After opening its seventh season with two solid episodes, it seems almost inevitable that Doctor Who’s winning streak has to end. It does so with A Town Called Mercy, a Western-themed episode that unfortunately bemuses with its unimaginative plot and mostly boring characters. The premise is interesting enough: the Doctor lands in a small American town in the Wild West, distinguished by its anachronisms, where the townspeople are being terrorised by a cyborg called “the Gunslinger” who wants to catch and kill “the alien doctor”. Spoiler alert: it’s not the Doctor, but another alien doctor.
Don’t get your hopes up, though; the Western setting is interesting at first, and the set and costume design is remarkably well done, but much potential is lost. That there’s a horse involved but only ridden for a total of about thirty seconds of on-screen time purely to transport the Doctor from point A to point B stands testament to this; there’s no indulgence of classic Western elements like horseback chases, making it feel like some elements were thrown in from obligation rather than enthusiasm. The predictable “twist” doesn’t help this episode shape up to the prior two, although the conclusion is particularly satisfying.
I’ll be fair and admit not all of the characters introduced in this episode are uninteresting. Ben Browder chips in a very good performance as a rather sympathetic Marshall called Isaac, and there’s a good effort at creating tension amongst the townspeople. The “alien doctor”, Kahler-Jex (Adrian Scarborough), however, is much less likeable. He shares a few moments alone with Amy that feel like a futile attempt to recreate her sympathy towards Van Gogh in one of the fifth season’s best episodes, and his follow-up manoeuvre is ripped right out of a certain episode of Firefly.
We’re treated to a few point-of-view shots from the Gunslinger (Andrew Brooke) which entirely resemble similar shots from the Terminator movies, but it’s not so much a parody as it is an unashamed derivative; it’s not played for laughs, but apparently meant to be taken seriously. While those who accused Dinosaurs of a Spaceship of being cheesy probably missed the Douglas Adams vibe, I wouldn’t argue with those who call this episode’s Gunslinger cheesy – despite his bulk, he’s hardly intimidating but for his large minigun (which actually shoots lasers).
Aside from a couple of half-forced bits about the Doctor’s morality towards the end, which presumably set the stage for some more appropriate internal strife later on, this episode is significant for little besides exemplifying how often the Doctor travels to the United States in Moffat’s Who. After all, this is but the first of at least two confirmed forays this side of the Christmas special, only adding to those American encounters already experienced in the past two seasons. In the context of general daytime television, this is, of course, above average – but it’s not great by Doctor Who standards, and one wishes they executed this promising concept a little better.