TARDIS Thoughts: Countdown to Christmas, Day 3: Series 7, Episode 3 - "A Town Called Mercy"


Countdown to Christmas, Day 3: Series 7, Episode 3 - "A Town Called Mercy"


It's Day 3 of the Countdown to Christmas series! Surprised this is being posted earlier in the evening? Well, I worked early today so I got home early. And I am in a better mood than the last two days. I just wish it wasn't so cold. It's like someone - or something - decided to remind Southern California that winter is upon us by sending some super-duper cold weather. But that's neither here nor there.

So...next up (or "ep" ha ha): Series 7, Episode 3: "A Town Called Mercy"!

This episode takes us to a very new place for Doctor Who: the American Wild West! Apparently, the Doctor, Amy, and Rory were en route to the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico and because, as the Doctor puts it in an annoyed tone, somebody spilled toast crumbs on the TARDIS console, they've ended up in the middle of the desert about 200 miles north of their destination instead. (Not sure who spilled the crumbs...though Rory's dad WAS eating a sandwich in the TARDIS at the end of the last episode... maybe the Doctor whisked Amy and Rory away while they were eating breakfast?). I have to say, the setting looks spot-on. Not that I know much about the Wild West - SoCal is not the Wild West, clearly - but I have seen some Westerns and know some history. Who knew they had replicas of the Wild West out in the deserts of Andalucia, Spain? (That's where this episode was filmed, by the way. It was filmed at the Parque Tématico del Desierto de Tabermas-Almería, also known as Parque Oasys or Mini Hollywood, and at Fort Bravo, formerly known as Texas Hollywood, a former movie set-turned-theme-park of sorts. Both places are located in the province of Almería in the Andalucia region of Spain and have both been used for shooting Westerns).

The crisis de jour is that 3 weeks prior, some weird cyborg cowboy called "The Gunslinger" showed up and has threatened to shoot anyone who crosses over the border of stone and wood placed around the town (called Mercy, hence the episode title) unless the town agrees to give up this alien doctor that The Gunslinger wants to kill. But the town wants to keep said doctor around because he saved the town from cholera and has given the town electric streetlamps and modern (for the time) heating via power from his crashed spacecraft. The problem with this arrangement is that, with The Gunslinger's ultimatum in place, no supplies can get to the town from the surrounding area, meaning that sooner or later the people of the town are going to starve to death.

And this is where the Doctor, Amy, and Rory come in. Even though Rory warns the Doctor of the "Keep Out" signs, the three end up stepping into town, where the Doctor notes the electric streetlamps, which are "ten years too early," and the fact that people are staring at them. Ironically, he finds this amusing, saying, "Anachronistic electricity, Keep Out signs, aggressive stares. Has someone been peeking at my Christmas list?" He also makes a comment to Rory about Rory leaving his phone charger in Henry the Eighth's en-suite (which, according to The TARDIS Index File, actually happens in the next episode, "The Power of Three," meaning that chronologically this episode takes place after that one).

The Doctor then saunters into the local saloon like nothing's wrong, pushing open the doors just like in an old western. He then goes up to the bar and orders tea. Unfortunately, trouble ensues once the Doctor introduces himself and confirms he is an alien. Thinking he is the "alien doctor" the Gunslinger is after, they drag him out of town and dump him over the border. The Gunslinger then appears from some subspace or other and is about to kill the Doctor, when the town sheriff/Marshal Isaac intervenes. Isaac was very well played I thought. He's played by American actor Ben Browder, famous for his role as John Crichton on the Australian series Farscape and as Cameron Mitchell on Stargate SG-1. I've never seen him in anything but this though.

It turns out that the sheriff/Marshal knows who the real alien doctor is - this guy named Kahler-Jex. Kahler-Jex is played by Adrian Scarborough, an English actor primarily known for his role as Barnes in the film Gosford Park, his small role as a BBC Radio Announcer in The King's Speech (which is probably where I've heard/seen him, because I've seen that movie), and his role as Mr. Pritchard on the popular TV series Upstairs, Downstairs. He does a great job in this episode playing a scientist who regrets what he has created but fears having to deal with his past. In many ways, he is in the same position as Dr. Frankenstein from the book Frankenstein or Dr. Jekyll in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde - he created a creature that was supposed to be used for good (in Kahler-Jex's case, ending the civil war on his planet) but instead it became a monster and did things he did not intend. And apparently, the people on Jex's planet believe that when you die, your soul must climb a mountain while carrying the souls of all those you've wronged - which is why he doesn't want to die for his crimes, because he can't bear to face the afterlife consequences. Pretty odd afterlife concept if you ask me, but it works.

