Monday, 17 September 2012

The Quick And The Presumed Dead

I'm catching up on my stories, now that I've arrived safely from Munich (just about; fuck Easyjet and Munich Airport, by the way), and first on the list was this.  Well, actually it wasn't, but it was first on the list that I actually got to see (fuck Sky Go, as well).

From what little I've seen of fan opinion whilst being away, this seems to have been the least well-received of the three episodes from this season to date. I'm not entirely inclined to disagree, though I think that says more about the first two episodes being fairly strong (despite my reservations regarding "Asylum of the Daleks"), and this one being perhaps a little too silly. No, Doctor, you do not speak horse.  Shut it down.

Really, though, "A Town Called Mercy" is only particularly disappointing because it has so many excellent concepts but fails to make them mesh.  I'm not talking about Wild West cyborgs, obviously. I know a certain section of fandom (those endlessly irritating people who confuse a show determined to include children in its audience with a show only children can be qualified to judge) always argues any recycled idea is fair game since the kiddies won't have seen it before, but robots in the Wild West are so ridiculously common that at a certain point you have to just accept their use as being a wee bit uninspiring.

Nor of course am I talking about the Doctor being mistaken for someone or something else following his "death", a trick the new season has pulled twice in three episodes, possibly in an attempt to make even Russell T Davies seem light-touch with his ideas by comparison.

No, what made this episode close to something special was the same thing that dragged it down: the confusion inherent in deciding who gets mercy, and who does not.

(Spoilers after the fold.)

The basic dilemma at the heart of this episode is clearly stated: do you show mercy to the man who formerly tortured his own people in the name of stopping a war, who is now responsible for saving an entire (very small) town, and clearly incapable of defending himself, or do you show it to the violated walking remains of one of his victims, who is apparently willing to let that town starve to death unless he's allowed to murder his tormentor?

That's a sound foundation for a story, but Whithouse doesn't leave it there.  The strength of this episode is in the layers of narrative and character complexity that are built upwards from its concept. It's weakness is in how not all of those layers can be reconciled.

We'll start with my favourite line of the episode: "It would be easier if I were just one thing" (that may be not quite right, I was tired as Hell when I watched it yesterday evening). On any day of the week that would be a good point, and an implicit instruction regarding how good writing works.  In an episode following on from one in which the Doctor killed someone by redirecting a missile strike at his ship, basically because said guy was a mass-murderer and unrepentant cockbag, it's strikingly relevant.  If Kahler Jex had been a gibbering, finger-steepling villain, it would have been far easier to kick him out of Mercy and leave him to his fate.

But no.  This one the Doctor isn't sure he can kill, because he's actually a rounded character, who feels terrible about the pain he caused, but utterly believes it was the right thing to do in order to stop a nine year war.

Which, of course, is where things get interesting.  Because the last person who can take the moral high-ground regarding sacrificing one's own people to stop a horrifically destructive war is the Doctor.  For the first five years of the new series, it was strongly implied that he himself had destroyed Gallifrey as part of his plan to obliterate the Daleks and end the Time War.  "The End of Time" changed this somewhat, by suggesting the Doctor didn't destroy Gallifrey, merely seal it away somewhere for all eternity, but the guilt he's carried over that fact for two regenerations at least demonstrates he believes what he did was absolutely appalling.

He still did it, though.  He did it because he couldn't see any other way of ending the war, and he believed doing that was worth this cost.

So how is he different from Jex?  It can't be because of how evil the Daleks are, or how complicit the Time Lords were in the events of the war, because the Doctor never tried to elicit that explanation from Jex (I suppose it's possible he knows more from Jex's file that we haven't learned, but that would be authorial dodging). Because of the relative scales of the war?  Maybe, but that reduces us to a numbers game.  One planet to save how many others?  How many cyborgs to save one planet?

Basically, and this is what really fascinates me, the Doctor is disgusted by Jex because Jex has decided he has repaid his debt, that he has redeemed himself.

