The modern western is a fertile ground for writers to play around with morally ambiguous characters, and it was refreshing to see how deep “A Town Called Mercy” was willing to go in its exploration of morality, given that Doctor Who remains family viewing. What was touted to viewers as some kind of shoot ‘em up romp, ended up a thoughtful riff on maybe a half a dozen concepts of different shapes and sizes: High Noon, Leone’s spaghetti westerns, High Plains Drifter, Blade Runner, Frankenstein, The Terminator, and Westworld all leaped to mind while taking in this clever amalgam of ideas. Yet for all its inspirations, “Mercy” was mostly just some excellent, thought-provoking Doctor Who.
Rory: “The sign does say ‘Keep Out.’”
The Doctor: “I see ‘Keep Out’ signs as suggestions more than actual orders. Like ‘Dry Clean Only’!”
“Mercy” writer Toby Whithouse penned the second season Who tale “School Reunion,” in which Lis Sladen’s Sarah Jane Smith came back to us. It was early days still, and he was working with an iconic figure, so it was easy to forgive some of that story’s weaknesses, particularly in regards to the bat-like, shape-shifting Krillitane, who weren’t especially memorable villains. A couple years later, he unleashed what he’s perhaps best known for, the supernatural vampire/werewolf/ghost series, Being Human.
Whithouse finally returned to the Who fold during the last two seasons with “The God Complex,” a script that felt like it was maybe trying too hard, and the year before that, with “The Vampires of Venice,” a script that felt like it wasn’t trying quite hard enough. Aspects all of his Who scripts share, however, are complex, sympathetic villains next to complex, flawed portrayals of the Doctor. With “A Town Called Mercy,” Whithouse has done it again, and this time better than ever before.
The Doctor: “Anachronistic electricity. ‘Keep Out’ signs. Aggressive stares. Has someone been peeking at my Christmas list?”
The strength of “Mercy” lies in the way viewer loyalty shifts from one character to the next, and sometimes back again, particularly in the case of Kahler Jex (Adrian Scarborough), the episode’s other alien doctor, who provides a mirror for our Doctor to self-flagellate into. Here, we see a Doctor who feels as though he’s been too easy on immorality, on far too many occasions. He’s let villains slide, only for them to come back and fight or kill another day. In the town of Mercy, the Doctor struggles with notions of justice, forgiveness, and differing points of moral view, and in perhaps the episode’s most daring scene, Jex goads him into taking action by the bearing of arms, something the Doctor is loathe to do.
It was extremely rewarding to see the series tackle this most basic of Who concepts, which has been core to the Who doctrine since practically the beginning, yet has felt more and more distant as the show has gotten progressively “cooler.” No, it isn’t cool to kill, and that’s a message young people, who remain a huge portion of the show’s audience, need to be reminded of, possibly today more than ever.
Isaac: “Listen to me. You gotta stay. You gotta look after everyone.”
The Doctor: “It won’t come to that, Isaac.”
Isaac: “Protect Jex. Protect my town. You’re both good men…you just forget it sometimes.”
Bringing Ben Browder onboard was a smart way to class up the joint, for Browder was the star of Farscape, one of the greatest sci-fi series of the last, well…ever. If you’ve not seen it, it’s the sort of show Doctor Who fans watched back when Doctor Who wasn’t on the air, and it cannot be recommended highly enough. The producers of Stargate SG-1 were apparently impressed enough by Browder and his Farscape co-star Claudia Black, that they saw fit to hire both of them as regulars when their series was in a flux of sorts, due primarily to Richard Dean Anderson’s departure.
So, yes, Browder is a sci-fi icon, no questions asked, and I think I speak for Ben Browder fans everywhere when I say, “You killed him off halfway through the frelling episode!?!?” This must be how Janet Leigh fans felt when they viewed Psycho for the first time in 1960. He did a fine job here as Isaac, given that he only had maybe a half a dozen scenes to play with, and it was a shame to see him go, yet dramatically it worked well, by providing the Doctor the impetus to take control of the situation. We came to care for Isaac in a short amount of time, because he was played by an actor we love. As a result, it was easy to see why the Doctor would as well.
Jex: “That wasn’t the plan. He’s not following the plan.”
Amy: “Welcome to my world.”
The triumph of “Mercy” is in the effortless manner in which Whithouse moves his chess pieces around, and the different levels on which the script operates. One gets the feeling Whithouse did numerous drafts of this story before arriving at the final; something that flows this well is unlikely to have been written in one pass. Scarborough’s Jex is undoubtedly the standout, yet the episode’s biggest surprise was the cyborg Gunslinger (Andrew Brooke), a character who at the hand of many a writer would have ended up dull and one note, yet here is a minor symphony. That, in the end, we felt for the Gunslinger more than every other character in the piece was the masterstroke of “Mercy.” He made for an ideal intersection of the two primary genres that were fused together to create this superb slice of Doctor Who.
Odds and Ends
- Ben Browder was not the only sci-fi royalty to inhabit the town of Mercy. The Undertaker was played by Garrick Hagon, who many years ago guest starred in the classic Who serial “The Mutants,” but is best known to genre fans as Biggs Darklighter of Star Wars: A New Hope.
- A role should be found for Claudia Black on Doctor Who, as well…one that allows her to survive the episode, please.
- “A Town Called Mercy” is Doctor Who’s second excursion into the American old west. The first was 1966’s “The Gunfighters,” which saw the Doctor (William Hartnell) and his companions, Steven and Dodo, embroiled in events of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
- Surely some diligent and well read fan out there will decipher why the word Abraxas was used as the name of Jex’s security software. To me, it’s just a Santana album.
- It was a light week for Rory especially, and Amy to a degree — although she had some very funny lines, and that great moment when she called the Doctor on the carpet about what happens when he travels alone (shades of Donna Noble?). In any case, it can be safely assumed that while this was an episode heavy on Matt Smith (and goodness, he was excellent), the next two weeks are going to be Pond 5.1 Surround, with heavy drum and bass.
- There may have been a rumbling here or there about Toby Whithouse as a possible replacement for Steven Moffat at some point in the future, when he decides to step down. Given that he’s already got four seasons of a series (with a fifth in the pipeline) under his belt, it’s clear that Whithouse knows how to run a show. Is he a worthy successor to carry the mantle of Doctor Who?