Doctor Who, Series 7, Episode 3: “A Town Called Mercy”
Written by Toby Whithouse
Directed by Saul Metzstein
Airs Saturdays at 9pm (ET) on BBC America
This week, on Doctor Who: The Doctor, Amy, and Rory are thrust into a moral quandary when they miss Mexico by 200 miles and end up in Mercy.
For a series as adept at reinventing its genre and tone as Doctor Who has been, this show has had a blind spot towards westerns for most of its run. Besides the silly and fun First Doctor story “The Gunslingers”, which saw the Doctor and Companions Steven and Dodo swept up into events at the OK Corral, the series has eschewed the genre altogether. Sci-fi and Westerns have long gone hand in hand, ever since the frontier became the Final Frontier, and so the prospect of the Doctor once again rocking a Stetson and getting his cowboy on seemed exciting, to say the least.
Unfortunately, though director Saul Metzstein makes fine use of the lovely Spanish location and the performances as strong throughout, the script lets down this episode, leaving it little more than a mess by the end. There are some plot contrivances here, to be sure, but the real problem comes in the characterization. Isaac, played ably by the charismatic Ben Browder, is barely explored and leaves the action far too soon for his death to have much impact. Browder manages to sell the groaners he’s given (“America’s the land of second chances” in particular comes to mind), but writer Toby Whithouse breezes past the Civil War with a passing mention and cuts Isaac out of any particular examination of wartime atrocities and the morality of vengeance. Isaac barely makes an impression on the audience, let alone the Doctor, and so the Doctor’s actions, supposedly spurred by Isaac’s sacrifice, feel far more plot- than character-based.
Rory is also cut out of most of the action. As a nurse, not to mention a highly moral person, one would think he’d have strong opinions about Kahler-Jek’s surgical wartime atrocities, but if he does, we don’t get to find out what they are. The episode all but sweeps Jek’s Mengele-like atrocities under the rug shortly after they’re introduced in favor of examining the Doctor. Then there’s Kahler-Jek himself, whose motivations are murky, at best. It’s great to see such a grey villain, but he makes so many 180-degree turns here it’s difficult to follow. He’s the kind, humble doctor, then the Hannibal-like villain (complete with painful, “We’re not so different, you and I” scene), then the desperate fugitive, and finally the noble, self-sacrificing hero. These beats aren’t impossible to pull off with one character, but the extremes each is taken to strip away any believability from both Jek and the episode itself.
The Doctor’s motivations are similarly whiplash-inducing. The downside of the Doctor dropping by for adventures with the Ponds every decade or so, rather than travelling consistently, is that we miss his character progression. His increased severity and cruelty towards his opponents has been a constant so far this season, and perhaps if Amy had been with him instead of Nefertiti last time Solomon would’ve gone out differently, but his anger towards repeat offenders, particularly those he feels responsible for, is a relatively new thing. There was no mention of this in the season opener, when it would have absolutely been appropriate, and so to have it brought up so forcefully here feels jarring, to say the least. Matt Smith gives his scenes his all, but while the performance is utterly believable and powerful in the moment, when put into the larger context of the character and his journey, it feels off.
While Amy’s actions this week feature one glaring, frustrating element, on the whole, she’s the highlight of the episode, embodying the philosophy of the show. The head-slapper from her is the utter dissonance between her heart-felt, concerned, and upset, “This is what happens when you travel on your own for too long”, which is played with great conviction by Karen Gillan, and her lack of concern at the end of the episode when she and Rory back out of further travels, for now. It’s clear the writers are exploring Amy and Rory’s two lives, their time with the Doctor and without, and so it makes sense for them to continue the pattern of one-off adventures followed by time at home, but unlike Martha’s similar decision at the end of series 3, Amy and Rory’s abandonment of a Doctor who clearly needs them isn’t motivated by self-preservation and a family in tatters, it’s ‘cause they don’t feel like it. If Amy hadn’t noticed the change in the Doctor and correctly attributed it to time alone, this would be different, but as it stands, this is a disappointing, and uncharacteristic, decision from someone who’s usually a better friend.
That’s not to say there aren’t positive elements to the story. The cinematography is great and the central conflict is an interesting one, if a bit unexplored. Watching the Doctor struggle with himself is a nice change of pace and the denouement we appear to be getting with the Ponds is an absolutely new one in the history of the show, not something most 49-year-old series can claim. As ever, the performances are strong and while the episode goes somewhat off the rails when it turns towards the dramatic after Isaac’s death, the earlier comedic moments are a lot of fun. With only two Amy and Rory stories left, we’re approaching the end of a chapter in the show- here’s hoping their final stories favor “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” more than ”A Town Called Mercy”.
What did you think of this episode? Anyone else stoked for next week’s Pond-centric ep? Were the townspeople, besides Isaac, incredibly annoying, or was that just me? Most of the internet seems to love this episode- please tell me why I’m wrong by posting in the comments below!