Of all the genres Doctor Who visits with some regularity, one that hasn’t been explored since the show’s infancy is the Western. The only other serial set in the Wild West was The Gunslingers, a First Doctor adventure involving classic American Wild West characters. As A Town Called Mercy makes the setting essentially a first for the show, it feels almost alien. And yet it’s all so familiar. The dark themes of morality, justice, and fairness all show up in droves.
Before long the trouble starts and the Doctor has an angry mob pointing guns at him. It appears the townsfolk of Mercy are in the middle of a situation where a cyborg assassin is keeping them hostage within the town limits. And to make things worse, the cyborg, or gunslinger as the townsfolk call him, has been asking about the Doctor for weeks. So when the Doctor shows up the townsfolk are ready to serve him up to save themselves.
The twist, as it turns out, is the other alien secretly in the custody of Mercy’s Marshal. Kahler-Jex is a member of a race the Doctor is familiar with, and he has helped Mercy immensely since his arrival two years prior, both technologically, and medically, hence being called “the doctor”. In light of his help to the townsfolk of Mercy, they do not want to serve him up to the gunslinger.
When the Doctor finds Jex’s spacecraft he learns that Jex isn’t quite as benevolent as he first seems. There’s a reason the gunslinger is after him. Jex is actually a surgeon who performed terrible experiments on the unwilling during a war on his planet.
The Doctor often trusts those he meets quite easily, as it is his nature to see the good in everyone. He truly expects people to be good, and rarely assumes the worst in them. This often sets up moments of great disappointment for the Doctor, and it is how he handles these disappointments that we’ve come to understand his moral character. But in line with the theme of this season, the Doctor’s moral compass doesn’t run as true as it has in the past. That doesn’t mean he is less moral, just that his sense of justice is becoming more” eye for an eye” than “forgive and forget”.
It turns out the gunslinger is actually one of Jex’s experiments; an enhanced cyborg warrior who is trying to take revenge on those who turned him into a monster. Jex claims his actions were for the sake of ending a horrible war that could only be won by doing what he did, but the Doctor doesn’t so easily forgive Jex’s actions.
For the first time in a long while the Doctor is legitimately distressed over his indecision with what to do with Jex. After being taunted by Jex, the Doctor drags him to the town’s limits to offer him up to the gunslinger, now the instrument of justice against his maker. The Doctor even resorts to holding a gun to Jex’s face; an implement the Doctor despises above all others. Here we see a fantastic moral argument between him and Amy break out, where his building frustrations with himself over how every time he tries to help it ends up resulting in more death. And it is only Amy that can talk him down, although it’s too late, sort of. The town’s Marshal jumps in front of Jex as the gunslinger fires, and dies in his place, but not before bestowing the title of Marshal onto the Doctor.
This episode is rich with the struggle of perspective morality. Jex isn’t evil, he just did what was needed to end a war and save millions of lives. Do the ends justify the means? That is always hard to determine, but each character in this episode has their own perspective that makes the complex moral judgment of Jex, the gunslinger, and the Doctor, difficult to side with. Conveniently, Jex makes the decision for us by sacrificing himself using his ships auto-destruct, paying for his crimes, and saving the gunslinger from having to kill anymore because of Jex’s actions. In a moment of redemption for the gunslinger, he becomes the new Marshal of Mercy; once an instrument of war, now an instrument of peace.
One of the themes of the previous season was that the Doctor turns his companions into weapons. It seems the grand design of Amy Pond was to turn her not into a weapon, but into the Doctor. With all that has happened to Amy, she is the one struggling to keep the Doctor on the moral path. It will be interesting to see what happens when she’s not around any longer to do so.
I enjoyed this episode quite a bit. It was drastically different than the previous two in this season, as it was more about character development than anything else. After an episode of trying to beat the clock against the Daleks, and an episode of being chased around a spaceship by dinosaurs, this episode was a pleasant change of pace. As a western, the episode was a huge success; a showdown at high noon, the passing of the tin star, scared townsfolk making rash decisions, pleas of justice and revenge, mysterious strangers. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the episode’s music. Masterfully scored, it set the tone and mood of every scene, and drove the emotion and action throughout. A Town Called Mercy worked perfectly.
Season seven is three for three by my count, and it looks like it’s just going to get better!
Image Source: [doctorwhotv]