Suicide has no place in a town called Mercy

Spoiler warning: Contains reference to the Doctor Who episode first broadcast 15 September 2012, “A Town Called Mercy.”

I love Doctor Who. When I was young I started watching at the end of the Tom Baker era, and since the 2005 revival I have been an avid watcher. As with all science fiction, Doctor Who explores human dramas and moral situations; as drama for family entertainment, I watch with the expectation that while I might not agree with all the moral decisions portrayed, the drama will be “wholesome”.

Last Saturday, for the first time that I can remember, I was left feeling disturbed by the plot, and seriously doubting its suitability for a prime slot for family viewing.

In a nutshell, the plot is this:

  • Fugitive, guilty of war crimes, takes refuge on Earth, and atones for his wrongdoing by becoming physician to a wild West town.
  • Avenger arrives seeking Fugitive, threatens to kill townsfolk who get in the way.
  • Fugitive commits suicide.
  • With no-one left to wreak revenge upon, the Avenger’s life risks losing purpose, but is redeemed by becoming the town’s protector.

Was there a strong narrative strand emphasising the value of the fugitive’s life? The town’s Marshall was fatally wounded by jumping in front of the Fugitive when the Avenger took a shot, and one of the Doctor’s companions (Amy) spoke against handing over the Fugitive. But after the Fugitive’s suicide no significant regret for his passing was shown on screen.

As presented, the episode appeared to portray suicide as an acceptable solution for a person wracked by guilt and aware that his past crimes have created problems for others.

Similar themes have appear in other science fiction dramas, but for family viewing, one would always expect some kind of redemptive element – for instance:

Fugitive sets off to lead the Avenger away from the innocents, and is killed or wounded in the process.

or: Fugitive attempts to commit suicide or surrender to execution, but the innocents intervene to broker a fair solution for all parties.

or: Avenger attacks innocents, who sustain casualties but deal with Avenger in a satisfactory way. This may lead to the Fugitive committing suicide wracked with guilt over the death of innocents, but their sacrifice sends the message that some valued the Fugitive’s life.

Now it’s true that the last of those was included in last Saturday’s Doctor Who episode insofar as one man took a fatal shot intended for the Fugitive. But the story’s momentum did not dwell on the Marshall’s sacrifice and was counterweighted by the way the town came to accept the Avenger as their protector.

A second theme running through the episode was the philosophy “Everyone deserves a second chance.”

The townsfolk of the “town called Mercy” generally hold this and point to the name of their town, but with their own lives at stake were willing to become a lynch mob to deliver up the Fugitive.

The Doctor himself is shown agonising over the fact that his previous acts of mercy have left villainous aliens free to harm others.

Remarkably, in this episode, the Doctor picks up a gun and threatens to shoot the fugitive. Last time we saw the Doctor so tempted was when his own daughter had been (apparently) fatally injured and the presentation drew attention to the fact the Doctor was “the man who never would“.

But this week’s episode weakly had his companion comment “This is what happens when you travel alone too long” – highlighting the Doctor’s dark side but hardly providing the moral weight required.

Now, perhaps the latest episode is part of a story arc which will find moral resolution later, but as a stand-alone episode it offers the bleak presentation of suicide as the resolution of a moral standoff. Any professional who works with children in modern Britain will be aware of the Paramountcy Principle which places a child’s well-being above all other legal considerations. The BBC Editorial Guidelines acknowledge that young people might imitate suicides shown on television. In this case the method will not be imitated (spaceships with a self-destruct mechanism not being common on this planet) but the behaviour might… a young person wracked with guilt and feeling responsible for causing harm to others might turn to suicide as a solution.

Those who do not agree with the Catholic Church’s stance against suicide might well recognise the claim of the Paramountcy Principle to limit artistic freedom, at least for programmes aimed at an audience including children. This episode required, at the very least, a narrative emphasis on the value of the Fugitive’s life and at best a more intelligent solution to the stand-off. Otherwise, as a morality tale highlighting the dismal outcomes of life’s grey areas, its chosen solution demanded a slot, unworthy of Doctor Who, beyond the watershed. But the episode has been broadcast, and as the Doctor would say, “You can’t change the timeline once you are inside it.” Not even a time machine can redeem the situation now.