In a mash-up of The Terminator and Spaghetti Westerns Doctor Who uses its unique format to examine the thin boundary between justice and vengeance as the inhabitants of A Town Called Mercy find themselves caught in the crossfire of a conflict born on another world.
Anachronistic electricity. Keep out signs. Aggressive stares. Has someone been peeking at my Christmas list?
1966’s The Gunfighters was the only previous foray of televised Doctor Who into the Wild West. Filmed solely within the confines of the BBC studios William Hartnell’s Doctor found himself involved in the famous Gunfight at the OK Corral. 2012’s A Town Called Mercy saw Matt Smith’s Doctor return to the genre on a far grander scale with location filming in Almeria, Spain utilising locations featured in classic Westerns such as Clint Eastwood’s A Fistful of Dollars. As with the preceding adventures in this series Asylum of the Daleks and Dinosaurs On a Spaceship viewers constantly needed to remind themselves that they are watching a production rendered on a television budget and not one with the backing rendered to a feature film. There is no cheating and cutting to a dressed-up quarry or back street in Wales as the vast Spanish desert landscape gives the episode a sense of scale barely seen in any other Doctor Who story.
America’s the land of second chances. We call this town Mercy for a reason. Though there’s some round here who don’t feel that way.
One of the greatest controversies in the wake of World War II was the spiriting away of Nazi war criminals in various manners. Many scientists who aided Hitler’s war effort ended up in America via Operation Paperclip, forgiven in order to gain their support in fighting Communism. The worst of the bunch, including Josef Mengle and Adolf Eichmann, fled to South America where they lived with the taciturn of support of governments such as those of Paraguay and Argentina. The hunting down of such individuals to face justice is a fundamental right of those that have been oppressed. But at what point does the quest for the impartial enactment of the law become an prejudicial attempt at vengeance? And is it possible to forgive the perpetrators for their heinous past acts in light of present philanthropic acts?
On the side of forgiveness in A Town Called Mercy is Isaac, the town marshal who viewed America as the land of second chances – a place to shed the past and begin anew free of any taint from an old life. To him Kahler-Jex was a friend who had saved Mercy from the ravages of cholera and despite his origins on another world it was Isaac’s duty as the marshal to protect him – even from those who wanted to judge him for past actions. For Isaac only the here and now mattered in order to gauge the character of Jex. What had happened before Jex’s arrival in Mercy was irrelevant and to his last breath he defended his friend from retribution.
On the side of vengeance was Kahler-Tek a victim of Jex’s loathsome medical experiments to convert duped volunteers into cybernetic soldiers to end a war that had cost vast numbers of lives. At the end of the conflict when the victorious cyborgs were deactivated Tek managed to escape to wage a campaign of vengeance upon the monsters who had created and betrayed him and his comrades. Too often vengeance is a mindless act causing collateral damage to innocents but in his quest Tek went out of his way to avoid the harming of innocents as that would render him no better than those he was hunting.
The Doctor found himself imbued with both the desire for vengeance against Kahler-Jex and the need to place him before a court for a fair trial. Once again shadows of the darkness that created the Time Lord Victorious in The Waters of Mars and the possibility of the Valeyard in The Trial of a Time Lord were on display as the Doctor forced Jex across the town boundary toward his self-created nemesis. Only the death of Issac and a moral lesson from Amy shocked him away from his blinkered path of rage. It is a rare event indeed when the Doctor points a weapon and is a fraction away from pulling the trigger. Not for the first time the Time Lord was reminded that without regular companionship he drifts towards a place where his morality and self-control are shaky at best.
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. Thank the gods my people weren’t relying on you to save them.
In Kahler-Jex existed shadows of the Master and Davros. Brilliant scientists who turned their abilities to evil whilst maintaining that their desire for conquest and perfection was simply a way to render the universe more orderly and peaceful. Unlike the Doctor’s great archenemies Jex came to recognise that despite all his best intentions and self-justification what he had done to Kahler-Tek had been an act beyond redemption in this life and had to be faced in the next.
Jex’s suicide in the explosion of his ship freed his creation from the obligation he felt to his fallen comrades and enabled the cyborg to find a new purpose in life as the guardian of A Town Called Mercy.