We’ve looked at ghosts, but in Doctor Who, there are other forms of life beyond death…
As the great unknown, no wonder the afterlife and delaying death is a considerable force in horror. Ghosts, vampires, and zombies may look like us but they’ve crossed beyond the veil and returned to remind the living of our ultimate fates.
As we focus on reanimation and delaying death, it seems we never quite return with as positive an outlook as before.
Things are getting darker in the Whoniverse… but it’s Hallowe’en! What else do you expect?!
The Science of Zombies?
The most recognised form of reanimation in culture, feasibly due to The Walking Dead‘s recent popularity, is zombies. Even though reanimation is a common theme in one form or another, zombies themselves are very rare in Doctor Who. Zombies aren’t actually zombies: they’re human beings taken over by an alien presence. The Gelth in The Unquiet Dead (2005) are good examples of this, as are the Flood in The Waters of Mars (2009), the astronauts in The Ambassadors of Death (1970), and Marcus Scarman, a slave to Sutekh in 1975’s Pyramids of Mars.
Further explanations include complications with time – Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS (2013) – antimatter – Planet of Evil (1975) – and psychic energy (1978’s The Pirate Planet). Though not walking and talking, 2014’s Time Heist showcased a rather disturbing case of life after death, with victims’ skulls partly caved in. Let’s just say, the science is sketchy on that one.
It’s unclear whether reanimation actually is possible – but revival after clinical death is. The term is frequently used when discussing the ethics of medicine since there are instances where those clinically dead (ie. ceasing breathing with blood circulation cessation as a result of cardiac arrest, a declining non-regular heartbeat) were brought back. A cell reaches irreversible decline when its outer membrane is breached and its contents leak out, but timings vary throughout the body. Within 5- 10 minutes of cardiac arrest, nutrient- and oxygen-sensitive brain cells begin to rupture, according to the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Resuscitation Science.
Successful resuscitation is more likely when internal body temperature is lowered. (This is quite different from the Fourth Doctor’s assertion that a zombie can be identified by its cold skin in 1979’s Destiny of the Daleks!) This is partly the notion behind suspended animation: it’s not just that cells are frozen before they can deteriorate further but also the lowered risk of reperfusion injury, effectively the self-destruction of cells when they are suddenly reintroduced to nutrients, which is currently unexplained.
Until techniques like CPR and defibrillation, clinical death was just that – death – mainly due to ischemia, the lack of blood circulating oxygen needed to keep tissues alive and well.
That’s reanimation of the body… but what about our minds?
Man and Monster
Electricity has often been linked to reanimation, with scientists experimenting on corpses throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, spurred on by reflexive movements to stimulus. Giovanni Aldini, in particular, seemed to have inspired Frankenstein (which we’ll come to in a minute); an Italian physicist, Aldini publically demonstrated galvanic experiments on the corpse of the hanged criminal, George Forster. A witness described how “an hour and a quarter after death, the arm of one of the bodies was elevated eight inches from the table on which it was supported, and this even when a considerable weight was placed in the hand.”
If the fact Forster was a murderer weren’t creepy enough, seemingly suspending death certainly freaked the crowd out, with a further account stating:
“On the first application of the process to the face, the jaws of the deceased criminal began to quiver, and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process, the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion. Mr Pass, the beadle of the Surgeons’ Company, who was officially present during this experiment, was so alarmed that he died of fright soon after his return home.”
Similarly, controversial (and horrifying) psychiatrist Professor Alfred Hoche shocked crowds by running an electrical current down the spinal cord of a freshly-deceased criminal, which proceeded to spasm for around 10 minutes.
In The Brain of Morbius (1976), the brain of a renegade Time Lord survived execution and so, too, his consciousness. The story boldly holds Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as its core inspiration, but that is only matters of the body, not those of the mind. Morbius’ makeshift body is pieced together from the parts of the dead (apart from Condo’s arm), just as Frankenstein’s monster, but his consciousness remained from his previous form. Once the operation is finished, Solon mentions disconnecting the external power supply, so unlike Frankenstein, some sort of energy kept the body and brain alive but it was Morbius’ own will that stimulates the new patchwork corpse.
New Earth (2006) takes this one step further, with Lady Cassandra’s brain a vessel for her consciousness until the psychograft transfers her mind into that of Rose Tyler’s. When Chip laments that “the brain meat expired,” Cassandra declares she’s “safe and sound.” This is Doctor Who leaning very much on the latter part of the term ‘science fiction.’
Though largely unexplored, the Time Lord’s Matrix Databank may hold the potential to keep minds alive beyond the death of the body, or at least individuals’ experiences. As the Doctor says in The Five Doctors (1983), “a man is the sum of his memories – a Time Lord even more so.”
