Doctor Who: The Atrocity of Mercy

I wouldn't bet any money on it, but I have a feeling that Matt Smith is more than halfway done as the Doctor, and that a new Time Lord will debut either this season or after a series of specials following it like his predecessor. The evidence lies in his actions in this episode.

On a trip to take Amy and Rory to see a Dia de los Muertos celebration in Mexico during the 19th century, the TARDIS comes up 200 miles short of the Mexican border in what we can safely assume is a town in Texas called Mercy. Believe it or not, a TV episode of Doctor Who has not taken place in the Old West since the First Doctor visited the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. The Tenth Doctor did visit the Old West in a novel alongside Martha Jones, and the Sixth Doctor did so as well in an audio story... lending even more weight to my theory that that incarnation met Doc Brown in 1885.

The small town is ringed by a barrier of stones, and the townsfolk are wary of strangers. The Doctor, as always, is simply delighted at the coming adventure, and wastes no time trying to pull off a tough cowboy act lifted from westerns including a really horrible American accent. It made me miss the once-a-series joke that Tennant got where his new companion would try to talk in a time-specific regional dialect to sad effect with him quietly asking them to not do that.

As he introduces himself as the Doctor, Matt Smith is immediately picked up by the people of the town and hurled across the stone barrier as a giant cybernetic gunslinger approaches armed with high tech weaponry. Luckily, the town marshal Isaac relents, and allows the doctor back inside. In the town jail, Isaac explains that the town is called Mercy because of its second-chance philosophy, clearly an enlightened man in an unenlightened time and place.

Turns out the doctor the gunslinger wants is not the Doctor, but a crashed humanoid alien named Kahler Jex. Since his arrival he's served as doctor to the town, saving them from an outbreak of cholera and even hooking up electric heating and street light ten years before their invention.

Brief aside, the year of this episode is debatable. The first electric streetlights were invented in 1875, but Isaac refers to the American Civil War as having ended seven years ago. That would make the year 1872, which likely the answer as we can probably trust a contemporary to remember the Civil War better than the Doctor remembering the exact year electric street lights were invented. End aside.

Not all is as it seems, obviously. Shots from the gunslinger's point of view make it clear that he is attempting to not harm innocent lives as much as possible, and a trip to Jex's ship reveals to the Doctor that Jex is more like his race's version of Joseph Mengele... if Mengele had actually managed to accomplish anything helpful to the Nazis besides just raising the horror quotient of the Earth 4 million percent.

The gunslinger was one of many individuals that Jex and his colleagues turned into super weapons against their will, after countless others died in the trying-to-figure-out-the-IKEA-instructions phase of testing. After the war was ended all the cyborgs were deactivated, but one survived to hunt down the scientists that had created them. Jex is the last.

The Doctor snaps... He just snaps, physically beating Jex across the town line and holding him at gunpoint until the gunslinger comes to protect him. In short, he becomes everything that is not the Doctor, screaming that today the victims of his Mercy to the Daleks, the Master, and countless others would be paid for.

A gunshot from Amy stops him in his tracks. She remarks on what he is becoming after traveling alone in between stints with her and Rory. A throwaway line in the episode now has the Doctor at 1,200 years old, meaning he's been away from his companions for almost a hundred years of subjective time. That time alone has left him brooding, and not at all as dedicated to saving everyone as is his calling card.

Look, there have always been flaws in the new Doctors' supposed endless mercy. The Ninth stood coldly as Lady Cassandra exploded, and his vicious attitude to what he thought was the last Dalek remains one of his best moments... especially when it said he would have made a good Dalek himself. Then there was the Tenth Doctor, who watched with equal inhuman scorn as the Racnoss burned until Donna stopped him, who was willing to alter one of the most important points in human history simply to fulfill his own desires.

And what of Eleven and his mercy? Where was it when he destroyed an entire Cyber Legion without provocation merely to bully an answer out of them, or his mercy for the Silence when he orchestrated their genocide? That's not to mention the hypocrisy of a man condemning a war criminal after wiping out two races personally in the Time War.

Eleven is slipping, and slipping badly, and the depths have gotten worse in each incarnation of the Doctor in the new series. The slippage is usually an indicator of an incarnation coming to the end of life, but maybe not this time.

Perhaps the impossible perkiness of his new companion, who we'll see either at Christmas or in 2013 will change him as Donna did Ten when it counted most. Or perhaps, as the 50th anniversary and the hints of multiple Doctors, fondly remembered companions returned, and adventures on a scale we've never seen before loom, the redemption of the Doctor is at hand.

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