This goes back to something I've talked about before, but since I can no longer remember in which post, I might as well sketch out again here. Basically, the idea that someone can fight for redemption whilst evading the actual punishment society demands for their crimes is a very common American concept and, at least until recently, an exceptionally rare one in Britain (Whithouse tried it out himself two years ago in Being Human, actually, which: spoilers, didn't go at all well for those trying). The social ramifications of this are potentially quite complex, and it's tempting to find an easy explanation in the nature of two country's approach to governmental authority, but that's just simple-minded speculation on my part.

The difference here, to put it simply (perhaps too simply) is in whether society delivers the only justice available, or whether there's some higher force of justice at work that means the laws of the land are best circumvented.  Certainly the latter is true in, say, Angel, in which both Angel and Faith avoid the judgement of the American justice system (or in Faith's case, accepts it for a time before busting out of jail) in order to help the Powers That Be stop various forms of demonic apocalypse.  It's not so much that the system is wrong, so much as it's incomplete through ignorance of what's really going on.

As I said, this is an exceptionally rare angle to take in British television - the closest I can think of pre-2000 at least is Blake's 7 and Avon, but that was about a criminal fighting against an explicitly villainous regime, rather than one choosing to ignore a comparatively benevolent one. By 2005 and the new series, however, perhaps because the BBC had had time over the last 16 years to undergo at least some cross-Atlantic cross-pollination, the time had come to at least dabble a little with some of these ideas, and we see a Doctor haunted by the horrible crime he was forced to commit.

This isn't quite a set-up of the Angel/Faith kind, however, partially because the Doctor came close to destroying his world than he did to saving it, but mainly because it's not that he's avoiding the justice system of his society (though of course he was doing that throughout the original series, just not for the sake of atonement), he's orchestrated events so that he lives beyond it.  The Doctor's obsession with endlessly judging and loathing himself (see, for example, "Amy's Choice") stems from the fact that he is the only Time Lord left.  There's no-one else to act as judge and jury. And whilst that means no-one else can sentence him, it means no-one else can determine his sentence carried out, either.

And so upon meeting a man who could still face the music as regards his own planet's justice system, but who has taken it upon himself to declare his debt paid, it's little wonder the Doctor is as furious as he is.

Except... that doesn't seem to be what's happening here.  It's not yet been three years since "The End of Time" was broadcast, which means pointing out its relevance here isn't, I don't think, evidence of a slavish devotion to the show's past.  Instead of taking this route, though, "...Mercy" focuses on the idea that the Doctor's mercy comes at a cost.

That isn't at all a bad point, in fact, but it is one that weakens the link between the two doctors.  It puts them at opposing poles, really; one willing to sacrifice his own people to destroy the enemy, the other so desperate to offer his enemies a way out he'll risk the lives of innocents.  The problem here is two-fold; it makes the Doctor's anger at Jex less interesting, and it weakens the moral dilemma, since the Doctor has had such a variable attitude to when he's prepared to cause the death of another.  This isn't really Whithouse's fault, but it's hard to be too swayed by the idea that the Doctor is constantly tormented by the body count attached to his mercy just one episode after he got a man killed essentially as an act of revenge.

Even if we take the more sensible approach of comparing the Doctor and Jex's crimes and their consequences, though, problems develop. The idea of Jex fleeing justice only holds if his own planet considers him a criminal. Given that he performed his procedure upon volunteers, and in the process ended a nine-year world war, it's entirely possible that his people hold him a hero (note he fled from his own cyborg creations, not his society itself). In other words, he's not avoiding justice, he's avoiding vengeance that the Doctor happens to believe is, well, justified. This is the Doctor projecting his own values onto an alien culture, which of course isn't unusual for him (especially when the alien culture in question is our own), but the episode itself doesn't seem willing to run with it.

Consider Amy's ludicrous appeal to the Doctor as he prepares to sacrifice Jex. Not that he doesn't deserve it (which was the far more interesting question), not that this act isn't the right way to "honour the victims" (which is an interesting phrase, as we'll come to), but that they should be better than him.  I can't tell you how sick I am of hearing that argument.  I'm not immune to the general point that one can become the very thing you hate if you're not careful, and the implicit "the ends don't justify the means" - which I think was what Amy was trying to say - is hardly automatically untrue, either, but these are considerations, not unbreakable rules.  Amy - and Rory for that matter, who's all about doing for Jex so they can sprint into the sunset before they find out what the townspeople are living on these days - are offering the most banal and unconsidered positions possible, in an episode which seems determined to consider ethics. 

