One of the wonders of science fantasy is that it came sometimes cover more complex issues in a manner, which appears contrary to the common view of the genre. Whereas it is often assumed that these stories follow a more traditional narrative with a black and white moral compass it is often likely this compass spins with every plot twist. This is frequently apparent in the tales of The Doctor. Ever since the earliest days viewers have been entertained with such dilemmas as the fate of Aztec sacrifice victims, the Doctor’s option to commit genocide against the Daleks and Turlough’s own moral maze.
A Town Called Mercy follows this pattern. It quickly becomes clear that the Gunslinger is not all he appears to be and is not the simple cardboard cut out villain. This of course reveals that the Gunslinger’s intended victim, Jex, cannot be all he seems as well. However there is a final turn of this moral compass. Jex is seeking redemption and attempting to heal the pain he feels in his soul.
Matt Smith’s performance as The Doctor retains the darker, more alien, streak of previous weeks as the Timelord again becomes jury and sentences Jex to his fate, ignoring the pleas for clemency. It is not The Doctor’s acceptance of Jex’s redemption that saves the war criminal’s life, more his belief in his companion, Amy. If Amy had been wrong in her reading of the situation the denouement would not have been one of self-sacrifice but instead of a vicious vivisectioner escaping his past again.
As with many stories from Doctor Who there are a number of ‘tips of the hat’ to other narratives from other genre, most obviously the Western. Contrary to many of other, more negative reviews, it does not lift from Westworld at all and has more of a debt owed to The Magnificent Seven, a film which itself lifts from Japanese cinema.
A Town Called Mercy does not hit the heights of the first two episodes in the latest series but its solid story is enlivened with the moral twists and turns, which give it its heart. Although there is no stand out performance from any member of the cast they tackle the script well and episode delivers the look and feel of the ‘old West’ in a manner rarely met in British television.