A Town Called Mercy
A Town Called Mercy was the third episode of the seventh series of Doctor Who produced by BBC Wales. It was the first televised western since 1966’s The Gunfighters.
From a production standpoint, this story was notable for being the first episode of BBC Wales whose visual effects were not credited to The Mill. Instead, the credit was given to Space Digital.
Against the backdrop of a starry night desert, an unseen woman narrates a story her great grandmother told her when she was a girl… a story about a man who fell from the stars and was weighed down by the things he had seen, giving the impression it might be yet another legend about the Doctor.
A cyborg known as the Gunslinger shoots down a probe in the middle of the desert while chasing Kahler-Mas. The cyborg tells his victim to make peace with his gods, to which Mas retorts that they are his as well. The Gunslinger says they are not his gods any more. Mas tries to pick up a piece of debris to defend himself, however the cyborg knocks it away and prevents his target from moving. Pinned to the ground by the Gunslinger, Mas asks his executioner if he’s the last one. Before opening fire, the Gunslinger replies that there is just one more: “the Doctor”.
In the desert during the daytime, the Doctor, Amy and Rory examine the population number on the sign of a town called Mercy, seeing it has 81 inhabitants. There are several odd things about the town including a sign saying “KEEP OUT” and a strange stone and wood boundary line surrounding the town. According to a scan with the sonic screwdriver, it is just what it looks like, nothing else. The trio enter the town, unaware the Gunslinger is watching them. They take note of the townsfolk’s hostile stares. Even more odd, however, is that the town is using electricity, which will not be discovered until about ten years later. Because of all the odd events happening at once, the Doctor wonders if someone has been peeking at his Christmas list.
They enter the saloon, where the Doctor orders a drink (“Tea, but the strong stuff; leave the bag in.”) They’re asked by the patrons who they are. As the Doctor introduces himself, the now-hostile patrons immediately demand to know if the Doctor is an alien. The Doctor says that in his terms, they’re the aliens, but in their terms, he is indeed an alien. The patrons get up from their seats and grab the three of them, dragging them to the edge of town. They toss the Doctor outside the boundary and hold him at gunpoint to prevent him from coming back in; they hold Amy and Rory still to prevent them from helping the Doctor.
A man spots the Gunslinger approaching and they prepare for the worst as the preacher says a prayer. At the last second, however, a shot is fired from the crowd. The town Marshal, Isaac, appears and tells the people to let the Doctor and his friends back in, pointing out the Doctor is not the one the Gunslinger wants. This is met with defiance from the crowd as the Doctor fits the description of who the Gunslinger demanded — an alien doctor. However, Isaac tells them that they know who the Gunslinger really wants, saying it’s no reason to send the Doctor to his death. Isaac orders the Doctor to quickly get back inside the boundary. He does, and the Gunslinger departs, appearing angry.
Back in his office, Isaac explains to the travelers that the Gunslinger appeared three weeks ago, placing the boundary around the town and demanding they hand over the “Doctor”. Though he hasn’t killed anyone, he’s stopped supplies and reinforcements entering, and the town is slowly starving to death. When someone tried exiting the boundary, the Gunslinger shot at him, putting a hole through his Stetson. The Doctor believes the Gunslinger had poor aim, but Isaac point out that the hat was the target. This annoys the Doctor, who loves hats. Amy reminds the Doctor they were supposed to go to Mexico’s Day of the Dead festival. The Doctor ignores her complaint, demanding the Gunslinger’s real target; he knows that the Marshal’s office would be the safest place to keep him if the townsfolk want to hand him over. Though Isaac protests, a voice tells him to stop putting on the act; it comes from the cell. A man pulls the blanket hiding him off and introduces himself as Kahler-Jex.
The Doctor is delighted to meet Jex explaining the Kahler are a race renowned for their technological expertise. Jex tells them that his ship crashed out in the desert some years ago. He was rescued by the townsfolk, who took him in. Since then, he became the town doctor. He cured an outbreak of cholera and used the remains of his ship to give the town electricity. The Doctor is curious why the Gunslinger is after him. Isaac interjects to defend Jex, saying Mercy is a town of second chances. He is also angry that the townsfolk are thinking of turning their friend over to the stranger. The Doctor decides to use the TARDIS to help Jex escape and evacuate the town, but first they must engage in a little slight of hand to get past the Gunslinger.
