of death for the sins he committed, and the Doctor being tempted to shoot him. Whithouse, through Amy, subtly evokes the fact that killing Jex would make the Doctor no better than Jex himself; thus, in a sense, the Doctor, as we know him, would be ‘lost’ to us, effectively becoming an estranged alien vigilante, unafraid to murder criminals to preserve the peace. Fortunately, Amy is able to reason with the Doctor, and the Doctor agrees to find an alternative solution. I did find the Doctor to be a little hypocritical. One minute he’s prepared to kill a man, the next he’s saying violence doesn’t secure peace, but only extends violence; however you can argue that the Doctor, in the later scene, is trying to save the young man from getting blood on his hands, thus sparing him from becoming a killer like himself or Jex, performing a virtuous act.
The other major highlight of the episode is the Gunslinger himself: a physically imposing and ingenious creation with a tragic backstory – a man reborn as a “creature of war”. Interestingly, there are parallels between the Gunslinger and the Doctor as well: the Ninth Doctor has been described as ‘born in war’, full of bloodlust and anger, much like the Gunslinger. Both rediscover meaning in their lives as well: the Doctor, driven to protect the universe from harm, and the Gunslinger becoming the new Marshall of Mercy, safeguarding its inhabitants. The Gunslinger is a classic science-fiction creation: on one level, an inhuman killing-machine; on another, a man latching onto the memories of his past. It is this emotional ambivalence throughout the narrative that makes A Town Called Mercy such a rewarding and compelling experience.
I do have one minor criticism and that is the narration. In the scene where the Doctor, having become Marshall, makes a stand against the townspeople, anxious for Jex to be killed, the barmaid is the only minor character who is heard to defend Jex. I think it would have more appropriate if the barmaid had provided the narration, that way framing the morality tale, as well as recalling her own experiences about the transformation of their town and its people. This would make the situation more intimate to the viewer, thus providing a stronger sense of identification with the townspeople and their own growth as a community.
Overall Verdict: 9.5/10
In conclusion, A Town Called Mercy is a beautifully shot and engaging take on the Western genre through a uniquely Who lens. Toby Whithouse again demonstrates his ability to vividly portray the Doctor as a dangerous yet fascinating character, whose darker side alienates his human companions and tests our own loyalties in him as an upstanding hero. Supported by outstanding acting from Matt Smith, Adrian Scarborough and Ben Browder as Isaac, the town’s original Marshall who believes everyone deserves a second chance at life, A Town Called Mercy successfully encapsulates not only the spirit of the Western, but the spirit of the show.