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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.

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  • AmyPondIsAwesome

    Brilliant review. I agree with almost everything.

  • TimeyWimey

    Excellent review. I agree with everything you say.
    The Episode truly was a masterpiece.

  • The Gene Genie

    Fantastic review as per usual.

    The episode had something above the previous two, which is that it was the first in the series that I could honestly classify as ‘genius’. The episode was ‘made’ for me in Jex’s last line – “I must now face the souls of those I’ve wronged – perhaps they will be kind”. That’s currently my favourite quote from the show.

    • Esterath MkII

      Genie Genie, could you get Pdurston to talk to me sometime soon. Yes, I’m the one who got banned for posting a false spoiler. And got called a troll.

      • Pdurston

        You requested my presence?

        • Esterath MkII

          Um,hi, it’s me. Esterath? I just want to say I’m very sorry for spoiling AOTD for you, to be fair the spoilers I posted weren’t true! We know Harvey wasn’t the Predator! I understand completely what I did wrong. You were right to call me a troll. I have learnt my lesson now that I’ve been banned from commenting. I’m sorry, Pdurston, I hope you can forgive me. I came on this site to meet new friends and have fun, but that’s not what I got. Sorry DWTV. Sorry to you all.

          • Pdurston

            Esterath I assure you, all is fine now and you have completely been forgiven for what happened. I’m terribly sorry that you’ve had to go through a lot of worry in trying to seek forgiveness from me. I should have given it to you sooner and I greatly apologise for not taking the time to clear away your worries.

            I hope Doctor Who TV deactivate your ban so you can start fresh and come onto DWTV to join the community again. I think we could then wipe the slate clean and forget that incident ever happened. Please do contact them and tell them how sorry you are. I’m sure they will find it in themselves to forgive you and welcome you back onto the site. If that doesn’t work, then I will try. If they do, then it’s best that you never repeat the incident again so that you end up back to where you were before. Just some good advice there for you.

            I hope you’ve now been reassured. And again I forgive you.

          • Esterath MkII

            I’ve already sent an email but no reply yet, think I should wait for a wee while?

      • The Gene Genie

        What was it? Oh and I got Ol’ Pdursty over ‘ere now.

      • The Beholder


        Just want to say sorry for not asking him earlier! I forgot, but I’ve asked him now. He has also emerged on this site as well :)

  • The Watchful Guardian

    Not entirely with the ‘descend to his level’ argument because it can be argued the other way. For example a murderer shows a disregard for another’s life. You can either accept his judgement or not. Obviously the murderer doesn’t have a right to kill someone else so it would be descended to the murderer’s level to not punish the murderer with death. If the murderer thinks someone else life isn’t important then he should be judged by the same measure. This whole matter is quite confusing to think about and I’m not entirely sure about what is the right solution to the question of dealing with murderers in this life.

    However I think Amy was right in stopping the Doctor even if it was by an argument I’m not exactly happy with. At the end of the day, it isn’t the Doctor’s right to execute Jex or to let the Gun-slinger who also is a murderer to execute Jex. I guess Jex’s deatas at his own hand was in one sense the best solution.

  • EternalDoctor

    Outstanding review! A masterpiece of an episode should indeed be reflected by a masterful review. I believed that your writing couldn’t possibly improve, but then you come and
    truly outdo yourself. That takes real talent!

    This time I don’t even have single complaint about your review. It was perfect and I agree whole-heartedly with you. I would certainly give the episode same rating as you. There was just so much exploration of The Doctor and his morality. It was written in a beautiful manner and the scene with The Gunslinger at the end was touching.

    In the beginning when I heard the narrative; I instantly believed it to be the barmaid. Therefore I was slightly confused about the conclusion.

    Brilliant review: 11/10 ;)

  • Pdurston

    I’m in pure amazement by what you’ve written here that I almost envy it. It was a fantastic read as per usual but you’ve definitely outdone yourself here. I strongly recommend anyone who is still unsure about this episode to read your review. It covers everything that I love and admire about A Town Called Mercy and Toby Whithouse as a writer. I agree wholeheartedly with everything you say. You praise it in a way that makes me enjoy the episode even more. I’m proud to be in the group who loved every aspect of it.

    You really do have such an amazing way with words. You’re a very unique person TheStranger. If only there was more people like you out there.

    • lp229

      Pdurston, has summed all of my thoughts of your masterful analysis, TheStranger,a very sophisticated piece of writing..

      ‘A Town called Mercy’ is another brilliant contribution by Toby Whithouse, I would be quite content for him to succeed Moffat as head writer when he decides to relinquish his reigns over the show.

  • dalekjack

    Wow, um, I’m not really sure what to say about this amazing review. Every word you speak here is true, a masterpiece about a masterpiece episode. Absolutely FANTASTIC!

  • IAmTheDoctor

    Brilliant review! After rewatching this story, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is my favourite Eleventh Doctor story. :)

  • whovianmarkii

    Great review!

  • The Beholder

    Excellent review Adam, I think this is your best review :D Extremely well written, well done

  • dalekjack

    I’ve asked this on DWTV but I thought that I’d post it here in case nobody see’s it.
    In the scene “Today I honor the victims first. His, the Master’s, the Dalek’s, all the people who have died because of MY MERCY!”, did you agree with the Doctor? I’m not asking what you thought later on in the episode, just what you thought at that particular scene. Did you agree with Amy or did you think that the Doctor made a fair point? I personally agreed with the Doctor. Perhaps DWTV could turn this into a poll. Anyway, what did you guys think?

