The television show Doctor Who receives an extremely intense devotion from many of its fans. Whovians discuss and dissect the show with an almost religious fervor. On the surface, it is, admittedly, an often goofy program that is sometimes more fantasy than science fiction. However, there is an important element of its storytelling that makes it unique. At its thematic core is the desire to affirm the dignity of the human person and the potential for good—and mercy—that we all have.
Science fiction in general serves to remind us how beautiful and frightening the real world is by showing it to us in a carnival mirror; sci-fi is really about our society and our world, not the future or some far-off planet. The most effective storytelling portrays what is universal in humanity, and that is why Doctor Who endures. While it does not shy away from killing off beloved characters and presenting true evil, it still encourages the viewer to react to the world with wonder, optimism, and respect, not fear. Christopher Eccleston, who played the ninth incarnation of the Doctor, expressed the core message of Doctor Who as: “live…as fully as you can. Care for others, and be respectful of all other life forms” (Eccleston).
The Doctor himself is a semi-immortal alien who can travel throughout space and time, in turn saving and complicating the lives of those he encounters. He often travels with companions who act as effective foils. These usually human characters help to bring the Doctor (figuratively and sometimes literally) down to earth. Because of his age, intelligence, and experience, he is occasionally tempted to look at the “big picture” when he finds solutions, rather than the individual details. The companions often remind him to ask, not if a solution “works” for people, but instead, “are they happy?” (“The Girl Who Waited”). The themes of mercy and justice are addressed repeatedly in Doctor Who, particularly in Eccleston’s time as the ninth regeneration. However, “A Town Called Mercy,” a recent episode from this current season, is an excellent example of the attitude Doctor Who strives to express.
While the show has an affirming message, it does not paint a simplified view of the human (or alien, as the case may be) soul. The show does have its share of one-dimensional antagonists, but the best villains in Doctor Who challenge the viewer’s ethics because they are not easily categorized. In “A Town Called Mercy,” the Doctor (now in his eleventh regeneration) deliberates over whether or not he should allow a war criminal to be killed by someone set on vengeance. The war criminal is Kahler-Jex, an alien doctor and scientist who experimented on his own kind to create cyborgs to help his people win a war. He landed near Mercy, a tiny 19th-century town in the American west, in the course of his escape from a man with a vendetta against him. This man, Kahler-Tek, whom the inhabitants of Mercy call the Gunslinger, is one of Kahler-Jex’s own violent creations. He cuts off supplies to the town and threatens the inhabitants in his desire to reclaim and kill Kahler-Jex.
However, Kahler-Jex is not “simply” evil. After reaching Mercy, he subsequently saves the Western town from a cholera outbreak and provides the people with electricity from his ship. As a result, the marshal of the town is dedicated to defending him, and refuses to hand him over to the Gunslinger. The viewer (and the Doctor) wonders: why did Kahler-Jex decide to cure the town’s cholera? Is he merely trying to relieve the weight of his own evil actions through this self-inflicted “punishment”?
The Doctor is horrified and disgusted by the actions Kahler-Jex has taken. This man has caused pain, death, and violence—but in doing so he won a war that “saved” millions of other lives. As the Doctor struggles with his own conscience as he decides whether or not to hand the scientist over to the Gunslinger, Kahler-Jex declares wryly that it “would be so much simpler if I was just one thing, wouldn't it?” (“A Town Called Mercy”). This is an incredibly important statement; dividing people into categories of “good” and “evil” is very convenient, but not realistic. Killing, even in an arguably “just” act, changes those who kill as well as those who die. A terrible act, even if it is done for a “rationalized” reason, remains a terrible act.
The Doctor has seen death, war, genocide, tragedy—a portion of it even caused indirectly by his own hand. We, as viewers, have seen much of it with him. The Doctor is no longer young, and most of the people he loves have been torn away from him. As his outer appearance has become increasingly youthful, his inner self has become more cynical. His eyes are “heavy with the weight of all [he has] seen” (“A Town Called Mercy”). In many ways this comes to a head in this episode; he almost hands Kahler-Jex to his self-appointed executioner. It would be easy for the Doctor to trade the life of an ethically compromised man for the life of a town. This is not the first time the Doctor has (almost) made a morally gray decision, but this episode’s “problem” is notable for how directly it is confronted and resolved.
Amy, one of the Doctor’s human companions, desperately asks him to show mercy to this man. The Doctor is tired of seeing violence, of meeting liars; he has been encountering murderers and traitors for centuries, and he has almost reached the breaking point. He has always tried to “negotiate…to understand,” but now he mourns “all the people that died because of my mercy” (“A Town Called Mercy”). However, his companion, Amy, says that they should be better than Kahler-Jex; they should not have to resort to violence in order to provide justice. The Doctor realizes she is right, and tries to help the town—and the Gunslinger—realize “that's how all this started…now that same story's gonna make you a killer, too. Don't you see? Violence doesn't end violence, it extends it. And I don't think you want to do this. I don't think you want to become that man” (“A Town Called Mercy”). The quality of mercy saves those who are merciful just as it saves those who receive compassion.
Perhaps this is what Kahler-Jex himself should have heard before he initially tore members of his own race apart to create an army of supermen and “save” millions of lives by winning a war. Perhaps he believed that his actions would bring an end to the war, to violence, to the fear and anger inside of him. It is easy to rationalize our choices when we view lives as elements in an equation rather than individually priceless entities. Kahler-Jex ultimately ends his own life (in an action the Doctor himself does not endorse). The despair this character feels knowing he has destroyed so many lives ultimately destroys him. His death is tragic, but it emphasizes the effect that violence has on the hearts and minds of those who enact it.
The Gunslinger, who had been hunting Kahler-Jex, is tempted to end his own life as well, but with the Doctor’s encouragement, he becomes the new protector of the town Mercy. There is hope and redemption here for those who are seeking it; the story goes on. In the end, that is the enduring appeal of Doctor Who. All the tragedy in the universe cannot drown out the fact that the Doctor believes “that in nine hundred years of time and space…I've never met anybody who wasn't important” (“A Christmas Carol”).
Eccleston, Christopher. Doctor Who Interviews. February 19th, 2010. Web. March 18, 2013.
“The Girl Who Waited” Doctor Who. BBC One. September 10, 2011. Television.
“A Town Called Mercy” Doctor Who. BBC One. September 15, 2012. Television.
“A Christmas Carol” Doctor Who. BBC One. December 25, 2010. Television.