The Doctor and his companions returned to the American frontier in “A Town Called Mercy.” This week’s episode of Doctor Who was a visual treat with an engaging musical score, sci-fi gun-slinging action, and plenty of one-liner chuckles – but this episode was more than just another fun, time-travelling alien adventure.
Kahler-Jex, the alien doctor who created a cyborg army to end the Kahler civilization’s nine year war, told The Doctor: “Looking at you, Doctor, is like looking into a mirror…almost. There’s rage there, like me; guilt, like me; solitude. Everything but the nerve to do what needs to be done.” On most counts, Jex was right, and The Doctor seemed to immediately recognize himself in this alien doctor living among humans.
The Doctor admonished Jex, telling him: You committed an atrocity and chose this as your punishment. Don’t get me wrong: good choice. Civilized hours, lots of adulation, nice weather – but – justice doesn’t work like that. You don’t get to decide when and how your debt is paid.” The Doctor might have been scolding Jex, but those words and his anger seemed to be directed equally at himself.
Having an antagonist be such a close parallel to our primary protagonist made for some interesting exploration in moral relativism. In interacting with civilizations throughout space and time, Doctor Who has frequently touched on similar themes. We usually see The Doctor as our objective moral compass and even if he has wiped out entire civilizations, we still think of The Doctor as a “good guy” because we see these stories through his eyes.
There have been some cut and dry, good vs. evil situations, but usually, The Doctor deals with far more complicated scenarios involving the fruit of good intentions gone wrong or villains who aren’t exactly “evil.” The more The Doctor learns about his antagonists, the more complicated his choices become and the heavier those choices weigh on his conscience.
There were a few moments that seemed to hint at events that may come later this season. After The Doctor picked up a gun and forced Jex out to face the wrath of Kahler-Tek, Amy tried to bring The Doctor down from his rampage. She encouraged The Doctor to spare Jex his fate at the hands of the cyborg gunslinger, but The Doctor angrily responded, saying: “Every time I negotiate, I try to understand. Well, not today. No, today I honor the victims first – his, the Master’s, the Daleks’ and all the people who died because of my mercy!” Amy tells The Doctor that “this” is what happens when he travels alone for too long.
How long has he been travelling alone between his visits with the Ponds? With these stand alone episodes, things haven’t seemed all that terrible for The Doctor and his companions. Everything has resolved neatly and the Ponds are returned home safe and sound. Still, instead of seeing the fruits of friendship forged through adventure, we’re seeing the wrath, regret, and aggression of all The Doctor’s previous incarnations bubble up to the surface.
The Doctor has carried the weight of his mercy for as long as we’ve known him, so why does it seem to be causing him so much anguish in recent episodes? Why does he seem less patient, less creative with punishment, and less willing to show mercy to the baddies that they’ve encountered recently?
The way he looks at Amy and Rory as they end each adventure makes me suspect that he already knows – or perhaps, has already experienced – what will happen to Amy and Rory, and that his more-volatile-than-usual attitude of late has something to do with that.
The conflict with Jex ended after the townsfolk participated in a Three Amigos inspired gimmick to fool Kahler-Tek. Their efforts to save Jex were thwarted when he took his own life to end Kahler-Tek’s hunt, and to atone for the lives lost at his hands. With how closely The Doctor and Jex had been paralleled throughout this episode, I hope that Jex’s actions don’t hint at what The Doctor believes he will have to do to make amends for the lives he couldn’t save. The town marshal, Isaac, used his dying breath to tell The Doctor that he knew that both The Doctor and Jex were good men – they just forget that sometimes. The more The Doctor travels without his companions, the harder it seems to be for him to remember his own goodness.
It turns out that Mercy wasn’t just the name of the town hiding an alien doctor from a cyborg gunslinger. Mercy was a theme that ran throughout tonight’s episode, and a theme that seems to be woven throughout this season of Doctor Who. Hopefully The Doctor will eventually realize that perhaps the individual most in need of his mercy is The Doctor himself.