Sunday, June 23, 2024

Answers To Readers Questions

Achille Talon said...

I tend to feel the Doctor (and Romana) can shrug off execution threats because they are, after all, Time Lords. What's a body? Romana could even probably reconstitute herself as Lalla Ward again, if she didn't fancy a surprise change; she turns out of Ward and back again in the Destiny scenes. When the Doctor treats deadly threats seriously, it's because he has a more fragile human companion by his side, and is more broadly concerned with threats running amok and killing ordinary people.

(Face the Raven: "Why? Why shouldn't I be so reckless? You're reckless! All the bloody time! Why can't I be like you?" "Clara, there's nothing special about me, I am nothing, but I'm less breakable than you. I should have taken care of you.")

Possibly there's a line to be drawn between the decision of pairing the Doctor up with a fellow immortal, rather than a human, and his increasing insulation from natural human reactions to deadly peril.

This is a very interesting point. 

There can certainly be stories about immortal or indestructible heroes. The trick is to create jeopardy even though the hero's own life can't be in danger, and perhaps to show him surviving ever more extreme perils: e.g Captain Scarlet goes into the centre of an nuclear explosion in order to retrieve a weapon to save Earth from the Mysterons. Or else you treat it as a puzzle and try to find out ways of killing the unkillable man. What if you cut Captain Scarlet up into little tiny pieces, and put each piece in a space rocket and send them to different corners of the galaxy? Can Superman survive indefinitely without food or oxygen, and if so, why does he eat and breath in the first place? But one never feels that Doctor Who is "playing" with regeneration and immortality in that way.

In classic Who, the definition of "regeneration" was always fuzzy. The term was only coined in Planet of the Spiders. I don't think that in 1978 we had reached the point where "Death means nothing to a Time Lord because they can live indefinitely" was established lore. The argument was made semi-officially that Hartnell > Troughton was a "rejuvenation" and Troughton > Pertwee was "a change of appearance". The Romana regeneration, which we will come to shortly, suggest that either Graham Williams didn't remember Planet of the Spiders, or else that he didn't care. And Logopolis introduces The Watcher without explanation and treats regeneration as slightly new and surprising thing. "Ho hum I'll probably regenerate" doesn't come in until Caves of Androzani.

What does regeneration mean for a Time Lord? For Romana, it is just like changing a dress; for the First Doctor, it's like coming out of a chrysalis; for the Second, like being forced to adopt an unattractive disguise. New Who seems to treat it like reincarnation: the present form is really dying; but some essential element is carried over into the new form. Krishna told Arjun that death in battle is nothing to be feared because he will go on to a new life; Arjun replies that since he will be leaving his friends and loved ones, death is still death even if you subsequently get another try at life. The point being, I think, that the problem is not mortality but attachment. 

When the Doctor and Romana think that the TARDIS is going to be destroyed in Pirate Planet, they say that its been an honour to have known each other. When the Doctor goes to sabotage the nuke in Power of Kroll, he says goodbye to Romana in case he doesn't come back. When going to confront the giant squid he says that he has had a good life and can't complain if he dies. ("That's him saying that the Fourth Doctor has had a good life; bidding farewell to this incarnation." No: he specifically says that 760 is a great age, and that's clearly not the number of years he's been Tom Baker for.) 

I think that each individual Who story is constructed on the basis that the Doctor is putting his life on the line and that he could die; and that he would face death in the way that any brave (and spiritually serene) mortal would. I think regeneration is treated as a special case; and that there is a pact with the audience that it only happens when an actor wants to leave. 

Indeed, we could argue that the literary device which allows multiple actors to play the part of the Doctor deconstructs the narrative in which the Doctor is admirable because he risks his life for the greater good. It could, in fact, be that the introduction of the Twelve Regeneration limit in Deadly Assassin was Holmes' attempt to repair this crack. The fans who continued to argue right up to 2017 that the Twelve Regeneration was involatile and unchangeable might have been unconsciously recognising this point: if Capaldi isn't the last and final Doctor then the Doctor can't die and the series can't ever be exciting again. Many kids go through a stage of thinking that first person narratives aren't exciting, because they know that the hero must survive to tell the story. Which is a good point, in a way, but kind of misses the point of stories.

All that said "The Doctor laughs in the face of death because he knows he will Regenerate" is a perfectly good Watsonian description of what happens; and is a good work-around if "The Doctor is a meta-textual device who can break the fourth wall" is uncongenial.

1 comment:

Achille Talon said...

Ohumm! A whole blog-post for an answer, now that is a nice surprise. And a fair-enough answer it is too. I don't think I agree that regeneration need remain something that only "exists" when we know it's going to happen for behind-the-scenes reason — certainly NuWho doesn't play it thus, it keeps coming up far from era finales. But the point that "regeneration saves you from death" was a shaky notion at best as of 1978.

I would argue that there is a way to play immortal or nigh-omnipotent heroes beyond the ones you propose, though, which is to bind them up in a deeply-held code of conduct which forbids them to call upon said powers unless absolutely necessary (by which we mean, narratively satisfying). Jon Pertwee can transmigrate small objects, but only for a party trick.

See also: Gandalf is pretty sure he'll be given a shiny new body if he goes down fighting in the course of his duties, but he still isn't going to impose on Heaven's good graces by constantly enacting suicidal plans. It wouldn't be the *right* thing to do. Perhaps because it would be boring and he knows, to some extent, that he's in a story? So, by the same reasoning, my model is this: the Doctor can survive just about anything, but, for deep, inscrutable reasons, lives his life — or lives — as though he couldn't.

Of course, Tom Baker isn't really written like this, but Sylvester McCoy essentially is, and it's at the very least not an unreasonable lens to cast back on Troughton, the ever-mysterious little man, who in his final story pulls out the comparable trump card of "well, if matters get *really* thorny I could always send a psychic SOS to my omnipotent native civilisation, and they'll sort out the whole ghastly business for me".

(…Oh, by the way, that first "Lalla Ward" in my original message should clearly be a "Mary Tamm", I got muddled with the Destiny precedent I was invoking. Sorry about any momentary confusion thus induced!)