The Doctor originally comes up with a plan to evacuate the whole city into the TARDIS to save everyone from the Gunslinger, but changes his mind when he finds Jex's ship and learns who he truly is. He then heads back to town to confront Jex about his crimes. And then Jex has the nerve to tick the Doctor off:

Looking at you, Doctor, is like looking into a mirror, almost. There's rage there, like me. Guilt, like me. Solitude. Everything but the nerve to do what needs to be done. Thank the gods my people weren't relying on you to save them.
That's the last straw for the Doctor, and he angrily pushes Jex out of town, more than ready to let the Gunslinger finish him off, while the townspeople look on.

And this is where the amazing Amy Pond steps in and takes charge once again. She basically tells the Doctor off:

AMY: Let him come back, Doctor.
DOCTOR: Or what? You won't shoot me, Amy.
AMY: How do you know? Maybe I've changed. I mean, you've clearly been taking stupid lessons since I saw you last.
(Her gun fires again.)
AMY: I didn't mean to do that.
(So Isaac fires to get everyone's attention.)
ISAAC: Everyone who isn't an American, drop your gun.
DOCTOR: We can end this right now. We could save everyone right now.
AMY: This is not how we roll, and you know it. What happened to you, Doctor? When did killing someone become an option?
DOCTOR: Jex has to answer for his crimes.
AMY: And what then? Are you going to hunt down everyone who's made a gun or a bullet or a bomb?
DOCTOR: But they [keep] coming back, don't you see? Every time I negotiate, I try to understand. Well, not today. No. Today, I honour the victims first. His, the Master's, the Dalek's, all the people who died because of my mercy!
AMY: You see, this is what happens when you travel alone for too long. Well, listen to me, Doctor. We can't be like him. We have to be better than him. 
You have to remember, the Doctor is traditionally a pacifist. So for him to act the way he does in this scene, bent on violence, is unlike him, and Amy knows it. So she does the right thing and tells him he's wrong. And apparently not even the Doctor can say no to Amy Pond.

DOCTOR: Amelia Pond. Fine, fine. We think of something else.
The Inside Peek into the episode, a BBC America-exclusive feature shown during one of the commercial breaks for each episode so far of this series, actually deals with this. In it, Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, and Arthur Darvill discuss the different side of the Doctor that we see in this episode. Here's the clip:

Still, the Doctor's "betting on the Gunslinger," and sure enough the Gunslinger shows up to take Jex out. But Isaac won't have it and takes the shot himself to save Jex. Before dying, he appoints the Doctor the new sheriff/Marshal and asks him to take care of the town and of Jex. The Doctor pins on the Marshal badge, orders that Jex be returned to his cell, and confronts the Gunslinger, who agrees to give the townspeople till noon tomorrow to give up Jex - otherwise, he's going to shoot up the town.

I love Amy's reaction when it sinks in that the Doctor is now the Marshal. I think she's thinking "Oh crud, what did we just get ourselves into now?" Rory's reaction in the following scene to being called "fella" is pretty funny too. In the following scene, the townspeople try to convince the Doctor to let Jex go out into the desert for the whole town's sake, but he refuses. The Doctor's line at the end of the scene is very revealing of his current mood:

DOCTOR: Frightened people. Give me a Dalek any day.

The Doctor and Jex then have a conversation, where Jex points out that he still suffers mentally because of what he did. This conversation is actually a lot like the final conversation between the Doctor and Oswin in "Asylum of the Daleks." The hyper-rational Doctor has an opinion and he won't let go of it, even when someone tries to present another side to the situation or another point of view. In "Asylum of the Daleks," the Doctor was convinced Oswin had been fully converted into a Dalek and was only dreaming she was still human as a way of denying the reality of her new life, because that was what seemed rational to him. But Oswin, on the other hand, was trying to present him with another possibility, the possibility that she was still human, but trapped inside a Dalek - a possibility the Doctor rejected because, like emotion to Spock on Star Trek, it was illogical from his point of view. In this case, Jex is presenting his point of view, that he regrets what he did but would not consider it shameful if the Doctor handed him over to the Gunslinger. The Doctor, on the other hand, doesn't believe him, and claims Jex has chosen life in Mercy as his "punishment" for his crimes, a sort of penance more or less. Yet, the Doctor seems to show a moment of his own crisis of conscience at the same time:

DOCTOR: ...You committed an atrocity and chose this as your punishment. Don't get me wrong, good choice. Civilised hours, lots of adulation, nice weather, but, but justice doesn't work like that. You don't get to decide when and how your debt is paid. 

