Review: Doctor Who, ‘A Town Called Mercy’

Promo for Doctor Who: A Town Called MercyOK, when Doctor Who wins its obligatory Hugo next year, I vote we give it to this episode. I thought that was stonking.

That said, I can see my Twitter feed is already a flutter with voices of dissent. I won’t pretend to know everybody’s reasons (people always take the trouble to tell me that it was for something different when I guesstimate), but US set episodes are always a slightly tougher sell. I know there have been grumblings around the blogosphere about catering to the growing US audience, but in all honesty, I can’t see why that’s a reason to complain. I mean, it isn’t like all the UK-based episodes aren’t catering to the UK audience. I grant you, ‘Daleks in Manhattan‘ was not the most successful of gestures in that direction, but Doctor Who has a long history of flirting with locations across the pond*. William Hartnell, the first doctor, even had a wild west story arc himself, in ‘The Gunfighters‘ (1966).

I also rather liked the touch of the Doctor saying that they were heading for a Mexican day of the dead festival (before someone spilled from crumbs on the console). Like so many science fiction programs, Doctor Who has always been limited in its realism by its centring on the country of its origin for its plots. Budget has been a big factor in this – I don’t suppose we shall see a Doctor Who episode set in New Zealand in the near future. Curiously, New Who has had, if anything, even more of a problem in this way than Old Who, setting unusually high numbers of episodes on Earth in an attempt to not scare away mainstream viewers, and consequently giving more time to Great Britain over alien locales. Exploring a bit of Earthly culture outside the European therefore seems rather healthy, to me.

But then, I spent a couple of years growing up in the US as a child, and have a longstanding affection for the wild west as a result. Perhaps I am biased because of this, but overall I thought this episode was tightly plotted, original, well-acted, challenging, and exciting. We were not tortured by the notoriously bad American accents that were one of the many flawed elements of the Manhattan based episode mentioned above. Moreover, rather than the recycling of old favourites that we have seen so much of, lately, we got a new (to my knowledge) alien race and a cyborg. (OK, so it is hitting a lot of the Ro buttons, but surely everyone likes cyborgs, right? Right?)

Minimally Spoiltastic Plot

The Doctor, Amy, and Rory arrive at the town of Mercy, somewhere in the US. The town is surrounded by a mysterious ring of rocks and wood, as well as a pointed ‘Keep Out’ sign, which the Doctor pointedly ignores. Almost immediately upon arrival they are challenged by the locals and when the Doctor confirms that he is both a Doctor and an alien, they unceremoniously evict him. In response to his crossing the ring around the town, an ominous figure, named by the locals as ‘The Gunslinger’ materialises in fits and starts, slowly getting closer to the Doctor, hefting a big gun.

At the last moment, the local sheriff, Issac (Ben Browder), declares that the Doctor must be allowed back in, and takes him aside to explain. There is, apparently, another alien doctor in the town, and the Gunslinger wants to kill him. The other doctor, Kahler Jex (Adrian Scarborough), has apparently done a lot of good. The sheriff mentions that the war he, Issac, fought in is only a few years in the past, and the experience convinced him that if a man wants a second chance, he can have one. Kahler Jex has done a lot of good to the town, and Issac is determined to protect him from the Gunslinger.

The Doctor agrees, but is naturally curious as to why it is that the Gunslinger wants this other doctor dead, and whether Kahler Jex is truly a man worth protecting, whatever he may have done for Mercy.

Analysis

Top: Kryten and the Red Dwarf crew posing in their costumes for '6 Gunmen'. Bottom: the Gunslinger.I felt like there were a lot of geek nods hovering around this one. You can’t say ‘The Gunslinger’ to me and not have me think of Roland of Gilead, who is so termed in Stephen King’s magnum opus, The Dark Tower. But I’m willing to concede that I’m super sensitive to such things. I also don’t know if it’s just me who found that the Gunslinger bore a striking resemblance to a warped version of Kryten from Red Dwarf, which, of course, had its own western episode. I dunno, maybe it is just me, but the black, bulky clothes; the waxy, cyborg face; the awkward stance and movements; the misshapen hands… it just felt familiar. On the other hand, I know that the Terminator font used for the cyborg-view writing that said ‘TERMINATE’ was intentional.

