Posts Tagged ‘The Deadly Assassin’

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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