Justice and redemption were the themes of this week’s Doctor Who appropriately titled episode, “A Town Called Mercy.”
The Doctor has taken it upon himself to defend the defenseless, but who does he defend when “justice” exists in the morally grey? And what happens to the Doctor when he doesn’t have someone to pull him back from going too close to the edge?
It’s hard to follow-up the sheer ridiculousness of “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship,” but “Mercy” does an adequate job of bringing us back to the center. While this Western-themed episode continues the Moffat mantra of “one-and-done,” “Mercy” is a grounded episode whose action is entertaining, but whose plot is predictable. The real quick draw, however, is not so much in the actual events of the episode, but rather in the questions those events make you ask. Also, Stetsons are cool, so there’s that.
Amy, Rory, and the Doctor appear in the Old West town of Mercy (population 80 81), whose people are harboring “an alien doctor.” “The Gunslinger” (Andrew Brooke), a cyborg hunter, has a personal vendetta he wishes to settle with the alien, and, while unwilling to harm the innocent, is content holding the town hostage until they give him up.
The “alien doctor” is, of course, initially confused with our alien Doctor, but is ultimately revealed to be Kahler-Jex (Adrian Scarborough), a Kahler surgeon who crashed on Earth a few years prior. Isaac (Ben Browder), the town sheriff, introduces Jex as the quiet savior of Mercy, curing the town of a cholera outbreak and giving the town electric lights and heat.
But eventually, the truth of the Gunslinger’s vendetta is revealed: Jex was part of a team that modified Kahler soldiers against their will to turn them into mindless cyborg weapons, and the Gunslinger is a cyborg who was able to retain his free will, now set to exact revenge on those whose torturous experiments he endured. Livid, the Doctor is reminded again of all of the lives he couldn’t save – the victims of the Daleks, of the Master, of the Cybermen, and more – and he wonders if Kahler-Jex shouldn’t be turned over to the Gunslinger to atone for his crimes.
Rory calls him a “war criminal,” but Isaac only knows him as the doctor who has saved the lives of the townspeople. Jex himself, while satisfied that he helped end the war decimating his planet, is repentant of the lives he affected in order to do so. What should the Doctor do?
And once again, we are reminded at just how terrifying the Doctor can be when he is angry. He always tries to negotiate with his enemies, to understand them, but he realizes that, every time he offers his enemies salvation, he’s allowing more people to die. Perhaps after 1200 years, maybe the bad guys just need to die. (“But they keep coming back, don’t you see?! Every time I negotiate, I try to understand. Well, not today – no! Today, I honor the victims first. His, the Master’s, the Daleks’ – all the people who’ve died because of my mercy!”)
Amy brings him back from the brink with a simple statement: “Well, listen to me, Doctor: we can’t be like him; we have to be better than him.”
During this argument, the Gunslinger approaches to kill Jex. Isaac sacrifices himself to save Jex; his last words a reminder to the Doctor to always be the better man.
In the final confrontation, the Doctor orchestrates a plan to help Jex escape in his ship. But Jex wants to put an end to the Gunslinger’s pursuit, to give him some peace, and to prevent anyone else from getting caught in the crossfire. Using the ship’s self-destruct, Jex commits suicide to save the town. Without anyone to pursue, the Doctor gives the Gunslinger a new purpose: protect the people of the town, as Isaac had done before him.
Again, this episode was a bit predictable as far the plot was concerned, but is ultimately far more galvanizing when you look at it at a deeper level. The truths that play out as the Doctor sees some of himself in Jex; the humanity the Doctor loses when his companions aren’t around; the choices that have weighed on the Doctor for 1200 years.
“Mercy” is a real testament to Matt Smith. Smith’s Doctor is outright masterful, to say the least, in this episode - the emotions almost seem to exude from his pores as he swings in both directions on the moral compass. Karen Gillan is also extremely effective as the steadfast Amy Pond, never wavering in her understanding of right and wrong.
Credit is due to the set crew for wonderfully capturing the Old West. The episode was shot in the deserts of Spain, where other notable Westerns were filmed, helping the cause. Credit is also due to writer Toby Whithouse, whose story weaved a Who-like external conflict (alien with a gun) with the much more interesting internal conflicts of the ethically uncertain, while still maintaining some levity in the markedly British humor humour.
Ultimately, “A Town Called Mercy” was a thoroughly enjoyable episode that gave us everything we wanted from a Western Who story: Stetsons, toothpicks, terrible American accents, and a sexually confused horse. More importantly (and more fascinatingly), “Mercy” explored some particularly important themes as we reach the final two episodes of the Ponds. The Doctor sometimes need to be brought back down to Earth forcibly, and Amy and Rory have historically taken that role – will Coleman’s character be enough for that responsibility? And with the Doctor stepping closer and closer to the deep end, is it possible that the Ponds' departure is actually a product of the Doctor pushing them away?