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Recap / Doctor Who S33 E3 "A Town Called Mercy"

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"Today, I honour the victims first. His, the Master's, the Daleks', all the people who have died because of MY MERCY!"
The Doctor

The One With… a transgender horse.

Written by Toby Whithouse.

It's 1870, and the town of Mercy is an okay place to live.

The Doctor, Amy and Rory walk into the middle of a Western town and say they've come from outer space. As soon as the Doctor introduces himself, the townsfolk grab him, drag him to the outskirts of the town and offer him to a Steampunk Cyborg named the Gunslinger. Isaac, the marshal, intervenes and scolds the townsfolk for going against what they already know: the alien doctor that the Gunslinger is most likely looking for is a wholly different man, safely locked up in the marshal's cell.

This (equally Steampunk) crash-landed alien, a gentleman scientist named Kahler-Jex, arrived in the town a while ago and had already settled in quite well. Isaac happily acts as his friend and protector. Mercy is a town of second chances, where people have renounced hatred, xenophobia and mob mentality. Jex befriended the townsfolk and even provided the town with electricity — albeit 10 years before its invention on Earth — from his crashed ship. But with the Gunslinger now preventing people from entering and leaving the town, it'll only be a short matter of time before everyone starves.

The Doctor thinks this is going to be a pretty straightforward adventure: distract the Gunslinger, evacuate the townsfolk into the TARDIS, fix the crashed ship and celebrate afterwards. He befriends a horse named Susan and goes off to investigate. However, the Gunslinger turns out to be a very Gentle Giant whose programming blocks him from killing innocents unless it's absolutely necessary. Meaning that Kahler-Jex is not exactly innocent at all. In fact, Jex is a war criminal, a scientist who turned innocents into cyborgs against their will and used them to commit genocide in an interstellar war. The Doctor rushes back to town and goes into a violent rage against Jex, knowing full well that he's not so different himself. They both have committed genocide in the name of ending a war, and they've both killed people directly to save the lives of others. All the Gunslinger wants is revenge for having his life taken away from him. The Doctor, furious, literally throws Jex in front of the Gunslinger and, when that isn't quick enough, pulls a gun and debates whether or not to put a bullet through Jex's head on the spot. Amy brings him back to reality. As the Doctor has a little bit of a Heroic BSoD, the Gunslinger fires and Isaac makes a Heroic Sacrifice to catch the blast. He dies in the Doctor's arms and hands him the marshal's star.

Back in his cell, Jex bitterly calls the Doctor out on his frustration at Jex not being a clear-cut villain. Jex is a genuinely nice person who just wanted to save his people and end the war, and his religious beliefs are that he'll have to carry the full burden of his actions after death (quite literally). Meanwhile, the townsfolk have formed a frightened mob and have gathered outside the sheriff's office to get Jex... using force, if they have to. They just want to protect the town's children and stop living in fear. The Doctor brings them back to reality with much the same arguments Amy used on him earlier that day, and tells them that he'll do everything he can to prevent them from having to live as murderers.

In the end, the Doctor stages a distraction and allows Jex to escape into the desert. Jex knows that the Gunslinger will follow him no matter where he goes, and since he doesn't want the lives of more innocent townspeople on any planet on his conscience, he commits Heroic Suicide. The Gunslinger, realising that he's still an immortal monster and that he can never go back home to his normal life again, heads off to do much the same. However, the Doctor convinces him to stay in the desert as the town's marshal and protector.

Once again, Amy and Rory decide to take a break from the Doctor for a while, and they head back home to their wedding anniversary.


