Welcome to a town called Mercy. Population: 81. That is until the Doctor, Rory and Amy arrive and the town’s head count goes up and then down.
Steven Moffat set up this episode for RT (1 September) as “a tale of war, betrayal and vengeance, converging on one small town in the Old West”. He went on to say, “Like all the best westerns, this is a tale of one man standing against impossible odds and his own impossible demons. And like all the best westerns, it was shot in Spain.”
I would add that, like many a good western, it’s a morality tale, dealing in revenge, yes, but also justice, atonement, self-sacrifice and the mercy that gives this small-town its name, the mercy its citizens prize so highly.
Given the Spanish location shoot, there’s more than a splash of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, but also a touch of High Noon, The Searchers, perhaps Westworld and even, oddly, Frankenstein.
All the stock Wild West characters are in place: marshall, preacher, brassy saloon moll, undertaker, trigger-happy teenager, even a little girl like Laura from Little House on the Prairie. A gunslinger, too, although he’s an alien cyborg who shimmers out of the haze a bit like Clint Eastwood playing Arnie’s Terminator.
Like many a western, A Town Called Mercy looks good (gorgeous images from Saul Metzstein, who also shot the dinosaurs episode) and it sounds good (thoughtful dialogue by Toby Whithouse and atmospheric music from Murray Gold).
Unlike many westerns, however, this is Doctor Who for a family audience, so while it strives for authenticity, it has to settle for anaemia. While not toothless, it’s bloodless. Mercy is, literally, a one-horse town and perhaps a one-horse episode.
Things to look out for: Isaac the sheriff is played by Ben Browder, one of the few true Americans in the cast and familiar from cult sci-fi shows, Farscape and Stargate SG-1. Among the British actors are Adrian Scarborough (Gavin & Stacey, Psychoville, Upstairs Downstairs) as the duplicitous Kahler Jex, and Garrick Hagon as the undertaker Abraham. Hagon was last seen in Doctor Who 40 years ago as Solonian rebel Ky in The Mutants.
And listen out for the name of the Doctor’s horse. It’s a nod to the past.