Creatures of War – Re-evaluating A Town Called Mercy

Image Credit: BBC (Fair Use)

Image Description: The core cast of A Town Called Mercy 

Ian Bayley finds that A Town Called Mercy deserves reappraisal

After many years of ignoring the episode following my initial watch at the time of broadcast, I have come to a startling conclusion. A Town Called Mercy is the greatest episode of Series Seven. If it is not, then it is a close second to The Angels Take Manhattan, and only then because of the latter’s achievement of ending, in a beautiful and satisfying way, ‘the story of Amelia Pond’. As I did before my revelation, you might have dismissed A Town Called Mercy some time ago. I want to examine the story’s apparent problems, before then explaining how there is so much more to it than is apparent at first glance.

The Bad

A Town Called Mercy was part of Series 7A, which was notably marketed as a sequence of standalone “blockbusters”. Correctly or not, it is tempting to see this as a course-correcting response to fan disappointment at the remarkably trivial resolution to Series Six’s Lake Silencio story arc. The blockbuster nature of each episode was reinforced in the title sequence, with novelty variations on the Doctor Who logo. For A Town Called Mercy, the logo took the form of wooden letters shot through with bullet holes. While this may signify quite clearly that this episode draws from the Hollywood western, this kind of proclamation risks alienating viewers who are not fans of that genre. It is true that humour can minimise the risk of genre tributes, as can be seen in Series Four’s Agatha Christie homage The Unicorn and the Wasp (2008), where familiar plot elements are celebrated and novel titles worked into one-liners. However, not all episodes can be comedies and the cold open to A Town Called Mercy with its earnest, though perhaps hackneyed, slow southern drawl suggests that it won’t be.

The viewer will likely want to use the first few minutes to work how Doctor Who’s slant on the western genre will create something new. In place of the implied giant wasp towering over Professor Peach, we instead have the POV shots and electronic eye of The Terminator (1984). As a proposal for a genre fusion, this is underwhelming, given that the subgenre of the sci-fi western is already well established, with the cyborg depicted resembling Yul Brynner’s android in the film Westworld (1973). There is a more fundamental problem with Doctor Who doing westerns, however. It’s one thing to use the scenery of the USA as a backdrop to adventures, as had already been done in series Three and Six, but it is quite another for a uniquely British show to try embracing a uniquely American genre without being compromised in the process. The only historical precedent for this is unpromising, given that the influential book Doctor Who–A Celebration (1983) singled out The Gunfighters as the worst story ever. This was not just one dissenting opinion, as the contemporary appreciation index scores for episodes two, three, and four were the three lowest ever recorded. Although the Doctor Who Magazine 2014 poll ranks it as only the sixth-worst Hartnell serial, it is worth remembering that it took five decades for it to climb to that position.

One can argue, however, that The Gunfighters was written and performed as a send-up of the western genre. If so, A Town Called Mercy represents Doctor Who’s first attempt at a Western, not its second. Perhaps The Gunfighters should more correctly be described as a comedy based, like many Hartnell historicals, around a well-known event, incorporating numerous historical characters as well as some fictional ones. If one were to argue, as A Celebration did, that the British simply can’t do westerns, then surely using Sergio Leone’s original sets in Spain, getting Murray Gold to pastiche Ennio Morricone and hiring a well-known American sci-fi actor (Ben Browder of Farscape and Stargate SG-1, here playing major character Isaac), must go some way towards avoiding the mistakes of 1966. In any case, whether we wish to praise A Town Called Mercy or scorn it, we must do it for reasons other than those of genre.

The Good

The response of A Town Called Mercy to its own sci-fi/western genre clash is to literally pit the TARDIS crew against the inhabitants of Mercy as soon as they arrive. When the wrong answer is given to the question “is you an alien?” they are instantly expelled. It is unusual in twenty-first century Doctor Who for the Doctor to be treated with such hostility when he arrives in a new location, since the psychic paper usually removes all such problems. Instead, we witness the unusual and refreshing sight of the Doctor anarchically rejecting the KEEP OUT signs as just “suggestions” while relishing the “aggressive stares” as it gradually dawns on Amy and Rory, more streetwise than he, that they may be in trouble.