  • Alas, Poor Villain: In-Universe, the Gunslinger acknowledges that Kahler-Jex behaved honourably at the end of his life.
  • The American Civil War: Oddly, not mentioned by name, but likely the war referred to in the episode. The war is mentioned to have been five years ago, which would place the action of the episode in about 1870. This is consistent with electric lights being about ten years away.
  • Anachronism Stew:
    • The Doctor finds the electric lights anachronistically advanced.
    • Rory apparently once left his phone charger in Henry VIII's en suite.
  • Anti-Villain: The Gunslinger and Jex, in their own ways. The Gunslinger just wants revenge on the people who made him a monster. Jex, meanwhile, only committed such horrific acts to save his people from an even more horrific war. The Gunslinger in particular implies a concern that Jex may return to form.
  • Arm Cannon: The Gunslinger's right arm is all cannon.
  • Artistic Licence – Gun Safety: Averted; when inexperienced shooter Amy waves around the revolver she's holding, it discharges twice within ten seconds. Also played straight, as the gun Amy uses is a single action revolver, so she would have had to re-cock the hammer every time she fired. You'd have thought she'd catch on...
    Isaac: Okay. Everyone who isn't an American, drop your gun!
  • Artistic Licence – History: At the time the story is set, the UK didn't have its strict gun laws, so yelling at the non-Americans to drop their guns wouldn't make much sense. In fact, the US south had stricter weapon laws (part of the black codes).
  • As You Know: Isaac tells Rory the details of their plan to distract the Gunslinger so the Doctor can get the TARDIS and save the day.
    Isaac: We wait here until the Doctor comes to pick us up in your ship.
    Rory: Yes. I know. I was there when we agreed it.
    Isaac: Yeah. I said that more for my benefit than yours.
  • The Atoner:
    • Jex is helping the people of the town as a way to atone for creating the Gunslinger. He provided lighting and heating, and saved the town from a cholera epidemic.
    • The Gunslinger himself decides to become Mercy's protector, once his purpose is fulfilled.
    • The Kahler religion has this as a core belief. Before they can enter the afterlife, they have to climb a mountain while carrying the souls of everyone they have wronged in their life.
      Kahler-Jex: Do you think I am unaffected by what I did? That I don't hear them screaming every time I close my eyes? It would be so much simpler if I was just one thing, wouldn't it? The mad scientist who made that killing machine, or the physician who dedicated his life to serving this town. The fact that I am both bewilders you.
      The Doctor: Oh I know exactly what you are. And I see this reformation for what it truly is. You committed an atrocity and chose this as your punishment. Don't get me wrong, good choice —- civilised hours, lots of adulation, nice weather but, but it doesn't work like that! You don't get to decide when and how your debt is paid!
  • Bait-and-Switch:
    • This is the second episode in series 7 where it looks like the villain has been looking for the Doctor, only for it to turn out that they don't know him at all. The "alien doctor" that Tek is seeking is someone else entirely.
    • The episode also opens with a monologue about a "guardian angel who fell from the stars". It turns out to be the Gunslinger, not the Doctor.
  • Batman Grabs a Gun: What made it even more surprising is how quick the Doctor was to resort to threatening with a revolver. The last time he grabbed a gun for battle, it was due to a breach in the time lock around Gallifrey and the resumption of the Ultimate Sanction.
  • Berserk Button: Kahler-Jex pushes the Doctor's by playing up how he was forced to maim and kill hundreds to end his war, much like the Doctor, who eradicated his entire civilisation to end the Time War. Just to twist the knife even further, it's extremely likely Jex did this unintentionally.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: Played with; Jex chooses to commit suicide because he doesn't want the Gunslinger to have any more deaths on his conscience.
  • Between My Legs: The promotional poster shows the Doctor, Amy and Rory framed by the Gunslinger's legs.
  • Big Bad: The Gunslinger, who endangers everyone in the town in order to get his revenge on Kahler-Jex.
  • Black Comedy:
    • This episode has a couple of examples, the Juggling Loaded Guns gag coming mere seconds after the Doctor threatened to kill a man in cold blood being the most obvious.
    • The undertaker who can't help but measure the Doctor up for his wares, even after giving him a motivational talk, qualifies.
  • Black Vikings: Set just after the American Civil War, the local preacher being black is possible, but unlikely. It may be explained by Isaac's "This town was named Mercy for a reason" line.
  • Call-Back: The Doctor references a few recurring enemies during his mid-episode rant to Amy. The Master, specifically, hadn’t even been seen or mentioned onscreen since right before the beginning of the Eleventh Doctor's era.
    The Doctor: Today, I honour the victims first. His, the Master's, the Daleks', all the people who have died because of MY MERCY!
