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.…

Continue Reading