It’s kind of sad when the best thing you can say about an episode is that at least it’s better than the last time they were in the Old West. Granted, it would not have taken much for that to happen, but the disappointment of “A Town Called Mercy” lies in its valiant but failed attempt at being something more than an average episode. The show tries to create an interesting moral dilemma to show that the Doctor has once again grown rough around the edges in the absence of his companions, but in the end, an all-too-neat and almost consequence-free ending serves to undermine what might have been a great episode.
Team TARDIS finds themselves in the Old West, faced with a town blockaded by what appears to be a cyborg bounty hunter. The hunter is searching for an alien doctor, no, not our Doctor for a change, but Kahler Jex, a man responsible for creating the cyborgs via a series of hideous experiments. Jex is hiding out in the town, having crashed there and offered his more benign services to the primitive townsfolk. Upon finding out about Jex’s past, the Doctor angrily throws him outside the town’s boundary to be killed by the cyborg. The town marshal intervenes and is fatally wounded, passing his badge and the responsibility to keep Jex alive to the Doctor.
The Doctor is thus confronted with the moral dilemma of protecting a man he despises; a man who has done horrible things, but also a person who according to the marshal remains a good man at heart. Along the way we get some interesting pieces of dialogue, from the inevitable comparison to the Doctor’s role in the Time War, to an eminently quotable last sentence from the Marshal (played brilliantly by an underused Ben Browder).
The failure in this story lies in the resolution, which is in the end taken out of the Doctor’s hands. Jex elects to commit suicide rather than face his attacker, deciding that the cyborg should not carry the weight of even one more death on his hands. Jex is played by Adrian Scarborough, who attempts to balance the unrepentant war criminal with the one who seeks redemption. Scarborough gives a memorable performance, but in the end his character leans a bit too close to the light, becoming a man who is indeed worthy of redemption in the end. The fact that Jex makes the decision for the Doctor undermines all of the questions raised in the story, for in doing so, he absolves the Doctor of any guilt. The story would have been much more poignant if the Doctor had been forced to make a decision and live with it.
This episode does raise some interesting questions about the Doctor and his dual roles as hero and destroyer of worlds. There are also some wonderful homage’s to the classic Western, including the oft-repeated gag of the undertaker measuring a man for his coffin. In the end, however, the story fails to achieve the kind of heights that other morally ambiguous episodes have reached. Had the creative team decided to push the questions even further and take more risks with the story, then the episode might have found a place among the very best Doctor Who episodes. Choosing to play it safe, however, leaves us with an episode that feels unfulfilled.
“A Town Called Mercy” gets a (marginal) Three Acorns Out of Five!