So what were all these references (or putative references) doing? I’m not entirely sure. They might have been just nods. However, this episode was particularly concerned with exploring the themes of warfare, justice, law and order, and the impact of the past on the present, as well as whether an individual can change. The responsibilities and changeability of the individual is a frequent question where artificial intelligence is concerned. Dave Lister, in Red Dwarf, is constantly trying to get Kryten to change as a way of enabling freedom by defying his programming. This is positive freedom, and yet could also be seen as a restriction of Kryten’s negative freedom to simply be who he wants to be. Kryten seems to enjoy the positive freedom that Lister grants him, yet he is also frequently wracked with guilt over the minor transgressions Lister persuades him to because they are in conflict with an existing moral code that Lister is not entirely successful in providing him with reasons to reject. I’m not saying Red Dwarf has any especially in-depth discussion of these things, but it is a feature of debates about artificial life that they always bring with them questions of responsibility and freedom. Programming is taken as restrictive – yet arguably, we are just as predetermined by the laws of physics and our circumstance. Can programming free one from responsibility? If a choice is unavoidable, does that mean it was not chosen? Was it really as unavoidable as we like to tell ourselves it was? And if we create life, are we not responsible for the actions of that life? Or does accepting such responsibility deny the power over its own life that each individual has?

These are questions that the Terminator movies (especially Terminator 2: Judgement Day) are more overtly concerned with. Questions of responsibility and freedom stem from both the AI plot elements and the time travel ones (another shared theme with this week’s Doctor Who. John Connor’s message to himself, via Kyle Reese and his mother, is that ‘The future is not set. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves’. It’s a bastardisation of a quote from Sartre’s seminal paper, ‘Existentialism and Humanism‘**:

Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself… man is, before all else, something which propels itself towards a future, and is aware that it is doing so

Terminator 2 is all about choices, and I’ll restrain myself from getting too deep into my thoughts on T2***, but I hope this is sufficient to show the connection. Anyway, ‘A Town Called Mercy’ is also about choices and the weight of responsibility – the weight of the past. The Doctor is a man who has tried to wipe his past away – a thing that might feel like freedom, but must also be dangerous, especially for a man with a past as weighty as the Doctor’s. Here he is confronted by a number of mirrors: the sherif, who has responded to his experiences of war with kindness, and a resolution to judge all as though their crimes can be written off if they can prove themselves valuable members of the community. The other doctor, who has worked hard to atone for a murky past, but whose past has followed him, anyway, and now threatens others because it has been ignored. And the Gunslinger, another dealer of death, who is bitter and full of anger for the role that has been thrust upon him, yet who follows a certain code nonetheless. The nature of morality and when and whether it is ever right to kill is constantly challenged and interrogated from a number of angles. And hanging in the background, addressed with a subtlety that New Who has sometimes lacked in the past, is the issue of the Doctor’s own past, of his war-crimes, of his status as a warrior, and whether he even has the right to call himself the ‘Doctor’ and not the ‘Predator’ or something more ominous.

One senses that the Doctor can never truly resign himself to the passive role of healer. The clean slate that Issac wants for others (and tacitly for himself) is perhaps an ideal that cannot be attained precisely because the history of our past actions frames our present and our future. The Doctor was always more the sort of doctor who searched after knowledge than who stopped to attend to the less exciting business of tending to the sick. He has helped people, countless people, but he has also left a wave of destruction in his path. The ‘Oncoming Storm’, if you like. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: ‘He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy‘. Or perhaps, he’s a little bit of both.

The Doctor is one of the more interesting heroes – one of the most enigmatic, charismatic, and magnetic – precisely because he is both darkness and light. Even before this episode aired certain corners of the Interwebs were muttering about the Doctor handling a gun and behaving in a morally questionable manner. But he’s always been a bit morally questionable. He’s not a comfortable hero, and his value lies precisely in that, because he makes us question ourselves. He’s makes us question whom we choose to idolise, and whether people can be fitted into neat categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Not a lot of television shows suitable for children dare to muddy the waters in this way, and yet I think it’s a thing that children respond well too. It’s an important lesson, not only that good people can do bad things, but that bad people can do good, and that maybe the distinction between the two is not as clear as our parents might like to pretend when they tell us that ‘No – don’t do that. That’s wrong – only bad children do that’.

