This review contains spoilers.
With a run of solid stories from the offset, Toby Whithouse is looking more and more like the candidate as the program’s next show runner when Steven Moffat eventually decides to hang up his timey-wimey hat and move on. Though his stories have often been relatively simple in terms of narrative structure, there’s always been something more interesting lurking beneath the surface, often bringing into question an element of the Doctor’s very character. 2006’s School Reunion saw Whithouse questioning the Doctor’s desire to leave people behind before they get old (by rather majestically re-introducing Sarah Jane Smith) while stories like Vampires in Venice and The God Complex use exciting narratives to make the Doctor’s companions question their role as travellers on the Tardis and how this effects their own relationships and lives.
A Town Called Mercy again has that element of questioning behind its frankly stunning visuals and fun exterior. The Doctor lands in an American town of the old west which is being tormented by a cyborg gunslinger after an alien doctor who has taken refuge in the town. An initial plan to help the alien escape from the unexplained hunting of the gunslinger goes gradually array as the history of this alien doctor is found out from his ship’s computer.
The film brings to mind the visuals of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns but also is extremely similar to Howard Hawk’s Rio Bravo as well as recalling Westworld. This is the first time the Doctor’s been to the Wild West since 1965’s The Gunfighters. However unlike that rather light story, this is an episode that gets darker and darker by the minute. That undercurrent previously mentioned is a questioning of the doctor’s moral judgement and the hypocrisy that surrounds it. When finding out why the gunslinger is hunting the complex and well played Kahler Jex, the Doctor instantly loses his cool, in a similar fashion to various 10th Doctor outbursts and holds him at gunpoint outside of the town for the gunslinger to get him. However far from being “the man who never would” this time he’s the man who really doesn’t know if he would.
Amy is the character to bring him back down to earth and seems almost Donna like in her berating of the Doctor when he travels alone. As the Sherriff is killed by the gunslinger, The Doctor is given the duty of Sherriff of the town. This is where the story really owes its debt to Rio Bravo with a number of similar scenes played out as it becomes clear that people are in danger because of the jail harbouring this alien war criminal.
An exciting shoot out leads to Kahler Jex reaching his spaceship but in turn he commits suicide using the self destruct sequence. Earlier on, the character is given a wonderful speech about his race’s beliefs on the afterlife. It’s possibly one of the most touching and well thought out metaphors for the Doctor the show has seen and his death seems extremely poignant because of it.
The story echoes that of Paul Cornell’s Human Nature/Family of Blood. However whereas there, the Doctor is the character on the run who gets people killed, here it’s a morally challenged war criminal. This makes the story both effective and a powerful hint at the possible justice heading towards the Doctor if he continues on the path of a judge, jury and executioner. This instantly makes it a breath of fresh air of last week’s poorly handled murder of a character at the Doctor’s hands and rightfully questions his role as a traveller rather than a God.
The performances are all solid, Matt Smith in particular being given a script worthy of his immense talents. Adrian Scarborough also brings control and tension to the nuanced Kahler Jex, resisting the temptation to play him as a simple villain. Murray Gold produces an excellent take on the western guitar based soundtracks of said Spaghetti westerns and is a massive improvement of the soundtrack to the Doctor’s last western adventure…
A Town Called Mercy raised the game of this series two fold. Its cinematic scope, quiet consideration and point bank questioning blew away the dusty cobwebs that for too long have been covering a universe where there were there seemed to be no consequences for actions. It may have been a slow start but this season is looking set to be wonderful if the standards of this exciting adventure are upheld and perhaps even surpassed.