That, my dear fellow Whovians, THAT is what Doctor Who should be. “A Town Called Mercy,” written by Toby Whithouse, was about as perfect an episode of Doctor Who as we could ask for, delving into a complex moral dilemma, showing us both the comedic and the hardened sides of the Doctor, and demonstrating just how important it is that the Doctor not be alone for too long. Also, I’m digging Doctor Who’s new episode-specific titles. It’s a nice touch.
Though I have to say, it’s kind of annoying that the word “decimate” has come to be used so willy-nilly. At one point, Kahler-Jex mentions that a war “decimated half of our planet.” Really? It destroyed a tenth of half the planet? That doesn’t sound too terrible….
I mean, I know that’s just how the word’s used now, but damn.
Taking a wrong turn through space and time in an attempt to get to a Day of the Dead festival in Mexico, Team TARDIS ends up in a frontier-era American town called Mercy, which attracts the Doctor (Matt Smith), because it has electricity ten years too early, loads of “Keep Out” signs, and a ring of stones and wood around it. As it turns out, the town has all of this because of its own doctor, an alien by the name of Kahler-Jex (Adrian Scarborough), who crash-landed in the town and was taken in by its marshal, Isaac (Ben Browder). In order to repay the townspeople for their kindness, Kahler-Jex introduced them to electricity and stayed on as their doctor, curing diseases like cholera with his advanced technology.
But there’s a problem. A half man/half machine known as The Gunslinger (Dominic Kemp) wants Kahler-Jex dead and is terrorizing the town in an attempt to lure him out. For some reason, The Gunslinger won’t broach the town’s border, but neither will he let anything cross that border.
Because Kahler-Jex wasn’t actually as benign as he currently presents himself. The Doctor searches through Kahler-Jex’s spaceship and discovers that Jex is actually a war criminal who, in order to help his planet win a war, experimented on its citizens, turning some into literal killing machines like The Gunslinger.
The Gunslinger is actually a Kahler named Kahler-Mas who wants Jex dead for taking his life away from him. The Doctor and Rory (Arthur Darvill) are perfectly happy to turn Kahler-Jex over to Kahler-Mas in order to rid the town of this entire problem. Something the town’s own Marshal, Isaac, and Amy (Karen Gillan) are not willing to do. Isaac resists because to his core he believes that folks can find a second chance in Mercy. Amy, meanwhile, is concerned about how harsh the Doctor is becoming in their absence.
Amy stops the Doctor, warning him that if he turns Jex over, he’d be no better than the criminal whose actions he condemned, but it takes the accidental death of Isaac to really bring the point home to the Doctor. In the end, the Doctor agrees, and attempts a plan to help Kahler-Jex go on the run, but Kahler-Jex, realizing he’d be running the rest of his life, because Kahler-Mar rightfully wouldn’t stop, commits suicide by causing his ship to self-destruct while inside it. His quest for vengeance at an end, Kahler-Mar says he’s going to go kill himself, but the Doctor suggests a greater purpose, and the town of Mercy gains itself a new marshal.
The Heart of Doctor Who
Toby Whithouse has written a perfectly structured episode that delves into some of the major themes of Doctor Who. The most important, of course, being the Doctor’s relationship with his companions and how they bring out the best in him, highlighted by Amy when she, surprised by the Doctor’s decision to give up Kahler-Jex says, “This is what happens when you travel alone for too long.” What was particularly powerful about how it was explored here is that Amy, the Girl Who Waited and who generally takes the tack of punishing those who wrong her was the one who reminded the Doctor of his better self.
Meanwhile, Rory, the one who is generally considered more “noble,” was ready to turn Kahler-Jex over without a second thought. Whithouse did a great job of showing that moral questions like this are not black and white; that even in the case of war criminals, people are multi-faceted and not all “good” or “evil.” This was summed up as Isaac lay dying after being shot by Kahler-Mar. He says to the Doctor, “You’re both good men. You just forget it sometimes.” The Doctor and Kahler-Jex are more alike than he would like to admit, as they both make difficult, sometimes morally dubious calls for what they consider the greater good. Amy, however, reminds him that perhaps the greatest good is staying true to the value system you purport to inspire in others.
There’s one line of the Doctor’s that highlights the second major theme of the episode. When Kahler-Jex tries to explain himself and why he wanted to stay in Mercy to help the people there, the Doctor yells, “You don’t get to decide when and how your debt is paid!” This is true, and it’s interesting coming from the Doctor, because he spends a lot of time trying to compensate for the times when he’s made morally dubious choices by trying to Save the Universe. The entire reason why the Doctor felt the need to turn Kahler-Jex over to Kahler-Mar in the first place is because he himself was trying to repay a debt to all those that died because of him. Sometimes it’s amazing how completely un-self aware the Doctor is; how, for all his brilliance, he knows surprisingly little about himself, and needs his companions to be mirrors through which he can see himself better.
