Me and Doctor Who go way back, all the way to the late 1970s. Not far enough to say that I enjoyed The Gunfighters on first viewing, but certainly enough to be able to say that while westerns have been rare in the show, they haven’t been completely missing.
They just haven’t been overtly set in the old west. Planet of the Spider‘s Metebelis 3 setting is only the most obvious of these.
[pullquote align=right]Kahler Jex is essentially Davros, a brilliant scientist who has melded flesh and metal to build an all conquering army to end a seemingly endless war. Doctor Who only needs one irredeemable mad scientist.[/pullquote]As a result, the whole PR exercise that has gone on concerning A Town Called Mercy has been slightly lost on me; clearly I look at things in a slightly different way to most fans (or PR people). I suspect that my feelings about the episode’s slightly obvious conclusion for Kahler Jex comes from this same alternative viewpoint.
After all, this guy is essentially Davros, a brilliant scientist who has melded flesh and metal to build an all conquering army to end a seemingly endless war. Doctor Who only needs one Davros, one irredeemable mad scientist; as redemption is a key element of much adventure fiction and certainly the western, Kahler Jex was always going to make that sacrifice.
Of course, there’s something else, something long-time fans of Doctor Who have been missing and which sadly isn’t addressed here: the alien-free historical. The last time the Time Lord went back in time for a full adventure without any form of alien invasion, god like entities and machines and just found intrigue within the minds of mere men in a historical setting was 1982’s Black Orchid. Given that the old west was dangerous enough without steampunking it, A Town Called Mercy in some ways feels like a lost opportunity.
But I’m grumbling, when really I should be enthusing. Almeria in Spain is the home to countless classic westerns, and its use in this episode brings a delicious authenticity that is rarely found in Doctor Who, even now. Production values are as high as ever, with the visual look as striking and impressive as the last time the series utilized a movie set – The Fires of Pompeii back in 2008. Add to that some wonderful camera angles and the atmosphere of desolation, desperation and isolation and it can be confirmed that director Saul Metzstein has done a smashing job.
Sure, there are downsides; there is little among the townsfolk of Mercy that endears the viewer, save for the little girl in the church. Similarly, there are plot oddities, such as the persisting electricity after Kahler Jex blows up his craft, the apparent source of the (once again flickering) power.
Along with the location and a compelling story (featuring a moral debate between Kahler Jex and the Doctor of the type only heard in Big Finish audios) the true strength of A Town Called Mercy is in the guest casting. Ben Browder, a man who is known to many genre TV fans as a star of Farscape and Stargate SG-1, is superb as the ill-fated sheriff, Isaac. Similarly, Adrian Scarborough once again displays a fascinating new edge to his long list of characters with the polite, principled yet guilt-ridden Kahler Jex, a man with a past who is trying to find some form of redemption for his crimes. While he believes helping the simple townsfolk is the answer, one of his surviving creations, Kahler-Mas (Dominic Kemp) has other thoughts.
Accusations that Kemp channels Yul Brynner’s Westworld “gunslinger” are unimaginative. This character is more like Robocop combined with Marshall BraveStarr, the kids’ cartoon from the late 1980s.
Conspicuous by their lack of any real impact on the episode, however, are the Ponds – at first glance, at least. However looking at things a little more deeply, this is just another example of the Doctor’s slow separation from his young friends, who continue to age in his absence. While we avoid further clunky methods to reunite Amy and Rory with the Time Lord, there remains an unusual dynamic between them – the Doctor’s attempts to let Kahler Jex die at the hands of his would-be killer frustrated by Amy’s loyalty and childhood belief in the Raggedy Doctor. Arthur Darvill, meanwhile, gets some memorable moments but on the whole he is overlooked in the script, reduced to the role of “wanting to stay alive” – something he wasn’t too acutely aware of when tapping on the casing of a Dalek two weeks ago.
All in all, A Town Called Mercy is a memorable episode. It adds to the series’ mythos, with an interesting new race, includes more of the odd electrical stuff that has been surreptitiously taking place in the previous episodes and shows a Doctor who is closer to the last days of his tenth persona than the warmed-by-Pond incarnation that we have come to know and love since he crashed in Leadworth.
But: when are we going to get a genuine historical episode, one which drops the Doctor and friends into a real historical situation with no alien activity?