7.3 – “A Town Called Mercy”

DW Series 7 - A Town Called Mercy

The Doctor and Co arrive in the Wild West town of Mercy, which is under siege from a cyborg gunslinger demanding that no one is going in or out until “the Doctor” is handed over for him to kill. “The Doctor” is not THE Doctor but an alien who has been hiding out in the town, providing electricity, curing cholera and generally being helpful. But the alien is also a war-criminal from a distant planet, responsible for creating the cyborg in the first place. And so the question is posed; should The Doctor hand the alien over for a bit of western style justice or is there another way?

All a bit predictable really. Once again, one assumes that someone in the Who production office said “How about a cowboy episode?” followed by someone else saying “How about a robot cowboy story?” Writer Toby Whitehouse’s creative juices exploded and thus we get a cyborg cowboy story.

The gunslinger (cyborg cowboy) is straight out of Star Trek with its Borg design – a glowing light eyepiece and prosthetic big gun instead of a right arm. He can teleport and target, Terminator style, yet is seemingly unable to shove the townsfolk aside to get his quarry. For a brief while, the gunslinger is the enemy, holding the town captive, but we soon meet the weasely alien, Kahler-Jex, that he’s really after. Things are obviously not what they seem so we quickly discover that the alien is a nasty scientist war criminal and we are presented with (drumroll please…) THE MORAL DILEMMA.

The Doctor is suitably sickened by Kahler-Jex’s crimes and his apparent lack of remorse that his first instinct is to throw him to the gunslinger. Amy steps up and reminds him that he’s better than this. Karen Gillan makes the most of her one decent scene in the story – Arthur Darvill’s Rory might as well not be there. The Marshall gets symbolically killed instead, The Doctor finds another way, Kahler-Jex finds a conscience and the gunslinger finds peace. Ah, bless.

The episode does have its moments. When Amy tells The Doctor that he’s spending too much time on his own and losing his humanity, it’s as good a scene as any in the series. Whitehouse plays with the Western tropes nicely; we get an angry lynch-mob, an undertaker measuring up The Doctor for his coffin while he’s still standing and a showdown at high noon. The regulars are as good as usual, with Smith getting a few good funnies (ordering tea in the saloon) and displaying his understated, sickened rage (much better than his earlier Tennant-style shouty outrage). Gillan gets that one great scene and Amy’s ineptitude with a gun is a cute undermining of cowboy movie worship. I’m sure Darvill would have been good if he’d had any real material. Ben Browder as Isaac the Marshall adds weight and reason for not handing over the alien in the first place; Adrian Scarborough as Kahler-Jex is strong as a man trying to justify what he knows are unjustifiable crimes and trying to make amends while he knows that justice will come calling eventually.

And there is depth and weight to this episode. Isaac’s resistance to handing over Kahler-Jex comes from a real place; he saw the carnage wrought by civil war and refuses to return to the law and rule of the gun. We understand the Gunslinger’s thirst for vengeance; he and his people suffered hideous torture and were forced to commit untold atrocities. But somehow, it all seems a bit flat. Maybe it’s because there’s not a lot else apart from the BIG MORAL QUESTION, but then if there was more running around and twisty turny-ness it would all seem a bit forced. There’s no real narrative thrust, nothing is pulling or pushing the story forward. The gunslinger is never really a threat – he’s just a situation. This is two or three scenes stretched out into a whole episode.

Good performances, a great western town set and an unoriginal but well presented cyborg cowboy. The Doctor is placed in a difficult moral situation but comes through it to prove that violence is not the answer. Lots to like here, but a moral dilemma does not make a story on its own. An admirable, but not memorable, 7/10.

Written and edited by Richard Barnes


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