It’s kind of amazing to see a single hour of British television show up a $163 million Hollywood movie, and that’s the happy outcome of “Doctor Who’s” third episode of Season 7 — “A Town Called Mercy” — which blends sci-fi and Western tropes far more successfully than last summer’s big budget movie dud “Cowboys & Aliens.”
What better setting for the Doctor (Matt Smith) to work out his mini-crisis of morality than the American West, caught in the midst of an intergalactic battle between a cyborg Gunslinger (Andrew Brooke), his conflicted creator (Adrian Scarborough) and an upstanding Sheriff (Ben Browder)? Before the hour is up there’s a stop at the saloon, an angry mob, a quick draw competition, multiple heroic deaths, breathtaking shots of desert scenery and a public duel at high noon.
What really moves the season’s overall arc forward in “A Town Called Mercy” is a deeper look at the Doctor’s state of mind. He’s wrestling with revenge — in last week’s “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” he rather uncharacteristically sent a murderous maniac to his death — and this week Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) voices a concern that maybe all the alone time the Doctor’s had lately hasn’t been so good for his mental health.
We’ve seen the Doctor struggle with his darker impulses before, and get drunk on the power that comes with traveling through all of space and time. It’s usually a signal of major change on the way. And we know from the period after The Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) was forced to part ways with Donna Noble (Catherine Tate), that he doesn’t fare so well without companions. So with only two episodes left before we lose Amy and Rory (Arthur Darvill), the stakes are clearly being raised.
While Amy has her great moment of concern for the Doctor, there isn’t a whole lot for Rory to do in “Mercy” — a slight disappointment given we’re in the last episodes of seeing these characters, but also a demonstration of how difficult it can be to make room for three full time regulars with the Doctor’s weekly adventures. This episode functions primarily as a showcase for Smith, who is now so comfortably settled into the role after three seasons it’s easy to take his exceptional work for granted. How many other actors (or characters) currently on TV can believably juggle intelligence, whimsy and a complex crisis of conscious as credibly as Smith’s Eleventh Doctor? Whether he’s talking to a horse or angrily confessing the guilt he feels over showing his enemies mercy, Smith is in peak form throughout.
In addition to some terrific guest work — Scarborough conveys both the relief and the desperation of a man who found his second chance and doesn’t want to let it go, Browder (known to sci-fi fans for “Farscape”) perfectly fits the mold of an upstanding lawman and Brooke is a simultaneously imposing and sympathetic figure as a tortured terminator — “Mercy” is especially notable for its gorgeous cinematography. Director of photography Stephan Pehrsson does a fine job capturing the iconic style of the Western genre, and it’s more than a little incredible to step back and consider how far “Doctor Who” has come in production value over the years. The episode was actually shot on location in Almeria, Spain, an area utilized by numerous spaghetti westerns as well as parts of “Lawrence of Arabia.”
Now that the Doctor has been reminded mercy is a virtue, it’s on to next week’s penultimate episode for the Ponds.
Did you enjoy the Doctor’s Western detour?