Sunday, December 23, 2012

Happiness is a Warm Pun

And so, after a brief delay, to A Town Called Mercy.  Folks, it's going to be another positive review.  Here at last is a Moffat-era episode of DW that tackles a difficult ethical question head on and doesn't completely bugger it up.  It doesn't completely redeem the sins of earlier episodes, mind you, but at least when it puts the Doctor in a room with a vivisectionist, it doesn't have him bump fists with him.  It's a very far cry from the abominable Hungry Earth/Cold Blood.  On reflection, this episode doesn't seem to have been part of a developing critique of the Doctor's morality after all, more of an upward blip.  It's a welcome blip for all that.

The keystone scene for me is the bit where the Doctor avoids an armed stand-off with that young townsman.  Here the Doctor is faced with the reality of people willing to use guns, even good people willing to use guns for arguably good reasons, and he finds another way.  This scene is pretty much exactly what I wanted to see from DW, and a triumphantly Whoish moment at a time when the series seems increasingly (and for me, disappointingly) comfortable with gun use, even among the Doctor's coterie.  The big showdown at the end, pretty shamelessly borrowing from Three Amigos, also shows the Doctor thinking his way out of a fight.  It all adds up to a pleasing rejection of the simple cowboy violence that the setting invites, and that other episodes of New New Who have lapsed into.  See also the scene where Amy makes a complete fool of herself with a handgun, which is nothing new, except that here it's actually played as foolish instead of heroic.

Contrast this with The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon, the previous Pond adventure in America, in which the standard response of every character to every problem is to point a gun at it.  Compare it with The Gunfighters, DW's only other excursion to the Wild West, in which the Doctor's response to guns is to refuse them or to engage in hair-raising slapstick buffoonery with them, thus undermining the heroic iconography of the gun with his own frailer but more genuine heroism.  A Town Called Mercy is clearly nearer to The Gunfighters than to Astronaut/Moon (so tempting, so tempting... can I argue for a second consecutive episode implicitly taking Steven Moffat to task?).  When it does show the Doctor threatening someone with a gun, it's an anomalous moment - it's acknowledged as wrong within the story, it isn't one of those unfortunate eye-off-the-ball moments that sometimes happens in New New Who.  We can see that the Doctor's gone past his normal moral boundaries, which in turn helps to define what those boundaries are.

We're invited to think about the Doctor's ethical history as well - is it his anger at Jex's war crimes that has pushed him over the line, or discomfort at his own actions in the Time War?  Obviously the two characters aren't quite alike - Jex is shown to have conducted macabre experiments on others of his kind, surgically converting them into weapons in order to end a war quickly in favour of his own people, while the Doctor is known to have wiped out both sides in his people's war in order to protect the rest of the universe from being destroyed collaterally.  And while the Doctor has spent much of the past seven seasons dealing with his guilt, and apparently still feels guilty, Jex denies regretting his actions, although this seems to be bravado and he eventually shows remorse.  The real similarity between the two is their desire for redemption: do they deserve it?  Is their guilt or their attempted atonement equal, or in some way comparable?  What real justice can there be for either of them, Jex being hunted down by a vigilante, nobody left to hold the Doctor accountable?  There's no easy answer to these questions, and thumbs up to Toby Whithouse for raising them, especially in the traditionally simplistic context of the cowboy film.

And then we have the Gunslinger, who is essentially a great big gun with a personality.  Crucially, being armed wasn't his choice and isn't something he's happy about - the fact that he carries (or rather, is) a gun is a reason to pity him.  And yet, being given a gun, he's chosen to use it to enact vigilante justice against the people who gave it to him.  This clearly isn't a good thing - it's what turns the Gunslinger from victim to villain within the structure of the story - although the alternative is that the war criminal Jex escapes (or rather, conveniently commits suicide).  We're left with the awkward question of just how bad vigilantism is in this context.  The Gunslinger is still a vigilante at the end of the episode, albeit a "good" one because he wears the sheriff's badge - authority, or the semblance of it, legitimises his behaviour.  It's worth remembering too that vigilantism - generally unarmed - is basically what the Doctor does for a living.

I should probably also mention that Amy and Rory are pushed very much into the background and feel somewhat superfluous to the story.  Feh.

So this is a mature and thought-provoking slice of DW, and offers a timely reconsideration of the show's ethics.  The handling of Jex's fate is questionable - all right, the Doctor's honouring the late sheriff by protecting Jex's life, but letting him escape altogether isn't a great solution, and the fact that he resolves the plot by blowing himself up is just too neat for this story.  But still, here comes another 8.5 out of 10.  (Previous episode re-evaluated back to a 7.5.)

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