This is how I like my Doctor Who: smart, contained, and moral.
The moral code has been wavering for the past few episodes, with the Doctor behaving in a rather strange fashion since getting shot by his wife. The past two episodes haven't particularly addressed this in any way, which left worrying signs that perhaps success in America has warped the target audience from families to, well, comic book fans. In the same way comics are meant to be for everyone but are increasingly for a small group of thirtysomething men, the new approach to Who seemed to be abandoning morality in favour of darker and edgier storytelling. "A Town Called Mercy" finally tracked down that worry, for me, and threw it out into the wilderness where it belongs.
This was a more talkative, grounded episode than last week's chase-a-thon, which was great news because the show works much better when it tries to play to reason. If you remember Russell T. Davies' run, the strongest episodes weren't the madcap adventures with lots of running around and screaming – they were episodes like "Midnight" and "Dalek", in which The Doctor sits down with a concept and mulls it over properly. In this episode – with the help of Ben Browder – we were allowed to explore a moral concept, and try to fix something complex. While the ending perhaps tied things too neatly, the episode's premise was strong and the conversations fascinating.
Set in the Wild West, the episode saw a small town (really small – 81 people live there, and they only had one horse amongst them) under siege from a cyborg gunslinger who wanted to kill "The Doctor". This led to the neat twist that the cyborg was actually hunting down a different doctor – the doctor who created the cyborg in the first place. The cyborg wanted to kill his makers, the Sheriff (Browder) wanted to protect the man who had spent the last few years healing the sick, while the doctor sat in the middle. Throwing our main trio into the episode (although Rory did nothing) allowed the show to explore the Doctor's sense of morality and vengeance. And, wonderfully, the show never articulated the reason why the Doctor found this quandary so difficult.
That reason being the parallel between the two doctors. Both had to make tough decisions in war, which led them to difficult moral lines. Where do you cross, and when does war become the only option? As the Doctor had to decide whether the doctor deserved to be killed by his own mass-murder machine, so the viewers were asked to pick a side in the battle too. Matt Smith played this rather beautifully, with the connection not lost on him for one second. Never articulated, but the history of the character was toyed with in an excellent fashion here, making for a real sense of tension. When The Doctor almost went over his moral line and was held back by Amy, he was asked whether he could really kill someone in cold blood. "I honestly don't know" was his electrifying response.
Saul Metzstein's direction was far more assured here than in the previous episode, with some clever shots, lovely cinematography, and a better use of CGI. The lighting in particular seemed to be massively improved, with sunlight reflecting round the frame to create a sense of wasteland. (Editor's Note: That's due to the fact that it was filmed mostly on location in Spain using old Spaghetti Western sets!) And while Rory had nothing to do, writer Toby Whithouse let Amy hurl herself into the big question right at the most important moment. The references to the theme of this series – Amy and Rory's double life – were lighter and better written then previously, with Whithouse tying in her situation to the Doctor's in a brilliant fashion. Again, sparks flew through the screen when Gillan faced Smith down and refused to let him throw someone to their death. The script was tight, and premise interesting.
The gunslinger's voice seemed to have been dubbed in by the same people who dubbed Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, but the character was very well designed. In fact, several of the characters seemed to have a lasting resonance to them, which will likely make for some interesting fanfiction somewhere down the line. Browder, in particular, all strange moustache and weariness, was a superb addition to the cast. In fairness, this is always true of Browder.
"A Town Called Mercy" was a careful episode, told with audience in mind and performed with gusto. Some Doctor Who episodes don't stand up to a repeat showing, but this was an episode which could be watched again and again. Everybody seemed to be sparking – the director, writer, cast and whoever was in charge of the lightbulbs. And more than anything, it was fun as well as fascinating. This is what I like to see from Who!
Steve Morris is the head and indeed only writer for Comics Vanguard, the internet's 139th most-favorite comic-book website. You can find him on Twitter at @stevewmorris, which is mostly nonsensical gibberish you may enjoy or despise. His favorite Marvel character is Darkstar, while his favorite DC character is, also, Darkstar. He's on Team X-Men, you guys.