A Town Without Context


On 'A Town Called Mercy'

The ends can justify the means, but there needs to be something which justifies the ends.
 - Trotsky

Jex experiments on people in order to create a cyborg supersoldier.  His motive is to end a war which is killing his people.  But were his people the attackers or the attacked?  That this is ignored tells us a great deal about the writer/s but deprives us of the possibility of making moral sense of the story.  It is ignored, presumably because it is considered irrelevant.  Yet, the whole point of the story appears to be the question of whether Jex is a bad man or a good one... with the answer being, of course, "yes".  But I'd argue that the wider social context of Jex's actions (beyond just saying that 'it was war') is as important as it is obscure.

The notion - that war is, as Jex puts it, "a different world" in which normality shifts drastically and morality becomes fuzzy - is, for a start, a somewhat glib truism.  Like all such glib truisms, it can be pressed into service (i.e. "Yes, an invasion will kill lots of Iraqi people... but we have to do something; Saddam has WMD!!!") or ignored (i.e. "Those Muslamic terrorists are killing Our Boys!!!  Why do they hate us???") according to ideological needs and preferences.

Kryten would find it easier to get rid of the Apocalypse Boys
now that he'd been assimilated by the Borg.

'A Town Called Mercy' actually tries to hone in on questions of moral ambiguity, and to try to represent that ambiguity in a sustained way, which is actually fairly good going for the series (at this time).  Usual practice for Moffat-era Who is to suggest extremely crude, superficially worrying moral equivalences in dialogue which are then papered-over by the actual behaviour of the Doctor and his gang (whom we might want to start calling 'Our Boys and Girls', since it is assumed that they deserve 'our' support whatever they do).  'Mercy', by contrast, briefly shows the lead characters in genuine quandries about what to do for the best.  Sadly, however, vital information is omitted from their calculations... and the omissions are interesting.

As I say, it's not exactly an earth-shattering observation that a basically good guy can do horrible things.  Orwell begins The Lion & The Unicorn - written during the Blitz - with a passage saying that, as he writes, civilised people are flying overhead trying to kill him.  The pilot in the bomber, Orwell remarks, "is serving his country, which has the power to absolve him from evil."

Jex is, of course, serving his 'country', so to speak.  But is he from Space Poland or from the empire of the Space Nazis?  To translate into geek: is he as much of a Bajoran as he seems, or is he a Cardassian?  Or is the situation more complex than that?  Is it more like America vs Japan?  Two rival empires clashing.  One the overt aggressor, but the other also implicated in bringing the conflict on via, say, provocation.

It matters.  War crimes are never excusable, of course... except that they are  excused.  All the time.  They're excused as long as they're 'ours', whoever 'we' happen to be.  In fact, if they're 'ours', they tend to not even be noticed, let alone excused.  When they cannot be ignored or straight-facedly excused (i.e. the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib) they are ideologically neutralised as aberrations, quickly corrected by the putatively aggressive questioning of a Media who are actually pussycats sitting on the laps of the powerful and purring for bellyrubs.  The odd playful scratch does not a ferocious tiger make... and anything more than the odd playful scratch might endanger the reliable supply of Kit-e-Kat.

However, it is simply not enough to know that a horrible act was committed, to condemn it and leave it at that.  Atrocities are never excusable, but context must make us view violence committed in defence, or in the cause of liberation, differently to how we view violence committed by the aggressors... if only so that we can make intelligible sense of what is actually happening.

International law draws distinctions, at least formally:

 2. Reaffirms the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples for independence, territorial integrity, national unity and liberation from colonial and foreign domination and foreign occupation by all available means, particularly armed struggle

- United Nations General Assembly Resolution A/RES/33/24 of 29 November 1978

People have the moral right to use violence against their occupiers, to use any means available to rid themselves of those who have invaded their territory.  There is, of course, no such thing as 'legal terrorism' (though terrorism is subject to definition)... except that, once again, there is.  Terrorism is, generally, legal when it is committed by the powerful against the powerless.  State terrorism is so legal, it isn't even seen as terrorism at all.  'Terrorism' is something done by people with bolt-cutters or homemade bombs or hijacked jumbo jets.  Worse atrocities carried out by states (and/or their hired thugs) are called 'counterterrorism' or 'counter insurgency', etc.  The US government can organise genocidal levels of violence against those regimes of which it disapproves and this doesn't count.

