Posts Tagged ‘regeneration’

A few years ago now I wrote a long and slightly smug thing (no pun intended) about the enormous influence of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness on the development of SF and horror throughout the rest and the 20th century and beyond – or, to put it another way, this is a story which people have ripped off a lot. It occurs to me now that, retentively comprehensive as I tried to be, I still managed to miss an instance of insidious-alien-threat-discovered-buried-in-the-arctic-ice, namely Regeneration, a 2003 episode of Star Trek: Enterprise (yeah, I know the show was just called Enterprise at the time, but come on).

I’ve been watching more Trek than usual recently, but I found I’ve been sticking mainly to Next Gen and DS9. The perception certainly is that Voyager and Enterprise mark the point at which the franchise started to run out of ideas and disappeared into a creatively unrewarding fannish grotto. I’m pretty sure I haven’t watched an episode of Voyager in nearly 15 years; I hadn’t watched any Enterprise in over ten, until I decided to give Regeneration another look.

The story starts promisingly enough, with a science team at the North Pole uncovering wreckage of a mysterious alien ship. One of the things about this story is that the discerning viewer is way ahead of all the characters pretty much throughout, but there is still a bit of a frisson when the scientists discover a Borg drone frozen in the ice. (These are the Borg who travelled back in time from the 24th century to the 21st in the movie First Contact, and who’ve been frozen for a hundred years at this point. Does this seem impenetrably convoluted in terms of back-story? If you think so, then I can’t honestly bring myself to argue with you.)


Well, upon being dug up and defrosted, the Borg initially do what comes naturally to them and assimilate the science team, but then, in a somewhat surprising but plot-enabling move, steal the research team’s starship (a research team at the North Pole have their own starship? Really…?) and flee the solar system. As luck and narrative demands would have it, their course takes them into the Enterprise‘s area, and Captain Archer and his plucky crew are ordered to intercept…

Now, am I going to restrict myself just to talking about this episode or use it to try and figure out if Enterprise as a whole is any good or not? Hmmm. I have to say that my impression is that this is a well-regarded example of a superior Enterprise episode, which – if true – leads me to confidently say that as far as the best TV versions of Trek go, Enterprise is somewhere in the top six.

It all starts very promisingly with a nicely ominous sense of foreboding as the innocent scientists completely underestimate the potential Borg threat, and some long scenes of them examining the mysterious cyborgs and trying to work out just what the hell they are (not a bad way of making the Borg seem fresh again, I suppose). But the problem is that this distorts the story rather, with Archer and the gang not even making an appearance until after the first commercial break and a rather frantic pace afterwards. The plot is almost entirely procedural from this point on. There is, I suppose, the glimmering of a character arc where Archer’s initial desire to rescue the assimilated scientists is replaced by the realisation that the only good Borg is a prejudicially-terminated one, and another one where jolly Dr Phlox gets partially assimilated and has a bit of a gaze into the abyss, but neither of these is what you’d call developed or honestly resolves itself in a properly developed fashion.

And it’s hard not to shake the idea that this story was essentially hobbled from its conception by the requirement not to muck up the established continuity too much. This is primarily achieved in classic Enterprise style by the cunning ploy of the Borg not telling anyone what their name is (what, does this even apply to Phlox, who was briefly a member of the Borg collective consciousness?). But the need to keep the Borg mysterious and unknown limits the ability of the characters to interact with them in a meaningful way.

You could also argue that Regeneration also has the big problem of nearly every other Borg story from the 1990s onward, which is what you do with the Borg in the first place. Their reputation near the top of the pile as Trek antagonists rests on their first couple of appearances, in which they are pretty much the definition of an unstoppable menace. Part of the reason why the Borg are scary, particularly on their debut, is that the regular characters are themselves scared of them. Picard is clearly desperate at the end of the episode, openly admitting to being frightened, and his fear is partly because he has come to understand the nature of the Borg. Archer, on the other hand, never really seems that fussed about what the Borg exactly are and his attitude to them is more a sort of non-descript stoicism.

I suppose treating the Borg as the explicitly terrifying juggernaut of extinction that they started off as was never an option in a story set in the 22nd century and thus required to keep the characters in the dark is to their nature. Again, this kind of defies logic and common sense, as, given the ease with which Borg cubes have been depicted destroying large swathes of Starfleet, one would expect even a small infestation to go through a significantly less-advanced planet like a particularly salty dose of salts, and having the Borg simply run away into deep space rather than attempting to assimilate Earth is a bit out of character for them. But the needs of the story outweigh the needs of consistent characterisation (and isn’t that the definition of melodrama?).

So it’s hard not to be forced to the conclusion that this episode is mainly a result of the dog-whistle appeal of the Borg when it comes to the fanbase, which makes it rather unfortunate that these are the same fans most inclined to be nitpicky about Trek continuity. Shall we do this here…? Oh, I suppose not, suffice to say that there are, to put it mildly, differing indications as to when the Borg and the Federation and/or humanity first became aware each other, and when the Borg first started operating near Federation space, and Regeneration’s worst crime in this department is only to add to the muddle by pushing the date of their first encounter back in time by about 140 years.

