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The Alien Gunslinger

September 27, 2012

The latest in this series of belated reviews tackles the morality quagmire that was A Town Called Mercy. This episode may have looked quite safe, using the classic western format to have a bit of fun with, but in reality the complicated question of revenge versus mercy made it anything but.


For me this episode was a welcome return to the classic ‘show up and see what’s going on’ format, with the Doctor, Amy and Rory arriving on the border of Mercy and strolling into town to check things out. As with most of the episode the western theme lent itself well to this scene. The glimpses of suspicious locals and the Doctor’s unceremoniously swift escort out of town could have seemed contrite and pantomime, but the ensuing sense of urgency, the appearance of the gunslinger and the genuine fear of the locals dispelled any fears of this episode being just a silly excuse for the Doctor to wear a stetson.

Throughout A Town Called Mercy the western setting continued to be the perfect backdrop for a well thought out story with a convincing moral struggle at its heart. It also managed this without resorting to caricature, which is something that last series’ pirate episode, The Curse of the Black Spot, struggled with. As an example, the young cowboy who challenged the Doctor outside the prison, although a bit of a stereotype, was nonetheless a believable character. He was afraid for his town and his friends and was trying to do something about it. On the other hand the crew of the pirate ship, although enjoyable to watch, were stereotypes that were sadly on the wrong side of farcical. That isn’t to say that The Curse of the Black Spot wasn’t fun – it was and even had a fairly strong emotional core to it – but it lacked the intellectual and moral depth of A Town Called Mercy. For my money, The Curse of the Black Spot was a good example of children’s television, whereas A Town Called Mercy was something that on some level will resonate with all audiences, on multiple levels, and which still enjoys the odd Stetson or two.

A town called…

The question of mercy was one of the main themes here, and specifically the juxtaposition of mercy with revenge. Devoted Doctor Who fans cannot have failed to notice all the references to sacrifice, war, betrayal and running away which will no doubt have struck a chord with the Doctor. Jex’s “you cannot apply the politics of peace to what I did” comment probably would have as well. When the young cowboy accuses the Doctor of “lacking the nerve to do what needs to be done“, i.e. let someone die so that others may live, we know that in the wake of the Time War this accusation will have been a painful one. Nobody but the Doctor is more aware of those he has let down. Maybe this is why he almost lets the gunslinger get Jex – in his words, honouring all the people who died because of his mercy – and why it isn’t until Amy says “we can’t be like him, we have to be better than him” that the Doctor changes his mind. This clash between Amy and the Doctor was particularly well acted by both parties, and I thought “this is what happens when you travel alone for too long” was a very effective throw-back to what Donna said to the Tenth Doctor in The Runaway Bride about him needing someone there to stop him.

However, in light of the above there is a notable disparity between the Doctor’s attitude here and in the previous episode. Here he relents and tries to save Jex. In Dinosaurs on a Spaceship he happily lets the missiles from the Indian Space Agency target and blow up Solomon’s ship, clearly killing him. I mentioned in my last post how this didn’t seem very ‘Doctorly’ of him and I had put that down to character evolution. Now I’m not so sure. Admittedly Solomon was a particularly nasty character who had threatened to kill the Doctor and his companions whereas Jex’s acts were committed in war and are arguably less morally culpable (“you cannot apply the politics of peace to what I did“), but even so having these two characters appear in concurrent episodes and having the Doctor react so differently to them does seem a bit inconsistent.

And while we’re talking about references, the other one that I enjoyed was about there being two alien doctors and the Doctor’s comment “we’re like buses!” Keen fans will have spotted a parallel here with the Christmas episode The Next Doctor, though frankly the less said about that episode the better.

The Best in the West

Turning to the episode generally now I must again commend the production team for their efforts. This was another very well put-together episode from the props and costumes to the staging and effects. I particularly liked the scene where the Doctor was in Jex’s space ship looking at his personal files. Even though the only thing we saw was the Doctor’s face and his reactions we knew full well what he was looking at. As anyone who’s ever seen The Woman In Black on stage will tell you, never underestimate the power of effective lighting and sound.

A Town Called Mercy was also very well paced. In a way the twist when we find out who Jex really is was quite obviously coming, because without it everything would have been sorted out less than halfway through and there wouldn’t have been anything to do for the rest of the episode. The way the plot emerged from this twist was very cleverly managed and meant that the audience had time to appreciate the moral implications of what was going on as well as enjoying all the cowboy and I-speak-horse stuff.

The use of the narrator at the end of the episode was a perfect piece of closure, rounding off the gunslinger’s story with what I suppose is the closest thing he could get to a happy ending.

Best bits:

  • I’ve matured, I’m 1200 years old now, plus I don’t want to miss the archers.
  • The stetson with a hole in reminded me of how River shot the stetson of the Doctor’s head at the start of The Impossible Astronaut.
  • The undertaker taking coffin measurements for the Doctor gave some good moments of light relief
  • The horse called Susan (“and he wants you to respect his life choices“) was very “I speak baby” a la A Good Man Goes To War and Closing Time.
  • He’s programmed to take innocent lives only if absolutely necessary.” “Oh we’ll colour me reassured!
  • The frightened villagers were reminiscent of the passengers in Midnight.
  • He may be a criminal and a bit creepy…” “And still in the room!
  • Our friends are going to start noticing that we’re aging faster than them.
  • I am a creature of war, I have no role to play during peace.” “Except maybe to protect it.
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