  • Chekhov's Gun: The self-destruct program on Jex's ship is introduced when the Doctor breaks in. It is then used by Jex to commit suicide.
  • Chewing the Scenery: Matt Smith takes a few very large bites when berating Jex.
  • Comically Missing the Point:
    The Doctor: He shoots people's hats!?!
    Amy: I think it was a warning shot.
    • Then subverted. He was aiming for the hat.
  • Continuity Nod:
  • Couch Gag: The Doctor Who logo in the title sequence is textured with bullet-riddled wood panels.
  • Cowboy Episode: Only the second ever instance in the TV series (the first being "The Gunfighers" way back in 1966), and the Doctor delights in it. Within a minute of coming into the town, he puts a toothpick into his mouth, walks into the saloon and orders tea in Southern accent.
  • Cutesy Name Town: A town called Mercy.
  • Cyborg: The Gunslinger looks half-man and half-machine, with an Arm Cannon and a robotic Eyepatch of Power balanced out by a more human hand and eye.
  • Deconstruction: Of Westerns themselves. The local townsfolk are perfectly normal people instead of Western stereotypes. The barmaid isn't glamorous or raunchy, she's just a woman. The local minister isn't a Bible-thumper, just a sweet man. The marshal wants to help his friends, the town's young hotshot just wants to protect the town's kids. Even the angry mob turns out to be a group of frightened people who are willing to listen to reason.
  • Driven to Suicide: Kahler-Jex uses his ship's self-destruct because he doesn't want any more deaths on his own or the Gunslinger's conscience.
  • Eagleland: America is the land of second chances, where people actually know how to handle guns.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The Gunslinger, to the people of Mercy. Jex recognizes him as Kahler-Tek, but he's the only one.
  • Evil Sounds Deep: The Gunslinger has a deep computerized voice and starts off as the antagonist. This is then subverted, as he isn't actually evil.
  • The Extremist Was Right: Kahler-Jex's justification for his crimes is that he saved millions at the cost of a few. A nine-year war closed in one week. At the end, he realises he's one of those few.
  • Flash Step: One of the Gunslinger's powers. He uses it to quickly cover distance without breaking his slow, menacing stride.
  • Foil: Kahler-Jex for the Doctor, since both committed horrific acts to finally end a bloody and increasingly pointless war and are looking for redemption.
  • Foreshadowing: "Make peace with your gods." It's Jex's perceived inability to do this and fear of the afterlife that keeps him running from the Gunslinger.
  • Framing Device: The episode starts and ends with a woman narrating how her great-grandmother (the little girl seen at certain points in the episode) witnessed the events of the story, and how the Gunslinger came to be the town's sheriff, often thought by outsiders to be a tall tale.
  • Gender-Blender Name: The horse isn't called Joshua, she's called Susan and she wants you to respect her life choices.
  • Giving Radio to the Romans: Downplayed - Kahler Jex installs electric lampposts in the wild west town of Mercy.
  • Good Shepherd: The black preacher in this episode is shown reciting prayers, leading a service and generally offering spiritual support to the frightened townspeople. He even loans the Doctor his horse.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: Invoked by Jex himself, accusing the Doctor of not being able to handle the fact that he is not just a Card-Carrying Villain.
    Kahler-Jex: It would be so much simpler if I was just one thing, wouldn't it? The mad scientist who made that killing machine, or the physician who has dedicated his life to serving this town. The fact that I'm both bewilders you!
  • Heroic Sacrifice:
    • Isaac takes a shot meant for Jex and dies.
    • Jex activates the self-destruct on his spacecraft, and allows himself to be blown up so that no one else dies in the crossfire of his conflict with the Gunslinger.
  • Humans Are the Real Monsters: The Doctor seems to think this after one of the town's attempts to throw Kahler-Jex out. He may just be having a nasty reminder of being stuck with a similar group of frightened humans.
    The Doctor: Frightened people. Give me a Dalek any day.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: Kahler-Jex created the Gunslinger as part of a legion of cyborgs to save his people from a war. He declares himself a war hero for doing so.
  • I'm Standing Right Here:
    Amy: Look, Jex may be a criminal, and yeah, kinda creepy —
    Kahler-Jex: And still in the room.
  • Internal Homage: A cyborg alien assassin made for war chasing after a shifty doctor who's using advanced alien technology to help people without knowing about the harm he causes because the cyborg kills people in its way? Either the plot of this episode or the Doctor Who book Peacemaker. Both set in the Wild West nonetheless.
  • Like You Would Really Do It: In-universe. The thought of Amy deliberately hurting the Doctor is so ridiculous that when she points a gun at him, he starts laughing. He's right, of course.
