DOCTOR WHO Recap: A Town Called Mercy (7.3)

 By Ruthie

Welcome, welcome once again to another episode of Doctor Who. Now, you may recall that last week’s episode didn’t push my happy buttons particularly well, but, since this episode was the one that got previewed at Comiccon over the summer, I have high hopes that this one will be awesome. Incidentally, you may also recall that I grumped a fair bit about the Doctor essentially murdering Argus Filch at the end of the episode, and how I felt that this didn’t jive with the Doctor’s character. I’ve had a few people tell me I was way off about that—the end of “The Waters of Mars” was cited at one point—and that it matches very well with certain points in the Doctor’s past. In general, I’d say yes, but it seemed to me that since the reboot, we’ve been building a pretty specific character arc for the Doctor, and this just didn’t seem to fit. Ten had his moments of vengeance, but even at his least merciful, he didn’t let Harriet Jones get away with Torchwooding the Sycorax. Yes, he went a bit nuts there at the end, but Eleven’s response to that has so far been to be even more compassionate. Either the conclusion was out of character, or the Doctor is changing. Rumor has it that this episode is going to delve into that very issue further, so I’m looking forward to that...

The T-200 hunts for John Connors Great-grand Pappy.
“A Town Called Mercy” begins with a voiceover from a woman, recollecting a story about “A man who fell from the stars.” She has a southern accent, and that, combined with the fact that we immediately start seeing spaceships and a POV shot that is heavy with computer overlays and data readings has me immediately thinking of Firefly. (Let’s all take a moment to remember Firefly and how fantastic it was, and how it died well before its time. Okay. Now, back to the Doctor.) The computer overlays turn out to be the vantage point of a heavily armed robot or cyborg. He has hunted down a man with a tattooed face, who he orders to “make peace with your gods.” The man doesn’t stand a chance, and as he dies, he asks if he is the last. “There is one more,” the cyborg says before delivering the killing shot. “The Doctor.” (Dunh-dunh-dunh!)

The Doctor and the Ponds are outside the town, which looks remarkably authentic for an Old West that was constructed and filmed in Spain. They are perplexed by a low boundary of wood and stone that circles the town (and the huge “Keep Out” sign on the gate), and this whole exchanged is viewed by the same killer cyborg who was there earlier. The Doctor chooses to ignore the sign, quipping “I see ‘Keep Out’ signs as suggestions, mostly—like ‘Dry Clean Only.’” (“Ah,” my husband quips. “That explains a lot of Rose Tyler’s outfits.”) In town, everyone glares at them in a cliché fashion, and the Doctor notes the old school electric streetlamps, which are apparently about ten years anachronistic. They pop into the saloon, and the music stops as they enter. When the Doctor introduces himself, everyone jumps out of his chair, and the town undertaker hops up with his tape measure and begins measuring up the Doctor for his coffin. Excellent, that’s nearly all the major Western movie clichés done and dusted in the first five minutes of show. Now we just need the showdown at high noon and my bingo card will be fully checked off. A young man asks the Doctor if he’s an alien, and when he says yes, he’s unceremoniously carried out of town and dumped on the other side of the boundary.

"Okay, fine. No more card tricks. Sorry"
The men of town pull their guns on the Doctor to keep him on the other side as the Cyborg begins to appear behind him. The man in black—the town preacher, it seems—recites the Lord’s Prayer in an ominous fashion. He just gets out “Thy Will be done,” when someone fires into the air. He’s a swarthy, good looking fellow who orders the Doctor back across the line, flashing his shiny Marshall’s badge for punctuation. I like him immediately. (This is Isaac, who is played by Ben Browder, who you may recall as John Crichton from Farscape, or Cameron Mitchell from Stargate SG1. I didn’t recognize him at first—I spent this whole episode going “Where do I know that guy from?” The facial hair and accent suit him immensely. Rawr.) The cyborg vanishes. The townspeople tell Isaac that “He said he’s an alien doctor!” and “he could be the one!” Isaac cryptically chastises them, “You know he ain’t.”

