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06 October 2012 @ 02:55 pm
A Town Called Mercy  
That was very interesting. It's not often Doctor Who attempts to tackle a subject as thorny as war crimes and the competing claims of justice and mercy. A Town called Mercy handled the subject matter pretty much as well as it is possible within a show with Doctor Who's constraints. I found its resolution unsatisfactory and I think it showed fairly precisely where one of Doctor Who's limits lies.

I was once on a Dr Who mailing list (I think the Jade Pagoda) where there was a long discussion about whether a Doctor Who book could or should ever attempt to set a story during the Nazi Holocaust. I think there was a general feeling of unease with the idea without people necessarily being able to pin down exactly why they felt it would be quite so hideously inappropriate. After all, it seemed wrong to suggest a Doctor Who story couldn't tackle a serious subject, and even if it obviously wasn't possible for the Doctor to somehow "fix" the Holocaust, there was no reason why a story couldn't engage with it.

I think A Town called Mercy illustrated how a Holocaust story would fail without, thankfully, doing anything so tasteless as setting itself at Auschwitz. A Doctor Who story has to have a dramatically satisfying resolution and these days it probably needs to come after 45 minutes (or 90 if you are lucky). War crimes have terrible and messy legacies that last for generations - as illustrated not only by the fact that the Holocaust is still a matter of political significance today, but also by South Africa, Northern Ireland and dozens of other places world wide currently in the aftermath of conflict and/or oppression. You can not cover the issues raised by such events and find a dramatically satisfying resolution in 45 minutes, because the only resolutions we know of are uncomfortable lingering compromises and allowing the passing of ages to gradually ease the immediacy of the horror.

A Town called Mercy did an excellent job of presenting the issues at stake. All the performances were strong and it had a clear focus, actors who could make the dilemma live, and a director who was prepared to give the actors space to do their work. I think it was daniel_saunders who pointed out, though, that Kahler-Jex ultimately appears to kill himself merely because he has grown tired of the circular argument. Adrian Scarborough put in an excellent performance as Jex. He was believable both as a man who had committed hideous crimes in the name of the ends justifying the means, and as a kindly small town doctor. He was ruthless. He was clearly prepared to continue hiding behind the people of Mercy, despite the danger and hardship it brought them. He had a sharp intelligence and wasn't afraid to use it in his own defence. This was one of the things that made it so difficult for the Doctor to cope with him. Even without knowing the details of the Time War (which was cleverly left as a subtext for the long term viewer), Jex recognised the similarities between the two of them and was not prepared to allow the Doctor to get away with simply condemning Jex for things the Doctor himself had done or come close to doing. But the bottom line is that the entire drama of the story was driven by Jex's refusal to die for the good of the town, that he kills himself at the end, after the Doctor has found a resolution which allows him a chance of survival and saves the town, seemed to flow simply from the dramatic necessity that the Doctor's solution did not allow justice to Kahler-mas, only the open-ended possibility of justice at some point in the future. It was not dramatically tidy. I take the argument that actually the story was about Jex coming to the realisation that he needs to sacrifice himself for the greater good, but that wasn't really what I took away from the performance and that resolution is also trite.

I think A Town called Mercy ultimately failed. But it failed partly because it reached too high and thankfully, given there was a chance to fail really, really tastelessly here, it at least failed with dignity.

This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/78340.html.
daniel_saunders: Eleventh Doctordaniel_saunders on October 6th, 2012 08:48 pm (UTC)
I agree with this, although I'm not sure it failed totally.

I remember Paul Cornell being interviewed in DWM years ago and saying that while the TV Doctors could not appear in the Holocaust or a real famine situation, the NA Doctor could, which seemed to illustrate why I disliked so many of the NAs.

I'm currently re-watching Babylon 5 and I'm struck that it takes a typical Doctor Who storyline (or rather two story-lines: god-like aliens manipulating civilizations + a totalitarian regime on Earth) and deals with it in a much more long-term way than Doctor Who ever could, simply because it's telling its story over 111 episodes, not one or two. As you say, this allows it to deal with long-term consequences of things like the Centauri invasion of Narn and massacre of its inhabitants, which Doctor Who could not. Not that B5 is better per se, merely that each programme does things the other can not do.
louisedennis: Doctor Wholouisedennis on October 7th, 2012 10:09 am (UTC)
I think it was doing well right up until the end, but from about halfway through I was wondering how on Earth they proposed to resolve it all without short-changing one side of the argument.

Babylon 5 is an interesting contrast, but I think it was unusual in that it explicitly set itself up to allow issues to be unresolved and actions to have consequences far beyond the end of the series - most notably the punitive response to the Centauri alliance with the Shadows was clearly still going to be having disastrous repercussions at least twenty years after the end of the series. Doctor Who has never really allowed itself that sort of freedom and my impression is that current TV thinking feels that B5's heavy open-endedness in which many, many issues can continue from episode to episode, season to season and beyond the end of the show's run was a move too far away from the episodic format.