“A TOWN CALLED MERCY” – Series 7, Episode 3, Story 227 – Written by Toby Whithouse; Directed by Saul Metzstein – It’s a Wild Wild West yarn as the Eleventh Doctor, Amy, and Rory head to a town called … um … something or other, and get caught between an alien scientist and his techno-biological creation, the Gunslinger. Complicating matters is the presence of Isaac, the town sheriff, the town called … um … whatever it’s called, and the fact that the alien scientist killed lots of people during the war and has been saving lots of people since then. Because People Are Capable Of Great Good And Great Bad.
“You’re both good men. You just forget it, sometimes.”
That line is spoken by Isaac, the town sheriff, as he lay dying in the dirt. It’s an important line in the story, maybe the most important line in the story in order to understand the story, but it’s also the most important line in the story because it’s the moment where A TOWN CALLED MERCY stops being entertaining and starts being a drag.
The line comes roughly at the midway point in the third episode of Series 7. Right up until then, MERCY is pretty darn good lighthearted entertainment. It’s fun to watch the Doctor in a story that riffs on the American Western, and Toby Whithouse’s script delivers plenty of good lines and an intriguing set-up. Once the sheriff (played with all the right notes by Ben Browder) exits the story, however, it’s time for everything to get serious. There’s no jokes or quips after this until the end, and the Doctor spends most of his time debating morality with the scientist, Kahler Jex.
Unfortunately, there’s no real tension and the debate isn’t all that good, so what we get is a lot of pained, canned, forced “debate” about how guilty one can be held for their actions during war time. It’s not really very interesting and the story that had started off so promisingly just grinds to a bit of a halt. I think the problem, again, comes with the death of Isaac, who was set up to be intermediary voice throughout the narrative. Even Jex, when he’s put Amy at gunpoint and is going to use her to help cover his escape, says that perhaps the Doctor has learned something that Isaac is no longer willing to look past.
That’s the interesting part of the narrative – how far the Issac-spoken idea that “America is a land of second chances” actually goes, and Isaac needs to be the judge of that. He’s set up to be the Voice of America, which is reinforced when he yells in the middle of a gun-to-gun showdown between the Doctor and Amy that, “Would everybody who’s not American put down their gun?”
Barring Isaac, it needs to be the Ponds, and while they have a difference of opinion in the first half, they practically vanish in the second. Amy gets in a nice line to the Doctor about, “this is what happens to you when you travel alone,” which combines with Jex’s comment earlier on to recast her in a both of mothering light.
I am certainly not saying that MERCY is a bad episode, but I do think it’s the kind of episode that fails a bit here in the moment of its broadcast when it’s THE episode of DOCTOR WHO and not a year or two later, when it’s simply just another episode. I compare it to an episode like THE CURSE OF THE BLACK SPOT from Series 6 – at the time it was released, I was disappointed in it, but when I watched it a few weeks ago, I liked it better.
As I said, the first half of MERCY is really entertaining. Toby Whithouse peppers his script with plenty of great lines for the hyperactive Smith to bound through. When the TARDIS 3 hit the town of mercy and Amy notes that it’s surrounded by a boundary of wood and rocks, the Doctor uses his sonic screwdriver to determine that, yep, it’s a boundary made of wood and rocks. There’s also a great scene where the Doctor asks to borrow the Reverend’s horse, and the Rev tells the Doc (seriously missed comedic opportunity not having everyone in the serial refer to his as “Doc”) that the horse’s name is Jacob. The horse snorts and the Doctor corrects the Reverend. “No, it isn’t. I speak horse. He says his name is ‘Susan’ and he wants you to respect his life choices.”
The Doctor continues his chat with the horse later, and not only is it funny, it reveals that it really doesn’t matter who Eleven is talking to because Smith can play equally well off anyone.
After the townsfolk carry the Doctor out of the saloon and prepare to turn him over to the Gunsligher, Isaac intervenes to get them to stop. The Doctor follows Isaac back to the sheriff’s office, where he meets Kahler Jex, the “Doctor” the Gunslinger wants to kill. The Doctor comes up with a plan to go get the TARDIS and on the way he gets distracted by wanting to see Jex’s spaceship, which is where he discovers the alien scientist’s actions during the war. The weaker parts of the episode start to emerge, as Whithouse rushes the Doctor to anger and into making rash decisions, and then has Amy instantly pull his back from that ledge. Without Isaac, we lose the most interesting secondary character.
Shortly after this, Isaac gets shot and that’s that. The rest of the narrative happens, but it often feels like Matt Smith has wandered into a Tenth Doctor serial. It does feel like Whithouse quite knows what to do with the Eleventh Doctor. Amy and Rory are nearly non-existent in the story beyond Amy getting to tell off the Doctor for even thinking it was okay to turn Jex over to the Gunslinger.
Enjoyable and then mundane, A TOWN CALLED MERCY is rather enjoyable until the sheriff dies, and then it’s just a slow-moving policy debate. Too much of the episode feels like Toby Whithouse (whose scripts I usually enjoy) is trying to force in nods to the Western genre without actually making a Western. With this era of America set up to be the lens through which we examine Jex’s life, it’s a shame that “America” disappears in the latter half of the story, only to come back for a moment in the Epilogue, when it’s revealed that the Gunslinger is staying on Earth to protect the town of Mercy.