jason stives goes to the wild wild west…
Plot: The Doctor, Amy and Rory enter a hostile town in the American old west called Mercy, where the population of 81 souls are being threatened by the outside presence of an alien assassin known only as the Gunslinger. His mission is to kill off a man named Kahler Jex, an alien Doctor who has provided the town of Mercy with electricity, sickness solutions, and protection. The Doctor sets out to find out this mysterious Gunslingers reason for hunting Jex but in doing so he may learn that appearances can be deceiving and the real enemy may be too close to home in the old west.
Months ago when Doctor Who’s executive producer Steven Moffat announced that the initial five episodes that would kick-off the seventh season would be epic, movie like episodes each week, that sets a specific precedent for the viewers. That to me says that each week should be treated as being just as important as or even better than the week prior. The trouble is after you start your season with a barn burner like “Asylum of the Daleks,” the tone is going to shift greatly each week to varying results. It does however allow for the production crew to try out different ideas and even revisit some as they did this week with the western based “A Town Called Mercy.” Doctor Who has only attempted a western once before back in 1966 with “The Gunfighters,” a story that isn’t viewed in the best of light (a famous myth was that it was the lowest rated story in the shows history). However that shouldn’t damage an attempt at giving a western another try and this episode was truly a treat providing a convincing western based story that was fun, dark, and thrilling all in one.
There were many elements that fit into the overall superb quality of this episode. First off the look and feel of this story was fantastic and mashing up science fiction and the western reminded me of another fun romp in nerd culture, Back to the Future Part III. A lot of the feel of this episode is helped by the fact that it was shot on a tried and true Spaghetti Western set in Spain so the look feels authentic. The town feels like its own world and that helps in building the people within the town who while a lot of nameless characters they felt like familiar faces due to the mythos of the Western structure. Because of the overall sci-fi context there is almost a hint of Firefly in this episode if mainly just unintentionally.
Unlike the writer of last week’s episode Chris Chibnall, Toby Whithouse has a better track record with writing for Doctor Who having written the nostalgic “School Reunion” back in Series 2, as well as the “Vampires of Venice” and last year’s “The God Complex.” Whithouse is an excellent genre writer and here he chooses to lift greatly from a lot of classic western films but adds his own flair to the script helped in part from balancing some very dark moral issues with some wonderful humor. I mean, c’mon, what other show can get away with the notion of a gender confused horse named Susan? Not many! The story doesn’t rely too heavily on visual effects but it helps that the action is brought down to reality and is slow moving considering the story takes place over a 24 hour period. While a funny and well thought out script many of the supporting players just act as background noise save for the town Marshall Isaac played by Farscape alum Ben Browder. His character’s eventual fate seems almost expected but in the brief time he is on screen he plays the sheriff very well.
While a standard stand alone adventure it did provide more room to explore moral dilemmas than the usual run of relationship issues and plot points. Again the role of the villain and his motives is turned on its end as what we think is the baddy in the Gunslinger is actually the mistaken victim known as Kahler Jex. Kahler Jex himself while well acted is a very one dimensional villain (not as bad as Solomon in last week’s episode) and it’s probably because this character type has been played before but it’s an effective one in the process of story structure. While not the actual villain, The Gunslinger develops a great presence in this story as both a cross between the Terminator and the stereotypical bad guy trying to take over a small town even though the latter isn’t his actual intent. The fact that The Gunslinger can’t kill anyone that he intentionally isn’t hunting works very well and when you think he is going to kill someone (save for accidentally killing Isaac) he doesn’t.
Now there are no doubt some that have questioned the morality of The Doctor in this episode. The fact that The Doctor suddenly went almost into vengeful spiral in giving Jex to The Gunslinger may seem off the cuff but the Doctor has always shown different shades depending on where he is in his persona. As Isaac says to the Doctor in his dying breath, you are both good men, you just sometimes forget it. That truly sums up morality in human beings and how wild actions are sometimes undertaken to preserve your own beliefs. The Doctor’s sudden bating of Jex may seem ridiculous and unwarranted but then again most of The Doctor’s actions in this episode are based on circumstance. This is where many of the classic themes of all great Westerns come into play down to the town versus one man scenario that occurs when the Doctor is appointed the Marshall of Mercy (what a great title for movie!).
There is also another side to it in that The Doctor is showing the effects of traveling alone which is something he seems to be choosing to do on purpose in order to protect The Ponds. The trouble is that as he continues to drift further away from Amy and Rory the issue of someone telling him when enough is enough is taking less of an effect on him. How this will translate over the next two episodes who knows but next week’s installment, “The Power of Three,” is looking rather interesting. With two weeks left before another agonizing break, things are going to have to be very epic and ultimately very memorable. Future aside, “A Town Called Mercy” was a vast improvement over last week’s episode and as a standalone action/adventure story one that truly used its genre and style incredibly well within its context.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10 (Very Good)
All Photos Credit: BBC America