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The Master: I am now nearing the end of my twelfth regeneration.
The Doctor: Then that is the end for a Time Lord.
The Master: But not for the Keeper of Traken.

(‘The Keeper of Traken’, Episode Four by Johnny Byrne)

Cast your mind back into one of its deepest, darkest corners and try and recall a scene from ‘Doctor Who’ which gave you a distinctly uncomfortable feeling – that fictional taste of terror which set your teeth on edge and left you a clammy, shaken wreck quivering behind the sofa. In all likelihood you have just dredged up a moment which does not involve some poor unfortunate person getting blasted by a ray gun, thrown into space or tumbling into a bottomless pit. Rather, it is more likely that the moment which has sprung to mind involves someone becoming something – arguably the definitive example of body horror.

In this unashamed sequel to ‘Doctor Who and the Taste of Terror’ (see the focus is a well known aspect of that terrible taste, which is a common ingredient of so many ‘Doctor Who’ adventures: body snatching. Whether it be invading and inhabiting the body of another being; or literally stealing a body with a view to who knows what awful purpose, this macabre business has cropped up in all manner of guises – or should that be bodies? – across scores of stories. It is driven by a variety of sinister motives and seldom fails to hit the viewer’s fear trigger square on. One of the most recent examples includes a lethal gaze and the use of an eerily faceless wielder’s helmet.

Chris Chibnall’s Tenth Doctor adventure ‘42’ is an inspired piece of story telling which uses real time to determine the pace of its unfolding events. In the course of the tale the characters Korwin, Ashton and later the Doctor himself are infected by elements of an unknown being that exists in the form of a nearby sun. The effects of this infection are dramatic and include an extraordinary rise in body temperature and the eventual loss of the individual’s will. It also has the striking knock-on effect of giving the victim the ability to project a high energy beam through his eyes, powerful enough to vaporise any person who becomes caught in it. This type of possession appears to be transmittable through skin contact, as in the example of Korwin’s infecting of Ashton; or by physical proximity to the nearby sun, as in the case of the Doctor. There is also evidence to suggest that infected individuals are mentally linked and may, as a consequence, experience each other’s pain (see Ashton’s reaction when Korwin is blasted by a set of ice vents). Still further, the visual emphasis placed upon the possessed character’s eyes, which betray his infected state, brilliantly highlights the dreadful alien substance lurking within the human frame. This point is further developed when Korwin and Ashton each don a wielder’s helmet to mask their blazing features.

Transformed biology, a perished will and a dangerous power are all part and parcel of the classic body snatching scenario, making ‘42’ a worthy addition to the ranks. A grimmer and certainly more visually disturbing variety involves distorting the victim’s appearance with all manner of unsightly growths and blemishes, the sight of which is as likely to kill the viewer’s appetite as it is to send him or her in search of the nearest sofa. Probably one of the finest instances of this brand of body snatching heralds from the Gothic horror years of producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes. The tale in question is ‘The Seeds of Doom’, written by Robert Banks Stewart.

A brace of mysterious alien seed pods spells trouble for the Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith as they do battle against a form of extraterrestrial plant life which is being aided and abetted by the millionaire botanist, Harrison Chase. The alien, known as a Krynoid, grows by infecting animal life and converting it into vegetable matter. Two men, Winlett and Keeler, are stung by a Krynoid seed pod. This sting infects their bodies with an virulent alien material, the early effects of which include the appearance of hives: a rash-like pattern which quickly spreads across the body. This comparatively mild symptom is followed by all manner of unpleasant, vegetable-like protuberances which deface and distort the victim’s body until it is subsumed in a mass of plant tissue.

As with the first example the victims lose their personal identity as well as their bodily integrity, revealing that the transformation is more than just skin deep. It is, perhaps, this aspect of body snatching which is its most disturbing feature. Korwin and Ashton, Winlett and Keeler are each in turn robbed of their personality and will power by a process which utterly destroys their conscious being.

In a similar vein to the Krynoid threat, Robert Holmes’ ‘The Ark in Space’ substitutes vegetable body snatchers with those of the insect kind, in the shape of a parasitic life form known as the Wirrn. During her life cycle a queen Wirrn lays her eggs in the helpless body of her victim, whereupon the Wirrn larva awakes to devour its host, mental content and all. In Holmes’ decidedly creepy adventure a Wirrn queen breaks into Space Station Nerva – the cryonic refuge of Earth’s human population – and deposits her eggs in the frozen body of Technician Dune. Dune is consumed, and soon there is a Wirrn larva on the loose. Nerva’s leader, Noah, makes accidental skin contact with the larva and is steadily and terribly transformed into an adult Wirrn. The metamorphosis takes some hours and involves the eventual takeover of Noah’s mind and body. More, in this ever-worsening state Noah claims that he has no memory of the Earth and that he has access to Dune’s knowledge, revealing that the Wirrn possess some form of hive mind. In his final act, however, Noah leads the Wirrn swarm into a trap and thus demonstrates that his physical transformation has not yet been mirrored by his mental state. Of course, whether this trace of Noah’s human personality would have remained intact beyond this point is open to question.