Doing something with the Borg in Enterprise was probably a fairly obvious idea, but obvious ideas are not always necessarily good ones. Possibly if the story had been differently structured, with the Enterprise central to the story throughout and some of the Thing references trimmed, it might have meant there was more of an engaging story and that character arc for Archer might actually have worked. But I’m not entirely sure – the most engaging part of the story-as-broadcast is Phlox’s plight as the Borg slowly assimilate him, and yet even this is resolved in the most perfunctory manner, as he comes up with a cure with the greatest of ease. The story neither grips nor rewards, it just sort of trundles past. I must confess this is the first time I’ve watched an episode of Enterprise with my critical subroutines engaged since the pilot, but I have to say I still remember it being better than this. I’m just not sure I’m willing to make the time investment involved in finding out for sure.

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Precisely how difficult is it to finish off a Time Lord? The question inhabits waters which, while never especially pristine, have recently become positively turbid. The Doctor may have achieved that degree of immortality which is the special preserve of legendary fictional characters, but how much of this is down to script immunity and how much the result of his own alien biology?

Well, the obvious and sensible answer is that a Time Lord is as death-prone as the script requires – another name for the script immunity effect I just referred to. The regenerative process which provides a convenient out when actors get uppity at contract renewal time is a device, first and foremost, rather than something which actually makes sense as a science-fictional idea, and this provides a good deal of wriggle room when it comes to deciding whether a character lives or dies – not that scripts in the past haven’t strained credulity on the score or a few occasions.

Recent rumours of the Doctor’s death have proven to be not just exaggerated but actually entirely spurious, and so our sample cases of Time Lords buying the farm mostly(!) focus on other characters. Here we run up against a problem of terminology – what, if anything, is the difference between a Time Lord and a Gallifreyan, and does this affect whether they possess the regenerative ability? According to a well-informed Eocene’s recent testimony, Time Lord status is a result of exposure to the Time Vortex, either long-term or at the moment of conception, and the ability to regenerate is one of the chief indicators of whether a person really is a Time Lord or not. Unfortunately this doesn’t help us with the question of whether all Gallifreyans are Time Lords and thus able to regenerate, and further concrete evidence either way on this subject is unlikely to be forthcoming. We shall have to draw inferences and be cautious.

This whole issue really boils down to the question of when exactly it’s possible for a Time Lord to dodge death by regenerating. On TV, the rules are fairly straightforward for quite a long time, although perhaps not in the way you might think. Prior to Planet of the Spiders, there’s no assumption that regenerating constitutes a ‘Get out of Death’ free card. (The term regeneration isn’t even used until this point, so perhaps I should rephrase that as ‘changing appearance’, which is how it’s described on screen.) The rules for Time Lords are quite different before this point – almost as soon as the race is named (in 1969’s The War Games), we see one definite example (and a few other possible candidates) gunned down using what appear to be common-or-garden ray guns, with no suggestion that regeneration is even a possibility (not until a spin-off novel twenty years later, anyway).

On the other hand, there’s no limitation on potential lifespan either, at this point – unless they meet with an accident, the Doctor states, Time Lords can potentially live forever. So they seem to be not much more difficult to kill than a human being, but stand to lose a lot more (quantitatively) should they meet with an unfortunate accident. There’s a bit in the novelisation of Terror of the Autons where the Master, held at gunpoint by the Brigadier, sourly contemplates the fatal injuries revolver bullets could inflict even on his superior Time Lord physiognomy and, not unreasonably, decides to play ball with UNIT.

(This scene and others like it could potentially struggle with an issue familiar to anyone who’s tried to run a Doctor Who RPG – Time Lord characters who take a very laissez-faire attitude to being ‘killed’, simply because of the regenerative safety net. The limit in the number of regenerations (whatever that might be) is one solution, but there’s also the insider’s view of the process as related by the Doctor in The End of Time to consider – the existing personality really does effectively die, and it’s essentially someone new with the same memories who gets up and walks away. Various philosophical questions occur as to the extent to which a Time Lord remains the same person throughout the course of his life, but let’s not drift too far off the point.)

Following Planet of the Spiders, we’re into a bit of netherworld where regeneration appears to offer salvation in the case of a fatal injury occurring. Time Lords genuinely do seem to be presented as potentially immortal at this point, reading between the lines – barring events like disintegration, anyway, which was the punishment Morbius sort-of dodged after his trial. The same story firms up the link between regeneration and Time Lord longevity by suggesting the fabled Elixir of Life functions as an aid in the event of regenerative trouble.

The Deadly Assassin sets out the rules for most of the rest of the series, seeming to confirm the death-cheating function of regeneration but limiting it to a total of twelve times per Time Lord. We take this for granted these days, but, like so much else about this story, it was freely rewriting history at the time.