Again, our culture tends to see these sorts of issues clearly enough when looking at the French Resistance, but runs into difficulty acknowledging the exact same principle with regards to the Iraqi Resistance.  It all comes down to who's side 'we' are on... or rather, who is on 'our' side.  Since 'we' are, by definition and by common sense, the goodies, then our friends must, ipso facto, be goodies too... goodies don't ally with baddies, after all... and so those who attack 'our' friends must, logically, be baddies.  This is what responsible journalists call 'living in the real world'.

Israel, for instance, is 'our' ally, ergo Israel is 'the only democracy in the Middle East', constantly fighting for its life against evil-minded Arab aggressors... despite the fact that Israel is a war-starting, avowedly racist, settler-colonial Apartheid state, existing in clear breach of international law (it holds territory it acquired through aggressive war) which is capable of nuclear devastation that Iran can only daydream about. (By the way... it is sometimes argued that the attitude of the Western left towards Israel - i.e. obsessing over it while paying less attention to equally bad or worse states elsewhere - is a mirror image of the hypocrisy of the Western establishment... but this ignores the fact that one has a greater moral obligation to protest the actions of ones own state than those of others, and Israel simply could not do what it does without the funding and support of the US and UK.  One wouldn't pay much heed to the wife of a serial killer who said "well, it's all very well, all these people going on about my husband... but what about Robert Mugabe?!"  We would rightly construe this as a distraction.)

Terrorism is never excusable, but it always has context... and the context is usually one of power relations.  It would be a travesty (as purblind as it is common) to simply wag a moralising finger at atrocities like suicide bombings by Palestinians in Tel Aviv without properly contextualising and historicising them, i.e. without properly explaining why they occur.  It's terribly easy to condemn things.  It's much harder to historicise them, especially when history doesn't support our ideological convictions.  Contrary to myth, it's not just people like me who have ideological convictions.  Even those who trumpet their own supposed scepticism are usually riddled with unexamined and unacknowledged ideology.  People like Sam Harris, for instance, would have us believe (using anecdotal examples of individual cases) that such attacks occur simply because of the intoxicating effects of Islamic dogma... leaving out the evidence which shows that suicide bombing is almost invariably a product of political anger in response to tyranny, despair, injustice and helplessness... say, in the face of the continued, illegal, violent, occupation of Palestine by the Israelis, or of the American occupation of Iraq.  This doesn't 'excuse' suicide bombing (whatever 'excuse' could possibly mean in this context) but it does historicise and contextualise it... in a way that shows the historical and political culpability of those moralisers who do so much to create the conditions for it.

Part of the problem with talking about this issue is what we might call the make-the-foundation-of-this-society-a-man-who-never-would fallacy: that to make moral judgements is the same thing as to moralise.  The assumption is one of moral absolutes, which are generally decried while being tacitly employed (including, of course, by me)... in much the same way that we tend to think of 'situational ethics' as lacking integrity, despite the fact that ethical judgements always depend upon situation.  Making moral judgements doesn't need to involve expressing categorical disapproval.  (The 'Thou Shalt Not!' model of ethics is far from the oldest and most venerable.)  Nor is the flipside true; to make moral distinctions is not to excuse.  People who'll tell you that it was 'moral relativism' to equate US/UK aggression against Iraq to, say, German aggression against Poland, are themselves the real moral relativists, because they see crimes committed by 'us' as being somehow less immoral than the same crime committed by another.  As I've implied, similar crimes are not always morally equivalent... but the key issue for parsing this is the issue of power.  Who has it and what are they using it for?  For instance, domestic violence is sometimes committed by women against men, and this is inexcusable... but it would be intellectually and politically dishonest to forget the context.  We live in a patriarchal society soaked in rape culture; males still have enormous social, financial, cultural, political advantages; domestic violence (and violence generally) by men against women is much more common; etc.

