"Today, I honour the victims first. His, the Master's, the Daleks', all the people who died because of MY mercy!"
After taking a break from reviewing after Dinosaurs on a Spaceship gave me an aneurysm, I'm back! Yay. Oh, and what an episode to return with. A Town Called Mercy is easily the best of the series so far, and makes up for the disappointment that was Asylum of the Daleks and the unreservedly bad Dinosaurs on a Spaceship. I had high expectations from this episode, given that the writer (Toby Whithouse) has consistently delivered good stories, including last years The God Complex and Series 5's The Vampires of Venice. Unlike pretty much every other time I get my hopes up, I wasn't disappointed by A Town Called Mercy. While not perfect, it was still a breath of fresh air after a disappointing start to series 7.
The biggest strength of the episode - particularly when compared with the others so far - is that it didn't need to be much longer than 45 minutes. The big issue with Asylum of the Daleks was that it just tried to do too much in too little time, and didn't leave enough time to develop any of the plots. A Town Called Mercy tells a very simple story, which has more than enough room to explore. It's an entirely predictable story though. You're unlikely to be surprised by anything that happens.
In a nutshell, The Gunslinger is a mysterious cyborg who is hunting Kahler Jex, an alien doctor. Jex has hidden himself in a town called Mercy, which has been cut off from the rest of the world by The Gunslinger until Jex is handed over. Whithouse injects a whole lot of grey morality into this otherwise fairly basic plot: Jex has done something completely reprehensible and The Gunslinger has a very good reason to want him dead, but by the same merit Jex has a very good reason for doing what he did. Much of the tension comes from The Doctor, Amy, Rory and Mercy deciding whether Jex should be handed over or not, and it's a very interesting situation. It's well written enough that you can find yourself on either side. You'll constantly find yourself asking who the villain of the story is, or if there is one at all.
It's the acting which really sells the drama of the situation. Matt Smith delivers what is at times a truly terrifying performance as The Doctor, who finds himself quite squarely in the "give up Kahler-Jex" camp. I'm reminded of a really chilling scene where, after Jex pushes a few too many Berserk Buttons, The Doctor physically drags over the edge of town and points a gun at his head when he tries to cross back. The only issue I have is that The Doctor decides to try and save everyone just a little too quickly. He has good reason to change his mind, but it would have been nice to see him maintain a more hostile attitude towards Jex. The episode is very heavy in the dialogue department, so it's a good thing the cast do justice to Whithouse's sharp script.
Sadly Rory doesn't get much to do. I like Rory... Amy does play an important part in bringing The Doctor down from his outbursts of anger before it's too late. It's nice to see just how important Amy still is to The Doctor, though I worry about the writers putting her on a pedestal in that respect. She also disappears entirely from the plot once she's said her bit, strangely.
The music is something I'd like to note as being particularly appropriate and brilliant in the episode. There's a curious blend of typical spaghetti western and techno synthesizers... kind of like The Gunslinger, really! With a number of references to The Magnificent Seven thrown in for good measure, the soundtrack for this episode does a magnificent job of establishing the tone and underpinning the action, while adding a rather surreal and cinematic feel.
Speaking of cinematic, the episode looks pretty damn fantastic. Directed by newcomer Saul Metzstein, A Town Called Mercy really feels like a proper blockbuster. I don't really know much about film, so I can't really pinpoint exactly why, but something about the story feel's really big and epic, even if it's ultimately only about a small town.
The Doctor's plan to distract The Gunslinger, while simple, was a return to more clever resolutions to the plot after the Deus Ex Machina (quite literally) at the end of Asylum of the Daleks and the... ending of Dinosaurs on a Spaceship. The Doctor just generally seemed a lot cleverer in this story, particularly when deducing where Jex was hiding near the start. Given what a bumbling idiot he can devolve into, it's good to have reminders that he really is a rather brilliant person, which is something I don't think we've seen that much since A Good Man Goes To War.
It wouldn't be a proper Fallen Nocturne review if I didn't criticize something though, and I do have some genuine problems with the episode. The biggest one is The Gunslinger. Cyborg or not, I was really hoping for a more vicious and revenge-driven character from him, but he had a rather dissonant reasonability given what was done to him. With the story being so emotionally driven, I wasn't comfortable watching The Gunslinger calmly stomp around instead of mercilessly carving a path through to Kahler-Jex, particularly towards the climax of the story when he realises that the town is tricking him.
Jex himself is the other issue I have. While he's certainly an interesting character and brilliantly played by Adrian Scarborough, his character leant a bit too far towards creepy and antagonistic to really qualify as a sympathetic figure for me. There were points in the episode where I just thought "Yeah, you're a massive dickhead, I wouldn't have a problem if The Doctor killed you himself."
I also felt that Jex's heroic sacrifice at the end didn't quite come out of nowhere, but wasn't really explained as well as a resolution to a plot should have been. Jex's attachment and relationship with Mercy - while certainly referenced - was never adequately explored in my opinion. From what I could gather, what inspired Jex's sacrifice was that he couldn't watch Mercy take the fall while he runs away. I can totally get that, but it would have been nice to see Jex show more visible affection for the town and it's hospitality throughout, or at least make the reason for his heel-face turn a bit more explicit.
At the start of the episode, Amy and Rory are supposed to be going to the Day of the Dead in Mexico. I find it quite interesting that they're starting to treat The Doctor more like a travel service than a constant presence in their life. Given what's to come for their relationship in The Power of Three, I found it quite unsettling. It was also quite a nice reference by Toby Whithouse, as I can totally see Amy and Rory heading there on a break.
Some other things I couldn't quite fit in...
- Respect Susan the transsexual horse!
- The final battle at high noon. "FACE ME!!!"
- "See, this is what happens when you travel alone for too long."
- Why did The Doctor bring up The Master's victims? Amy's never met him...
- What would The Doctor's plan have been if Jex didn't kaboom?
Overall, a pretty good episode. Not quite up there with The God Complex, but still one I can see myself watching many, many times.