Doctor Who series 7 heads to the old west for Toby Whithouse's A Town Called Mercy. Our spoiler-free thoughts are here...
7.3 A Town Called Mercy
Amongst the best episodes of the last series of Doctor Who was surely Toby Whithouse's The God Complex, a richly rewarding piece of work that was willing to steer the Doctor towards much darker places. The Being Human creator has form with Doctor Who, of course, having also previously penned School Reunion and The Vampires Of Venice. But with A Town Called Mercy, he's put together something of a rarity: a Doctor Who western.
And this is a slightly darker beast, too. After the comparable lightness of Dinosaurs On A Spaceship, A Town Called Mercy pushes the Doctor to more uncomfortable emotional places than we've seen this series thus far. The cracks and strain on the Doctor are starting to show. There are no spoilers here, of course, but it is worth pointing out that, where series 7 has demonstrated the comedy skills of Matt Smith extremely well, here we get to see his strengths when things go more serious. Smith is, once again, terrific.
As for the episode itself, Whithouse certainly knows his westerns. He throws in a few more ingredients, too, with a sense of The Terminator in places, and a tip of the hat or two to the mighty Westworld in others (you might have already spotted that in the trailer, though). The early part of the episode, where he's having fun with the genre and exploring it, is arguably when A Town Called Mercy is at its strongest, and the initially fish-out-of-water Doctor does have the occasional feel of Back To The Future Part III about it. That's a very good thing.
A Town Called Mercy does a few other things, too. It tells a sci-fi/western crossover tale far better than something like the recent Cowboys & Aliens movie. It brings Amy Pond a little further forward than we've seen her the past week or two. It also exists pretty much as a standalone piece, even though there's the odd hint of an undercurrent developing. We'll be talking a little more about that once the episode has aired.
We'll be talking about the terrific production values, too. We'll never tire of saluting these, as Doctor Who has taken on three different genres this series so far, and each of them has looked outstanding. That's no small feat, and A Town Called Mercy looks the best of the lot so far.
Director Saul Metzstein has the relative luxury of a location shoot here, but then he really makes the most of it. The wild west landscapes (it was actually shot in Spain, but you'd never know) look sumptuous, and A Town Called Mercy is the most cinematic of the three episodes we've seen this series to date. The glint of sun, barren landscapes, and a town that's got its fair share of scars are all very much present and correct.
All said, though, there's still a small sense that there was a slightly better episode that could have been made out of the mix of ingredients here. A Town Called Mercy isn't on a par with the aforementioned The God Complex, although that's arguably a bit of an unfair comparison. Yet whilst appreciating that this is a very different story, it seems, ultimately, a little conventional when everything is brought together.
That's not to say A Town Called Mercy is a bad piece of television: far from it, as it happens. And perhaps we're a little too much the target audience for it: we love sci-fi, and we love westerns. As it stands, though, A Town Called Mercy is a pretty good episode, with some excellent moments, all draped in utterly glorious visuals.