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Doctor Who reviews: A Town Called Mercy


The Wild West, a cyborg gunslinger, and the quest for redemption...

Doctor Who reviews: A Town Called Mercy

After Daleks and then dinosaurs on a spaceship, Doctor Who Season 7 gives us a western episode as its latest blockbuster-style extravaganza. And ‘A Town Called Mercy’ doesn’t disappoint. It’s a very effective pastiche, complete with Sergio Leone/Ennio Morricone homages, atmospheric tension, and a stunning visual style showcasing the western backdrop in all its vast, expansive beauty.

[Spoilers follow, for this episode and the Season 6 finale, as well as speculation spoilers. If you haven't seen the episode yet, it's available on BBC iPlayer.]

The Doctor, Amy, and Rory find themselves in a small town in the Old West, which mysteriously has electric street lights ten years too early, and is under siege by an equally mysterious cyborg gunslinger.

It turns out that the unexplained electricity is thanks to Kahler Jex, an alien doctor with a rare understanding of nuance. The Doctor says, "Ingenious race, the Kahler. Could build a spaceship out of Tupperware and moss!" (Presumably Tupperware sales skyrocketted on their planet. As well as, you know, the actual Tupperware.) However, it turns out that rather than using his alien MacGyver skills to build spaceships, Kahler Jex turned people into cyborgs to win a devastating war quickly and thus reduce the total amount of bloodshed. He's a mad scientist for the greater good! And now he's saving townsfolk from cholera and giving them anachronistic electricity! So that makes it all okay. Maybe sort of, but actually not.

However, one of the cyborgs, Kahler Tek, doesn't like being turned into a killing machine, so naturally he tries to kill the people responsible for making him a monster. Revenge: a typically western motif, but here with added cyborg.

Thus, since the cyborg is reluctant to kill innocents, The Doctor, Amy, Rory, and the townsfolk (including the Marshal, played by Farscape's Ben Browder) have to decide whether or not to hand Kahler Jex over to him or not.

As superbly entertaining as all this is, however, it’s the themes that really resonate, and so that’s what this review will focus on.

There are some interesting parallels between Kahler Jex and The Doctor, and Kahler Jex's focus on nuance, specifically in terms of identity, offers some intriguing possibilities for the central mystery of the series.

Maybe the Answer, like the Question, is right in front of us all along. If the Question is ‘Doctor Who?’ (which is almost exactly the same as the title of the show, just with an added question mark), then maybe the Answer is ‘The Doctor’. Yes, the chap we’ve been watching on our screens, on and off, for over forty years, in a variety of forms. Obviously, the simplicity of this is belied by the multi-faceted nature of the character, expressed literally by the fact that he has many faces, due to the many actors who have played the role; all of them bringing a slightly different personality to The Doctor, though he remains the same person.

As Kahler Jex says, “You don’t see how I can be more than just one thing, and that confuses you, Doctor.”

And if this weren’t obvious enough, the other “alien doctor” even points out the parallels between them, saying that they “mirror” each other. So, likewise, The Doctor is conflicted about the questionable morality of his actions at the end of the Time War, and is similarly seeking redemption.

Doctor Who is essentially The Doctor looking in the mirror. Which may sound boring, but The Doctor is multi-faceted and very expressive, especially with an actor like Matt Smith.

Many of the characters that The Doctor comes into contact with have traits in common with The Doctor, for the specific purpose of illuminating The Doctor’s character to the audience, and confronting The Doctor with the (complex) nature of who he is. It’s character development in four senses: in terms of that specific character in the show, in terms of revealing more of who The Doctor is, and sometimes also in terms of this knowledge providing the catalyst for both that specific character, and also The Doctor, to change.

Redemption is key to identity, and as such, it’s one of the most resonant themes in storytelling, explored by the likes of Marvel's The Avengers and countless other examples.

As with Toby Whithouse’s previous Doctor Who episode, ‘The God Complex’, ‘A Town Called Mercy’ deals with religious themes. However, while the former’s arguably blasphemous approach/elements detracted slightly from what was otherwise a brilliant episode, Whithouse reins in his ‘angry atheist’ side for the latter, resulting in a compassionate and humbler exploration of themes of justice and redemption.

The preacher (and some of the townsfolk) are seen to believe in God, but it’s a relatively small part of the episode, and the implications of this for redemption could have been explored further.

In fact, Christianity is all about redemption. In this episode, The Doctor rightly says, “You don’t get to choose your punishment; it doesn’t work like that!” The Christian view is that God is the ultimate judge/source of justice, and everyone is ultimately answerable to him. Helping a few people won’t make up for the bad things, whether they’re big and obvious like the things Kahler Jex has done, or matters of the heart. So the only way that there can be true redemption is if someone good enough (i.e. perfect) takes the punishment instead. And that someone is Jesus, who lived a perfect life, died on the cross in the place of sinful human beings, and then rose again. And that redemption’s offered to anyone, if they genuinely turn away from the wrong things they’ve done and trust in Jesus’ perfect sacrifice for their redemption. Because our own efforts aren’t nearly good enough.

That’s the Christian take on redemption. It’s much better than Kahler Jex’s way of killing himself and ‘hoping that the souls [he’s wronged] will be kind’.

Overall, 'A Town Called Mercy' is a brilliant episode, effectively balancing atmosphere, impressive visuals, and thought-provoking themes.

See also:

Doctor Who complete reviews: Dinosaurs on a Spaceship

Doctor Who complete reviews: Asylum of the Daleks

Doctor Who reviews: Dinosaurs on a Spaceship

Doctor Who reviews: Asylum of the Daleks


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