It’s been a long time since Doctor Who tackled the Wild West genre, not since William Hartnell’s ‘The Gunslingers’ and, well, let’s not say any more about that… Of course, series 6 had already introduced an American link in ‘The Impossible Astronaut’ but what we had here was a very different state of affairs, and the challenge was to see whether ‘A Town Called Mercy’ could live up to the epic expectations associated with any delve into the Wild West genre.
In one sense, ‘A Town Called Mercy’ is as much a reworking of the Terminator franchise as an exploration of the Wild West. The Doctor and his companions find themselves in the town of Mercy in the mid-west of America in 1870, a town which is being terrorised by a mysterious cyborg (half man, half machine) intent on locating and terminating ‘the doctor’. It transpires, after an uncomfortable moment when the townsfolk attempt to throw the Doctor himself to the creature due to their desire to avoid entanglements with yet another alien doctor (yes, there is another one there), that the ‘doctor’ in question is infact a Kahler doctor called Jex (Adrian Scarborough), whose spaceship crashed just outside the town. As a way of repaying the people of the town for saving him by pulling him from the wreckage of his ship, Jex has taken on the role of their doctor, used the remains of his ship to provide Mercy with anachronistic electric lighting and heating, and saved the inhabitants of the town from an outbreak of cholera.
This bizarre situation was all proceeding swimmingly until three weeks before, when the mysterious cyborg gunslinger appeared, erected a boundary around Mercy, and demanded that the townsfolk surrender Jex for reasons unknown. Yes, as you have probably guessed, there’s a lot more to it than that and as Jex’s backstory gradually emerges, the boundaries between who is ‘good’ and ‘evil’ start to blur, not least in terms of the Doctor himself. Indeed, despite his initial instinct to ask very few questions, lure off the cyborg, retrieve the TARDIS and evacuate the entire town, inlcuding Jex, the Doctor is very soon a victim of his own curiosity, leading him to locate Jex’s spaceship and discover the startling truth behind the Kahler doctor, a revelation which leads the Doctor to question his own moral centre.
One of the great strengths of this episode is the blend of humour with some of the more serious elements, from scenes where the Doctor berates his horse for swearing (no, really), with the comic touch that Matt Smith does so well, to the confrontation between the Doctor and Jex where it seems that the Doctor is about to do the unthinkable and sacrifice Jex to the mercy of the gunslinger.
In comparison to last week’s thoroughly comic romp with the dinosaurs, there is much more of an exploration of the morality involved, reaching back into the Doctor’s past and his own guilt over the deaths he has caused in his time. It is left to Amy to be the Doctor’s conscience and to challenge him in his uncharacteristically cold stance; at one point, the Doctor, who famously hates guns, has a revolver in Jex’s face and genuinely does not know whether he is prepared to kill. It is Amy’s reminder that they ‘have to be better than him’ and the plea of ‘when did killing someone become an option?’ that finally sways the Doctor from the easy way out. Critics of Amy Pond (of which there always appear to be many) should take note; these scenes show both Amy, and Karen Gillan, at their best. These questions of rough justice and morality fit well into the genre of the episode and have strong resonance with the history of the television series, such as Tom Baker’s Doctor’s famous moral dilemma of whether he had the right to destroy the Daleks before their very creation, through to the scenes in ‘Dalek’ where Rose confronts Chrisopher Eccleston’s Doctor and prevents him from taking his cold revenge.
Another interesting theme running through the episode is the exploration of religion. As one would expect in contemporary terms, any story set in mid-western America in the late nineenth century would find religion important to the local inhabitants, hence the prominent role of the local pastor and the scenes where the townsfolk seek refuge in their chapel and pray for deliverance upon the gunslinger’s eventual assault on Mercy. More interesting, however, is how religion is explored in Kahler culture, the implication being that even though a society is advanced and ‘futuristic’, religious belief still has a place. Indeed, the cyborg’s instruction to his victims to make peace with their gods before their termination is not simply a pre-programmed instruction.
As Jex explains, when the Doctor put to him that his efforts to help the townspeople of Mercy was simply motivated by a self-serving desire to ease his own conscience, his race believes that in the afterlife, they need to climb a hill weighed down by their sins and souls of those that they have wronged. This underlines the fact that Jex is, in fact, acutely aware of the implications of the actions that have lead him to be the subject of the cyborg gunslinger’s terrible retribution, and it is this layered and three-dimensional development which makes the character so fascinating, and Scarborough’s execution of the character is flawless. Aside from Amy, Jex gets some of the best lines of the episode; when recognising the guilt that also plagues the Doctor regarding his past actions he describes staring at him as being ‘like staring into a mirror’.
Aside from Jex, the cyborg himself is also developed and gradually humanised as the episode progresses. The cold, robotic killer of the pre-title introduction is given identity and depth. One of the reasons that the cyborg has waited so long before making his final assault on Mercy is because his desire for revenge has been tempered by his sense of fairness and desire to avoid the spilling of innocent blood unless absolutely necessary. This is reinforced by clever touches and flourishes, such as the facial tattoo design which identifies the Kahler to the cyborg and which the Doctor and his companions use to try to confuse the cyborg in the final confrontation. The fact that neither the cyborg, nor his desired victim, are entirely good or bad makes the story doubly engaging and leads to a conclusion which may not be thoroughly unpredictable, but is imminently satisfying.
So, if the question were ‘how well does Doctor Who ‘do’ the Wild West?’, then the answer would have to be ‘pretty damn well’. The fusion of the ‘Wild West meets Terminator‘ allows for some of the best bits of both, giving the viewer such visual treats as the Doctor wearing a stetson and (apparently) about to engage in a shoot-out with a deranged cyborg, whilst also supplying an original story which engages with its balance of humour and gritty morality, making it a fantastic follow-up to the more light-hearted ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’. The only potential let-down is that in terms of the regular cast, this is much more the Doctor’s story than the Ponds’, which is good as it allows Matt Smith’s Doctor to shine, but which, despite Amy’s role in challenging the Doctor early in the episode, actually leaves the Ponds with little to do for much of the proceedings. This was something of a shame, but with their swan-song almost upon us, likely to be more than made up for in the weeks to come.