Apologies for the late review, but I actually didn’t even get a chance to watch “Mercy” until today. It was worth the wait – another rock-solid episode that cements the direction the series is going this season, and it’s a positive one. We still have shows that deal with serious matters, the Doctor’s character (and that of Rory and Amy, though they’re a bit under-utilized this week) is explored with some depth, and what happens one week carries over into the next. But unlike in most of the post-reboot seasons, these stories work as stand-alone episodes, and seem to have cast off the yoke of navel-gazing seriousness that weighed them down far too often.
A Town Called Mercy comes from the pen of Toby Whitehouse, a big name in British TV as an actor and writer, and a veteran “Who” scripter – having offered up the excellent Vampires of Venice and The God Complex, as well as the superb School Reunion (which is how I’ll always choose to remember the great Elizabeth Sladen). Whitehouse definitely gets Doctor Who, and he gets Matt Smith’s character as well. It was fitting that this episode (the name of the town is no coincidence) should focus so heavily on what The Doctor did at the end of the last episode – actions which I commented on here, and which as I predicted became the most-debated part of “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”.
The notion of setting Doctor Who in the Old West isn’t new (Hartnell’s era started it) but this was a nice episode – a very faithful combination of tried-and-true Western themes of redemption and justice from classics like “Red River” and “Unforgiven” with some classic Sci-Fi trappings (in a good way, it almost reminded me of a great episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation). It also featured a genuine American Sci-Fi icon in Ben Browder, who starred in the criminally underappreciated Farscape. Here he plays Isaac, the Marshall in Mercy, a very strange and anachronistic town of 81 souls in the Old West. Also turning an an excellent performance is Adrian Scarborough as Kahler Jex, the town doctor who’s more than he appears, and Dominic Kemp as the cyborg Gunslinger who appeared and began to terrorize the town, demanding that “Doc Jex” be turned over to him.
This is your basic revenge story, really, but it’s well-played – and it fits nicely into the themes of moral uncertainty that have become a hallmark of the Smith era. On the topic of Jex’ past and his own moral standing, and especially on the subject of handing him over to the Gunslinger. The Doctor, carrying on his attitude from last week, is only too willing – but Amy disagrees, attributing his newfound ruthlessness (“That’s not how we roll, and you know it”) to the fact that he’s been traveling alone too much. Interesting Rory agrees with The Doctor on this – something I haven’t quite wrapped my mind around yet.
There are many fine individual moments here – Browder’s death scene, where he tells The Doctor that he and Jax are “both good men, you just forget sometimes” and The Doctor’s comment that he’d take a Dalek over a bunch of frightened humans any day. Jex functions very well as a sort of shadowy version of The Doctor, someone who’s embraced the consequentialism that The Doctor is still wrestling with. It’s as Jex says, “we all carry our prisons with us” – and this is certainly true in The Doctor’s case. His reasoning for handing Jex over – and presumably for his actions last week – is that too many have died as a result of his mercy. But is that justification really any different from what Jex used to explain away his “science” in the name of peace?
More good news on the “Who” front – Neil Gaiman is writing another episode, probably to air in 2013. If you need to ask why that’s good news, you’re probably watching the wrong show and reading the wrong blog…