  • Mad Doctor: Averted. Jex turned many people into cyborgs and killed several others in the process, but he feels guilt about it and has been trying to atone ever since.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • The town of Mercy, as Isaac points out, is called such for a reason. The morality question that drives the episode is how much mercy Kahler-Jex deserves, and the town provided it to him. It also ties into the page quote.
    • The Gunslinger, Kahler-Tek, is a cyborg of the same species, the Kahler, as Jex, and so is literally Kahler technology.
  • Metaphorically True: The Kahler scientists recruited volunteers by claiming that they would make them into the perfect soldiers. They just didn't specify the type of soldiers the volunteers thought they meant.
  • Morality Chain:
    • Like the Doctor's previous ginger companion, Amy notes that the Doctor tends to slip in his morals if he travels by himself for too long.
    • The first hint of the Gunslinger's real personality is his refusal to endanger an innocent person. He still sticks to this — or, at least, Wouldn't Hurt a Child — after Isaac takes the shot he meant for Jex.
    • The Doctor himself is this to a "nearly 19" (read "18") year old boy by convincing him not to be a murderer by lynching Jex.
  • Never Hurt an Innocent: The Gunslinger. It wants to kill Jex, and only Jex, and tries to avoid unnecessary civilian casualties in its attempts to get to him.
  • Ninja Pirate Zombie Robot: Alien Gunslinging Cyborg Marshall.
  • No Place for a Warrior: The Gunslinger believes he had no place in the world once his war was over. The Doctor convinces him otherwise.
    Gunslinger: I'm a creature of war. I have no role to play during peace.
    The Doctor: Except maybe to protect it.
  • Noodle Incident:
    • Rory once left his phone charger in Henry VIII's en suite.
    • The Doctor promises to show Rory and Amy what really happened to all the dogs and monkeys that were sent into space.
  • "Not So Different" Remark:
    • Jex comments he and the Doctor are quite similar, as he can see the same rage and guilt that haunts him in the Time Lord.
    • Later he also compares himself to the Gunslinger, another ordinary man who became a monster in order to save a world ravaged by war. This is how he justifies his Heroic Sacrifice.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: Kahler-Jex reminds the Doctor just a little too much of all the things he hates about himself from the Time War, and after his Berserk Button is hit one too many times, the Doctor absolutely loses it.
    Jex: Thank the gods my people weren't relying on you to save them.
    The Doctor: No. NO! But these people are! (grabs Jex by the collar) OUT! OUT!
    The Doctor drags and shoves Jex across town, completely ignoring the protests of Amy and the locals.
    The Doctor: OVER! THAT! LINE!
    The Doctor quite literally throws Jex past the barrier, leaving him face down in the sand. When he tries to get up and come back, the Doctor pulls a gun from a nearby citizen's holster and points it directly into Jex's face.
    Jex: (hesitant) Y-you wouldn't.
    The Doctor: (cocks gun, hand shaking slightly) I genuinely don't know.
  • Outcast Refuge: Set just after the American Civil War, as the sheriff, Isaac, explains, the eponymous town is a place for anyone to seek refuge, regardless of race, creed, past misdeeds, or even planet of origin.
  • Out-of-Character Moment: The episode seems to be using this to set up a significant character arc for the Doctor as he forces an alien man at gunpoint to what they both know will be his death.
    • Alternately, it was a display of two well-established character traits: 1. The Doctor tends to go off the deep end when he's been traveling alone for a while. Companions keep him grounded. And at this point, he and the Ponds were spending less and less time together. 2. The Doctor loathes himself for his actions in the Time War and feels he deserves punishment. So when Jex played the "I'm just like you" card, the Doctor sought to punish himself by proxy. (Jex probably invoked this reaction semi-deliberately - he had some serious guilt issues of his own).
  • Planet of Hats: The Kahler are known for being excellent engineers. The Doctor says they could build spaceships out of moss.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Isaac, the town's sheriff, makes sure that the town of Mercy lives up to its name. He prevents the townspeople from sacrificing the Doctor because he knows that he's not the right doctor, and he won't give up Jex because he thinks of him as a good man who helps the town.
  • Reckless Gun Usage: Amy waves her revolver around and accidentally fires it twice, causing everyone to duck.
    Isaac: Everyone who isn't an American, drop your gun! [points at the Doctor and Amy in quick succession]
  • Redemption Equals Death: Kahler-Jex has to die in order to save the town, since otherwise the Gunslinger will kill all the citizens of Mercy. Even before he dies, after Isaac saved his life, his last conversation with the Doctor shows he recognises the depth of his atrocities against the rest of the Kahler race.
  • Ringer Ploy: The Doctor paints Jex's birthmark onto the faces of himself, Rory and some townspeople in order to confuse the Gunslinger.
