After two cracking good weeks of epic, movie caliber episodes, “Doctor Who” finally settles down to being a television show again. That’s not a bad thing, and it’s not like “A Town Called Mercy” is a bad hour of “Who”… It’s just not as thrilling as weeks one and two.
It’s actually pretty simple to boil down the plot of the episode, because “ATCM” is like every Western ever, minus the sci-fi twist*. After a teaser where a cyborg called The Gunslinger kills a man, stating there’s only one man left to kill – “The Doctor” – we cut to Amy, Rory, and, er, The Doctor heading into a weird Western town. There’s a couple of things off with Mercy: nobody seems to be around; there’s a ring of rocks around the town; and it also has electric lights far too early in the timeline.
Turns out, an alien doctor (get it?) set them up with all of this, but for some reason, the Gunslinger wants him dead. The town – and its sheriff – will only protect him up to a point. And once The Doctor finds out that our new doctor actually committed atrocities, manipulating flesh to make invincible cyborg soldiers, he’s ready to give him up too… That is, until Amy reminds The Doctor they don’t kill, they find other solutions.
Here, we get to the two emotional cruxes of the episode, and it’s a surprisingly quick turning point for a five episode series. Last week, we saw the Doctor cross the line, shocking a lot of fans, by executing the villain Solomon. He didn’t put a gun to his head, but he did leave him to die with no way out. Amy and Rory weren’t there to stop him, and clearly we were getting The Doctor spiraling out of control.
This week stops that. Dead. We may have a reversal next week, of course, but I kind of assumed the Doctor crossing the line would have bigger, and far reaching repercussions well into Episode Five, leading to Amy and Rory leaving the show. That may still be true, but dramatically we peak here. Particularly as there’s the not-so-subtle parallel between our new alien doctor, who puts the needs of the money before the few, saying what’s the problem with cyborg-ing a few guys if it can save billions of lives in a war? Part of the reason The Doctor reacts so poorly of course is that’s exactly what HE’S been doing, and he hates himself for it.
So instead, he tries to save the guy, doing a little bit of the ol’ Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven/Three Amigos trick, then trying to reason with the Gunslinger, before the alien doctor blows himself up, ending the conflict. Lost, The Gunslinger says he’ll blow himself up, too, but The Doctor comes up with another solution: he’s going to be the guard of the town of Mercy forever.
There are also some weird implications for the end of this episode: after such a big deal was made of The Doctor throwing our bad guy out of town, nobody seems too sad that he blows himself up. And there’s a nice little speech at the end about how Mercy has no crime, even to the modern day, but that’s because there’s a hideous cyborg warrior who will threaten to shoot anyone who does anything wrong. Not exactly a happy ending, is it?
Beyond that, though, I wish there had been more excitement here. It’s cool to see Ben Browder as a bearded sheriff; and Saul Metzstein once again brings visual flare to the proceedings, like he did with last week’s “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship.” But the more contemplative tone dials down the crazy, and makes everything feel a little more settled. I realize “Doctor Who” is doing a spectacular job this season with a limited budget; and as bottle-esque episodes go, this is about one billion times better than last seasons hideous “Curse of the Black Spot.” But I’m hoping this is the lull… We could have had something really exciting, stylish, and new in the melding of Western and “Doctor Who;” instead, we just got a Western with Doctor Who in it, which isn’t the same thing.
Anyway, next week looks weird and interesting – it’s certainly the episode we know the least about – so hopefully we’ll be back on track then.
*I almost typed “syfy” instead of “scifi,” so I’m going to call that renaming a win several years later.