The Sixth Doctor adventure ‘Mindwarp’ by Philip Martin shows that body snatching is not exclusive to unearthly powers or virulent plant life; sometimes all it needs is an unscrupulous surgeon. On Thoros Beta, home world of the fiscally-obsessed Mentors (from whose slippery ranks comes the villainous Sil), the scientist Crozier is working to perfect a procedure whereby a living brain can be safely transferred from one body to another; in short, a whole body transplant. Later in the story Crozier is able to upgrade the process so that only the mental part of the brain is transferred. Crozier’s first operation sees the brain of the Mentor leader, Lord Kiv, placed into the body of another Mentor. This is, however, only a temporary measure, and the next step witnesses Kiv’s mind housed in the brain of the Doctor’s companion, Peri. During this operation the mind of the donor body, in this case that of Peri, is erased. The initial result of the operation suggests a perfect mental transfer – perfect, that is, in so far as Kiv and Crozier are concerned. In this particular instance there is no steady infection of the host body; nor is there any discernable struggle between the victim and the invader. Instead, the victim is anaesthetised into oblivion and their body awakes to find itself guided by a new pilot. The actual success of this method is impossible to tell, however, since Peri’s death is later revealed to be a sham, arranged by the dastardly Valeyard.

The infamous Daleks are not averse to snatching bodies for their own desperate measures. In the aftermath of the Time War the Dalek Emperor harvests sections of the Earth’s human population for the purpose of breeding a new army of Daleks (see Russell T. Davies’ ‘The Parting of the Ways’); and in Terry Nation’s ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’ more resourceful human beings are chosen to be “robotised”, thus reducing them to mindless automata. Helen Raynor’s two-part adventure ‘Daleks in Manhattan’ and ‘Evolution of the Daleks’ sees the Cult of Skaro stealing human bodies in order to find a way of perpetuating their moribund race. In this instance it is the creation of the Dalek-human hybrid which is, arguably, the most visually shocking example of their work. In another Dalek-related example Eric Saward’s chilling ‘Revelation of the Daleks’ witnesses the Dalek creator, Davros, defrosting cryonically preserved people on the planet Necros, so as to transform the remains of a select few into a new, Davros-friendly strain of Dalek. In the course of this dark tale it is the tragic figure of Arthur Stengos who is shown, in highly dramatic fashion, to have undergone part of this procedure. Crucially, in spite of his growing “Dalek-ness”, Stengos is able to assert his own will long enough to command his daughter to destroy him. This point would seem to indicate that Davros’ method of body snatching requires time to complete; and that some individuals succumb to it less easily than others.

If the Daleks’ body snatching antics are grotesque, they are more than equalled by a race whose survival is dependent upon capturing and converting people into something terrifying: Cybermen. John Lumic’s creations may tend to rely upon isolating the brain and placing it into a cybernetic frame, but the Cybermen from the Doctor’s home universe are quite content to replace one body part at time, as evidenced by stories such as season twenty-two’s ‘Attack of the Cybermen’ and the Second Doctor classic ‘The Tomb of the Cybermen’. It is in the latter story by Gerry Davis and Kit Pedler that the viewer first sees the results of the Cyber-conversion process through the character of Toberman, who is taken prisoner by the newly awakened Cybermen and who is later seen to have been given cybernetic arms. However, the mental aspect of this process is not complete and Toberman is ultimately able to wrest back control of his mind and turn against his former masters in a furious rage.

In Mark Gatiss’ ‘The Unquiet Dead’ a more traditional case rears its ugly head in the sepulchral surroundings of a Victorian funeral parlour in Cardiff. The proprietor Gabriel Sneed has his premises in a house built upon a dimensional rift, and through this rift arrive the Gelth: a gaseous life form desperate to return to a solid body existence. The Gelth proceed to enter Sneed’s resident corpses and to animate them, thus acquiring a solid body “vehicle”. This act of possession changes the skin colour of the corpse, presenting an even more ghastly prospect. More, there is no hint of the process involving a mental takeover since the victim’s corpse does not register mental activity. This point may be disputed, however, by dint of the fact that the first action of Mrs. Peace’s corpse, after it is snatched by a Gelth, is to march straight into a local Cardiff music hall to see Charles Dickens’ reading of A Christmas Carol; it is later revealed that seeing the great scribe’s festive presentation was Mrs. Peace’s final living desire. This incident would seem to point to there being some degree of mental agency – or perhaps memory – remaining in the said cadaver, albeit briefly, which cannot be immediately overridden by the controlling Gelth. It is worth noting that this body snatching method does not require re-shaping the stolen body and, without a conscious occupant to offer resistance, the Gelth’s sole concern is with the business of driving the body.