The same fate, alas, ultimately befalls the Doctor himself, as we're given our Sesame Street lesson for the week: violence cannot end violence, it can only extend it.  That's so horribly wrong-headed I don't even know where to start. An extension of violence is a risk of violence, not a certainty, and one doesn't have to think hard to come up with examples where such an argument in the face of bloodshed would be considered despicable.  I guess in the current global climate of "Responsibility to Protect" and "liberal interventionism", some kind of reminder that heading straight for the Cruise missile button isn't always the best idea is appropriate [1], but this is a lousy way to do it.  The cyborg troops Jex created ended a war with - assuming a World War II style conflict - a death toll approaching or into the hundreds of millions.  Since that act, the casualty rate has become one research team, followed by the saving of eighty people [2]. And had it not been for Isaac, that's exactly where it would have stayed.

At last we get to Isaac, then - and just in time; this post is far too long already.  He provides another one of the best ideas in the episode, which doesn't get as lost in the mix as the others (always nice to end on a high point) by creating the opposite of the Gunslinger.  The cyborg has experienced only the  worst of Jex; Isaac only the best.  Jex himself has been through both, obviously, and the Doctor neither.  The question then becomes: who is the most qualified to judge him?

In this case, the answer is; probably no-one, but that's because the four people above are purposefully extremes. What I'm getting at is a little subtler: what does it mean to be tried by your peers?

When Felicia Pearson was arrested last year on drugs-related charges, David Simon argued that Pearson wasn't going to be judged by her peers, who by and large don't tend to find themselves confronted by the bar exam. To put in a context familiar to anyone who's doggedly stuck with this blog over the last four years, the best judgements come from those with empathy towards those they're judging.  And one route - not a sure one, by any means - to empathy is experience.  Knowing something about those you preside over.  This is not the place to rehash the details of US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotamayor's confirmation three years ago (though the spectacle of watching an entire political party denounce the idea of empathy was both sickening and informative), but Obama's argument at the time that the best way to run a court was to have as many sympathetic people from as many walks of life as possible remains one of the best moments in his presidency.

In short, I guess I'm saying this: if "...Mercy" can be boiled down to the picture below:

Does it really follow that the origin is the best way to go?

It's not clear to me that it does, and that's pretty damn interesting.  Mind you, I'm a doctor who only ever wanted to help people - first by teaching them, now through aiding medical research.  And I've done some bad things in my life, things I still can't remember without shivering in horrified guilt.  So maybe I'm biased.  Or do I mean empathetic?

In the end, the problem here is mainly one of time.  Indeed, the whole episode felt a little disjointed, as though too much had needed cutting for everything to flow as it needed to (hardly a new problem to anyone familiar with Season 26).  One is always in dangerous territory when criticising something for stuffing in too many ideas (again, see Season 26, particularly "Ghost Light"), particularly one sandwiched between two Chibnall scripts, but ultimately you run the risk of them detracting from each other, or even working in opposition, which is what we got here.

[1] This is not to say I oppose either, or at least, not entirely.  No matter how much I try to think such things through, I can never come up with a coherent position on them.  Certainly the Iraq war and the recent crisis in Mali are enough to burn anyone's fingers, though, I should think.  Or maybe I've just been reading too much Daniel Larison.

[2] This though doesn't take into account the number of people the cyborgs themselves killed in order to force their enemy to surrender.  I admit that without that information, there's a real hole in my argument.  That said, it's a hole on both sides, and the fact that the cyborgs were programmed to not fire at the enemy if there was a reasonable chance of civilian casualties suggests their victory over the enemy was rather more discerning than say, the fire-bombing of Dresden or the nuclear attacks on Japan. Both of which involve moral debates which require far more than a speech about the dangers of extending violence.

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