  • Rubber-Forehead Aliens: The only obvious difference between Kahler and humans is the markings on the left side of a Kahler's face. The Doctor exploits this by painting Kahler-Jex's marking onto the faces of several townspeople, confusing the Gunslinger's auto-targeting program.
  • Senseless Sacrifice: Isaac sacrifices himself to save Jex... who commits suicide the next day. All it achieves is letting Jex go out on his own terms. The Doctor points this out and isn't happy about it.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Showdown at High Noon: The Gunslinger declares that he will come into the town at "noon tomorrow" for Jex. He meets the Doctor, who is now the sheriff, in the street, and they stare each other down. Naturally, the Doctor pulls out his sonic screwdriver instead of a gun.
  • Shur Fine Guns: A gun from the Wild West would be a single action revolver, meaning its hammer has to be pulled back manually before it can fire. In the real world, there's no way a gun like that could accidentally discharge twice.
  • The Siege: The Gunslinger will shoot anyone who crosses a line made of stones and wood. This traps the townspeople within the town. However, he doesn't stop anyone going in to the town, because he knows it will just causes resources to dry up faster.
  • Species Surname: The Kahlers seem to have a species forename, with them all being known as Kahler-Something.
  • Speaks Fluent Animal: The Doctor speaks Horse.
  • Stealth Pun: The Gunslinger has a lot of these.
    • His birth name is Kahler-Tek. He is Kahler tech (or at least half of him is).
    • There's also the Kahler-alarm.
    • The cyborg can identify the doctor by his distinctive facial markings. Which means he's equipped with... Kahler-ID.
  • Steampunk: The first proper Steam Punk episode in Doctor Who. The Wild West with street lights ten years too early, and a cyborg gunslinger.
  • Sympathetic Sentient Weapon: The Gunslinger was turned into a One-Man Army cyborg in order to fight in a war, and was discarded once it was won. He resents Kahler-Jex for having turned him into a monster with no way of going back.
  • Taking the Bullet: Isaac takes a laser blast for Kahler-Jex.
  • Tattooed Crook: Played with. The Kahler race all have distinct facial markings. Later used to great effect by the Doctor when he pretends to pose as Kahler-Jex and replicates the tattoo and dons the man's clothes. Kahler-Tek's onboard identification system thus mistakes him for the wrong man.
  • Time Skip: The Doctor and the Ponds are spending less and less time with each other, and the Doctor now lists his age as 1200, meaning he has aged another century since the last count.
  • Tranquil Fury: After the Doctor's Berserk Button is hammered repeatedly and forcefully, the only thing saving Jex from having his brain being forcibly ejected out of his skull is Amy calming him down.
  • Trailers Always Lie: Promos would have you convinced the Gunslinger was a straight-up villain. It's a bit more complicated than that.
  • Undertaker: Mercy's undertaker fits the trope down to the tape measure, which he uses on the Doctor both times they meet.
  • Was Once a Man: The Gunslinger. It's shown that he underwent cyborgification in the prequel.
    Gunslinger: Make peace with your gods.
    Kahler-Mas: They used to be your gods too.
    Gunslinger: Not any more.
  • Weird West: Aliens and killer cyborgs in the old west.
  • The Western: The first Western in Doctor Who since "The Gunfighters". It's filmed in Spain like most Spaghetti Westerns.
  • What Have I Become?: Implied to be the reason why the Gunslinger went rogue, after battle-damage led him to remember who he was and what Jex and the other scientists had done to him.
  • What the Hell, Hero?:
    • Amy calls the Doctor out for throwing Jex to the Gunslinger. This continues the theme from the previous episode, where the Doctor refuses to spare another murderous villain. The difference being the evils committed by Jex were for what he believed to be the greater good, he still felt guilty for doing it and he is trying to repent. Solomon, on the other hand, continued to only be motivated by his own selfish and greedy desires to thr end, willing to happily do whatever terrible thing he felt would get him what he wanted. Not to mention the Doctor's treatment of Jex, throwing him out of the Sheriff's office and shoving him down the street, before sticking a gun in his face. It's like having a more action-orientated Time Lord Victorious.
    • Oddly enough, Rory, who is usually the first to call out the Doctor in these matters, seems to take his side on this one.
      Amy: Are you gonna let him do this?
      Rory: You mean save us all? Yeah, I am.
  • Where Do You Think You Are?: "Anyone who isn't an American, drop your gun!"
  • White-and-Grey Morality: Exploring this is really the point of the episode. Isaac sums it up as he dies.
    Isaac: You're both good men. You just forget it sometimes...
  • You Kill It, You Bought It: In a roundabout way: the Gunslinger killed Sheriff Isaac, and by the end of the story he ends up as the town's sheriff.

Alternative Title(s): Doctor Who S 33 E 03 A Town Called Mercy