The Ponds and the Doctor follow Isaac back to the jailhouse. He explains that the cyborg is the Gunslinger, who has been holding them all prisoner for the last three weeks. Even supplies don’t get in, and the whole town is in danger of starvation. They are hostage until they hand over “the alien doctor.” The Doctor has deduced from the earlier discussion that the correct alien doctor is around, and asks to meet him. Sure enough, a creepy little guy with a tattooed face and a bowler hat pops up out of the corner and introduces himself as Kahler-Jex, the doctor. (He’s another familiar face, British actor Adrian Scarborough, who has appeared in a half-dozen films and movies, including “Gosford Park” and “The King’s Speech”.) Jex explains that his ship crashed in the desert, the people of Mercy pulled him from the wreckage, and he stayed on to be their doctor. He rigged up the electricity for light and heat and saved a great number in a recent cholera epidemic. He’s much beloved in town.

"Gentlemen, this town is not living up to it's name!"
The Doctor asks why the gunslinger wants Jex, and Isaac cuts him off with “It don’t matter. America is the land of second chances.” Jex seems very sympathetic to the people who want to hand him over, and the Doctor continues to seem perplexed. He suggests they fetch the TARDIS and use it to evacuate the town, and enlists Rory and Isaac to provide some subterfuge to distract the gunslinger. So a moment later (to music that is REALLY strengthening the “Firefly” vibe of this whole episode, may I add), Isaac is dressed in Jex’s hat and coat and running with Rory through the desert. The cyborg sees them, but his screens warn him of a high risk of injury to an innocent, and he does not shoot. The Doctor, meanwhile, borrows the Preacher’s horse. (“He’s called Joshua,” says the preacher. “No he isn’t,” the Doctor corrects. “I speak Horse. He’s called Susan. And he wants you to respect his life choices.”) Ooh, and then the Doctor rides off. Stetson and horseback? The Doctor is looking very cool.

Amy is waiting with Jex, and asks if he’d like a ride back to the Kahler. His answer sort of creepily implies that he maybe did some bad stuff back there and would prefer to stay here where he can have a second chance. Hmm. Wondering if he crashed on a prison ship and the cyborg is maybe a warden sent to retrieve him?

Rory and Isaac hide below a rock to wait for the Doctor, but Susan and the Doctor have taken a slight detour. He is tracing the electric line through the desert and back to Jex’s ship. Fiddling with the line makes the lights back in town flicker, which worries Jex. (And here, I’d just like to note that the lightbulbs are made from upside-down mason jars. Oh, well done, set department. Nice attention to detail!) The ship itself looks like a giant plastic egg sticking out of the desert, and, as Susan points out, it is completely undamaged.

"Here ya go, one leather duster, extra dusty."
The gunslinger has spotted Rory and Isaac and is about to shoot! The Doctor’s sonic screwdriver, however, sets off the alarm on Jex’s ship, attracting the gunslinger’s attention. It’s a very loud alarm; Jex and Amy hear it from in town. The Doctor turns off the ship’s security—“Incinerating Intruders for three centuries!”—and calls up Jex’s personal files. We can’t see what the Doctor sees, but we do hear the audio: “Names of deceased subjects can be found on the drop-down menu,” followed by lots of screaming. So. Not good. The Doctor’s face seems to reflect that opinion.

Jex has totally lost it now, and he pulls a gun on Amy. The gunslinger, meanwhile, pulls a gun on the Doctor. This is one of the best shots of his face we’ve had yet, and there is a very strong resemblance to Robocop. The Doctor pleads with the gunslinger that this isn’t justice, and suggests a trial; the gunslinger cryptically responds that “When he starts killing your people, you can use your justice.” Jex, meanwhile, has decided it’s time to flee, and wants to essentially use Amy as a human shield. Luckily, as he backs out the door, he backs into Isaac’s gun. Jex tries to talk his way out, but the Doctor returns and denounces him as a liar and a murderer.