The other thing that stood out to me with regard to the Doctor’s character is that he genuinely didn’t know what he was capable of in his Moment of Truth. When he forces Kahler-Jex out of town at gunpoint, and Jex says asks if he would really shoot him, the Doctor says “I genuinely don’t know.” The Doctor uncertain is always an interesting thing, especially when it’s about himself, since he spends most of the time acting like the Cleverest Being In the Universe.
Whithouse did an amazing job tying together all these themes that run through Doctor Who, getting to the heart of the show in a lovely way.
A Non-Cheesy Western
Okay, as fun as it was to hear the Doctor say “I wear a Stetson now. Stetsons are cool” at the beginning of season six, it was pretty danged cheesy. I worried that a western episode of Doctor Who would be a cheese factory, but this was not the case. If the season six opener was a spaghetti western, then “A Town Called Mercy” was Unforgiven. This doesn’t mean that the episode was humorless. Far from it. When the Doctor enters the saloon pulling up his pants and sidling up to the bar asking for tea, it’s hilarious, and it’s as much to do with the writing as it is to do with Matt Smith’s brilliant performance. Smith is at his best in this episode, striking the perfect balance between the Doctor’s wacky side and the side of him that’s guilt-ridden and damaged.
But I loved the framing device of the episode being narrated by a descendent of a child in Mercy; the character of Isaac, who had a good heart and was a fully-formed character (played wonderfully by American actor, Ben Browder) rather than a stereotype of a Character In a Western; and the added element of a transgender horse called Joshua but whose real name is Susan and wants its life choices to be respected. (When will Doctor Who have actual transgender characters on it? *taps foot* Tick-tock, tick-tock.)
Interesting, too, was the acknowledgement of Amy’s motherhood, and the fact that its something she will never, ever forget. It sits in her eyes even as she’s traipsing around with the Doctor, or otherwise going on with her life. It’s not just that she’s unable to have a child with Rory now, it’s that she already does, and the circumstances of that will pain her forever. I’m so glad that this episode allowed us to remember that for a moment. Lastly, “A Town Called Mercy” offered everyone a bit of redemption and forgiveness, even as difficult lives were being lived through, and difficult choices were being made. Kahler-Jex died nobly, Kahler-Mas got to find purpose in peacetime, and the Doctor was reminded of his nobler self by his better angels, whose names in this case are Amy and Rory. The episode had some of the best elements of Westerns while also incorporating issues relevant to today’s audience, as the best science fiction does.
As I mentioned above, Matt Smith was in top form in this episode, and so was Karen Gillan, whose Amy is always best when (rightfully) challenging the men she loves. What’s funny is that, when I first watched the episode, I commended it in my head for “finally getting British actors who could do American accents well.” Then I found out that they just used American actors and went “Oh.” Still, that was a wise decision, as it allowed “A Town Called Mercy,” to steer clear of the cringe-worthy accents in something like “Daleks in Manhattan,” which completely took me out of that story. Ben Browden, again, was a wonderful presence as Isaac. Equally wonderful were Scarborough and Kemp as Jex and Mas, who always felt like fully lived-in people, not the devices of a writer to move the plot forward. The entire cast of this episode, from the leads to the guest stars, were talented across the board.
After the sophomore slump of “Dinosaurs On a Spaceship,” it’s nice to see Doctor Who back in top form with “A Town Called Mercy.” Let’s hope Doctor Who continues its upward trajectory as we move ever-closer to saying goodbye to The Ponds.
Doctor Who airs Saturdays at 9 PM Eastern Time on BBC America.
Teresa Jusino is going to order tea like a cowboy next time she goes to a bar. Her Feminist Brown Person take on pop culture has been featured on websites like ChinaShopMag.com, PinkRaygun.com, Newsarama, PopMatters.com, and she’s recently joined Al Día, the #1 Spanish-language newspaper in Philadelphia, as a pop culture columnist. 2012 will see Teresa’s work in two upcoming non-fiction anthologies, and she is also a writer/producer on Miley Yamamoto’s upcoming sci-fi web series, RETCON, which is set to debut in 2013. For more on her writing, get Twitterpated with Teresa, “like” her on Facebook, or visit her at The Teresa Jusino Experience.