This is a challenging and nuanced look at morality and responsibility all packaged up in a great ball of fun filled with aliens and cyborgs and the wild west. What’s not to love? I might just go watch it again.

In the mean time, and because I cannot resist it, I just have to post this glorious video again, as a reminder of the Doctor’s darker side…

*He-he, I said ‘pond’.
**The literal translation is ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’, but the title is usually rendered in English as ‘Existentialism and Humanism’.
***Give me enough time and freedom and space to write in and I will almost always end up talking about existentialism and Terminator 2 – it’s like monkeys and Shakespeare.

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14 Responses to Review: Doctor Who, ‘A Town Called Mercy’

  1. ravensock says:

    Hi, secret follower commenting for the first time (isn’t the Internet a creepy place!)
    I agree with a lot of your sentiments in this post. Probably because I also love gunslingers and the west, Roland, Red Dwarf (having watched the Series 6 old west episode only this afternoon on Dave!), and many other things too. My serious complaint has to be the under-use of Ben Browder. Matt Smith’s moment of shouting was impressive too, and a little scary.

    • Thanks for your comment! Glad you liked the review. Matt Smith shouting is always fun. As for Ben Browder… he didn’t feel underused to me, but there was a lot going on in this episode and only so much space for working through the parts. One of the flaws of the single-episode structure, I guess. There was a lot, here, that could have been expanded on, but I think they did a good job within the constraints.

      • ravensock says:

        Absolutely, they really did do a fantastic job. It felt like a good, solid episode of Doctor Who, which we haven’t really had (esp. latter half of last series). I guess I’m used to Browder as being a strong lead, whereas he was a lot more like a pivot. It’s almost a shame they used it all up as a single-episode really: given the strong actors used. That said, I’d like a few more single episode stories, with beginnings and ends, without too much foreshadowing (or the more creative foreshadowing as done here, rather than the ‘in your face’ moments I’ve come to dislike).

  2. sj says:

    I really liked this episode as well (and honestly, there aren’t many that I don’t like, excepting the [gag] Rose years).

    I like that you touched on the family friendliness of the recent episodes. I’ve been watching since I was a kid and lived for the PBS telethon weekends (usually full of Baker and Davison episodes) because I could plop in front of the television and watch hour after hour of the Doctor (I’d already begun to wish he was my boyfriend at an early age – shut up).

    Anyway, my oldest will be 13 this Wednesday, and the 2nd boy is 6/almost 7. These are the two of my children that are really into Doctor Who. The oldest spent his last birthday lounging on the couch watching a ton of 4th and 5th Doctor episodes on Netflix, and was just as into those as I was when I was his age. When he saw that 11’s initial impulse tonight was to throw Jex outside the line, his reaction was “Whoa, first letting the missiles get Solomon and now this?! The Doctor is kind of a badass this season.” And then he glanced over and quickly away like he thought I was going to yell at him for saying “ass.”

    He’s right, though. We’re seeing a lot more of the “Well, fuck it.” Doctor so far this season that we haven’t really seen since Eccleston’s weariness after the Time War.

    I wholeheartedly approve.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts as a mother. I can only project an outsider’s thoughts, having no kids of my own. Doctor Who is an interesting one in terms of family friendliness. I get annoyed when people try to say that it’s a children’s show, and that therefore if a grown-up who is also a fan has a complaint they should shut up, because the show wasn’t meant for them in the first place. I don’t think you can ignore that it has a massive following amongst adults, many of whom started watching as children – a sort of continuity that Doctor Who is rare in being able to offer due to the length of its run (even with the gap between Old and New Who). And often I think the complaints I want to make as an adult are all the more relevant because the show is being watched by millions of kids.

      It was nice, though, to say something nice about the fact that this kind of interesting and challenging content is being put on a family friendly show. I was really impressed with this episode. It’s really cool that your kids are finding the moral ambiguity challenging, also.

