Doctor Who "A Town Called Mercy" Review: Duality and Tumbleweeds

Doctor Who S07E03: "A Town Called Mercy"

Doctor Who has always been about the balance between its two realities—how much fun it is to be able to time travel with a clever, pacifist, fun-loving madman in a box; and the bleak actuality of being with a timeless, pacifist, ageless madman in a box. The best episodes address this head-on. This series (and some of last series) has shown our Doctor feeling the effects of the somewhat Sisyphean task of trying to keep the peace, especially when you're very old and have a temper. He's getting darker and darker.

How appropriate that the Doctor and the Ponds, in their quest for a Day of the Dead celebration, landed in an old-fashioned American one-horse town called Mercy.

The town had electricity a few years before it was supposed to, and it also had a menacing cyborg called the Gunslinger prowling its borders, looking for the "alien doctor." Side note: I always prefer cyborgs to full-on robots, both because I'm a RoboCop fan, and because I like the warring humanity-versus-technology inside of them. Plus the Gunslinger looked like an awesome villain right from the start. The town's Marshal was protecting the secret of Mercy, which is that it already had an alien doctor.

This alien doctor, Kahler-Jex, crash-landed nearby and had been treating the people of Mercy, as well as providing them with electricity, and was now under Marshall Isaac's protection. He was upset that the townspeople Jex saved would throw him to the cyborg so quickly. "The war ended five years ago," Isaac said, "but the violence is just under the surface."

This was an episode about war, and the products of war, and what fear does to people. It was about the actions people choose to take when they feel backed into a corner, or when they lack choices altogether. Sometimes there are no right answers. Despite the light moments here and there, it dealt with some pretty heavy stuff.

The Doctor managed to escape to find Kahler-Jex's ship, and learned the truth: Good-natured lifesaver Kahler-Jex was a war criminal. In order to fight his planet's war, he turned some of his own people into cyborgs whose only purpose was to destroy their enemy. It worked. One cyborg, the Gunslinger, survived the decommission process and was hell-bent on destroying his maker. So who was the villain?

Our Doctor was angry. When confronted, Kahler-Jex was somewhat defiant. "War is another world," he insisted. Kahler-Jex then made the mistake of comparing himself to the Doctor, noting their similar rage, guilt, and solitude, and boasted that, unlike the Doctor, he had the nerve to do what needed to be done.

Angry? Make that furious. The Doctor of two seasons ago would have laughed at Jex's attempt to get a rise out of him; this Doctor dragged Jex out and threw him to the Gunslinger. When Jex tried to move, the Doctor pulled A GUN (a gun!!!) on him, in one of the most gasp-worthy moments of this season thus far. Interestingly, it was Amy who brought him back from the brink, reminding him that this is not how her Doctor operates and prompting the following response:

"Every time I try to understand, well not today, today I'm going to honor the victims first. His, the Master's, the Daleks', all the people who died because of my mercy."

Like the cyborg, like Kahler-Jex, again we saw duality in the Doctor's function in the universe. All he wants to do is bring peace, and in the process, he often ends up leaving a trail of blood in his wake. And it's changing him. Amy was saddened. Without regular human companions, she murmured, this is what the Doctor does—he forgets his own humanity.

Jex rightly guessed that the Doctor would prefer his enemies to be all bad, and that he couldn't handle Jex being both a good doctor and a war criminal. More duality, more attention drawn to the Doctor being involved in conflicts with no clear "good guy" solution.

As we've seen in the past couple episodes, things are ramping up to the final goodbye between the Ponds and the Doctor, and more and more, it's my thought that it will be the Ponds' choice to say goodbye, and that it will lead to some very dark times for the Doctor before he brings on his new companion. Or perhaps he'll get tired of listening to his humanity, via the Ponds, and go rogue for a bit? This, to me, felt like the first real episode of the season, the first one to give us a real glimpse into all those stretches of time when we're not with the Doctor, all those lonely times when you could go anywhere and do anything, but it all seems to lead to more trouble.

This complicated and yet relatable emotional struggle is what's always kept me hooked on Doctor Who beyond the monsters. I cannot wait to the see the next two episodes.


Additional notes, thoughts, and questions


– This episode in particular was written by Toby Whithouse, who wrote last year's episode "The God Complex," one of my favorites.

– Did anyone else think the barkeep was River Song when they first saw her?

– "The horse's name is Susan, and he wants you to respect his life choices." That entire interaction was delightful.

– All of the Western nods in this episode were charming and well done—the tumbleweeds, the high noon, the Stetsons.

– The final monologue, about how the Gunslinger became Mercy's protector, a man-made weapon reappropriating himself for peace, gave me goosebumps. Good old Doctor Who goosebumps.

– The preview for next week's episode only echoes the duality in this one, but moves on to the Ponds and their two lives—"real life and Doctor life."

