Sunday, September 23, 2012

Old West Justice in a Town Called Mercy

"We will judge no man, but send him to the Judge of us all and let Him settle the matter." - Unknown

This idea came to me last week after listening to the boys at Traveling the Vortex, um, kind of rip apart "A Town Called Mercy" (that's me being nice about it - they gave it a pretty harsh drubbing).  I seriously couldn't figure out why people didn't like this story when I thought it was excellent.  Same with this week's "The Power of Three" - I absolutely adored it, but so far the general consensus is "Meh, it's okay - too much fanwank - the conclusion was too rushed."  I almost could chalk that one up to the boys from Radio Free Skaro being their usual pessimistic selves, but I've seen this assessment on Twitter and elsewhere.

I'm not exactly sure how to reconcile my opinions with the rest of Who-dom.  Then again, I've never been able to reconcile my opinions on anything with the rest of the world - not on anything that mattered, at least.  I've always been kind of an outlier in the "Thinking Deep and Thoughtful Thinkings" department, and this is one of those instances.  I want to talk about something that's missing from the "A Town Called Mercy" discussions.  I even missed it on initial viewing and it took me going "Why is everyone so obsessed with the Doctor's 'darkness?' "  But something hit me as I thought about it.

Why is the town called "Mercy?"  Of all the names they could have given the town, why Mercy?

First, let me work it from this angle - the Old West is famous for being a lawless place.  And this may be exaggerated in westerns, but there's the myth of justice in the Old West being a bullet in your head courtesy of the one who you wronged.  Even if the law catches up to you, there wasn't much in the way of a lawful trial and a jury of your peers.  It was a rough-and-tumble place.  My grandpa had a saying that my dad is fond of using now (and it probably came from a movie or something): "You've gotta be tough if you're gonna live in the west," the idea being that the west is not a merciful place and you will get no sympathy from this harsh lifestyle and its landscape (or from life in general).

Which is why it's interesting that this town in a generic American West area is called Mercy.  It's interesting that Sheriff Marshall Isaac is so keen on giving Kahler-Jex a second chance, even if he is a war criminal.  Jex is seeking to do some good after he's done so much wrong.  Justice dictates that, yes, he ought to be thrown out and left to fend for himself against the Gunslinger, who is actually Kahler-Tek - one of the people that Jex did so much wrong against.  Tek has every right to demand justice.  But mercy comes into play - Jex is the one who saved the town from cholera and the people are grateful.  They don't want to see their hero be gunned down by this monster.  So, they give him a safe place to stay at their own peril.

"A Town Called Mercy" is not the story of the Doctor's darkness or a fun romp in the Old American West.  It is the story of someone who made a terrible mistake and who is trying to atone for it.  But Jex will never be able to completely fix what he did and no amount of goodwill - however much his heart is in the right place - will be able to put Kahler-Tek back the way he was.  He deserves justice for the things he did in the war - yet doesn't he also deserve some mercy for the good he's tried to do?

Another thing that works with this story of redemption is the Kahler belief that in the afterlife, you must carry the souls of all those you've wronged.  Jex is afraid of this because he sees that he has done so much wrong. So, he runs in order to avoid paying his debt to God or the universe or whatever you want to call it.  In the end, he sees that he cannot run from justice any longer - there are consequences to your actions.  But right as the self-destruct countdown reaches zero, Jex expresses a hope that "Perhaps they [the people he's wronged] will be kind" - i.e. show mercy.

Of course, we never see the kind of reception Jex gets after he blows up his own ship and makes it to the afterlife - how the souls of those he has wronged receive him and if they are indeed kind, as is Jex's dying wish.  It is my own belief - and I'm going to get religious here, but it's my blog and tough turkeys if you don't like it - that there is One who can apply both justice and mercy.  Look - everyone is going to screw up in life.  There are people who have done terrible, terrible things and deserve harsh punishment.  But, on the flip side, there are a few of those people (and it's not up to me or you or any of us to say who those people are) who have recognized the bad things they've done and want to fix it the best they can.  I believe there will be a reckoning that no one can escape.  I don't know how it'll play out, and since I'm not in charge of it, I don't have to be too concerned about logistics and such.  However, I do know that there is going to be Someone on the other end who can show mercy while at the same time dishing out justice to those who deserve it (which would be everyone, to one degree or another).  We can try to show both mercy and justice, but it's beyond any of us to accomplish that.  People are limited in that regard.  Good thing it's not our job to judge a person's heart, now isn't it?

Anyway, those are my thoughts on this.  I don't know if that was the original intent of the writers, but if English professors can read crazy-ass theories that Shakespeare or Jane Austen never even heard of when they were writing, then I can take religious-type allegories from Doctor Who. Basically, the western aspect of it carries the ideas of justice that Jex is trying to escape from, but the town is called Mercy, so that makes you sit up and take notice that this is not a typical Old West town.  Throw in the "America is the land of second chances" - which is something my own ancestors came out West looking for, though in a somewhat different context - and you've got a story full to bursting in some pretty deep symbolism.

I knew those Lit Theory classes would turn out to be good for something!

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