In season eighteen’s ‘Meglos’, by John Flanagan and Andrew McCulloch, re-shaping a stolen body and tackling its resisting occupant are precisely the challenges facing Meglos, the sole surviving Zolfa-Thuran. Meglos’ cactus-like life form does not lend itself to a mobile lifestyle, and so to remedy this matter Meglos inhabits a humanoid host in the form a human being kidnapped from Earth. Meglos’ body snatching process requires laboratory equipment which includes two cubicles: one containing Meglos and the other containing the hapless Earthling. What is seen of this procedure suggests that part of Meglos’ body, as well as his mind, enters his victim’s frame. As well as inhabiting and controlling the stolen body Meglos is able to completely alter its appearance so as to create a perfect semblance of another body, in this case the Doctor’s fourth incarnation. This process does not immediately destroy the consciousness of the host body; instead the victim’s mind is subdued under the weight of Meglos’ apparent control. There are moments, however, when the Earthling attempts to re-assert his will against that of Meglos; at those times Meglos’ cactus-like appearance re-surfaces until he gains control once more. During the climax of the story the Earthling is finally able to break free of Meglos, driving the Zolfa-Thuran back to his original body. There do not seem to be any obvious side effects to this form of possession, and the Doctor is able to return the Earthling to his own place and time seemingly unscathed.

In a case which foreshadows some aspects of the Gelth’s body snatching plans the Second Doctor must foil the body-identity snatching schemes of the Chameleons in ‘The Faceless Ones’, written by David Ellis and Malcolm Hulke. The eponymous aliens have lost their physical identity due to an explosion on their home planet. To cure this malady the Chameleons set about stealing the bodies of human beings and adopting their victims’ distinctive characteristics for themselves. During this procedure the stolen bodies are frozen and each corresponding Chameleon must don an armband control unit in order to regulate their stolen identity. By tampering with this armband it is possible to return the Chameleon to their blank, identity-less state and to free their respective victim.

A further example from the Tenth Doctor’s tenure hails from Matthew Graham’s ‘Fear Her’, in which a juvenile alien takes up residence in the equally juvenile Chloe Webber, a young girl whose troubled life makes her the ideal host for a lost alien child. Chloe’s possession is not immediately obvious, but her new and extraordinary ability to convert living beings into drawings – and vice versa – demonstrates that all is not well. It is later revealed that a young Isolus alien has fallen to earth and taken shelter in Chloe’s body, sharing her life and giving both Chloe and itself what both most desperately need: friendship. Ultimately the Doctor and his companion Rose Tyler are able to help the Isolus return to its family, freeing Chloe along the way.

The Isolus’ possession of Chloe Webber does not appear to leave behind any serious after effects. The same cannot be said for Tegan Jovanka’s first tussle with the deadly Mara, in Christopher Bailey’s story ‘Kinda’. The Mara, a mental parasite intent on manifesting itself in the physical world, is able to enter Tegan’s mind whilst she is sleeping and quickly deploys its formidable will to force Tegan into accepting its presence until it finds another victim. Although the Mara appears to leave Tegan’s body during the course of the story, a glimmer of its malice is left behind, revealing itself in Bailey’s sequel ‘Snakedance’. In both cases the Mara’s victims receive a tattoo of a snake upon their lower arm as they are possessed; as the Mara moves from one victim to another the tattoo is seen to travel as well, each time branding the Mara’s new host. Only when the Mara is finally defeated on its home world of Manussa is Tegan free of her serpentine nightmare.

The first appearance of the plastic-manipulating Nestene Consciousness in ‘Spearhead from Space’ by Robert Holmes puts a new spin on the body snatching routine by tapping into the inherent creepiness of the waxwork dummy. In its first attempt to conquer the Earth the Nestene Consciousness has its plastic servants, the Autons, create seemingly perfect plastic replicas of important establishment figures. In order to conceal this deceit the copied human beings, such as General Scobie, are paralysed in a coma-like condition and displayed as mannequins in a waxworks museum. When the Nestene Consciousness’ invasion plan is foiled its plastic cohorts are rendered senseless and its paralysed human templates released. During the Ninth Doctor’s encounter with this rubbery foe (see ‘Rose’ by Russell T. Davies) body snatching is once again the order of the day. On this occasion it is the seemingly useless Mickey Smith who is abducted and copied. Interestingly, it is later revealed that in order for the Auton-copy to function, the real Mickey must be kept alive.

