Doctor Who: A Town Called Mercy

Doctor Who: A Town Called Mercy September 15, 2012

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.

The blog The Oncoming Hope discusses this scene and helpfully relates it to a related scene from “Genesis of the Daleks.”

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?

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  • choann

    honestly? the music and the character of Isaac. Doctor who has been a show that has often showed the worse of humanity( Season 4’s midnight comes to mind) and the doctor and his companions being the ‘better’ people. So to include a character like Isaac, who knew that the situation involving the gunslinger was a bit hopeless, because he really didn’t understand what was going on and even then he knew and tried to save the doctor who brought hope to their town of mercy, well… I don’t know it just reminded me of the good that can exist within people and push comes to shove I like to think that’s what fuels my faith when I see some of the crappy things in the world- no matter how much the world around me can suck if I remain true to what I believe and live it out as honestly as I can maybe that goodness can spread.

    • Erp

      I wonder if the writers chose the name ‘Isaac’ to invoke Abraham’s son, the one God demanded he sacrifice?

      • yes. yes they did. that seemed rather apparent but it is interesting to call attention to it none-the-less

  • tony springer

    A simple story with the usual Doctor Who depth. Liked the dialogue between Pond and Jex about parenthood and the Doctor’s “weapon” in the shootout with the android.

  • I thought it was a bit of a cheat to have Jex commit suicide and by doing so solve everyone’s problems. In the real world people who have done wrong but are not totally evil, pretty much all of us, don’t take the easy way out. But… Dr. Who is a family show after all. It’s something of a romp with a nod to serious issues now and then.

    In previous stories, way back when Tom Baker was the Doctor, he had a chance to eliminate the Daleks. The Doctor refused to at that time because it would have been genocide. So now he seems to be wrestling with whether or not that was really a good idea and possibly regrets or is having some misgivings about his own moral code.

    Of course we know that the reason the Daleks survived is because they are such wonderful plot devices and the franchise would be poorer, literally, without them. But I don’t think you can avoid “big issues” forever. If the writers had allowed the Doctor to always make the right choice and eliminate clearly evil opponents like the Daleks then they would have created a boring Doctor living in an unreal world.

  • There was also this scene :p