Grabbing the Stetson Isaac showed him, the Doctor borrows the Preacher’s horse. The Preacher has named the horse Joshua, but the Doctor tells them that the horse prefers the name Susan. He rides out to collect the TARDIS. In the meantime, Isaac, dressed in Jex’ hat and coat, runs off along with Rory in another direction to buy time. The Gunslinger takes the bait and chases after the two men, but curiously holds back on firing when his systems warn of the high risk of hitting Rory. In town, Amy comforts Jex, who tells her that he knows she’s a mother. Curious, Amy asks how he knows. Jex says it’s because it’s in her eyes: kindness, sorrow, and love. He goes on to say that he’s something of a father himself.
In the desert, the Doctor finds the power cables from Jex’ ship and follows them despite the original plan. Jex notices power fluctuations in the town, from the Doctor messing with the cords. Jex becomies worried that the Doctor isn’t following their plan. Amy simply says, “Welcome to my world.” The Gunslinger catches up to Rory and Isaac and pins them down behind a cliff face, having switched to heat-seeking vision to find them more easily.
The Doctor finds the Kahler ship hidden, but not damaged as Jex had claimed. After some effort, he manages to open it but trips the ship’s alarm: alerting Jex and the Gunslinger, who breaks off his pursuit of the other two men. In town, Jex is panicking because the Doctor has gone against the plan. The Doctor enters the ship and manages to override the defence system. He asks the computer what it knows about the Gunslinger. Unfortunately, the ship does not understand the term, so the Doctor tries a different approach and asks it about its crew. His request brings up logs detailing horrific experiments. The Doctor watches in silent shock, listening to Jex calmly detail the events as his victims scream in the background.
Back in Mercy, Amy finds herself staring down the barrel of a gun held by Jex. He assumes that the Doctor has learned some things about his past which the townsfolk won’t understand or forgive. He is going to flee and take Amy with him as a hostage, since the Gunslinger’s programming forbids him from harming civilians unless the situation is extreme. Jex’ escape is thwarted by the return of Rory and Isaac, who demand answers.
In the desert, the Doctor leaves the ship and comes face to face with the Gunslinger, poised to attack. He manages to get the alien to stand down by revealing he knows what Jex did and he knows who the Gunslinger is. The cyborg lowers his weapon slightly. The Doctor has worked out that the Gunslinger is one of Jex’ “test subjects”. He pleads with him to spare the town and let Jex be brought to trial. The enraged cyborg refuses, but reveals that he hasn’t gone after Jex in the town because he doesn’t want to harm the civilians who would likely get in the way. He leaves, but warns the Doctor the next person who tries to leave the town will be killed unless the Kahler is handed over.
At the Marshal’s office, Jex tries to wave off his actions as a moment of panic. The Doctor returns and accuses Jex of being a liar and murderer. He explains to Isaac, Amy and Rory that the Gunslinger is a cyborg created by Jex and a team of scientists. He goes on to explain that they took unsuspecting volunteers on the pretext of military training and experimented on them. Those that did not die were turned into weapons. Rather than deny his actions, Jex admits and even defends them, explaining that Kahler had suffered a devastating nine-year long war which had decimated half the planet. Kahler authority ordered their scientists to create weapons able to end the war; they did. In a week, the cyborg army defeated the enemy before deactivating. Unfortunately, the Gunslinger didn’t deactivate. Jex guesses he was damaged in battle, restoring his original personality and allowing him to disregarded pre-programmed orders. Since then, he has hunted down and killed almost all of those responsible for turning him into a monster. Jex is the last one remaining.
The group is unsure of what to do. Rory believes that they should hand Jex over to the Gunslinger: he is a war criminal who deserves to pay for what he’s done, and there is no reason why everyone in town should die for him. However, Amy and Isaac disagree with him. Isaac points out that Jex saved the town from cholera, while Amy doesn’t believe it’s their place to march a man to his execution. The Doctor struggles with the decision. Jex observes this, and says that the Doctor could never make a hard choice like he had. This provokes the Doctor’s fury, as he drags Jex to his feet and marches him outside. Rory attempts to stop Amy from interfering, pointing out that it is Jex or them, but Amy isn’t willing to let the Doctor do what he’s about to do. The townspeople gather as the Doctor pushes Jex over the boundary to face his surviving victim; he even points a gun at him, not knowing if he would use it or not. Amy stops the Doctor by also grabbing a gun, pointing out that this is not his way. The Doctor responds that every time he faces evil he tries to understand, and has even shown mercy to his enemies, such as the Master and the Daleks; however, each time, they’ve come back and killed again. For once, he is going to think of the victims. Amy reminds him that this isn’t the right way to deal with things and talks him down.
