The Sci-Fi Western is a potent mix, and in this week's Doctor Who it's as effective as ever. Put cyborgs, laser guns, and space ships together with cowboys on horseback, six shooters, and a plucking Western soundtrack and I'm in. Unless it's Cowboys & Aliens, that movie was awful. But this week's Doctor Who isn't awful, and its Western stylings are reminiscent of Firefly, which makes this episode even better in my eyes.
A Town Called Mercy opens with the Doctor, Amy, and Rory arriving in a Wild West-era town with some anachronistic problems. A homicidal cyborg is waiting outside town for an alien doctor, seeking revenge for the alien's crimes. That alien, it turns out, isn't the Doctor doctor, but a different doctor by the name of Jex. The town has been protecting Jex from the cyborg because he brought heat, light, and medicine to the town via his crashed spaceship. But soon The Doctor discovers that Jex does have crimes to pay for, and the twist is one of the more interesting things about the episode.
It turns out Jex created the cyborgs to win a war on his home planet, performing terrible experiments on his own people along the way. One of the cyborgs retaliated and started killing the scientists involved in the experiments one by one. Jex ran and found a sanctuary in this small town of Mercy. What follows is a bit of a Wild West morality play, as the town, Amy, Rory, and The Doctor decide what to do with Jex and the antsy cyborg.
What follows is an unexpected moment in which The Doctor, furious with what he's seen Jex do, throws him out of town to be gunned down by the cyborg, even going as far as threatening him with a pistol. It's an out of character moment for The Doctor, and Amy is quick to talk him down and knock some sense into him. Once again she proves that she's a bit more intuitive than the typical companion, accusing him of spending too much time on his own.
As in the last two episodes, A Town Called Mercy continues with the winks and nods that something is up between the three heroes. The Doctor is spending too much time alone, distancing himself from Amy and Rory more and more. While the happy couple have concerns for him, they still make a point that they need space from him at the end of each episode. Between that and the constant brief mentions of the Doctor's lost notoriety, it's clear the writers are seeding in a dramatic finale for the Ponds.
Still, this season's third episode is perhaps even more self-contained than the first two. Beyond those few subtle details, it doesn't really hang its hat on the series' lore. The alien Jex is a Kahler, a new alien race without any of the backstory the Daleks or Cybermen carry. I can't help feeling these lighter episodes are an intentional move to help the transition from Amy and Rory to the new companion mid-season. Perhaps Amy and Rory deserve more than a series of one-shots to see them off, but I can't help feeling that they already had some epic story arcs in seasons 5 and 6. At this point, another far-reaching plot involving the Ponds would seem excessive.
On its own, this episode proves Doctor Who's strengths without relying on its massive backstory. Dark themes stand out even when the Doctor is talking to a horse and everyone is painting Mike Tyson tattoos on their faces to fool a cyborg. Mercy ends up being more than the name of a town, as each of the key players learn something about showing some mercy and paying for your sins. It's the kind of story you'd expect from a Western, and I'm glad Doctor Who was able to follow through and deliver a satisfying tale.