I Shot the Sheriff—Doctor Who: A Town Called Mercy.

Previously on Doctor Who: Dinosaurs on a Spaceship.

Oh, boy, we’re in trouble.

This episode may require of viewers and lovers of the Who magic a leap of faith. A leap of faith that what we’re seeing in the Doctor here will eventually make sense. A leap of faith that there will come a point when we realise that he isn’t losing himself, but that he is trying to find a tiny piece of, for lack of a better word, serenity.

The town called Mercy, hopefully, provided a step forward on that path.

We begin with an execution, we end with suicide, and perhaps redemption. The companions take a back seat in this episode, as the Doctor encounters a mirror image. Kahler Jeks, a surgeon from another planet, seeking refuge and penance on Earth, trying to escape from what he did and the punishment of his own creation.

The dilemma that Jeks places the Doctor in is that, as much as the Doctor wants to despise him, as much as what the man did during the war disgusts him, he isn’t just your regular outer-space Joseph Mengele. He isn’t even Victor Frankenstein. He’s a scientist who was called upon to end a war—sound familiar?

OK, yes, one can argue that the Doctor didn’t do it experimenting on live objects, leaving them, screaming, to die on his operating table. No, he didn’t, and he never would. But he has caused pain, he has killed, he watched his planet burn. And this is what tips him over the edge: he may be a moralist, but is he better than Jeks? Can he really condemn him? I’d choose the Doctor over Jeks in a heartbeat, but Jeks is suffering, and yet he defends what he did with the same nerve with which the Doctor would defend using The Moment to blow up Gallifrey. He saved millions of others, and now he’s alone, living with the pain.

Doctor: “You don’t get to decide when and how you pay your debt!”

Except that’s exactly what you’ve been doing all these years, isn’t it, Doctor? Your day is coming, too, you’re postponing just the same thing. And then, when Jeks taunts him, ignorant of the Doctor’s own sacrifices, tells him he doesn’t have the nerve what he did, lacks the courage to do whatever is necessary… the Doctor snaps. Properly.

Suddenly, the Doctor is ready to break his own rules, to push Jeks past the frontier, and to leave him to be killed by the Gunslinger; is ready to hold him at gunpoint. The Doctor’s hatred of guns is legendary, but it is surpassed by the hatred he holds for himself. And to see himself mirrored in that man, to have that man accuse him of not having the guts to do what it takes… let me elaborate.

Part of why I love Eleven so much is that he reminds me of Nine, a lot. Nine was broken and raw, and Christopher Eccleston portrayed him brilliantly. And now there’s Matt Smith, and his Eleven is so extraordinary, and so different, but there are so many things about him that ring back. His anger, which is so much colder than Ten’s rage, his arrogance, so much more alien, and the way he’s quiet before the storm arrives. Eleven is travelling the same path that Nine did once—but in the opposite direction. Early on, Nine was the one who was holding a gun, ready to end the life of a defenseless Dalek that had been, by accident, genetically altered by Rose. But at the end, the Daleks asked him what’s it gonna be, and he decided, “Coward, any day.” But Eleven is so, so far from The Parting of the Ways. The longer he lives, now, the more people he loses, he can’t stand it anymore. Grief, fear, and self-loathing have turned him into a man who genuinely doesn’t know who he is any longer. We’ve had moments like this thrown in all over the last two series, moments when the Doctor doubted himself, remarked on his own losing himself, voiced his reactions to the things he was feeling, especially anger. With Nine, anger was ever-present, he was simmering away, boiling underneath the surface, and Eleven is just saying it out loud. I have identified this for the first time in Vincent and the Doctor, and it’s carried through, and now it’s escalating.

Jeks: “We all carry our prisons with us.”

The things that he’s seen and done, the blood that is on his hands, it won’t wash off.

Doctor: “Every time, I negotiate, I try to understand. […] Today, I honour the victims first: his, the Master’s, the Daleks’, all the people who died because of my mercy.”

It’s not just that the Doctor has let people or Daleks get away, it’s that he got away. From the day River called him out on this, the way he terrifies entire galaxies in the name of saving the universe, and even before that… he wants to be forgiven. But it’ll never mean anything unless he can forgive himself.

This Doctor doesn’t appreciate being called a coward, not after what he did; and the helplessness many viewers must have felt in that moment, the helplessness I certainly felt, is embodied and channelled by Amy. She recognises the signs, she realises what is going on with him, and she brings him back from the edge. This isn’t how the Doctor does it, this isn’t how he rolls, but it takes her to remind him of that.

