Sunday, 17 November 2013

A Town Called Mercy

Having swapped Cardiff for Houston, it was weird enough when the TARDIS started turning up in America without it then following me all the way to Texas itself. But look here it is, settled conspicuously on the outskirts of Mercy, TX, in the year 1870. Okay, so this was filmed in Spain, but it really does look like some parts of Texas - dry, dusty and flat - and this episode looks thoroughly marvellous as a result.

And Doctor Who gets to do a proper western. This is a good traditional one, albeit with aliens and cyborgs thrown in. There's moral conflict, shady histories, and a continuous debate about what civilisation means out west. Like the TARDIS, America is bigger on the inside, and just driving along modern highways through the interior is to experience a vast and empty landscape. I can't imagine what happened to the minds of people that crossed this continent on foot, or by horse and wagon, in the nineteenth century - but the remoteness of towns like Mercy must have made it all too easy to question the moral conventions and social accords of the big cities of the East. What does justice mean out in the wilderness? What does mercy mean? Arguably, these ideas are more important out in the wilderness, and we see in this episode that the role of the lawman is to hold the town together. Initially this responsibility belongs to the marshal, Isaac, but soon enough the Doctor has to take up that burden himself.

I like this episode. It doesn't really make the heart sing, but it asks difficult questions and it manages to end on the right emotional beat. There is flaw with A Town Called Mercy though, and I'll leave it up to you to decide whether it matters or not: this town should be called something else.

Mercy does feature in the story, but not as much as one might think. The Doctor refuses to show mercy to Kahler-Jex, and Amy confronts him about this in a heated exchange that forms the key moment of the first half. The Doctor later asks the Gunslinger to drop his quest for vengeance and, by extension, to be merciful, but the cyborg refuses. And that's it. Mercy is not really what this town is about.

The townsfolk didn't show mercy when they took in Jex, because he hadn't wronged them and they knew nothing of his past. But Jex did set about trying to do good - curing the cholera, setting up street lights - in order to try and atone for his crimes. As Isaac says: "America is the land of second chances"; the idea of atonement is everywhere.

Later, Jex paints a haunting image of his own afterlife, hauling the souls of his victims up an endless mountain. His final act of self-sacrifice, the most important event in the story, is an attempt to do the right thing at last. Before that, the Doctor hauled Jex out of town in order to try and make up for what he saw as his own past failures. His outburst inadvertently leads to the death of Isaac, and the Doctor is handed the marshal's badge as a result: forced to redeem himself by taking Isaac's place. When he talks Walter out of lynching Jex, he does so partly because it's what Isaac would have wanted, but also because he sees Walter's potential.

Finally, the Gunslinger, a creature of violence and bitterness, is himself offered a chance to make up for the wrong he has done, and again, mercy is absolutely not the issue. The Doctor can't show mercy because he has no power over him - the cyborg's plan is to walk off into the desert and die alone. But the Doctor can show him how he can make things right, by swapping his black hat for white, and pinning the marshal's badge on his chest. Being merciful is not the same thing as believing in second chances, and that's why this should be a town called Redemption.


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