The Doctor gets a Stetson (and a gun!), and finds himself the reluctant Sheriff of a Western town under siege by a relentless cyborg, who goes by the name of the Gunslinger. But who is he and what does he want?
The answer seems to lie with the mysterious, Kahler-Jex, an alien doctor (yes another one!) whose initial appearance is hiding a dark secret.
I really don’t want to be cynical straight of the bat but I am certain – almost certain – that Toby Whithouse’s third episode for SERIES 7, A TOWN CALLED MERCY has a central plot that stems from the ‘other’ legendary science fiction series, STAR TREK - THE NEXT GENERATION, or, with a mild variation, an episode of the (excellently memorably) STAR TREK - DEEP SPACE 9 titled CAPTIVE PURSUIT (wherein an alien ‘hunt’ lands on the space station).
And if there is plagiarism or ‘appreciative copying’, for me, that’s fine as Whithouse has created an equally dynamic, thought-provoking, witty script (it rattles with a verve that has not been seen in the series for several years; probably since SERIES 2 – TOOTH AND CLAW) that is complemented by BBC WALES’s DOCTOR WHO production team’s superbly executed set design, adroit special sound, visually challenging direction and a soundtrack – Murray Gold – that refrains from being a sickly sweet parody of ‘Cowboy-and-Indian’ films from the Fifties.
There’s that’s my review, and what more could be said without sounding as if I have been sponsored by BBC WALES.
The opening gambit is truly brutal, an alien mechanically-enhanced bounty hunter – so it seems – systematically stalking a helpless humanoid and effectively commissioning summary execution after soliciting information that the hunt would be concluded with a further slaying that establishes the episodes with due diligence.
Alien Bounty Hunter: There is one more. The Doctor.
As I alluded to, the plot seems familiar but nonetheless absorbing with moments that genuinely force you to hold your breath and draw closer to the TV screen.
Sought haven in 19 th century mid-west America (estimated date: 1870), former Kahler Surgeon (read: Doctor), Jex, he is attempting to evade capture and, inevitable, extermination by the Kahler race’s genetically modified rogue ‘super-soldier’ (known as the Gunslinger), Tec, due to his medical criminality (Jex and his colleagues – including the murdered Kahler Mas in the pre-title sequence – has misused Kahler citizen volunteers in unethical experimentation in creating ‘super-soldiers’). With tensions within the settlement (population: 81) at a high due in part to the isolation imposed by the Gunslinger (with water & supplies limited) and the interlinked refusal by the Marshall to relinquish Kahler Jex – resident in Mercy for nearly two years - to his executioner, the only solution lies with the Doctor and his travelling companions (the underused Amy and ‘the fellow’).
Matt Smith continues to be the elemental and increasingly definitive Time Lord, displays a Raptor-type frustration tempered with a deliberative quietness that beguiles this reviewer week after week. With A TOWN CALLED MERCY, he is presented with a level of clever, often ‘left-field’, verbosity that could have been penned by Russell T Davies but, here, Toby Whithouse regales the 11 th Doctor with a stunning set of throwaway lines.
Doctor to Amy & Rory: …has someone being peeking at my Christmas list.
Doctor to the Saloon Keep: Tea. The strong stuff. Leave the bag in.
Doctor: I don’t need a new suit.
Man: I’m the Undertaker.
Doctor to the Preacher whilst mounting a horse: I speak horse and his name’s Susan and he wants you to respect his life choices.
Amy: When did killing someone was an option.
Doctor: …I honour the victims first.
With a script as sharp and sassy as a JAMES BOND script, and a sympathetic appreciation of the western genre, even though it embraced a number of stereotypical elements (like the obligatory gunfight at ‘high noon’), the episode overall was effectively fresh and crisp.
Adrian Scarborough delivers Kahler Jex as a double-headed coin that was flipped nonchalantly and deftly, whilst Andrew Brooke casts a greater, menacing, yet eventually compromised shadow as the iconic Gunslinger. However, the Ponds are surplus to requirement throughout the episode and present to hold a ‘morality mirror’ in front of the Doctor who then holds that mirror up to the viewer as we come to terms with our own feelings of guilt, forgiveness, and redemption.
The production values of A TOWN CALLED MERCY have never been higher, in particular the set design. Interior walls were, ironically, preciously shoddy and distressed, floorboards similarly disjointed, and the furnishing accurately researched like the ‘ticking fabric’ pillow covers, whilst the lighting suitably subtle providing depth and atmosphere.
Additionally, both the incidental music and sound effects embraced the genre without the pastiche that could have succumbed to. From creaking, sun-dried boardwalks to the occasional errant insect buzzing annoyingly around your face are symbiotic to Murray Gold’s understated score. Yes, he tinkles on the ivories and dexterously twangs the Lamellophone (or Ozark harp) with an appreciative nod toward The Eagles’ track Journey of the Sorcerer that is now associated with Douglas Adams’ THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY.
Saul Metzstein’s directing ensures that the expense of the Spanish location filming is clearly demonstrated through a series of glorious landscape tableaux, whilst he refrains from the usual ‘goldfish brain editing’ (i.e. fast paced cutting between characters or settings) that has plagued the series in the past.
Overall, A TOWN CALLED MERCY deserves a second or even multiple viewings (re-watch it from different point of views; the Doctor’s, Kahler Jex’s and the Gunslinger’s) such its psychological and sociological (‘a base under siege’) depth.