The Doctor explains that Jex and his team lied to people to get them to volunteer for “special training” and then experimented on them, attempting to fuse their bodies with weaponry and turn them into cyborg super soldiers. Jex tries to justify his actions by explaining that they saved lives by building an army that ended the war, but the Doctor demands to know how many died screaming on the operating table before they found their advantage. Jex goes on to say that after the war, they “decommissioned” the cyborgs (a term that I find extremely worrying when you consider that they are applying it to sentient beings—beings who are essentially their saviors—but this point is not going to be revisited for the rest of the episode no matter how disturbing I find it and the casual way it’s thrown around here), but the Gunslinger’s circuitry was “damaged” and he went rogue and started killing off the team that created him. Jex fled the planet.

"Seriously Officer, I borrowed it from my friend, Mork."
Jex tries to compare himself to the Doctor, and this backfires. Instead of being taunted, the Doctor grabs Jex and hauls him out to the borderline. A crowd develops instantly, and the Doctor snatches some spectator’s gun out of the holster and holds it on Jex. Whoa. Just, whoa. Remember “The End of Time,” when the Woman in White told Wilf that he had to get the Doctor to take arms, and how Wilf begged and begged the Doctor to take his gun, and the Doctor refused again and again? Weapons are not his style. The Doctor is all about situational diversion, intellect, and reason—not superior weaponry. That is his entire philosophy. Heck, remember in “The Empty Child,” he mentioned that he once visited a plant that manufactured super-guns and shut the whole place down and replaced it with a banana farm? So what is going on in his head—how far has he snapped—that he thinks the correct course of action is to not only execute this man by throwing him to his murderer, but to steal a GUN and hold it to his head in order to do so? If you know the Doctor, this moment is truly chilling. Almost disturbing.

“You wouldn’t,” Jex pleads. “I genuinely don’t know,” the Doctor responds, and the moment successfully crosses that border into Disturbing territory.

Amy follows his lead, snatching someone’s pistol away and firing it into the air. She holds it on the Doctor, who dismisses her, certain she won’t shoot him. “Maybe I’ve changed,” she snaps. “You’ve clearly been taking stupid lessons since I saw you last.” She accidentally fires the gun while she’s gesturing wildly with it, and then shoots at the ground. Amy has clearly never learned basic gun safety. Shoot, I’ve never even touched a gun in real life, and even I know that you don’t flail with it and you don’t put your finger on the trigger unless you intend to shoot. Mind you, Amy’s Scottish, and I’m from Texas, so this could be an unfair comparison. Sorry Amy.

“Everyone who isn’t an American, drop your gun right now!” Isaac shouts. Good advice.

The Doctor confronts Amy. He wants to end this, and executing Jex will do that. Amy argues that this isn’t their way, and the Doctor cries out in frustration. The bad guys keep coming back. Today he is going to stop being merciful; today he is going to think of the victims—“His, the Master’s, the daleks’—all the people who died because of [his] mercy.” Ah. It’s guilt. He’s guilty. He feels responsible for the misdeeds of those who he once pitied. He’s been beating himself up for a long time. That started back before “The Wedding of River Song,” and chronologically, I think a lot of time has passed in the Doctor’s personal timeline since then. (At some point in this episode, he mentions that he’s 1200 years old. That’s a big jump. After he first met Amy, he mentioned he was 907, and then at Lake Silencio, in “The Impossible Astronaut,” he mentions that he was about 1100. So there he had 200 years on his own. And now, if he’s up to 1200, he tacked on another century. That’s a long time for anyone to be alone with their thoughts, much less the Doctor.) Amy recognizes this as well. “This is what happens when you travel alone for too long,” she says and adds “We can’t be like him. We have to be better than him.” The words seem to hit the Doctor like a slap, and he begrudgingly agrees.