Speaking of the Dead
Life after death was always a surprisingly strong influence over Doctor Who¸ but it’s found new and very interesting ways of delaying any future fates in the scripts of current showrunner, Steven Moffat. He’s been unfairly criticised for lessening death – that the dead don’t stay that way – but the body count in his stories is still high.
Famously, however, in his first script for the show, everybody lived. In The Empty Child/ The Doctor Dances (2005), a small boy died in the Blitz, only to be brought back from the dead by nanogenes. Though he seemingly kills many others, they’re all brought back by the Doctor. There are several characters who find a way of somehow cheating death in his scripts: Clara in 2012’s Asylum of the Daleks, The Snowmen, and temporarily in Hell Bent (2015); Jenny in The Name of the Doctor (2013); Strax, who initially passes away at the age of 11-and-a-bit in A Good Man Goes To War (2011); Reg Arwell in The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe (2011) – heck, even the Doctor, who ‘died’ at Lake Silencio and Trenzalore.
He gives River Song and those in the Library further existence, thanks to CAL; this serial also exhibits a much grimmer theme in Moffat’s stories regarding the afterlife. How can we be used once dead?
In Silence in the Library/ Forest of the Dead (2008), the Vashta Nerada utilises the bodies of those they kill, and, due to neural relays in communicators, their voices. The Weeping Angels do similar in 2010’s The Time of Angels/ Flesh and Stone when communicating through Scared Bob. (The quantum-locked killers normally displace their victims in time, letting them “live to death” and feeding on potential energy, so that, too, is a form of afterlife.) Once dead, humans become slaves to their killers – quite literally in Asylum of the Daleks! Though not actually conscious, our bodies are utilised in a very different way in The Girl in the Fireplace (2006) and Deep Breath (2014).
It all sounds very dark (that’s death for you!), but Moffat also offers another way to live beyond death: legacy. Just look at Madame de Pompadour who has a spaceship in the 51st Century named after her. She’s not the only one to have incredible legacies…
The Doctor vs Daleks vs Cybermen
The Doctor’s two most infamous enemies are both striving to cheat death: the Daleks and Cybermen at least partly wanted to achieve immortality – and in their reputations, they may have succeeded.
In 1966’s The Tenth Planet, the Cybermen were introduced as converted humans striving to outlive their failing bodies and their ailing planet, Mondas. The prevalent idea behind all their plans is that they genuinely think they’re doing right. (In 2005’s The Long Game, technology is also utilised by the Editor in order to keep Satellite Five running, their bodies carrying on after death but their consciousness likely not… depending on how you view Suki lashing out.) The Daleks, too, rely on technology to extend their lifespans, although their aim isn’t to ‘save’ the universe but cleanse it.
Revelation of the Daleks (1985) revealed just how grim the process of turning into a Dalek is (and the Big Finish audio series, Davros, further explored their gruesome origins). The Cybermen, meanwhile, have to sacrifice their emotions in order to seemingly live forever.
They’re just two of many races to realise the negative effects of delaying death or reanimation. In 2007’s The Lazarus Experiment, the titular professor asserted that avoiding death is what it means to be human: “It’s our strongest impulse; to cling to life with every fibre of our being. I’m only doing what everyone before me has tried to do.” But he also turned into an energy-guzzling monster, so you can’t have it all.
Mindwarp (1986) takes a disturbing look at reanimation, as does Midnight (2008), Arc of Infinity (1983), and 2014 ‘s Mummy on the Orient Express and Flatline. Mawdryn Undead (1983) has a similar approach and furthermore shone the spotlight on the final victor when it comes to reanimation. He’s got quite the legacy and an impressive array of faces.
It is, of course, the Doctor.
“If I’m killed before regeneration, then I’m dead. Even then, even if I change, it feels like dying,” the Tenth Doctor says in The End of Time (2009). “Everything I am dies. Some new man goes sauntering away, and I’m dead.” Yes, that’s a pretty depressing way of seeing our favourite alien. He’s a Time Lord – of course he’s not going to be late! (No? Please yourselves.)
Regeneration is, then, an ultimate form of reanimation.
Again, it leaves the Doctor with some hang-ups. Everyone he cares about leaves (for example, Resurrection of the Daleks) or dies (The Angels Take Manhattan); he’s seen some atrocities (The Beast Below) and had to make terrible decisions (The Day of the Doctor); and it leaves him with fears, doubts, and nightmares (Listen).
Whether the Doctor likes it or not, it may look like the end, but the moment has been prepared for.
(Adapted from an article originally published on Kasterborous in October 2014.)