Given that it was filmed in the location – if not the style – of Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy, it’s appropriate that A Town Called Mercy is a mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly. Unfortunately, the latter two outweigh the former.
Let’s dust off some positives first: it looks amazing. Almeria is as much a sweeping, gorgeously bleak expanse of desert, mountains and canyons as it was when doubling for the Wild West in Leone’s day (and in any of the other 100+ films shot here), even if Mercy itself bears more resemblance to Hill Valley circa 1885 from Back to the Future Part III than it does to anywhere the Man With No Name ever tethered his horse. The saloon, the church and the jailhouse are authentically cowboy, inside and out, and the town’s residents are similarly convincing.
Farscape’s Ben Browder is excellent as Isaac, moustachioed marshal of Mercy. Adrian Scarborough from Gavin & Stacey is suitably conflicted as Kahler-Jex, the alien Nazi cyberneticist trying to make up for his war crimes by helping the citizens of his new home, while Garrick Hagon (Biggs Darklighter in the original Star Wars) makes a suitably seedy undertaker – even if his role mostly consists of recycling a joke originally done better in the aforementioned third Marty McFly movie.
But it’s not just stuff from BTTF that makes appearances here. There are shades of The Terminator, Stephen King’s Dark Tower series (particular Wolves of the Calla – pronounced ‘Kahler’, conveniently enough) and the Red Dwarf episode Gunmen of the Apocalypse in the Gunslinger and his threat to the people of Mercy, while subtler references can be found in the soundtrack to many Western movies – most notably The Magnificent Seven, when the Doctor rides out of town on a horse that likes to be known as Susan. The facial tattoos of the Kahler, meanwhile, bizarrely bring Mike Tyson to mind.
Despite all these outside influences, however, there isn’t much in the way of a story – and what there is makes very little sense. It’s not made clear if the Gunslinger is resistant to bullets (or if Isaac or anyone else has actually tried shooting it) but as its weapons technology is way in advance of anything the folk of Mercy have, why doesn’t he – as the Doctor asks, producing a metaphorical lampshade – simply walk into town and kill Kahler-Jex?
Yes, some people may try to stop him, and he’s not big on murdering innocent bystanders, but he’s big enough and strong enough to brush them aside without killing them to get to his target – and in any case, he decides after a while that he’s going to slaughter everyone if they don’t turn Jex over to him. This paradoxical behaviour might well indicate the Gunslinger has gone a bit bonkers – and who could blame him, given that he’s been turned into a walking weapon? – but if that’s the case, why would the Doctor think it safe to make him the new marshal of Mercy at the end of the adventure?
Equally bewildering is the behaviour of the Doctor and Amy. While Rory is disappointingly redundant throughout (something he acknowledges when the town’s preacher simply addresses him as ‘… fella’) the other two main characters are pointing guns at each other in a dispute over principles.
‘When did killing someone become an option?’ Amy asks. Well, in the previous episode, since you ask, as the Doctor was as happy to see Solomon blown up by the ISA missiles in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship as he is to hand Jex over to the Gunslinger.
Amy’s questioning of the Time Lord’s grim new code of ethics is spot-on, and played very well by Karen Gillan – as is Matt Smith’s portrayal of the Doctor’s righteous rage – but why didn’t she say something last week, when exactly the same thing happened? Maybe she did, off-screen, but a reference to it here would make sense of things and also highlight that the Doctor’s lack of clemency isn’t something that has materialised overnight.
But apparently it is, because after realising that his behaviour legitimises Jex’s claim that the two of them are very similar, the Doctor changes his mind (a good thing, because it’s always ugly seeing him pointing a gun at someone’s face) and protects the eugenicist-cum-physician instead, sorting things out in a more traditional way – although he’s aided by Jex’s suicide, which gives the episode an unsatisfactory ending to which the soaring, wannabe emotive musical climax seems bolted-on and inappropriate. The bookend narration also seems to have been added as an afterthought, because it serves no purpose and is reminiscent of the vague, mystical waffle Chris Carter sometimes put on mediocre X-Files episodes to give them a mock grandeur they didn’t deserve.
A Town Called Mercy has enough touches of silliness (‘Tea … but the strong stuff … leave the bag in’) and moments of mature reflection (‘We all carry our prisons with us’) to save it from being a complete disappointment, but a lightweight and contradictory story in such an epic location can only be described as a monumental missed opportunity.
Aired at 7.35pm on Saturday 15th September 2012 on BBC One.
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