Who Review: A Town Called Mercy
by Kevin Rigdon (@pralix1138)
There was a bit of an explosion in my brain while watching “A Town Called Mercy.” I thought it a brilliant move to remind us once again that the Doctor is not necessarily good guy, especially while he’s on his own. I didn’t realize how long he’s been traveling alone until this episode when he tells Amy that he’s 1,200 years old now. So, decades, centuries even, between his visits to the Ponds’ has had a drastic effect.
The episode starts out in a very “Who-ish” way, which is to say that it continues to build on the storyline revolving around the question asked at the end of the previous season: “Doctor Who?” Who, exactly, is the Doctor? I believe we have been slowly finding out the answer this question, and it isn’t necessarily a good thing.
The Doctor lands, Ponds in tow, outside a town called Mercy in the Wild West some five years after the end of the American Civil War. Of course, this was not the intended target. They were headed to Mexico to observe the Day of the Dead celebration. But the Doctor rarely lands where he means to. However, the TARDIS, that lovely blue box, takes him where he needs to go. And he most definitely needed to be in Mercy.
After a brief introduction to the townspeople, the Doctor is swiftly picked up and carried bodily to the edge of town and chucked out because he claims to be the alien doctor. Not unheard of with the Doctor, but the rub here is that the town is besieged by a cyborg the locals call the “Gunslinger” and anyone who ventures outside of the boundary of the town is killed, or so think the townspeople. He’s saved by Marshal Isaac, who is masterfully played by Ben Browder (Farscape, Stargate SG-1). We are then introduced to the real alien doctor named Kahler-Jex, who’s not only crashed landed, but has rigged the town up with rudimentary electricity and gotten the town through a bout of cholera with no loss of life. But this doctor, much like the Doctor, isn’t what he seems.
It turns out that Kahler-Jex is not only a crashed Kahler Scientist, he is a war criminal. He took other Kahler, experimented on them, fused their bodies with machines and programmed them to kill in an effort to win a war of their own. The Gunslinger is the last of those men Jex mutilated, and he has hunted down and assassinated the entire team of scientists and surgeons. The last one is Jex.
This information is almost too much for the Doctor. He believes that Jex must pay, must be brought to justice. There is an interesting parallel here, and I believe the Doctor knows it. When he looks at Kahler-Jex, he sees someone like himself. The Doctor himself is responsible for innumerable deaths and he has to face it. Jex even notices it: the darkness, the rage, the solitude. On his own, with no one to balance him, the Doctor is descending into what he was before: the Oncoming Storm. He looks at all of the victims of the Master, the Daleks, and all the others; and he blames his own sense of mercy for their collective destruction.
Here, the Doctor has a sort of existential crisis. With all of his rules he has in place (Demons Run), his pacifism, and so on, he really doesn’t know if he’s capable of killing Jex, or more troubling, of saving him. But Amy, Amelia Pond, the girl who waited, reminds the Doctor once again that “we have to be better than him.” Amy brings the Doctor back from the brink by a combination of not-so-wonderful gunplay and heartfelt words. She reminds him of his rules, and the capacity for humanity to be merciful. As if the Doctor needed an affirmation of Amy’s admonition, Isaac dies to protect Jex, and asks the Doctor to protect Jex and the town. Honoring Isaac’s last wish, the Doctor attempts to devise a plan to do just that.
The plan is almost derailed by the arrival of a lynch mob intent on throwing Jex to the Gunslinger. This particular sequence reaches a climax in a stare-down between the Doctor and the eighteen-year-old Dockery who threatens to kill the Doctor. Having come back to himself, the Doctor talks down Dockery by putting himself between the mob and Jex. There is a wonderful little exchange where the Doctor tells the youngster that he, Dockery, is worth the risk. This is an important moment because the Doctor is affirming that this human being is worth mercy.
In the climax, the Doctor’s plan is put into motion: a plan that involves tricking the Gunslinger with the facial tattoos of the Kahler, while Jex is supposed to get to his ship and take off. The Gunslinger is fooled for a few moments, but quickly recognizes the ruse, and smashes into the church where the majority of townspeople are hiding and praying. The Gunslinger, after looking into the eyes of a small girl, lowers his weapon and walks out, and finds the Doctor. All while this has been going on, Jex has gotten to his ship, and uses the ships communications to speak with the Gunslinger, who we’ve learned, is named Kahler-Mas. After a brief, and moving discussion, Jex initiates the self-destruct sequence and blows himself up. Left without a war to fight, Mas decides to self-destruct as well, but is convinced by the Doctor to instead be the protector of the town of Mercy.
This was an amazing episode. I might even go so far as to say one of my favorite episodes of the entire run. It has everything, well almost everything, that I love about Doctor Who. It had a moral crisis that was anything but simple. There are complexities to the concept of mercy and humanity explored here, and it will take me several more viewings to get my head around much of it. It revealed once more to us the dark past of the Doctor, his internal struggles to remain “good.” The one thing lacking is the cheeky companion that will keep the Doctor on the straight and (more-or-less) narrow. It is becoming quite clear that the Ponds’ time with the Doctor is coming to a close. I will shed many sloppy, embarrassing man tears when that day finally arrives, but it needs to happen for the Doctor’s own sanity as well as that of Amy and Rory. All in all, everyone involved with the production of this episode should be heartily congratulated. Can’t wait for next week!
Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars