“A Town Called Mercy” was two things this series of Doctor Who said it would be: a blockbuster-y, genre-loving one-off and an exploration of who the Doctor is.
I love Westerns so I was excited for this episode, but I worry this season has so far been a lot of glitz and shouting, “LOOK, MORE DALEKS! LOOK, DINOSAURS! LOOK, COWBOYS!” Like, it’s all very cool but it doesn’t feel very Who.
This third episode was mainly a metaphor for the Doctor’s own struggles. The parallel to the Time War was really obvious. (There were also several instances of dialogue that basically just explained what was happening which…isn’t good writing.)
In another case of mistaken “doctors,” we meet Eleven’s mirror — another alien doctor responsible for atrocities against a race. Kahler Jex, in an effort to stop an ongoing war, experimented on his own people, turning them into crazy cyborgs. One of which, the Gunslinger, is freaking out over losing his sense of self and wants Jex dead. Jex is hiding out in a Western town, feeling guilty for what he’s done and healing everyone of cholera. So, you can see the parallels. Both doctors are haunted by their pasts and fueled by karma and remorse. Eleven is ready to turn Jex over to the Gunslinger because he believes Jex deserves to suffer for what he did to his “patients.”
Amy protests, saying this inhumanity is what happens when the Doctor travels without companions for too long. (It’s a sentiment we’ve heard before, and it’s why the Doctor needs his human assistants.) In the end, the Doctor helps Jex escape by donning his “Mike Tyson face tattoo” and tricking the Gunslinger into chasing him, but instead, Jex (overcome with remorse and wanting to end this battle between them) blows himself up. It’s a case of no one being “right.”
This Doctor reminded me more of Christopher Eccleston’s Nine — he was angry and conflicted, confused and scarred. It was nice to see considering they’re supposed to be the same man. A theme of this series so far has been the Doctor’s penchant for revenge coming up against his greater compassion and “Godliness.” Humans see the Doctor as a Christ-figure when he’s much more ruthless and flawed than that. (As Charlie at io9 rightly worries, “Is the Doctor going to go bad after the Ponds leave?”)
The Doctor is practically a God. Unaccountable to anyone, he travels all of space and time coming to the aid of arguably lesser beings. Even his race are called “lords.” And why should this “God” show mercy? That’s the crux of this episode.
The Doctor makes the decision on his own to hand Jex over to the Gunslinger to “honor the victims” but he’s really just projecting his own feelings, past and situation onto this granted, startlingly similar predicament. The Doctor is still suffering from PTSD, much the way this Western cyborg was. They weren’t so different, you know? As much as we — and I mean, the viewers, the fans, the companions, everyone who loves the Doctor — are supposed to root for him and revere him (like a God), the Doctor was never a merciful being. He did what he had to to save the universe and he deeply, painfully feels that. Just because Matt Smith, and David Tennant, could play whimsical well, doesn’t mean they don’t also show the darkness within our favorite Time Lord.
Can you really worship someone so tortured? Are we supposed to worship the Doctor? The Doctor is changing, for many reasons. It seems like some of his shiny “raggedy man”-ness wore off for starstruck Amy this episode (and maybe last with Solomon as well) — and perhaps it did for us too.