Before the Doctor can get Jex back over the boundary, the Gunslinger appears behind him ready to kill. The scientist addresses the cyborg by its original name Kahler-Tek; having remembered the names of all the test subjects. He pleads with Tek that he has changed, but the cyborg doesn’t relent and opens fire. Isaac, however, steps in the path of the blast to save his friend. He is gravely wounded. With his last breath, he makes the Doctor the new Marshal and tells him to protect the town. A distraught Doctor sends Jex back to his cell (ordering the townsfolk to keep him safe). He confronts Tek, saying this must end. The cyborg agrees and offers a final ultimatum; hand over Jex by noon tomorrow or everyone will be killed. As the Gunslinger departs, a shocked Amy exclaims that the Doctor is now the Marshal of the town; he retorts “and you’re the deputy.”
Night comes, and the Doctor wonders what he should do, as the undertaker gives him a cup of coffee. If Isaac thought the Doctor was good enough to be Marshal, the undertaker has complete faith in him. However, he begins taking measurements again before the Doctor sends him away. The preacher comes into the Marshal’s office and greets the Doctor, along with Amy and Rory. He tells them to come outside as there is a lynch mob arriving. On the preacher’s suggestion, the Doctor grabs the gun and holster, putting them on. They go outside to greet the mob. They tell the Doctor that he should go for a walk; when he returns, Jex will be gone and he won’t need to feel guilty. However, the Doctor tells them that it would betray the town’s principles and Isaac’s sacrifice. They again explain that they are only concerned for their families; a boy aims a gun at the Doctor. The Doctor asks him if he really has the courage to pull the trigger, eventually talking him and the mob down.
Once the mob leaves, the Doctor returns to the cells to talk with Jex, who also tries to goad him into handing him over to Tek. The Doctor tells him that he won’t. Sensing how conflicted the Doctor is, Jex says it would be so much easier if he was just one thing, instead of two; the mad scientist or the benevolent doctor. Finding Jex’ attempt to goad him amusing, the Doctor says it’s a pretty clever idea on how to make up for all the lives that he took, being the town’s doctor. However, it’s not up to Jex to decide when his debt to society is paid. Jex then explains that he fears dying. Kahler religion says that once he dies, he must climb a mountain, carrying the souls of all those whom he wronged in life; Jex cries that Isaac, his only friend in Mercy, will be added to his load. The Doctor slightly sympathizes.
The Doctor decides to call the Gunslinger to a duel instead of handing Jex over the next day. Facing the cyborg with his sonic screwdriver, he uses it to produce a high-pitched frequency that shatters glass and disorients the Gunslinger. The Doctor takes advantage of his confusion and runs off, as the Gunslinger fires random shots. The townspeople, who had used make-up to copy Jex’s facial marks that the Gunslinger uses to ID Jex, run about to cause confusion. As part of the Doctor’s plan, Jex uses the confusion to escape town and head for his ship.
Back in town, the Gunslinger searches for Jex, breaking into the church and frightening the patrons. Catching sight of a little girl, the Gunslinger lowers his weapon and leaves. Tired of his automatic targeting falling for the Doctor’s trick, the Gunslinger switches to manual, finding the Doctor hiding near by. The Doctor tells him that Jex has gone, enraging the Gunslinger. Jex calls from his ship explaining that if he fled to another planet, the Gunslinger would follow him and put others in danger once more. Jex then activates his ship’s self-destruct and kills himself, something the Gunslinger sees as honorable. Because the Gunslinger sees himself as nothing more than a weapon of war, he prepares to self-destruct a safe distance in the desert. However, the Doctor tells him that while he may have built as a weapon of war, he can now protect the peace instead.
Later, the Doctor has brought the TARDIS to Mercy to collect the electronics Jex left behind, not wanting to damage history. He asks Amy and Rory if they’d like to find out what happened to the monkeys and dogs that were sent into space during the 50s and 60s. However, they tell him it’s time they went back home as their friends might start to notice that they age faster (due to the time they spend away with the Doctor). He complies and they board the TARDIS. The Doctor tests to see if he can draw faster than someone before entering himself.
The woman narrates again, saying that Mercy was already used to the strange. The woman says that her great grandmother must have been a little girl at the time, as the little girl from the church is seen walking off a short distance from the town. The woman goes on to explain that Mercy has never had any kind of official law enforcer since then, but the residents never seem to worry, as if they have a secret protector. The little girl looks off at a hill, where the Gunslinger is standing. Gazing into the distance, a close up of the Gunslinger shows that the Doctor has made him the new Marshal. Kahler-Tek smiles and begins his watch over the town of Mercy.