The Doctor orders Jex back across the line, but Jex is seemingly frozen. The gunslinger appears, just inches behind Jex’s head. Jex recognizes the gunslinger and calls him by name—Kahler-Tek. Before the gunslinger can shoot, Isaac leaps and pushes him out of the way. Isaac is hit by the Gunslinger’s fire. As he dies, Isaac tells the Doctor he has to stay, to protect Jex, and to protect the town. He presses his Marshall’s badge into the Doctor’s hand. No! Why do all the best characters on this show die or get their memories erased or something equally horrible? What? No, I’m not crying. You shut your mouth.

The Doctor tries to reason with the gunslinger, who issues an ultimatum. He wants Jex by noon tomorrow or the whole town dies.

The pilot for Dorktown Sheriff was not picked up.
Night falls, and the preacher enters the jail and orders the Doctor outside. The whole town is out there. They want the Doctor to take a walk and let them handle the Jex problem for themselves. The Doctor refuses. They’re clearly frightened people, worried about their families. A young man threatens the Doctor with his gun, and the Doctor pleads with them, asking them not to become what Isaac didn’t want. The young man says he’ll shoot, and the Doctor explains how violence causes violence, how Jex hurt that man, and now because of that the young man now wants to shoot the Doctor, and how if he does, it’s only going to keep going. (The speech and the staging here remind me very forcefully of an early episode of The Twilight Zone, “Mr. Denton on Doomsday”, in which a talented gunslinger became an alcoholic because he could no longer stand the cycle of violence that his gift caused; a chance encounter forces him back into the lifestyle, and he becomes so desperate to end it that when he is given a magic potion that will solve his problem, its net effect is that the next man to shoot at him hits him in the hand, rendering him unable to shoot again.) The Doctor promises to save their families. “Is he really worth the risk?” the young man asks. “Don’t know,” the Doctor answers, “but you are.” It’s enough. The words are enough to placate the people for now, and they disperse.

Inexplicably, Jex tries to goad the Doctor again. He claims that the Doctor doesn’t know what to do with him because he’s both the saintly doctor and the mad scientist, but the Doctor will have none of that. He knows that Jex began working to save the town as a way of doing penance for his misdeeds, and that justice isn’t that simple. You can’t pick your punishment. Jex tells the Doctor that his people believe that when they die, they must climb a mountain while carrying the souls of all those they wronged. This, he says, is why he fears death. He finishes his speech with, “We all carry our prisons with us,” a line that gives the Doctor an idea.

It is noon, as evidenced by the height of the sun in the sky. The Doctor waits in the town square; the townspeople have gathered in the church to pray; Amy guards Jex in the jailhouse. As the clock strikes noon, the gunslinger crosses the borderline and approaches the Doctor. They face each other, their hands twitching above their holsters. On the strike of noon they draw! (BINGO!) But the Doctor has pulled not a weapon, but his screwdriver. Its pulse temporarily disables the cyborg gunslinger, who shoots wildly for a moment while he gets his bearings.

Amy releases Jex from his cell. Outside, Rory and the young man from the night before are waiting, each with a tattoo identical to Jex’s drawn on their faces. The young man takes off, and sure enough, the cyborg locks onto his running form as his internal computer identifies the symbol. But he sees that the face is wrong, and disengages.

"Can I borrow your screwdriver to fix my frames, Doc?
Inside the church, a frightened child knocks over a stack of books, and the gunslinger bursts into the building. The people scream and cry, and the Doctor—his own face symbol freshly-drawn—runs for the church. He passes the real Jex in the street and orders him to run, to get out of town. The gunslinger said he would kill everyone in town, but he lowers his weapon. He leaves the church with no casualties, save for fatal damage to the doors he burst through.

