Showrunner Steven Moffat's declared aim to produce a blockbuster a week gives us a western mixed with the Terminator as a murderous cyborg gunslinger menaces the titular town. Soon after arrival out time travellers are up to their necks in trouble, our Doctor being mistaken for the 'Doctor' that the robot wants to kill. Marshall Issac (Farscape's Ben Browder) knows the truth however: the cyborg's quarry is Kahler-Jex (Adrian Scarborough), an alien who has become their town doctor. The Doctor pledges to help but has a change of mind when he finds out that Kahler-Jex is not as innocent as he first appears...
As scripted by Toby Whitehouse, A Town Called Mercy is very easy on the eye, with excellent Spanish location filming, and very easy on the ear, with an authentically western sounding soundtrack from Murray Gold. The first fifteen minutes are an absolute delight, especially the Doctor swaggering into the saloon, ordering "Tea, the strong stuff - and leave the bag in," and then getting his toothpick lodged in his mouth. His insistence that "everything is under control" as the inhabitants carry him away to be shot is also great stuff and showcases what works best in Smith's portrayal of Doctor Eleven: that he's a genius is in no doubt but he is a child and a bit of a wally as well.
Unfortunately there seems to have been an arbitrary decision to try and darker up this most lovable of Doctors this year. Last week he sent off Soloman in his ship to be blown to pieces and here he indulges his inner rage again, turning on Kahler-Jex when he finds the scientist was responsible for creating the cyborgs and is a war criminal. The problem isn't Matt Smith, who could be the best actor ever to play the Doctor, nor is it the scenes he shares with Scarborough, another top actor, which are written well by Whitehouse but that this newly discovered facet of Doctor Eleven just isn't convincing. Why do the creaters want to turn Smith into Sylvester McCoy anyway? This is ground that has been too well trodden before as well and Amy's speech, reminding the Doctor that he needs companions to remind him that that's "not how we roll", harks back to Donna's warning to Doctor Ten in The Runaway Bride. What is it about Kahler-Jex that is so much worse than other villains he's met? Why does this make make him lose his composure? It is never really adequately explained - it's as if the Doctor got out of the wrong side of the TARDIS that morning.The comments by Kahler-Jex that the Doctor and he were not so disimilar was also very old stetson.
This isn't the only thing that doesn't quite add up: why will the Gunslinger not walk over his little wooden circle? Why not kill Kahler-Jex when he is only a few feet away on the other side? It's purely a conceit to hide the fact that there is no real reason why the super cyborg just didn't march in straight away - and it shows. Surely the explanation that Kahler-Jex had built some kind of forcefield might have been better? Why also does the cyborg not just teleport to its final destination instead of all those little hops? Is it just because the special effect looked cool that they wanted to use it a little more?
Also unsatisfactory was the time given over to Amy and Rory. Last week they were drowned out by Brian, Nefi and Riddell and this week they had little to do too. Amy spent a lot of time inside or looking out of windows. At least Rory got a little runaround with Issac, getting shot at by the Gunslinger. With this five episode run being our last chance to travel with the Ponds you'd think the makers might have given them more screen time and things to do. They just seem to be there to be there, as if the writers are treading water until their exit in The Angels Take Manhatten in two weeks time.
To finish on a positive note, this was another episode that had lots for kids to enjoy, from the Doctor's ability to talk horse (his comment to the reverend about Susan's lifestyle choice was hysterical) to his duel with the Gunslinger. You can guarantee that the little 'uns will be recreating the moment when the Doctor draws his sonic screwdriver come Monday morning. The decison to film on location was also a wise one, the widescreen vistas and full scale town giving the episode a movie feel a million miles away from Cardiff. Finally, although I found the attempts to darken his Doctor unconvincing, Matt Smith continues to amuse and bedazzle, with this year further cementing his status as the best of the new Doctors. Not a perfect episode by any means but much to admire and enjoy nonetheless.
GK Rating: ****