Ten Things about Who: A Town Called Mercy

Ten observations about the Doctor Who episode, A Town Called Mercy

This post has been edited, tidied up and expanded to form part of my new ebook, TEN THINGS ABOUT WHO, available on Kindle. Buy it now for £1.99More details

Hard to believe we’re now more than halfway through the current run of Doctor Who. While the Christmas Special and a whole new batch of episodes in 2013 are part of the same series from the point of view of the production process, in viewer terms there will be an ending in just two weeks’ time.

1. Yes, Virginia, there were black people in the Old West

There were several people on Twitter suggesting that the presence of a black character in Mercy was unbelievable.

Tweets with replies by Kevin Wilson (@kevinWilson94) | Twitter

Tweets with replies by global village (@conor_cymex) | Twitter


Unlikely, possibly, not not impossible. There were African American cowboys and soldiers throughout the period. While a black priest would certainly have been unusual, given the Marshal’s attitude to accepting people and giving them a second chance I’d say that Mercy may be more accepting than elsewhere.

2. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, but obviously not that many women

Apart from Amy, only one woman gets any on-screen lines. And even then, it’s just the one two (I thought her line in the bar was the only one, but rewatching it she pipes up in the night-time scene too).

3. And we’re not going to credit the one who did the narration

I’m not keen on narration generally. I think that if, as in A Town Called Mercy, a story is introduced by a a narrator, the story that unfolds needs to feel like it’s being told from the point of view of the same narrator throughout. Here, it’s just a framing device that adds little.

For all that, though, it’s criminal that the actress who delivered the narration – the wonderful Lorelei King – received no recognition in the closing credits.

4. A cyborg’s gotta do what a… oh, you get the idea

Quite how and why the cyborg couldn’t/wouldn’t enter Mercy in order to extract his target isn’t exactly clear. The circle around the town has great visual and storytelling potential, but there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of internal logic at play here. However, the final image of him standing guard on the mountaintop is a beautiful one.

5. A lonely god is something to fear

“Sometimes, I think you need someone to stop you.”

— Donna Noble, The Runaway Bride

The concept that the Doctor loses his humanity when he’s on his own for too long is a concept that dates back to Rose. When we first meet him, the Ninth Doctor is companionless, still traumatised from the Time War and makes suggestions throughout the series that hint at a non-human morality (willing to allow the Gelth to use human corpses in The Unquiet Dead, prepared to obliterate the last Dalek in Dalek).

The Christmas Invasion and The Waters of Mars – and, indeed, his judgement of Solomon in last week’s Dinosaurs on a Spaceship – also highlighted that, left to his own devices, the Doctor’s tendency to take on the role of judge, jury and (either directly or through deliberate inaction) executioner can get out of hand.

6. Me and you, and a horse named Sue

“Wah wah wah gay agenda wah wah wah” is pretty much how every complaint about the increased presence of non-straight people (and now, horses) in Doctor Who goes.

I expect someone will complain about Susan’s life choices being unsuitable material for a TV show with large numbers of children watching. If they do complain, they’ll be dicks, because:

  1. Children respect life choices far more easily than uptight grown-ups do anyway – unless and until they’re taught otherwise
  2. While us adults recognise the deeper issues of gender identity being touched upon, all the dialogue works at the level suitable for any audience. It’s called a “joke”.
  3. It’s. A. Bloody. Horse.

7. Again with the voice

Last week, I suggested that Mitchell and Webb’s bitchy robots didn’t quite work because their voices weren’t processed enough to sound like they emanated from the metal cases that were in the room.

I think the Cyborg in this week’s episode had the opposite problem: his voice was so processed that it never felt like anything other than post-production ADR.

8. Marshal Exposition

As the Marshal and Rory approached the cyborg bounty hunter, the Marshal told Rory the plan. Which, as Rory pointed out, he already knew.

Getting across information for the audience’s sake, when the characters onscreen already know the facts, is tricky. Toby Whithouse manages here by making a joke of the unnecessary exposition.

9. “Ma’am. And… Fella”

Speaking of Rory, poor Arthur Darvill. His character was more or less redundant this week. A Town Called Mercy had the feel of a Doctor-plus-one adventure. Still, next week’s trailer suggests that we’ll get to see a lot more of Rory. In more ways than one.

10. Dining with monsters

Finally, the ethical dilemma at the heart of this week’s episode – should a despicable war criminal be turned over to authorities that would, in all probability, execute them? – is a reminder of 2005’s Boom Town. Blon Felfotch Passameer Day Slitheen, aka “Margaret”, would be killed if the Doctor hands her over to the authorities on Raxacoricofallapatorius. In the end, the decision is taken out of his hands, as it is here.

While that, as here, leaves me feeling with a slight sense of anticlimax, at the same time it helps to not answer the question at the heart of the dilemma. What would we do in similar circumstances? What should we expect our government to do on our behalf? We may all have different opinions on that. At its best, drama asks difficult questions of us, and the worst thing it can do is provide pat answers.