Jex runs through the desert, and approaches his ship. The gunslinger locks on to another tattooed figure, but his computer immediately recognizes the Doctor. The cyborg deactivates his automatic targeting. He approaches the Doctor, who tells him that Jex is gone. The Doctor pleads with him to leave the town, explaining that any moment he will see the smoke of Jex’s ship as it leaves the atmosphere. His words are cut off, though, when Jex uses his ship’s systems to speak to the gunslinger, again addressing him by name. He asks where Kahler-Tek is from and if he will go back there; he confesses that he is certain that if he runs, the Gunslinger will hunt him down again and more innocents will be put in harm’s way.

Then he activates the ship’s self-destruct.

Apparently Jex overheard the Doctor’s speech the night before. He won’t allow the cyborg to kill him, because then the violence will never end. He will atone for his wrongs by setting his victim free. “I have to face the souls of those I’ve wronged,” he says. “Perhaps they will be kind.” I actually pity him when he says this. There’s some nobility there.

The Gunslinger and the Doctor watch as the distant flame and smoke of the ship rise above the town. The Gunslinger’s face is pained and full of a deep well of emotions. The Doctor offers to take him home, but the Gunslinger refuses. He intends to walk into the desert and self-destruct. “I am a creature of war,” he says. “I have no role to play during peace.” But the Doctor has a better idea.

A moment later, Eleven and the Ponds burst out of the jailhouse, all happy and satisfied. He wants to take them on another adventure, but Amy begs off. “Our friends are going to start noticing we’re aging faster than them.” Hey, a shout-out to my favorite, often-ignored side effect of time travel! Cool! But this is also a bit of a departure for the Doctor’s companions. It’s like the Ponds have almost begun to think of the Doctor as a hobby, like a vacation house they visit from time to time when they want a break from normal life. How different is that from Rose Tyler’s desperation to stay with the Doctor, or Donna Noble’s heartbreaking “I would have traveled with you forever?” I wonder if it’s different for them because they have each other, or if this gradual withdrawal is a response to everything they suffered with their daughter? My husband suggested “Wendy syndrome”; they’ve begun to grow up, while Peter Pan is staying a boy forever. Do companions simply outgrow the Doctor? (Admittedly, I haven’t watched a lot of Classic Who since I was a kid, but my best memory is that even in that series, either they died, he left them, or something happened that traumatized them into going.) It seems very sad to me, but a mundane kind of everyday sad, rather than the profound kind of tear-jerking sad.
"Oops. I'm not on this show..."

The town watches the TARDIS vanish, and the voiceover from the beginning resumes and tells us that “The people of Mercy were used to the strange and the impossible.” She describes the curious arrangements in the town, a place where peace and the rule of law were firmly established—yet the town of Mercy has no police or sheriff or Marshall. As she describes this, we see the Gunslinger on the rocks overlooking town. The camera pans up to him, and we see the badge now pinned to his chest as he swells with satisfaction and purpose. (Further cementing the Robocop connection mentioned earlier, by the way.) It’s a pleasing conclusion. The Doctor ultimately showed mercy, and the cycle of violence was ended. The victim of war found peace.

We get our preview for next week, and it looks like we’ll be exploring that sad sort of withdrawal of the Ponds in the next episode. I’m interested to see how they develop this, since, if I recall correctly, the Ponds are leaving us in the fifth episode, and next week will be number four. I really like Amy, and I frankly adore Rory, but I’m also kind of ready for them to go. (Especially knowing who our next companion is going to be, I find myself a bit impatient to get to there. No, I’m not going to say who—I don’t want to spoil it for those who like surprises.) It feels like their story is pretty much told. Mind you, they could always come back for the odd one-off or guest visit, like Martha Jones did a time or two. But what do you think? Did you like this week’s episode? Hate it? Want to weigh in on the companion situation? Talk to me in the comments.

I’ll see you next week, when we’ll be visiting “The Power of Three.” Oh look—Mark Williams is back! Lovely!

Here's a peek:


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