I find this line interesting because of the Doctor's character. Remember, in the reboot continuity, the Doctor is the last of his kind. He was forced to destroy Gallifrey, and all his fellow Time Lords with it, during the Time Wars that happened prior to Series 1. If anyone would have war guilt, it's him. And I'm sure he has a debt to pay for many things throughout the 1,200 years of his existence (he states he is 1,200 years old in this episode). I mean, think of the Pandorica episodes, where all his enemies basically blamed him for the cracks in the universe. Does the good he's done outweigh the bad in the end? I think this situation - as well as the other episodes of Series 7 so far - point out a key point: whether the Doctor is a hero or a villain depends on your viewpoint. It's been shown so far in Series 7 that the Doctor can get pretty nasty when he's been alone for too long, and even Matt Smith points this out in the Inside Look (clip above), saying "I would imagine, you know, the Doctor with not that much patience and tolerance...could be complete carnage." It's also notable that the opening line of the episode, given by an unknown female in voice-over, is "When I was a child, my favourite story was about a man who lived forever, but whose eyes were heavy with the weight of all he'd seen. A man who fell from the stars."  I think that describes the Doctor to a T. Just goes to show that the Companions may be more necessary than I thought. They are what keep the Doctor from going over the edge. As Jex points out to the Doctor:
We all carry our prisons with us. Mine is my past. Yours is your morality.
The Doctor scoffs at that line, but Jex is totally right. The Doctor's morality is what makes or breaks everything he does. It reminds me of this bit from Hamlet, my favorite Shakespeare play:


...Let me question more in particular: what have you,
my good friends, deserved at the hands of fortune,
that she sends you to prison hither?

Prison, my lord!
Denmark's a prison.
Then is the world one.
A goodly one; in which there are many confines,
wards and dungeons, Denmark being one o' the worst.
We think not so, my lord.
Why, then, 'tis none to you; for there is nothing
either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me
it is a prison.

 (Text source)

The Gunslinger's ultimatum leads to a classic trope of Western movies: the shootout. Watch any Western movie and it is bound to have one of these scenes. For some reason, they are always at high noon, just like in this episode. The scene plays as usual, and unsurprisingly, the Doctor pulls out his trusty Sonic Screwdriver rather than a gun. I also liked the little trick the townspeople did by running around with Jex's facial marking painted on their faces to confuse the Gunslinger, which reminded me of the movie Three Amigos where the townspeople dressed up like the Amigos to confuse El Guapo and his men (which you can see in this clip; the action starts around 3:47). I thought it was funny that Rory's mark was identified as incorrect according to the Gunslinger's scanner. Guess he didn't draw his right. Oops.

Meanwhile, while the decoys confuse the Gunslinger, Jex escapes to his ship. But he realizes that even if he leaves, the Gunslinger will just pursue him to another planet and they'll have to go through this again somewhere else, as the Gunslinger isn't going to stop pursuing him until Jex is dead. Reminds me of the song "Confrontation" from the recent Jekyll & Hyde musical I saw, in which Hyde threatens Jekyll and says Jekyll will never be free from him:

So Jex decides to face justice and end the war for both him and the Gunslinger. He activates the self-destruct on his spaceship, blowing himself up. Now why the Doctor didn't run off and try to stop him or something I'm not sure. Normally, he would. But he doesn't. Why, I wonder?

At any rate, the Gunslinger is kinda stuck now, his revenge being complete. The Doctor offers to take him home to his home planet, but the Gunslinger says he has no place in a time of peace and says he's going to go off into the desert and self-destruct. But then the Doctor stops him and says he might still have a purpose. In the scene that follows, we see the townspeople seeing the Doctor, Amy, and Rory off. The Doctor suggests they go on another adventure, but Amy objects, saying their friends might start to notice she and Rory are aging faster than they are (apparently all this travel through space and time does that to you). So the Doctor agrees to take them home, though he engages in a mock gun draw with the young guy who tried to shoot him earlier before they leave.

The lady who narrated at the beginning closes out the episode with a great closing:

By the time the Gunslinger arrived, the people of Mercy were used to the strange, the impossible. Where he came from didn't matter. As a man once said, America is a land of second chances. Do I believe the story? I don't know. My great-grandmother must have been a little girl when he arrived. But next time you're in Mercy, ask someone why they don't have a Marshal or Sheriff or policeman there. We've got our own arrangement, they'll say, then they'll smile like they got a secret. Like they've got their own special angel watching out for them. Their very own angel who fell from the stars.
As she narrates this, we see a little girl (assumedly the narrator's great-grandmother) run to the edge of town and look up at a nearby ledge. And there stands the Gunslinger...with the Marshal badge on. I thought that was a nice touch. Cause obviously the Doctor couldn't stay there and be the Marshal.

This was a pretty good episode, in my opinion. Still not convinced whether I like Matt Smith as the Doctor or not. Given the side of the Doctor we're seeing in Series 7, it's not the best introduction to the Eleventh Doctor, I suppose; I may have to see Series 5 and 6 before I decide. It's not like with David Tennant where after a couple episodes I warmed up to him.

Tune in tomorrow for Day 4 and episode 4, "The Power of Three" (why does that make me think of Charmed?). That is, if the world is still here. Since tomorrow's December 21st and all. (Honestly, I don't believe the apocalypse will happen tomorrow. Never did). Bye!

Episode quotes taken from The Doctor Who Transcripts.

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