From BBC’s Doctor Who site:
The Doctor gets a stetson (and a gun!) and finds himself the reluctant marshal of a Western town under siege by a relentless cyborg.
Finally, the Doctor and his companions return to the “Old West” of America, a place that he hasn’t been to since the 1966 story “The Gunfighters”. As with “The Gunfighters” the start of the story hinges around a case of mistaken identity, however this is where the similarity ends as where “The Gunfighters” is a four episode jokey romp into the legend that is The Gunfight At The OK Corral, there is more of a darker tone to this story despite the levity which kicks the story off.
Whereas last week’s story is a character study into some of the lighter aspects of the Doctor along with his relationship with the Ponds, “A Town Called Mercy” delves into the darker aspects of the Doctor’s persona. This is brought to the fore in his discussions on morality with Kahler-Jex, portrayed with a believable ambiguity by Adrian Scarborough. You can’t even say that Jex is a “through the glass darkly” version of the Doctor, in a single way they are both as bad as each other. Jex has changed members of his race into cyborgs to win a war that has been raging for nine years whilst the Doctor has committed genocide against the Time Lords and what he thought were the last survivors of the Dalek race. How they move on though is where the two diverge. Jex believes that by carrying out altruistic acts such as curing cholera or bringing electricity his is like an alien version of Prometheus helping the people of the town of Mercy. The Doctor’s altruism is, in a lot of ways, his prison… his penance. Externally, he is happy-go-lucky, the man who thinks bow ties and stetsons are cool, but when the mask is dropped, you see a man who is struggling to be the man of peace that he is always trying to return to and who could be the man who changes the meaning of the word “Doctor” into one of violence, something he was chastised for by River in “A Good Man Goes To War”.
A theme that has returned in this episode is the Doctor’s need for the companion’s morality to guide him as previously mentioned by Donna in “The Runaway Bride” and Adelaide Brooke in “The Waters of Mars”. With Amy telling the Doctor that handing people over for execution is not the way that the TARDIS team works do things, she has set herself up as his personal Jiminy Cricket. What is interesting though is that there is a division in the ranks as to the Doctor’s methods leading up to this statement. Amy is unwilling to hand Jex over to The Gunslinger whilst Rory believes that handing him over is the right thing to do as it will save the lives of the people of Mercy.
This argument is played out, with subtle effect, in the role of Isaac, portrayed by Ben Browder, formerly of Farscape and Stargate SG-1. As Marshall for the town, Isaac should be on the side of The Gunslinger, a man who has been wronged by somebody whose methods are at the least questionable and at worst on a par with Davros. However, he sees that this would make the Doctor’s justice no better than Jex’s actions, something that he mentions in his dying words. Jex and the Doctor are both good men, they’ve just both lost their way at a point in their history. Where they differ though is the Doctor has companions whether they be an Amy, a Donna, an Ace, a Sarah Jane or a Susan to pull him back into line when he becomes to gung-ho with his methods.
Another theme that returns in this story is that of things not being as they seem, which is they key plot point of Oswin’s story in “Asylum Of The Daleks”. In “Mercy” this happens in several ways – the fact that The Gunslinger is looking for “The Doctor” (being Jex rather than our hero), the fact that The Gunslinger is the wronged character of the story rather than the “villain” who we believe him to be at the start of the story and, through the Doctor’s comedic scene with the preacher, the fact that the preacher’s horse who he has previously known as Joshua is actually called Susan… and that his life choices should be respected.
The direction of the Toby Whithouse’s script is pacy and perfect for the story’s 45 minute running time. Saul Metzstein’s use of the location of Almeria in Spain more than adequately doubles for the American “Old West”, not surprising as this was also the area used for Sergio Leone’s famous “Spaghetti Westerns” along with the 1967 film “How I Won The War” starring a certain musician by the name of John Lennon.
Murray Gold’s music adds a dash of the Ennio Morricone’s to the proceedings which sits alongside the visuals and nods to the familiar elements of Westerns – strangers, high noon gunfights and all.
As with the previous two stories, this does have the feel of a countdown clock underpinning it with some of the focus being on the Doctor and how he relates to the Ponds, but this could also be a story that could, unfairly, get lost in the shuffle alongside the big plot drivers of the first half of this series with the Daleks starting the latest series and the Weeping Angels and the Ponds’ departure in Episode 5.
For me, it’s a great piece of television where the hero wins not with the biggest gun but by appealing to the lighter nature in even, what could be, the darkest of souls.