Tonight’s episode of Doctor Who, “A Town Called Mercy,” is a treasure trove of material for discussion for those interested in the intersection of Doctor Who and religion. What follows includes SPOILERS and so if you have yet to see the episode and don’t want to know what happens, bookmark this post and read it later. I won’t discuss everything, but I will discuss several key points.
The Doctor has warn a Stetson before, not only in “The Impossible Astronaut” but also in the episode “The Gunfighters” from way back, when the Doctor ended up in Tombstone. Here, however, we get to see the Doctor actually become marshall of a wild west town. Although his quick draw at the end (which I won’t say more about despite having warned of spoilers already) has a surprising twist which I loved.
The episode “A Town Called Mercy” has religion woven into it as a major theme, right from the beginning. We see a cyborg hunt someone down and give him a chance to make peace with his gods. It is one of the brilliant things about this episode that this “monster” – as he initially seems to us, and as he describes himself – we later discover is a person, a victim seeking vengeance, while a seemingly kindly soul we discover has a past that he is ashamed of as a war criminal, having turned people on his planets into cyborgs in order to win and end an ongoing war.
And so this episode really is about mercy, about forgiveness, about war crimes, about vengeance, and about justice. And it seems to me to treat these subjects with an impressive degree of profundity for a lighthearted sci-fi show.
The moment when the Doctor considers simply handing Kahler-Jex over to the cyborg is quite possibly the most powerful. The Doctor says that this time he is honoring the victims and putting them first. Amy stops him and chastises him, saying that this is what happens when he travels alone for too long. That seemingly throw-away line is actually significant. When we loosen our ties to other human beings, we can begin to treat matters of mercy and justice, and the fate of other persons, differently, impersonally.
There are some really great bits of dialogue as well as other memorable quotes in the episode. Here are some of my favorites:
“Violence doesn’t end violence, it extends it.”
“Is he really worth the risk?” “I don’t know – but you are.”
“Frightened people…give me a Dalek any day.”
“Justice doesn’t work like that. You don’t get to decide when and how your debt is paid.”
“We all carry our prisons with us.”
There are numerous scenes of religious significance – from the minister praying the Lord’s Prayer and the people taking refuge in the church, to Jex’s description of his people’s belief that after death, one’s soul must ascend a mountain carrying the weight of everyone one has wronged.
I think one can find a take-home religious message in the church scene. What saves lives is not frantic prayers in the midst of a terrifying crisis. It is the teaching of people to value lives consistently on a day to day basis. When that is done, even a war-scarred vengeance-seeker may avoid taking innocent lives. When such things are ignored, then even without a cyborg in our midst we will destroy one another in a scramble to save ourselves and ensure our own safety.
If you’ve seen it, what did you like most about this episode?