Timestamp #237: A Town Called Mercy

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Doctor Who: A Town Called Mercy
(1 episode, s07e03, 2012)

Timestamp 237 A Town Called Mercy

Living in the wild, wild west.

The Making of the Gunslinger

Scientist Kahler-Jex is working in a lab, announcing that “Subject 6”, Kahler-Tek, has been activated. The cyborg raises up his arm weapon and a light emanates from it.

A Town Called Mercy

Against the backdrop of a starry night desert, a narrator with an American western accent narrates a story her great-grandmother told her when she was a girl. It is a story about a man who fell from the stars and was weighed down by the things he had seen.

The Kahler-Tek cyborg shoots down a probe in the desert, then takes aim on an injured man. The man comes from the same place as the cyborg gunslinger. He attempts a last stand and fails, but before he dies, he asks if he is the last one. The cyborg replies that there is one more: “the doctor”.

In the daylight, the Doctor, Amy, and Rory stand outside a perimeter of stones and wood that surrounds the town of Mercy, population 81. They cross the barrier and stroll down the main street. The Doctor notes that the town has electricity, something that is ten years too early for this time. The Doctor is intrigued by the town and heads for the saloon. When he introduces himself, he is promptly measured for a casket by the undertaker.

After he admits to being an alien, he is forcibly removed and thrown over the barrier. The townsfolk all draw their sidearms as the gunslinger approaches the Doctor. As the preacher says the Lord’s Prayer, Isaac, the town marshal, interrupts the festivities and brings the Doctor back across the line.

Turns out that this ain’t the right doctor.

Isaac explains that the gunslinger showed up about three weeks earlier and built the barrier to keep the people of Mercy imprisoned. All he wants is the alien doctor. The Doctor stares at the lights and comes to a conclusion: The marshal’s office is the safest place to be if the townspeople wanted to hand over the doctor.

Sure enough, the right doctor is in the jail cell. His name is Kahler-Jex.

The Doctor is over the moon. The Kahler are one of the most ingenious species in the universe. Jex explains that his ship crashed in the desert and the people of Mercy rescued him. He saved the town from cholera and provided them with electricity, and Isaac defends him since Mercy is a town of second chances. Without Jex, Isaac fears that the town would fall into chaos.

The Doctor decides to use the TARDIS to help Jex escape and evacuate the town. To do that, they must engage in a little sleight of hand to get past the Gunslinger. Isaac (dressed as Jex) and Rory run through the desert in one direction while the Doctor borrows a horse — “He’s called Susan, and he wants you to respect his life choices.” — to ride out to the TARDIS. Meanwhile, Amy sits with Jex. The scientist knows that she’s a mother because of the kindness, sorrow, and love in her eyes. He goes on to say that he’s something of a father himself.

On the way to the TARDIS, the Doctor finds the power cables providing electricity from Jex’s ship. Susan reminds the Doctor that they have a mission, but the Doctor is not one to give up on a mystery. Jex notes the power fluctuations in town and Amy laments the Doctor’s failure to follow a basic plan.

The gunslinger catches up to Issac and Rory after using infrared scanning. When the Doctor scans the ship, it sets off an alarm that distracts the cyborg and draws him away. The Doctor overrides the self-destruct system before finding the personal files detailing Kahler-Jex’s brutal experiments. The gunslinger finds the Doctor and explains that he wants justice. He promises to kill the next person who leaves town.

In town, Jex turns on Amy and uses her as a human shield. The gunslinger will refrain from taking innocent lives unless it is necessary. Luckily, he is stopped by Isaac.

The Doctor confronts Jex over the atrocities he witnessed, barely restraining his rage. He explains Jex’s experiments to Isaac and the Ponds. Jex further explains that he saved millions by sacrificing the few as cyborgs. After the war, they were supposed to be decommissioned, but one escaped and took revenge on those who created him. Jex is the last survivor.

Jex also draws a parallel between himself and the Doctor, forcing the raging Doctor to usher the scientist to the edge of town. The Doctor holds Jex at gunpoint as Amy protests his actions. The Doctor wants to honor the victims, including those who died as a result of his mercy, and Amy points out that this is why he cannot travel alone. The Doctor finally agrees that prosecution outweighs vengeance.

The gunslinger finds Jex and nearly kills him, but Isaac takes the fatal shot instead. With his dying breath, he transfers control of the town to the Doctor, who in turn appoints Amy as his deputy after placing Jex into custody.

The gunslinger gives the town of Mercy an ultimatum: Surrender Jex by noon the next day or he kills everyone in town. Later that night, the preacher stops by to invite the Doctor outside, stopping long enough to warn him that he should be armed. A mob of townsfolk want to take Jex to the gunslinger to protect themselves, but the Doctor cannot do that. The Doctor wonders if the mob leader, a man of barely 18 years, has the courage to pull the trigger. Turns out that he doesn’t, and the situation is defused for now.

The Doctor returns to talk with Jex. The scientist suggests that he be turned over to Tek, but the Doctor is firm in his resolve. It would be easier if Jex was only one thing — mad scientist or benevolent doctor — instead of both, and the Doctor reminds him that Jex doesn’t get to decide how his debt is repaid. Jex explains that he fears death. Kahler religion dictates that the dead must climb a mountain, carrying the souls of all those whom they wronged in life. Isaac will be added to Jex’s load, and the the Doctor sympathises.

But, he also has a plan.

Come noon, the Doctor waits for the gunslinger. Instead of a firearm, he wields his sonic screwdriver, producing a high-pitched frequency that shatters glass and disorients the cyborg. The Doctor runs as the gunslinger fires wildly, taking refuge as the townspeople run about Mercy with simlar marks on their faces to Jex’s own.

The gunslinger searches the town, eventually breaking into the church and frightening the women and children. The Doctor urges Jex to run into the desert in order to save the townsfolk. Meanwhile, the gunslinger switches to manual targeting and locates the Doctor.

Jex reaches his ship and pages Tek, sympathizing about their mutual status as monsters. Jex knows that if he runs, he’ll only place another group of people in danger. Instead, he arms the self-destruct and sacrifices himself, completing Tek’s mission and atoning for his own crimes. The gunslinger sees this as honorable.

Because the Gunslinger sees himself as nothing more than a weapon of war, he prepares to self-destruct a safe distance in the desert. The Doctor changes his mind by telling him that while he may have built as a weapon of war, he can now protect the peace instead.

Later on, the Doctor brings the TARDIS to Mercy to collect all of the anachronistic technology. As the Doctor leaves to take Amy and Rory home, the little girl from the church walks into the desert to gaze upon the gunslinger. She’s the narrator from the introduction, and he is now the town marshal, protecting her and everyone who calls Mercy home.

As the first western-themed story since The Gunfighters, this was a good adventure. I enjoyed the redemption story for Jex and the turn from assassin to guardian for Tek. War creates consequences, most times unintended, and here we explore how those propagate, fester, and hurt the innocent.

The Doctor knows this all too well.

As a big Farscape and Stargate fan, I was overjoyed to see Ben Browder join the Doctor Who family. He nails the role of Isaac and I really wish we could have seen more of him in the future. Perhaps he can return in a different role?

Finally, it was fun to see Matt Smith in a Stetson again. That man looks good in the brand.

Rating: 4/5 – “Would you care for a jelly baby?”

UP NEXT – Doctor Who: The Power of Three


The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.

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