Comments (30)
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I was disappointed with this episode... it was very formulaic it terms of plot. In terms of character development, I always enjoy insight into the Doctor's darker side, but having an entire episode practically based around the Doctor and the role he plays as the hero really exhausted and over-stated the ideas surrounding the Doctor and his morals, to the point where I became bored. And considering Amy and Rory are leaving soon, their roles were very limited in this episode. On the plus side, the episode looking stunning, but it's not much consulation.
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Great episode! It is me or Doctor Who new season episodes are making more sense?
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Totally thought it was River Song at first!



Watching Ben Browder throw his sass around the screen was great.
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Finally someone noticed that Ben Browder was in this. I think they chose him cuz of his accent, its rather pronounced as it is! Man i feel so bad for Ben to go from leading guy to supporting to just guest appearances now. This industry's cruel!
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I loved this episode. To finally put a face on the Doctor's inner struggle was beautifully done. You feel for the Doctor. We've seen what happens when he pulls apart the universe to try and help someone. And I think the years and years of trying to get it right is finally getting to him. When Amy had to pull a gun on him to get him to stop! Such a raw and fantastic episode.
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I loved this episode for all its dark complexity. Yes, it's fun having an eccentric, do-gooder doctor, but the man has a bloody, horrific past (much of which, we've seen) and the show just goes up a notch in quality when some of that darkness peeks through. I thought the Doctor's slow progression into this jaded alien was pitch perfect. When Jax mentioned how he had the courage to do what needed to be done to end the war, I bet the Doctor flashed right back to how he essentially killed off his entire race by dooming them to inevitable destruction.I could understand why the Doctor was so angry; in fact, I'm surprised that it took him this long to finally break and USE A GUN. That was shocking, indeed.

Great episode! I'm dreading the imminent departure of the Ponds. I started watching DW in their run as companions so I've grown too attached to them.
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"Everyone who isn't an American, put your gun down!"



This review didn't mention that there was a strong correlation between Dr Jax and The Doctor. Jax killed several of his own people to stop a war. The Doctor killed ALL of his people except himself to stop a war. He wasn't enraged at Jax because they were so different, but because they were so similar. The only reason The Doctor isn't considered a war criminal is because there is no one left alive to condemn him for it except himself. (And the Daleks, but their memory of him has recently been erased.)
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I have to admit, I was looking forward to this episode almost solely because Ben Browder was in it! I miss him on tv...but anyway, I loved this episode and am super stoked about where they're taking the storyline. I like the darker Doctor; Matt Smith is so good at bringing that sense of how much the Doctor has seen through his life - the wisdom he has gained as well as the downfall of being around to see the impact, or lack of impact, he has made. I'm really looking forward to the next episode; it seems like we'll get a better look into what is going on for the Ponds, and how their departure will come to pass. Doctor Who never disappoints me!
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Maybe its just me but Ive always felt that Matt Smith is actually quite a bit better at portraying a darker and more serious Doctor than David Tennant was. Dont get me wrong, I loved Tennants Doctor. He made me a Doctor Who fan and he was fantastic when doing the funny/silly stuff. But when it got more serious and dark it always felt a bit forced to me.

Matt Smith on the other hand seems to effortlessly jump between funny and serious and make it both believable. I hope theyll keep the somwhat darker tone for a little bit longer before restoring the Doctors faith in himself.
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I just wish they wouldn't have yet another unrelated, unconnected companion use the 'This is what happens when you travel alone' line. It made me cringe and feels so overrused.
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This episode was an amazing, and probably my favourite so far. So, so nuanced, in theme and writing and performance. Out of all of them so far, this one was definitely the one that lived up to the 'standalone/movie-type' hype. I loved the way the Doctor arrived silly and fun - but not over-the-top cartoonish like last week - and full of humour and jesting....but descended into rage and bitterness and vengeance as his own demons were placed in front of and consumed him. With everything that comes in between. All in the space of 45 minutes. And whilst finding some great supporting characters in Issac (who I think would make an awesome companion) and Jex!!



Fantastic stuff from Toby Whithouse and the crew!!
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If it's a one horse town, what kind of life choices can Susan make?
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Gender identification ones.
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Lol. I know, I know. I'm just sayin' that if she's the only horse around, it don't matter if she thinks she's a stallion, mare, or shetland pony. She wears no gender-specific clothing, has nobody to flirt with, and her plumbing works like her plumbing works.
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This was a great episode! I love how the series is finally going a bit darker. Even though I love Matt Smith as the Doctor, ever since he arrived I have felt like the show has gone a bit too much over to the silly side. But I must say it is amazing to see how he manages to portray both of the Doctor's sides so well. His serious/darker side gives me goosebumps! If you ask me, Doctor Who at its best is when it tackles darker themes and is genuinely scary (like the angels in Blink, or The Empty Child, and also Silence in the Library) but at the same time is silly and fun. The Gunslinger was truly frightening when he sort of teleported closer. I also liked the preview of next week's episode, it reminded me of the David Tennant days of Doctor Who.
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-I did think it was River Song. I mean, I knew she wasn't appearing until the 5th episode, and this person looked younger, but still, the barmaid really had similar features to River.
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Interesting that with all this talk of what one does in a time of war that no one mentioned the time war and the Doctors part in it.