The moral status of unprovoked aggression by states is very clear according to international law going back to the Nuremberg trials.  It is the supreme war crime because it contains within itself all the crimes that always follow from invasion and occupation: theft, torture, rape, murder, etc.  That's why, as Chomsky observed, every US President in the post-WWII era would have been hanged if such tenets of international law were applicable to the most powerful empire of the post-war period.  As it happens, they were inapplicable from the start.  Axis criminals were simply not charged with crimes that were also committed by the Allies (i.e. indiscriminate terrorist bombing of civillians) precisely because the framers of the Nuremberg laws didn't want to set dangerous precedents.

The Doctor sometimes does the things that his enemies are portrayed as evil for doing.  Genocide, for example, in 'Remembrance of the Daleks'.  There is an extent, however, to which any attempt to put the Doctor's actions in 'Remembrance' into real world terms is always going to fail politically... since only the fantastical scale of the Dalek threat can possibly justify what he does.  In the real world, there is no level of threat or oppression which could justify genocide... the key point here being that any force in the real world capable of genocide on that scale would be, by definition, an immensely powerful political/economic/military imperialism.  By posessing the Hand, the Doctor becomes powerful himself.  In reality, the victims are never as powerful as the victimisers.  The reason 'we' want to attack Iran rather than, say, North Korea, is precisely because 'we' know that 'they' can't  chuck nukes at us.

It's likely that anybody capable of supplying Jex with the technical, technological, monetary and 'human' resources to create the Gunslinger would have to be pretty powerful.  It would've been nice to know for sure one way or the other, but my bet would be on Jex being from an imperialist power of some kind.  Modern warfare is always imperialistic when it isn't defensive.  So should Jex be killed?  I certainly wouldn't want to preach to the Gunslinger about morality.  I'd be much more inclined to think he had the right to decide than the Doctor.  Thing is, I just don't find this question particularly interesting.  Neither a 'yes' nor a 'no' answer changes anything or achieves anything real.  It gets us nowhere.  The question is strangely empty.  Debating the morality of hanging the Nuremberg defendants doesn't help us understand the rise of fascism or the imperialist nature of the European conflagration they helped oversee.  Hanging Blair in Fallujah wouldn't stop the system he represents creating any more Fallujahs.  Does he deserve to swing?  I don't really care.  It's a fundamentally uninteresting question.  We end up back with that old question about whether the ends justify the means?  Well, that's a no-brainer, obviously.  Yes, possibly, sometimes - it depends on the context.  That's assuming, of course, that the question is asked honestly... which it usually isn't.  Usually, all that needs to be ascertained by the commissar to whom the question has been posed, is who did what.  It's like that other cliche, about how "I was just following orders" is no defence.  In real-world ideological discourse, when 'we' (whoever 'we' are) were just following orders, then that's fair enough... and it constitutes extremist lunacy to even think otherwise.

I'd like to know about the context of the orders Jex got, and the context in which he obeyed them.  The episode, however, neglects to mention any of that.  It is clearly considered that a debate about the ethics of war can be carried out without such context.  I disagree.  I want to know.  Not because I want to know if Jex is 'good' or 'bad' (unlike the writer/s, I don't think these things can be settled so easily... certainly not by an act of self-sacrifice which doesn't actually change anything from the past one iota) but because I want to understand the political meaning of what transpires.  Sadly, like so much of 21st century Doctor Who, particularly under Moffat, 'Mercy' simply doesn't possess an interior political context. 

'A Town Called Mercy' actually does comparatively well in its awareness that morality depends upon context, that the social context of an act can alter its meaning, that the social context of a person can alter his or her moral status, etc.  It permits Jex to be both a 'war criminal' and to be capable of more than that.  Moreover, it allows the Gunslinger to do much the same.  Having been a victim, he becomes an attacker (the point is not that he attacks his tormentors but that he then attacks the town of Mercy) and then, later, to become the town's protector.

However, ultimately, the story flounders on lack of context.  What, one feels like demanding, was the context for Jex's actions?  The Doctor's initial enthusiasm for his people doesn't mean they were necessarily the victims of aggression (he's enthusiastic about America during the Vietnam war, when Nixon was dropping more tonnage of bombs than were dropped during WWII on the peasants of South East Asia).  It isn't that there may be some justification for having mutilated and murdered people, but that there may be some wider political and moral context which will help us to understand how he came to do such things.  Even if he was on the attacking side, I'd like to know about the culture which created a situation in which he got caught up in such a venture.  Was he an enthusiastic volunteer, like so many of the doctors who formed the single largest professional group within the SS?  Was he one of those 'ordinary men' who found themselves committing extraordinary atrocities out of an inability to resist social pressure?  Was he propagandized into accepting a pernicious ideology that he now rejects?  I'd really like to know this stuff.  This interests me, far more than a scene where the Doctor lectures the assembled townspeople (most of whom are, natch, fickle moral cowards) about non-violence.

