Ethos Education

Doctor Who: A Town Called Mercy: Which crimes, if any, are so great that they warrant the death of the perpetrator?

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Learning Objectives:

  • Understand different theories of punishment.
  • Consideration of the treatment of convicted prisoners.
  • Consideration of whether capital punishment is ever justifiable.

Learning Outcomes:

  • Reflect upon appropriate punishments for a range of offences.
  • Reflect upon the relationship between specific sentences and an underlying ideology of criminal justice.
  • Analyse the reactions of various characters from Doctor Who, evaluating their ideology of criminal justice.
  • Evaluate the cost to society of different forms of criminal justice.
  • Identify different objectives in sentencing, and analyse their likely effect on a specific case study.
  • Analyse a wide range of different offences, suggesting how different approaches would influence the sentencing of people who commit them.
  • Analyse Bible passages to see what they suggest about a Christian perspective on justice and punishment.


Please note, this lesson has been written to be used in conjunction with another of our lessons Doctor Who: A Town Called Mercy: How can competing rights be reconciled when crimes have been committed, so that everyone gets justice? Either lesson will work on their own, but they will be most effective if that lesson is used before this one. Our other lesson featuring this episode of Doctor Who is on an unrelated part of our syllabus.

Ask the students to brainstorm a list of crimes and misdemeanors, ranging from the most serious crimes imaginable (such as murder or rape) to the most trivial of minor offences (such as littering or swearing in public). Once you have collectively produced a list of up to a dozen offences, ask the students to copy it down and work in pairs or small groups to rank the offences in order of severity, and to suggest an appropriate punishment for each offence. When the groups feedback their answers, allow some time for discussion, particularly over any differences of opinion. You could also ask for a show of hands on the question of whether the death penalty (capital punishment) is ever an appropriate sentence.

Ask some of the students to explain their reasons for suggesting specific punishments for the different offences. Try to draw out any underlying patterns to their sentencing policy – for example, are they more concerned with punishing people who do wrong, or with ensuring that society is protected from wrongdoers? How do their chosen sentences reflect their underlying assumptions about the purpose of punishment?

Explain that in this lesson you are going to be thinking about different theories of punishment, and attempting to discover a Christian perspective on punishment in general and capital punishment in particular.


Introduce the clip from the Doctor Who episode A Town Called Mercy which you can find on Doctor Who, series 7 part 1 (BBC DVD 2012, certificate 12). Click here to buy the DVD online.

Explain that the Doctor (Matt Smith) and his companions are in a Wild West town (called Mercy), and have discovered that an alien cyborg – referred to as ‘the Gunslinger’ – wants to kill Kahler Jex, an alien who arrived there some years previously and has since become the town doctor. The Doctor has discovered that the Gunslinger is the product of a secret genetic engineering project that Jex carried out, creating super cyborg soldiers in order to end a bloody war. The townspeople want the Doctor to give Jex up to be killed by the Gunslinger.

If you have already used our lesson Doctor Who: A Town Called Mercy: How can competing rights be reconciled when crimes have been committed, so that everyone gets justice?, remind the students of the scene shown in that lesson, and in particular of the Doctor’s willingness in that scene to give Jex up to the Gunslinger contrasted with Amy’s heated opposition to that plan. Ask them which of the two made the more compelling argument, either Amy’s call for saving Jex or the Doctor’s to give him up. If you didn’t show that clip, you might want to include it in this lesson before the one listed below.

  • Start time:       0.30.20 (in chapter 8 of the DVD)
  • End time:        0.33.41
  • Clip length:     3 minutes and 21 seconds

The clip starts with the town undertaker saying, ‘Fresh coffee, Marshall’ to the Doctor. It ends with the Doctor saying, ‘We all carry our prisons with us… ha!’

What difference do the many good things Jex has done since arriving in Mercy (saving the town from smallpox, setting up an electric grid) make to the question of whether he deserves to die?

Point out that Kahler Jex’s crimes are very far removed from our own experience, but there are still parallels that can be drawn. Do the students think that there are normal crimes (i.e. something less than war crimes) which are deserving of the death penalty for those who commit them? If students are opposed to the death penalty, ask them whether it should be permitted in cases where the criminal would choose death (as Jex seems to at one point) rather than face the alternative sentence. Some students may like to consider the real world examples of people who have committed mass atrocities, such as Saddam Hussein (who was executed for his crimes). If this link is made, encourage students to discuss whether or not they thought that the death sentence was appropriate in that case.

What cost is it reasonable for society to bear in order to lock up criminals who cannot be trusted with freedom?

Ask the students what they think the priority of law enforcement should be. If they are struggling, read out the following list and ask which of these should be the primary objective of laws and criminal sentencing.

  • Deterrent, or prevention of crime.
  • Protection of the innocent.
  • Punishment for wrongdoing.
  • Rehabilitation of offenders (i.e. helping criminals to change their ways).
  • Restorative justice (i.e. putting right what has been done wrong).

Ask the students to reconsider the case of Kahler Jex for each of these priorities. For example, if protection of the innocent is the most important thing, Jex is unlikely to reoffend (the war is over, there is no need to make more cyborg soldiers). If rehabilitation of offenders is most important, then keeping him alive is essential, and there is considerable evidence that he is now a changed man. Draw out some of the implications in the real world of the different approaches to sentencing – if deterrent is more important than justice, for example, then it doesn’t actually matter whether a convicted person is guilty or not – the example of setting a harsh sentence will be just as effective in making others think twice about committing a similar offence. You might also want to remind the students of the Doctor’s comment that it isn’t up to Jex to decide when and how his debt is paid.

Now ask the students to return to the list of offences from the starter activity. In small groups or pairs, ask the students to choose four different offences – at least one a major crime, and at least one a minor infringement – and to suggest what would be an appropriate sentence for someone convicted of the offence according to each of the priorities that they came up with in the previous exercise.

Ask the class what they would expect a Christian to believe about law enforcement and sentencing, and about capital punishment in particular. Explain that justice is an important concept for Christians – the Bible describes God as a just ruler, one who acts to ensure that all wrongs are righted and that justice prevails (see Psalm 103:6, to take just one example). Similarly God’s followers are told to concern themselves with justice (see Micah 6:8) and to seek to ensure it for others. However, Christians also believe that God will one day judge the world (see Revelation 20:11-15) and restore perfect justice. Christians are told that because of this, they should leave the matter of revenge to God (Deuteronomy 32:34-35, which Paul comments on in Romans 12:17-21).

Other Bible passages that may be helpful to introduce as the discussion unfolds include the following: Exodus 20:13; Leviticus 24:17-22; Psalm 9: 7-9 and 13-18; Amos 5:7-15; Matthew 5:38-42.


Ask the students to make up a criminal case, where somebody has been found guilty of a serious crime. The student should write a letter to a newspaper, arguing for a particular sentence to be given to the criminal and explaining the reasons for this. The letter should demonstrate an understanding of a Christian perspective on the subject of sentencing, but students should be free to argue either in favour or against the Christian perspective.


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