  • whovianmarkii

    This review is exellent. BTW DWTV if you are reading this have I been banned was it for posting links ? If so Im truly sorry.

  • GoodYear92

    It doesn’t really need to be stated that this is a quality piece of writing; a highly professional review. Still, I’m going to. It’s your abundance of vocabulary that always astounds me; impresses me and creates unhealthy jealousy, but it’s never been more prominent than here. It really is a beautifully detailed; descriptive analysis of the episode. It’s extremely hard to disagree with; but I do, in part.

    Don’t get me wrong; this wasn’t a bad episode, but neither do I feel it was great. It certainly had the potential to be; its ideas and general premise laid the foundations for a tale that should have been one of the best yet, but it was the execution; the manner in which they were realised in the story, that detracted from the episode.

    I found the character of Jex, and his undeniable parallel imagery of the Docor himself, somewhat forced; brought to the story in such an unsubtle manner. It was laid out there so clearly in the dialogue between the two; encouraged as a crux of the story, but the problem is that the similarities were only minor; the characters shared little when you really look at their individual actions and their motivations for doing the things they did.

    Jex’s acts of war; the experimentation and engineering of his fellow Kahler people, is in stark contrast to the Doctor’s wholly unselfish decision to end his war for the sake of his own people; becoming monsters of their own making with each passing day in ‘hell’, in which he ended it all in one fell swoop; sealing the event away; locked forever, so as to save not just his people, but to also prevent the inevitable furthered destruction of those caught in the crossfire; the other civilisations. Jex wanted to be a war hero; hinted as such by his dialogue when his actions have been revealed, but his conscience would not allow it, forcing him to seek out a means or repentance. The Doctor, quite the opposite; he made a sacrifice that was for everyone’s best interests throughout the universe, one that has weighed on him ever since, but he was always good, and his actions were motivated by that very aspect of his persona. Jex, however he appears in this episode, to do what he did; torture his own; winning at any and all costs, is not the same thing, and so the comparisons, and their heavy featuring in the episode, felt somewhat superficial.

    I also found his way out; committing suicide, a little less than poignant. I never cared for the character and was rooting for the Gunslinger the entire time, so the attempt to make me feel similarly towards Jex himself, fell completely flat.

    There were also a couple of scenes that jarred with me further still; the writing of certain known characters. The most notable of these, would be Amy’s actions both preceding the Marshall’s death, and after it. Her demands for the Doctor to find another way to save the people; avoid more bloodshed, something she obviously felt extremely passionate; emotional about, was concerning a war criminal; someone who had tortured many; cost them their souls. Yet, her good hand does not extend to the innocent Marshall, killed while also trying to protect Jex. Her reaction to it is utter complacency; cold, even. She displays no discernable emotional response to his death. It’s an extremely jarring sequence of events and totally out of character for her to behave as such.

    Anyway, there are some of my slightly negative thoughts on the episode. I did enjoy it and I do have plenty of positives to throw at it, but you’ve said them all… and more. So, I won’t bother addressing what doesn’t need to be.

    It must be acknowledged, though, that this is clearly your finest review yet. It’s brilliant, it really is. Well done, Adam.

    • TheStranger

      You’ve given me food for thought, it has to be said, regarding your in-depth analysis of the episode.

      I suppose the similarities between the Doctor and Jex are somewhat superficial on a level when you consider their precise motivations, but insofar as the characters have equally experienced a war and been forced to make the decision they thought best benefited their people I think the parallels can be justified. I definitely see where you’re coming from regarding the differences between their personalities though.

      To me, the ambivalence of the character worked well enough: like the Doctor, he has conflicted attitudes towards the war he experienced. On the one hand, he’s a war hero; on the other, he is filled with regret and guilt. Look at the Doctor: on the one hand, he had to end the war; on the other, survivor’s guilt, maybe he should have died with them. Both are in a sense traumatised by their experiences, if you can call it that, and their supposed inured attitude is simply a pretension to avoid facing the ghosts of their past.

      Arguably, the relationship between the Doctor and the Minotaur can be interpreted as subtler and poignant, in your eyes I’m assuming, giving the Minotaur was a creature of instinct, soaked in the blood of innocents, unintentionally of course, much like the Doctor himself; people die from his good deeds, lives are generally lost in his ‘war’ against evil and injustice; and certainly that theme of the Doctor’s constant struggle against the evils of the universe was brought to the forefront of the episode and made for compelling drama in my eyes.

      I’ll agree with you regarding Amy’s portrayal; not something I’d thought about.

      I can’t argue about your affinity for Jex’s character: the emotional impact the character leaves, be it through the performance, the dialogue, etc., is subjective, and that’s just the way it is (like me with River).

      The way you could see it, Jex was a coward (much like the Doctor then, “Coward. Any day.”) but his faith was so strong, he thought he would be meeting with the souls of those he wronged in the afterlife and chose to die by his own hands, ending the war with the Gunslinger and allowing the Gunslinger a chance to discover a new meaning in life. In a sense, all three (the Doctor, the Gunslinger, and Jex) were ‘mechanised’ to some effect, by their experiences in their own wars; defined by a long-lasting attribute or personality trait that effected their perceptions of themselves and their world.

      I’ve debated myself whether I preferred Mercy or The God Complex but I think both stories are equally strong on their own merits, maybe Complex at a push.

      And thanks for the praise, it means a lot coming from you. It’s always interesting to read your thoughts.


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