Later on, when Jex is being expelled, Isaac unintentionally reminds us of another reason why Doctor Who and westerns allegedly don’t mix when he orders “everyone who isn’t an American [to] drop your gun”. The Doctor, having adopted Britain as his home, famously never uses a gun (except when he does), but has now found himself in the land of the second amendment at the most violent time in its history. He has, however, just snatched a gun from Walter’s holster to underscore the depth of his rage against Jex, and Amy in turn is holding a gun at him. Karen Gillan, by accidentally firing her weapon twice, makes comedy gold out of the fact that the TARDIS crew are the proverbial fish out of water. Despite this moment, the Doctor still has to be reminded by the Preacher to put his gun belt on when leaving his office to meet the Mercy residents. Later still, in the high noon standoff with Tek, he teasingly air-fingers his gun with his right hand before then grabbing, with his left, the instrument we feel more comfortable seeing him use his sonic screwdriver. Even in the most American of situations, the Doctor maintains his more British identity, even in conflict with the genre he finds himself in.

Identity is also key to religion, and for me, the most interesting part of the otherwise unpromising cold open is Mas’s retort that his gods were once Tek’s too. Has Tek lost divine protection as a result of the crimes he has been forced to commit? If so, is that an even greater cruelty than the forced conversion into a cyborg we can see? Is he even eternally damned? What will await him in the afterlife if he finally ends the lonely life he is living now, shunned by the community that raised him in Gabriah, for turning into a “monster”, as he puts it? While we can’t be sure about Tek, we do know what Jex’s fate will be, in the form of the remarkably haunting image he shares with the Doctor. His spirit will climb a mountain carrying the souls of everyone he wronged in his life, and so he will be holding his dead friend Isaac all that way too. The interesting idea that penance must be linked to the person who has been wronged has profound consequences for Jex. It is for this reason that Jex addresses Tek by name just as the latter is about to kill him. He also, much to the Doctor’s frustration, asks Tek where he is from on Kahler, just before his suicide. It is worth his while getting to know his victims, given that they will shortly be spending a lot of time together. This may be why he keeps videos of all the people he has killed along with their names on a drop down menu in his spaceship. He wants to know what his afterlife will be like, and remember how he got there, before it is his time.

The Ugly

Jex is, in sequence, first good, then bad, and finally tragic. He starts as a meek saintly refugee, before being unmasked as an interplanetary version of Josef Mengele, who also spent his last days on the run. Finally, when talking to the Doctor in his cell, he sheds his final layer to reveal himself as a cursed man haunted by the screams of his victims. The direction in that scene is remarkable. As Jex lies on his bed, recoiling from the Doctor’s rage, director Saul Metzstein traps his face in a tight shot that accentuates his expressions of terror, giving us deeper access to his emotion.

If being Mengele is not bad enough, and it certainly makes his claims to be a father seem a little sick, Jex also has the secondary villain qualities of being a duplicitous coward. When he realises that the Doctor has discovered his secret, he immediately plans to make a getaway using Amy as a human shield. He has already pretended that his ship is very badly damaged, concealing from the townsfolk the truth that his crimes are so great that the Kahler don’t want him back. When his ship is revealed to be fully functional, he allows them to all become decoys, copying his tattoo markings so that they share the risk with him as he escapes. And, most unforgivable of all, once Tek threatens the whole town of eighty residents, we are made to fear that it will be thanks to Jex that their noble belief in Christian charity will result in their deaths.

Jex seems to have more to him even than the complex moral greyness you’d expect from a western anti-hero. There is an ugly self-hatred which he channels into goading the Doctor as a fellow sufferer of war guilt; it’s possible that Jex rationalises it as hatred of the Doctor himself and if so, this echoes the Dream Lord’s antipathy in Amy’s Choice (2010). The results of this fatal flaw could not be more striking. When the Doctor acquiesces in Amy’s passionate defence of Jex’s life, it provokes from him the rhetorical peroration that causes the Doctor to expel Jex from the town. When the Doctor re-enters his office after facing down a loaded gun in defence of his life, it causes Jex to slyly offer him a route to heroism, in the eyes of the townsfolk, through cowardice: “you could turn a blind eye”. This starts the row in which Jex comes to realise that he caused an innocent person to die by postponing his spirit’s trip up the mountain. Having shared his fear of death, Jex is unwilling to end the discussion on a moment of such intimacy, so he triumphantly declares that the Doctor is imprisoned by his own morality.