The story is also notable for including on-screen Time Lord deaths in relatively large numbers, and in one case Robert Holmes does make an effort to explain why they do actually die (rather than regenerating). The President is shot with a weapon deliberately designed to devastate tissue to the point where regeneration is impossible – i.e. Time Lords produce anti-Time Lord guns, a facility which seems to have eluded other more technically inventive races like the Daleks. To my mind this suggests that all strata of Gallifreyan society possess the regenerative power – it would be odd if the overlords of the planet equipped their soldiers with weapons to which they had a special vulnerability – or the way things were organised on Gallifrey may just have been even more peculiar than we suspect.

So, shooting him with a specially-made Gallifreyan staser weapon is a sure-fire way of dropping a Time Lord stone dead. This makes a certain kind of sense. However in the same story we also see the demise of Chancellor Goth (brain burned out), various guards and technicians (tissues compressed), and Runcible the Fatuous. Goth’s death we can explain as the result of neural damage (the process seems to require the subject to consciously initiate it, or at least permit it to continue, and Goth’s brain damage may have interfered), the walk-ons by the fact that the Master is just the sort of cad to design a regeneration-proof weapon in the shape of the Tissue Compression Eliminator, and Runcible… well, that one’s awkward, as he just gets stabbed in the back. Even if the unwashed of Gallifrey can’t regenerate, Runcible was at school with the Doctor so he certainly appears to be a Time Lord himself – what’s going on here? Well, this looks like a severe case of script vulnerability (the story demands he get killed) which we will have to explain away by saying… well, we recently learned of the existence of regeneration-inhibiting poisons so we’ll just have to say the Master laid in a supply of them to coat daggers with and so forth.

'Please tell me you've got a very severe allergy to knives.'

 Things continue in a very similar vein for quite a long time – though ‘continue’ is probably not the right word considering how infrequently the issue of dying Time Lords becomes a problem. The key point seems to me to be that there’s an increased confusion between the idea of using a regeneration to cheat death, and using it to come back from the dead altogether – basically, can you regenerate if you’re already dead? Or, to put it another way, if you hit a Time Lord quickly enough and hard enough, can you finish him off before the regeneration process kicks in and brings him back?

 Some people seem to assume the ‘back from the dead’ version of regeneration is the one that’s in force – ‘the Doctor doesn’t die, he regenerates,’ was one of my friends’ reaction to the recent Doctor-apparently-dies storyline – in other words, short of vaporisation or disintegration, it’s literally impossible to kill him outright while he still has regenerations left. This version certainly seemed to be accepted throughout the wilderness years, as one of Big Finish’s more ingeniously downbeat out-of-continuity offerings actually concludes with a vengeful ex-companion standing over the body of a gone-bad Doctor, patiently putting a bullet into each new incarnation in turn. And the makers of the TV movie appear to have bought into it too- the Doctor does a very good impression of actually dying on the operating table and doesn’t regenerate until some time later, after he’s actually been shipped down to the morgue (exasperating dialogue about ‘holding back death’ only reinforces the impression). You would think the very presence of the idea in the TV movie would be enough to put people off it, but…

Narratively and logically the ‘cheating death’ version of regeneration makes more sense and it’s this version that seems to have come back into favour up until quite recently – the alternative Doctor in Turn Left died simply because he didn’t have a chance to regenerate, according to UNIT personnel on the scene (we assume it’s still the tenth Doctor under the blanket), and the crisis at the climax of Forest of the Dead, could, we are told, have killed the Doctor outright too. Regeneration has also been, at least partly, a conscious rather than an autonomic process – just as Azmael in The Twin Dilemma triggers a regeneration his body is no longer capable of and dies as a result, so the Master commits suicide by refusing to regenerate after he’s been shot. So you can kill a Time Lord by shooting him with bullets, as long as he actually wants to die.

And yet, that same Doctor-apparently-dies storyline seems to revert to the ‘back from the dead’ version of regeneration – rather than having the Doctor quickly and cleanly killed outright, the story takes pains to show that the Doctor only ‘dies’ because he is killed while in the middle of an ongoing regeneration. Given the hold that the ‘back from the dead’ version seems to have taken on the viewer-consciousness I suppose this is understandable – also, having to explain the exact mechanics of regeneration in detail would quite possibly have spoilt the mood they were going for in those scenes by the lakeside. 

Nevertheless the pains The Impossible Astronaut takes to show how the regenerative process can be sidestepped suggests to me that the ‘back from the dead’ version may be about to reassert itself as the generally accepted one. Continuity-based concerns aside, this shouldn’t really be a big deal – the problem of how to kill a Time Lord seems likely to remain a singular one, and insoluble by its very nature (at least until the Master makes his next return). But it’s probably a good idea to keep in mind that things were not always as they are now, and in future they may be different again. Change, after all, is part of the process.

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