In Westerns there are two kinds of heroes: the kind that shoots first and the kind that doesn’t. The implication of the second kind is an “honorable” fighter, someone who cares less about winning and more about winning with right on his side. Which kind is The Doctor? We found out in “A Town Called Mercy.”

The Doctor (Matt Smith), Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill) find themselves in a mysterious town in the American West just a few years after the Civil War. They meant to head elsewhere, but something brought them here. The townspeople are suspicious, there’s a big KEEP OUT sign by the road, and a barrier of rocks and hunks of wood surrounds the whole place. The group soon finds out why. A gigantic cyborg gunslinger (Andrew Brooke) who’s already taken out several people in the area who seem to be connected is roaming the landscape. And now he’s after one final target, known only as the “alien doctor.”

This is another of those episodes that focuses on the moral role of The Doctor when it comes to issues of right and wrong. In Mercy he must contend with a cybernetic killer who deals only in moral absolutes, a group of townspeople desperate to end the chaos in their home, a local marshal who truly believes in mercy above all else, and Amy, who is convinced traveling alone has hardened her Time Lord. We’ve seen The Doctor be cold before (we saw it at the end of last week’s episode, in fact), but here he seems more savage than usual, more bent on ending something quickly rather than ending it right, until Amy steps in.

This raises a number of interesting issues. It’s clear from the things we’ve seen in the last two episodes that The Doctor is worried about his future with the Ponds, but he hasn’t yet articulated exactly what he’s worried about. It could be, in part, the fact that Amy and Rory seem content to live the quieter half of their life more and more often (as previews for next week’s episode show). But on the other side of the conflict is Amy, who’s happy to spend time with her husband but seems more worried than usual about her Doctor. Will he break without her? Will he go too far? Will he crumble without someone to talk to? The theme of co-dependency has always been a part of the Moffat era, but now it seems to be moving into more dangerously personal territory, even when you consider how dark it got last season. We’re nearing the Ponds’ endgame, and this seems to be the direction it’s going, which sets us up for both a very sad and very emotionally solid farewell.

Aside from that, though, this episode was sadly inferior to the two that came before it. It wasn’t bad, but the sense of wonder that permeated both “Asylum of the Daleks” and “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” just wasn’t there this time. It wasn’t as much fun, and Doctor Who is at its best when it merges those deep emotional moments with that constant sense of fun. We’re left with an underwhelming episode, but we still get the feeling that we’re heading toward something bigger, and that means that this wasn’t a failure.

Next Week: The Power of Three

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