There were some interesting beats to the episode though. The gunslinger being extremely honorable and refusing to kill innocents as collateral damage and his reaction when he kills the Marshall, the only truely other moral man in the episode.





Also, the Doctor is now 1200 years old meaning that around 193 years has passed for him since he met Amy and about 93 since utah. This means that there are countless adventures for this doctor left untold, possibly to be told in spin off media.. And Amy is right, the gaps are getting longer. Not just for them but for him as well. And as the gaps get longer, the Doctor is getting darker and darker.



Amy is right, the Doctor needs a full time companion, just like Donna said a long time ago because they keep him from going to far. We have seen this darker Doctor before, right after the Time War. The 9th doctor was dark and had little mercy for those who did wrong and like the 10th doctor later said, Rose made him better. I think that Amy and Rory are starting to realize that they simply cannot be what the Doctor needs, they need to let him go so that he can find someone to travel full time.
More+
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The lack of talk about the Time War was the elephant in the room to the viewers. We were all undoubtedly thinking it the moment Jex began talking about what one has to do in war. I personally think it was intentional, it gave the audience one more comparison between the two doctors that our Doctor would be keen to deny. It may be one of those moments where you see what you want to see, but I could have sworn I saw that thought all over The Doctors face. It was one of the few moments of the show I enjoyed.
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I don't think the Doctor ever mentioned the last Time War to the Ponds - not on screen, anyway.

This is why I was a little bit confused when he named the Master to Amy - she never meant him, and I seriously doubt the Doctor would just casually talked about him without having a solid reason.
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Agree with Kanniballl. Also that speech felt a bit like a rant, and when ranting it's mostly about what goes through one's mind, not always about the person being ranted at.
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I believe that we have confirmation he told them everything (or at least a LOT).

I believe in "The Doctor's Wife" (Tardis's Personality) when The Doctor was off to find some surviving Time Lords, I thought Amy and/or Rory said that the Time Lords would probably not be thrilled when they learned about what the Doctor did to the rest of his people during the Time War.
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Once they introduced the self-destruct on the spacecraft I knew how it was going to end. It seemed a little too obvious.
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Didn't like this episode. It was very dull and one dimensional. Disappointed!
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One dimensional? Seriously? Wow. It was as far from one dimensional as you can get. Even a word in this review - duality - kind of hints at numerous dimensions per character. Just look back to RTD's era to see what one-dimensional truly looks like.
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My take was it kept telling what it should have shown, and showing what it could have just as well told. I didn't like it either; it had potential, but it left far too much up to the viewer to fill in the blanks to give it depth and impact.



And what a serious waste of Ben Browder's talent. Sheesh.
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in fact this whole new series imho is lame...



and i don't rate ben browder highly, he ALWAYS SOUNDS THE SAME... bored, no interest in the dialogue and he just seems to stand around...even back in farscape...



the stories seem nice in theory and then in practise are predictable too much foreshadowing... it's like moffat has dumbed it way down for kids...



the only plus side is amy pond... the effects and some of matt smiths funny moments....
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Intense and dark episode. I didn't see one like this since Water of Mars (I think). The Doctor is forced to look at the mirror and to see someone who has done, more or less what he has done to his own planet makes him so angry, but the anger seemed revolt more to himself than to Jack. Amy seems upset by the dark side of the Doctor - she doesn't know it very well like us - and she only can stop him, as it happened in The Runaway Bride, too. Travelling all alone makes the Doctor sadder and more dangerous: indeed, it is really in The Water of Mars that we had seen him in such a delicate situation. Beautiful, very beautiful hour in the soul of our favourite Time Lord (we have a tendency to forget about its demons because of the clownesque nature of Eleven). This is also a very huge step towards the Ponds's goodbye. Poor Doctor *let me hug you*. Toby Whithouse is really a talended writer: beautiful dialogues. Perfect cinematography and royal tracks from Murray Gold, too. The countdown for the fifth episode is starting. Moffat, be gentle :-D *laughs*
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Kahler-Jex reminded me of the character played by Anthony Hopkins in the TV adaptation of "QB VII". And seeing Ben Browder again reminded me that we need to see him on TV again on a regular basis........
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I agree. It was so nice to see Captain John Crichton on my screen again. Even if it was only for about 30 minutes....
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And all dirty and scruffy and yucky.
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