This leads me to another issue.  The Doctor straps on guns when he becomes the Sheriff.  Well, I'm not a pacifist so I don't have an objection to that per se.  I'm not one of those people who wants the Doctor to be inherently non violent.  However, it does make me think of The Prisoner  episode 'Living in Harmony' (you know, the Western one).  This episode was not shown on American TV at the time.  The official reason was that it featured mind-altering drugs... but this is unconvincing, given how many episodes which did make it onto US TV also featured mind-altering drugs. The real reason, as Robert Fairclough has argued, is probably the anti-war subtext of the episode in the context of the Vietnam war and the protest movement against it.  It was just too near the knuckle.  An episode which evokes the primal myth of America (the Wild West), in which the hero refuses to strap on a six-shooter.  Now, context changes things.  I'm not, as I say, a pacifist, but 'Living in Harmony' acquires a political charge that is thrilling in the context of that moment of history, in which a generation were marching for peace.  So it's disappointing that, in the context of British and US troops still engaged in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and elsewhere, Doctor Who does a Western in which the Doctor straps on his six-shooter without a qualm.

He also pins on that sheriff's badge eagerly too... which is a sign of the times, like his unworried acceptance of the Tesselecta's assertion that, like them, he stands for 'law and order'.  Who's law?  Who's order?  And are the two things necessarily linked, or even desirable.  Lots of laws are pretty fucking awful, precisely because of who's interests they serve.  There's that missing political context again.  What a gaping hole its absence leaves in a story that specifically tries to examine these issues!

Of course, blaming Steven Moffat or Toby Whithouse for this would be to miss the point rather.  They're not there to make political statements but to make fantasy TV.  That the fantasy TV they make seems depressingly conformist and apolitical (meaning, in practice, apologetical for powerful interests and prejudices) is, to a large extent, the fault of a society that has, by and large, abandoned anti-war activism and protest.  That's not to say that protest has disappeared, but we're a long way from the big march against the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  If people don't mind their country being engaged in murderous imperialism, then their fictional cultural heroes are not going to reflect any unease about it.  Like everything good, such anger and protest must flow upwards from the bottom.  Steven Moffat - and the media culture he embodies - isn't going to be pushed to the left by its own conscience.  Some hope.  Meanwhile, in the absence of any countervailing tendency, capitalist media culture drifts ever rightwards.

You know, a recent survey has suggested that most British people think the invasion of Iraq caused the deaths of under 10,000 people. The evidence seems to show that the actual figure is probably between 600,000 and a million... which is without calculating the death toll of the first Gulf War or the sanctions regime that Britain supported. This fact alone should shame the British out of producing or watching any televisual morality fables about war ever again. Really... just who the bloody hell do we think we are, swaggering around the globe, annihilating people for the convenience of the American imperium and for neoliberalism's access to markets, and then entertaining ourselves (and improving our children's morals) with comfortingly smug little homilies about war?

The anodyne smugness is a function of the lack of context.  And it gets everywhere, into even the most frivolous bits of narrative culture.  Leaving out the context and the history is an essential ideological tool of the capitalist media.  This is how the Israel/Palestine 'conflict' is portrayed as being about 'two tribes' who can't get on.  Every news report that tuts over 'conflict' in the West Bank or Gaza takes, essentially, the same tack as 'A Town Called Mercy' (and other Doctor Who  texts, including many from the classic series) in the way it presents us with a tragic drama about the horror of war, etc., while neatly and discreetly editing out any context which will help us make moral sense of it all.  The moral sense is always inextricably bound up with the political and historical sense.  That's why the capitalist culture industry usually thinks we don't need to know the context.


Josh Marsfelder 3 years, 8 months ago

This is a very eery post to read the day after writing up "A Taste of Armageddon"...

Brilliant as always, though,

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Anonymous 3 years, 7 months ago

great post! thanks for doing this website!

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