A Fistful of Doctors

I hope I have convinced you that A Town Called Mercy is a great episode. I now wish to go further (perhaps too far) and convince you that it is a very important one, due to the extraordinary pressures the Doctor is put under. Although it may be natural to think of The Day of the Doctor or The Time of the Doctor (both 2013) as the mid-point of the Moffat tenure, a vantage point fourteen months earlier enables us to look not only forward to the momentous events of the fiftieth anniversary special and subsequent regeneration, but also back at some of the key moments of the Davies era. The Doctor explicitly rejects mercy while stood in a town named for it, bitterly recalling two cruel ironies involving the continued survival of the Master and the Daleks. The Doctor has many times merely defeated the Master when he could have had him killed instead, and so ensured no further encounters. For example, the Master is only held prisoner at the end of The Dæmons (1971), so he remains alive to escape in The Sea Devils (1972), and Kronos spares his life in The Time Monster (1972) only after the Doctor intervenes. The Doctor could have destroyed all the Daleks in Genesis of the Daleks (1975). When he is finally able to try again, at the end of the Time War, he can only do so at the cost of Gallifrey. When it becomes clear that the Daleks survived after all, he remarks in The Parting of the Ways (2005) that the Time Lords “died for nothing”. Similarly, when Isaac is killed, the Doctor tells Jex that he is forced to stay as marshal to uphold the cause for which Isaac died because otherwise “Isaac’s death would mean nothing”. Looking forward, his time as marshal of Mercy echoes his centuries-long stay, also resulting from an obligation to protect, at the siege of Trenzalore in The Time of the Doctor.

Jex says he can see himself in the Doctor but likewise, it appears that the Doctor can see himself in Jex. The stranger who has just given him an amateur cold reading most likely doesn’t really know how the Time War ended. The Doctor’s uncharacteristic fury seems to stem from remorse over the moment he actually did have “the nerve to do what needs to be done” in destroying both his own people and the Daleks. Having not yet seen it on screen, we can imagine that he may have rationalised this action at the time, as Jex did, with the supposition that it would save “millions of lives”, an argument familiar to those who ponder Truman’s decision to bomb Hiroshima. He may also be recalling the moment in The Parting of the Ways where he plans a human/Dalek double genocide and then is mocked by the Emperor Dalek for his cowardice when he backs out. Either way, it appears that the Doctor drives Jex out so forcefully because of the “one life [he’s] tried very hard to forget,” as he later describes it in The Day of the Doctor. When he says he genuinely doesn’t know if he’ll pull the trigger, this is particularly shocking, going against his declaration that he “never would” when threatening Cobb with a gun at the end of The Doctor’s Daughter (2008) just after Jenny dies.

For a Few Donnas More

In these situations, it is often the companions who help the Doctor pull back from the brink. Amy remarks that he has been travelling alone for too long, picking up the theme started by Donna in The Runaway Bride (2006) when, after watching the death of the Racnoss babies and his reaction to it, she says that he “need[s] someone to stop [him]”. Indeed, the consequences of this killing are made clear in Turn Left (2008), when it turns out that without Donna’s intervention the Doctor’s rage consumed him, leading to his death. Amy returns to this theme in her goodbye letter in The Angels Take Manhattan, telling him that he shouldn’t be alone. By acting as his conscience in A Town Called Mercy, she anticipates Clara’s role in preventing him from pressing the big red button in The Day of the Doctor. It’s important to note that Amy’s exact words are that they should “find another solution” instead of handing over Jex, or letting the town starve. Similarly, Clara doesn’t simply tell the Doctor not to press the button. Instead, thanks to her prompting, the three Doctors find a third way and thereby honour their creed to be “neither cruel nor cowardly”. Even some moments of the Twelfth Doctor’s era are anticipated in A Town Called Mercy. Isaac’s dying words to the Doctor are that he and Jex are both “good men”, answering in the affirmative the question that the Doctor poses in Into the Dalek (2014). The tense standoff with Dockery, which the Doctor reframes as his attempt to preserve an eighteen-year-old’s innocence, has a different dynamic to the Doctor’s memorable tirade against the unintended consequences of war in The Zygon Inversion (2015) but the themes are nonetheless similar. Finally, we see Missy, in Series Ten, tread the same road to redemption as Jex.
A Town Called Mercy is located equidistantly between two Moffat-penned episodes that welcome and bid farewell to the longest-serving companions of post-2005 Doctor Who. The showrunner does much to seed long-term plot arcs throughout the stories he writes and we are used to paying attention to them but in doing so, it is sometimes possible to miss how admirably the guest writers can support the team effort. Of this, Whithouse’s script for A Town Called Mercy is a prime example.

Tides 44 is, at time of publication, available to buy through this link

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