In the Doctor Who episode “A Town Called Mercy,” the Doctor, Any and Rory arrive in the American Southwest in the late 19th Century. The Doctor learns that the town of Mercy is harboring Kahler-Jex, a crash-landed alien scientist, who in return for safe haven has cured the town’s cholera outbreak and wired it up for heat & electricity. Now, though, a deadly cyborg hunter known as the Gunslinger is camped outside of Mercy, demanding the town turn over Kahler-Jex to him for execution. The Doctor attempts to come up with a plan to aid Kahler-Jex in his escape, but cuts short his efforts when he locates the alien’s spacecraft, intact, out in the desert. Suspicious, the Doctor accesses the ship’s log, and learns that Kahler-Jex was part of a group of scientists who performed a series of hideous medical experiments to create a cyborg army in the hopes of ending a war that had decimated their planet for nearly a decade. The cyborgs did indeed bring a quick end to the carnage, but one of them, the Gunslinger, went rogue and began hunting down the team who created it. Kahler-Jex is the last survivor. The Doctor is now confronted with the moral dilemma of whether to still aid Kahler-Jex, or to leave him to the Gunslinger’s brand of justice.
The Doctor’s first reaction to Kahler-Jex’s true nature is one of absolute disgust. Charging back into town, he forces the scientist out into the desert at gunpoint, ready to give him over to the Gunslinger. Although shocking, I do not think this action came out of nowhere. In the episode preceding this one, “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship,” the Doctor left the ruthless space pirate Solomon, who had murdered thousands of innocent Silurians, to be killed when a fleet of missiles was diverted towards his spaceship. I was a bit surprised by that, as the Doctor very rarely kills anyone in cold blood. But Matt Smith had done such a superb job of conveying the Doctor’s slowly mounting anger at the pirate’s crimes, so that it seemed understandable from the Doctor’s point of view that he did what he did. And, indeed, “A Town Called Mercy” follows up on the Doctor’s changing attitude.
Once again, Smith brilliantly conveys the cold fury coursing through the Doctor. In a brilliant exchange penned by writer Toby Whithouse, a shocked Amy demands to know why killing has suddenly become a choice. And the Doctor, full of rage & anguish, tells her “But they keep coming back, don’t you see? Every time I negotiate, I try to understand. Well not today. No, today I honor the victims first. His, the Master’s, the Daleks’. All the people that died because of my mercy!” And Amy responds by telling him “This is what happens when you travel alone for too long.”
Whithouse’s script is tapping into the idea that the Doctor’s companions serve to ground him, to give him the ability to empathize, and grant him morality. This is something that was seen in David Tennant’s final year on the show, but actually goes back to the very first season of Doctor Who, broadcast in 1963-4. When we first see the Doctor at the start of the series, he is rather ruthless, manipulative figure, kidnapping Ian Chesterton & Barbara Wright to keep his granddaughter Susan from leaving him, ready to bash in a caveman’s skull with a rock to save his own life, and sabotaging the TARDIS so that he has the opportunity to stay and explore an alien planet. But Ian and Barbara had a humanizing effect on the Doctor. Their presence gradually seemed to make him a better person. And by the time the serial “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” aired a year later, it was the Doctor who was stopping others from killing in cold blood, stating that he would only take a life in defense of his own.
“A Town Called Mercy” presents a very real moral conundrum for the Doctor. The character of Kahler-Jex is a very complex one. He epitomizes just how much of a fine line there is between “war hero” and “war criminal.” Kahler-Jex feels he absolutely did the right thing in creating the cyborg army, that he saved millions of lives. Yet, when pressed on the issue, he is forced to admit innocent people suffered & died on his operating tables in order for that to be achieved. He is a mixture of self-righteous justification and monumental guilt. And, as the Doctor points out to him, now the citizens of Mercy have been drawn into his conflict, putting the fate of further innocent people in his hands. Adrian Scarborough does a magnificent job at portraying this contradictory, conflicted individual.
This is one of the few Doctor Who stories I can recall offhand with such a high level of moral ambiguity to it. Reflecting on the Doctor’s ambivalence about what to do with him, Kahler-Jex observes “It would be so much simpler if I was just one thing, wouldn’t it? The mad scientist who made that killing machine. Or the physician who’s dedicated his life to serving this town. The fact that I’m both bewilders you.” Whithouse did an excellent job scripting a story which raises some very difficult questions, really bringing the characters to life.
In the end, there aren’t any easy answers offered in “A Town Called Mercy.” While on a certain level this is frustrating, it is also more realistic. As those who regularly read this blog may realize, I am not any kind of adherent to black & white morality, to Objectivist thinking. In real life, answers very seldom come wrapped in neat little packages marked “right” and “wrong.” This story address that, as we see the characters grapple with the issues and try to come up with the best possible solution to a complicated problem.
I was very impressed by the production values of the episode. It really did look like it was set the post-Civil War American West… or, at least it looked like what we’ve come to think of as the Old West. After all, I myself have never actually been in a time machine that took me back to Arizona in the 1880s, so I can only comment on the seeming air of authenticity! I’ve read that the Doctor Who team actually filmed this episode in Spain, with sets from an old Sergio Leone western being utilized. However they pulled it off, it looked great.
I cannot even think of anything critical to say about composer Murray Gold. Often I have found his scores for Doctor Who to be too whimsical. But on “A Town Called Mercy,” Gold absolutely hit all the right notes (no pun intended). When it needed to, his music absolutely packed the requisite emotional punch.
My only real complaint concerning “A Town Called Mercy” is that Rory seemed to be a fifth wheel for most of it, either running around to provide a distraction for the Doctor or just standing in the background. I probably should not complain; he received a really prominent role just last week in “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship.” It’s just that Whithouse appears to have written a script that could have easily functioned with only just the Doctor and Amy. From what I’ve read, there are just two more episodes before both Amy and Rory leave the series for good. So I certainly hope those stories give him more of a presence before that departure.