      • sj says:

        You know, it wasn’t even something that I had to convince them to watch with me, they just gravitated to it while it was on one afternoon (they show it here every weekday afternoon on BBCA – little sj dies a bit inside thinking of how she always had to WAIT FOR TELETHON WEEKENDS) and eventually there was a “Hey, is there a way we can watch all of the episodes?” moment. So we spent last summer catching up on everything they had on Netflix and now they’re just as excited as I am when it’s coming on (which is also nice because I no longer have to watch alone).

        I always have a moment when I see that it looks like we’re heading into darker episode territory, wondering if it’ll be too much for the younger one that watches with me (my 5 year old only likes Eccleston and Rose, he refuses to watch with his brothers if the episode doesn’t contain one or the other). So far there hasn’t been anything that has really scared him, although he’s not a huge fan of the Cybermen, he DID love last night because his older brother recently got him into Teen Titans, so he was able to associate the Gunslinger with Cyborg.

        The 6 year old doesn’t necessarily grasp the moral ambiguity, but the 13 year old does, and he’s a little worried for his good buddy the Doctor. He even got a little sad last night when Smith said he was now more than 1200 years old, since that meant he’d spent a few hundred years alone recently. “200 years on your own would probably make anyone do some things they wouldn’t normally do. I agree with Amy.” Which was met with gasps because we don’t care for Amy (although we love us some Rory! too bad they’re a package deal [and see my last post for my thoughts on that]).

        Jeez, I’ve written another too long comment, but this one is fueled by lack of coffee rather than wine. Forgive me if I’m incoherent. 😉

        • sj says:

          Also, the boy just came down talking about how the Doctor is really only feeding his own guilt, which is the reason he’s doing all the traveling without companions in the first place. He leaves them home so he doesn’t have to worry about losing them (which would add more guilt), but in the process adds to the darkness inside, which leads him to make questionable decisions that he feels guilty about.

          (I love my kids)

        • I really loved that bit about his age, too! For Most of New Who he’s been saying he was 900 years old, and I was like ‘He’s going through his lives awfully fast, then! I like that they’re allowing him to age and for it to mean something.

          I don’t know if it’s quite the same thing in the States, but it’s part of the culture of Doctor Who in the UK that it’s meant to be scary. ‘Hiding behind the sofa’ became synonymous with watching Doctor Who as a child. I know some children really do scare easily and it might not be appropriate for them, but for most people I think it’s good to have that kind of thrill and lurch of imagination at a young age. It’s really cool that your kids are getting into it and thinking about it.

  3. Good review, and it’s the first episode of the series I’ve really enjoyed since The God Complex last year (also by Toby Whithouse). I missed the Dark Tower references initially, but then it was obvious when I saw your mention of them.

    What I did enjoy about this was that Whithouse (in this and Being Human) is like Russell T Davies in that he’s content to leave some ambiguity for the viewer, and leave extra levels in the story to be discovered on reflection and further viewing. We can actually discuss character and motivation – because there is some – with different people having different interpretations and viewpoints, rather than treating the whole thing as a puzzle with only one correct answer. Like you said, the Doctor’s always been somewhat morally questionable, and you can see the whole series – right back to Hartnell abducting teachers rather than having his secret revealed – as an exploration as to why he needs people around him.

    And one final random point – Kahler Jax’s story (scientist on losing side in a war experiments on own people and produces powerful bilogical-mechanical hybrids) is pretty close to Davros’s, isn’t it?

    • Heh – I wouldn’t have pegged RTD as likely to leave ambiguity for the viewer – wuite teh reverse! – but I’ll agree with you about Whithouse. And yeah, It’s a useful reminder to go back to rewatch the First Doctor episodes and realise just how questionable the Doctor has always been. Always a little bit selfish, on some level, although usually generous with his kindness where it doesn’t cost him. I think he has a self-image of being rather self-less, but it’s one that’s developed over long years, and not necessarily natural to him. He enjoys the attention and the excitement and the discovery just a little too much, and sometimes when something brings reality a little too close to home he can surprise us by responding in anger and reminding us that he is not unaware of the power that he weilds.

      Interesting point about Davros – not sure I’m entirely convinced, but it’s something I didn’t think of, and it’s food for thought!

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