More importantly, the Doctor’s attitude towards Jex falls in line with how heartless the character has acted in recent episodes. The Doctor violently and without hesitation murdered a large room of Daleks in the season premiere – something he would normally be more tentative about – and in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, he let the space pirate Solomon die when he easily could have saved him. The Doctor’s near-execution of Jex is his most unhinged action so far, but because it follows two weeks of increasingly brutal behavior, the moment feels like a natural, if disturbing, character progression.
Amy’s reaction, meanwhile, proves that Moffat and company have built the Doctor’s recent fierce streak as a deliberate character arc. Amy calls the Doctor on what he has done, speaking as much for the confused audience as she does for herself. It is the episode’s single best moment, one that reminds us of a long-running theme in the revived series: That when left to his own devices, the Doctor can become as dark as his enemies. He needs companions he can emotionally invest in by his side, or else he’s liable to revert to the violent figure he became during the Time War. Jex’s jab about the Doctor’s inability to make tough decisions subtly recalls how tormented the Doctor remains over that terrible period, and how much of his life is spent running from a past he can never entirely forget.
These are all compelling, relevant issues for Whithouse to explore, and the parts of the hour that do so provide the episode’s strongest moments. But Whithouse largely abandons these themes in the second half, especially when it comes to wrapping up the conflict between Jex and the Gunslinger. Having Jex commit suicide is a massive thematic evasion, one that prevents the Gunslinger or the Doctor from fulfilling their individual arcs. The Gunslinger is left with no ethical dilemma, no moment of truth that allows us to discover who he really is, and the Doctor really does get to avoid making any sort of tough call. When the entire episode is built around discussions of morality, it is dramatically underwhelming to duck every complex ethical issue by taking the narratively expedient way out.
I am also unimpressed with Whithouse’s handling of Amy and Rory. Karen Gillan gets her aforementioned big scene opposite the Doctor, but other than that, the pair are barely an afterthought. One could remove Rory from the hour entirely, in fact, and nothing about the story would change. That is a problem. I do not need the Doctor’s companions to be omnipresent all the time, but if they are going to be in the episode, the writer does have an obligation to do something with them, especially if the hour in question happens to Amy and Rory’s antepenultimate appearance on the show.
When all is said and done, though, I did enjoy A Town Called Mercy. Even if the setting wasn’t exploited to its fullest, I still got a kick out of watching Matt Smith and friends have an adventure in the Old West, and the spectacular direction certainly made for a handful of viscerally engaging sequences. This may not be a great episode of Doctor Who – or, at times, a particularly good one – but I would rather see the show swing for the fences and miss than play it safe. And A Town Called Mercy, for all its various issues, is not entirely a miss. As with most Doctor Who episodes, it at least provides crackling entertainment on an otherwise slow Saturday night.
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Follow author Jonathan Lack on Twitter @JonathanLack.