Many people on the Internet are accusing Steven Moffat—who didn’t actually write this episode, the script was penned by Chris Chibnall bollocks, thanks, fabulitas: Toby Whithouse, of course—of ruining the continuity of the show, and of the character with this. I say, nope. It’s called taking a character where it’s never been before, something that Russell T. Davies did a hundred times simply by creating Nine, and he never got any grief for it; or at least not as much. We know that the Doctor is flouncing off down a dark road ahead, what with the Ponds leaving, and it’s no surprise that the Time War would leave the man we once knew drastically changed. A staunch pacifist doesn’t blow up planets. A staunch pacifist, as he once was, had the chance to kill Davros, point blank range, but he didn’t. Lifetimes ago, Five put down that gun, and that is a moment that the Doctor is hating himself for right now.

When he’s come back ‘round, he gives the mob outside the cells a speech, and damned good one, and the bottom line is:

Doctor: “Violence doesn’t end violence, it extends it.”

Still, Eleven is a long way from Five, and heroes make mistakes. The Doctor is flawed, 1200 years of life don’t exactly make you a saint, and Eleven has been dismantled from the outside in from the moment he tumbled out of the TARDIS into Amelia’s backyard. I keep harking back to this every once in a while, but: remember the Valeyard? That creepy, slightly nocturnal dude who once put the Sixth Doctor on trial? If that is a thing that Moffat and the other writers have in mind, if the Valeyard is a thing that’s happening, then this is no surprise. The Doctor is broken inside, and he’s showing it, more and more each time. On the outside, he is as close to breaking point as we have ever seen him, and the answer as to why can’t be too far away.

The Internet, as always, comes up with many different interesting theories over the course of a series, and I just want to briefly touch on one that is probably the most captivating I’ve read about yet: many are convinced that we are seeing this series from the Ponds’ temporal viewpoint, that we are following their timeline. Which, normally, is neither here nor there, because so far, their timeline was always aligned with the Doctor’s. But, what if, this series, it isn’t?

Many theorise that the Doctor is actually actively travelling further into their past, that, for him, their last adventure with him has already happened, the Angels have already taken Manhattan. He’s already lost them, and the further into the series we get, the more erratic his behaviour, the darker his actions, because with each passing episode, the loss is actually fresher.

Clues to this are the Doctor mentioning his age, which is something that happens whenever something secret, timey-whimey is going on in the background, it’s never not important when he does. Also, that he says, “Frightened people. Give me a Dalek any day.” Eek, a Doctor who’s just blown up the Asylum wouldn’t be saying that. Then, the continued mentions of Christmas lists, the flickering lights everywhere around Rory and Amy. We know that the Weeping Angels make lights flicker, and the Doctor travelling back, plucking them out of their timestream backwards, is bound to cause some friction in the space-time-continuum, that, combined with their scheduled disappearance, is causing a few ripples here and there.

The only problem I have with this theory is Pond Life #5 and Asylum of the Daleks. In Pond Life #5, as I have already pointed out, we see Rory storming out of the house, Amy running after him, in the same clothes that Rory and Amy are wearing at the end of Asylum. Also, word on the street was that, when we got the first set pictures of that scene being filmed, the crew was actually working on The Angels Take Manhattan. Which would mean that that scene would have to have a definite pay-off, because there is now way that the team would just stick Arthur and Karen in the same clothes by accident or out of neglect. There’s a reason, and it leaves me a bit in limbo as to the chronological placement of Asylum. Of course, perhaps there’s just a flashback to this in The Angels Take Manhattan, but I think there’s more to be had about this.

Something else that is often taken as a cue is the phone charger that Rory apparently left in Henry VIII’s ensuite, which we actually see in the trailer for The Power of Three, and that, in A Town Called Mercy, Rory doesn’t know what the Doctor is talking about—except I think he does, he doesn’t look too confused about it, so I don’t know. Or maybe he’s just taking the strange things the Doctor says in stride. A definite clue will be provided next week, because as we can see, Rory’s dad is making another appearance. If this theory is correct, then Brian already knows the Doctor next week, because it’s the Doctor counting down, but the Doctor doesn’t know him yet—again. ‘Cause then, in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, he lied. He knew perfectly well who Brian was, otherwise the TARDIS wouldn’t have materialised like that. It scans the environment, of course it does, and the Doctor lies, he always does. But then, this time, he can’t know yet that he’s got to act as if he doesn’t. I wonder how they’re going to play that.

Oh, and by the way: from this episode on, every time a Whovian meets a horse, they will wonder whether it’s just as sexually confused as we are sometimes. Rock on, Susan.

Next: The Power of Three.


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