Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A Town Called Mercy: Atonement 101

Catching up with the latest Doctor Who on Iplayer, and what a brilliant episode. Cowboys versus Aliens, but done well. And at the heart of it, a superb meditation on violence, revenge, redemption, atonement and justice.

Part of my staple childhood diet was Westerns, I would go round chewing spent matchsticks pretending to be Clint Eastwood (and fail just as badly as the Doctor does in Mercy). The plot was always the same: baddies do something bad, ride around scowling and looking swarthy. Good guy (usually Lone Good Guy) has showdown with bad guys and shoots them dead. Justice = revenge.

So Doctor Who plunged straight into this moral maze and asked a lot of questions of it. At the centre of the plot is Jex, an alien doctor, a war criminal, who has landed in a Western town, saved it from a cholera epidemic and introduced it to electricity. He saved the town. But now he is being hunted down by a cyborg gunslinger, who wants to bring him to justice for his past crimes, i.e. shoot him. The Doctor ends up embroiled in all of this, and is pulled in all directions:

First, he looks to hand doctor Jex over to the cyborg, one man dying to save the village: 'When did killing someone become an option?' asks Amy, not unreasonably. The Doctor replies with an outburst that might become one of this generation's 'do you remember?' moments in years to come: 'Every time I negotiate, I try to understand. Not today. No, today, I honour the victims. His, The Masters', The Daleks'. All the people who died because of my mercy.'

then later tries to save him, and eventually Jex takes his fate into his own hands. Along the way are several nods to faith: the village gathers to pray whilst the Doctor tries to save them from the cyborg, and Jex speaks of what he expects after he dies, that he will have to climb a mountain, carrying the souls of all the people that he's killed. In a nice contrast to the usual run of things, his faith and religious worldview is part of the plot, rather than seen as a mania.

There are longer and more thoughtful reviews at:
From the North
Exploring our Matrix

and A Town Called Mercy leaves lots of questions hanging:
 - is revenge justice?
 - is it possible to atone for past wrongs, and who gets to decide when you've managed it?
 - is justice done to us after death, and does this make a difference to the justice we mete out to the living?
 - are there different moral rules in war?
 - if mercy results in more people dying, because you were compassionate to someone who went on to do more evil, then is it better to be ruthless?
 - (at a wider level) how far has the Western/American view of justice been drip-fed into our culture via film and media, and how far does it inform US views of justice and foreign policy, and by extension our own? Do we base decisions on a robust morality of justice, or a more emotive desire to avenge?
 - Can you run a society purely on mercy?
 - (from the last couple of minutes of the episode) how do you decomission people? The Gunslinger, built to be a weapon of war, can't see a purpose to his life beyond killing. The Doctor recommissions him to be an 'angel' of peace, watching over the town and protecting it. I once had a conversation with a former soldier, who remarked that life post-army was a struggle, compared to the level of camaraderie and intensity of life in the battlefield. There didn't seem to be a peacetime purpose which made him feel alive in the same way.

Great stuff.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks David,

    You took all the things I was thinking about during the episode and wrote them down in a way that made sense!

    Like The SImpsons, Doctor Who is always a good source for debate and illustrations...