In the Seventh Doctor’s opening tale ‘Time and the Rani’ by Pip and Jane Baker, body snatching is central to the malevolent ambitions of the Rani: a renegade Time Lord who has stolen some of the greatest minds in history in order to co-opt their mental energies into an over-sized organic computer – or living brain – which she has created. In spite of having his own mental faculties installed in this mental Gestalt the Doctor is able to take advantage of his unique position and put a spanner in the works, disrupting the brain’s logical reasoning and temporarily creating a brainstorm. Upon his release the Doctor exhibits no apparent side effects and the rest of the Rani’s “brain prisoners” are similarly freed unharmed.

As if one case of body snatching was not enough, the Seventh Doctor encounters yet another example in his subsequent adventure. Officious caretakers and cannibalistic pensioners aside, the real villain of the piece in Stephen Wyatt’s ‘Paradise Towers’ is the fatally unbalanced Kroagnon, the Great Architect whose disembodied brain was abandoned in a laboratory deep within the bowels of his final project. As with the renegade Time Lord Morbius (see season thirteen’s ‘The Brain of Morbius’) who, unsurprisingly enough, is yet another body snatcher, Kroagnon’s already damaged personality has been made far worse by his body-less imprisonment. In due course Kroagnon invades the body of the Chief Caretaker and in so doing eliminates his victim’s consciousness. The Chief Caretaker’s possession is reflected in his zombie-like features; and the awkward gait of this newly acquired body signals that Kroagnon requires time to adjust to controlling a physical body after so long in a disembodied state.

In what might be called an instance of “skin snatching” the Slitheen (see ‘Aliens of London’, ‘World War Three’ and ‘Boom Town’) use the skins of their dead victims to disguise themselves in present-day Earth. This method of body snatching suggests no element of mental takeover, and even the physical aspect is partial since only the skin of the victim’s body is adapted to meet the Slitheen’s dark purposes. There is a comparison to be drawn here between the Slitheen and the Gelth: both, to varying degrees, only make use of the physical aspect of the stolen body and therefore avoid any mental complications. This is in direct contrast to the Mara whose primary concern is with the mental side of body snatching.

Season fifteen’s ‘Image of the Fendahl’, by Chris Boucher, sees a group of black magic enthusiasts find themselves rendered into Fendahleen: monstrous, caterpillar-like creatures which, when combined in sufficient number with a core (derived from another stolen body), form an immensely powerful Gestalt entity known as the Fendahl. In this instance the process of possession is triggered when the victim makes eye contact with the core creature. More, it is not clear how much of the transformed individual’s mental content remains present within the Fendahleen – but it is quite obvious that there is no physical trace remaining. Bearing in mind the nature of the Fendahleen it is hoped that the mental portion of its victim is fully extinguished.

Arguably, the most crucial body snatching incident in the annals of ‘Doctor Who’ involves the Doctor’s arch-enemy, the Master, resurrecting his dying body in Johnny Byrne’s ‘The Keeper of Traken’. A meticulously planned coup enables the Master to gain the Keepership of Traken, a position which presents its incumbent with tremendous powers. As the adventure builds towards its climax the Master is forced to relinquish the Keepership and flee. However, in spite of failing to steal his first choice body, that of the Doctor, the Master is able to capture and possess the corporeal form of the benign consul Tremas, rejuvenating and re-shaping the older man’s body in his own sinister image and murdering the helpless Traken statesman in the process. Crucially, the Master’s body snatching does not end here. The rogue Time Lord’s return to corporeal form in the Eighth Doctor’s début story ‘Doctor Who – The TV Movie’ also involves a nasty case of body snatching, in which yet another individual is sacrificed for the sake of the Master’s survival.

The act of body snatching is a popular ‘Doctor Who’ staple which lends itself to as many variations on its fiendish theme as the imaginations of the programme’s writers will permit. It ranges from the subtle and the unseen to the overt and the horrifying, making for a highly versatile story telling device. Still further, it exerts a magnetic quality which can hypnotise the viewer and fix his or her attention on an episode until the credits roll. Considering its sheer variety, and the threatening nature of body snatching in general, maybe it is time to prioritise: the safety of the sofa comes second; remembering to avoid the body snatcher comes first.

© Copyright Jez Strickley & Doctor Who Online, 2011.
Page Last Updated: 29/1/2011

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