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RETROMETABOLISM AND THE WAR OF NERVES


By Mike Adamson

 

Retrometabolism. The creation of a duplicate of either an inanimate object or a living being... Fantasy? A highly fanciful piece of science fiction? Every fan of Captain Scarlet has had such thoughts at some time on the subject; for the purpose it did not require a feasible explanation of how it worked, it was enough simply that it did.

But it is far, far from magic. Scientific speculation can indeed hint at what it is and how it might be made to work.

From the very first episode it was shown that the Mysterons killed or destroyed the 'original' and manufactured an almost perfect copy which was under their direct control and was, ultimately, expendable. From what was the copy made and how was it caused to spontaneously assemble?

For the answer to both questions one need look no further that the time-tested Science Fiction standby, the 'matter transmitter', a machine which disassembles an object, transmits its component particles at the speed of light to a point far removed and, often with the help of a receiver station, reassembles them in their proper order. Star Trek's temperamental 'transporter' is the key example, a delicate and critical piece of equipment which has itself been responsible for no few headaches over the show's currently five incarnations. The duplication (sound close to home?) of Captain Kirk in the first-season show The Enemy Within is a point in question the duplicate was diametrically opposed, fanatical, ruthless, brutal, maniacally driven, without human feeling or the strength of convictions. The moral point, that humans must live with both their good and bad sides, is to this discussion less important than the manner of the duplication. A transporter imbalance brought about a malfunction in which the machine delivered two copies of the same object where there had been one moments before, both alive and both the same person.

Let us consider the mechanism. Every last particle in the object to be transmitted must be known to the controlling computers, a precise record of them and the order in which they go must be held so they may be reassembled upon arrival. The object is rendered to its component atoms, squirted down a superconductor of some sort a laser or radio beam would do and the record, or 'matrix' is used as the 'mould', as it were, to put all the atoms back together into an object. The exact mechanical equipment, the electronics and field generators are at present technically infeasible but that does not prevent us from understanding its theoretical principle. Indeed, late in 2002, at a major Australian university, the precise structure of a laser beam was broken down, transmitted the width of a table and reassembled, the first acknowledged instance of transmission. Not "matter" transmission, but the first stirrings of the technology.

Suppose that we have just the matrix. Scan an object, record its structure, but do not break it down. Now mangle the object beyond recognition. Take said pulp and dematerialise it, use the matrix taken before it was damaged as the guide and reassemble it. All the individual atoms are present no matter how broken the thing may be. When reconstructed it is whole, perfect: no hint of damage.

But suppose a part is lost, gone forever. The 'plans' of are still contained in the matrix but the particles to reassemble it are no longer present. The matrix could be read, every required particle obtained from elsewhere and fed into the particle-broth as raw materials ... And once again the object is whole.

The time has come to take the reasoning one step further: no 'original' object at all, just the plans. Feed it all raw materials... It will no difference to the system or principle if the particles are originals or substitutes, it will assemble them in exactly the same way. The outcome is still an accurate copy. This system was demonstrated in the ,I>Blake's Seven third-season show Moloch, in which an alien race depended almost entirely on such scanner-constructor machines for all their needs from food to housing. Just feed in the plans and the raw materials and out comes the object. From 1987, with the advent of Star Trek: The Next Generation, we encounter "replicator" technology, the practical application of this principle to everyday needs.

 One wonders, in fact if it was not the concepts expressed in The Enemy Within, way back in 1966, that inspired Captain Scarlet itself. The idea of a duplicate, outwardly indistinguishable yet dedicated, even indirectly, to the service of evil, is a classic format that was begging for a show to be constructed about it, and the Supermarionation series remains its most perfect, fleshed-out realisation. After Retrometabolism, what more is there to express within the subject?

But the Mysterons leapt beyond basic duplication. Over and over they were seen to utilise the retrometabolic process for other duties, such as the simple teleportation of Captain Black about the world from the scene of one offensive to the next, even to snatch him from pursuing Spectrum men. Yet the greatest, unfathomable part of the process is the alien's ability to break-down and reassemble objects at incredible range. Enterprise,'s transporter could do this at ranges of thousands of miles, yet the Mysteron city controls the process over tens of millions. Still, in the Classic Star Trek episode Gary Seven it was theorised to be possible over light-years, which really stretches the credulity, unless a dimensional engineering factor is considered.

 But what of the Mysterons' habit of constructing an all-new object as opposed to utilising the original as a source of raw materials? There is no simple answer to this, as it seems obvious that the copy, if destroyed, could point of it ... until the discovery that high-voltage electricity stopped them in their tracks. Perhaps the original was left intact for a very obscure reason it could certainly be rendered down and rebuilt without difficulty if such was desired and I can only conjecture that it was less a limitation in the system than a deliberate, intellectual decision on the part of the aliens.

It is made clear to the viewer from the delivery of the threat onward that the Mysterons play to a set of rules that are inviolable. They give humankind a chance to win, whereas they could retrometabolise nuclear devices in every city in the world and end it in one stroke. They only need one such device to copy; once they have the matrix, unlimited duplication would hardly be unreasonable. From this I assume the aliens are not committed to Total War; they are playing with us, limiting the nature of their offensives to something we can meet and fight. It is like an interstellar chess game in which the opponents never meet each other, merely see the effects of the moves.

 Where does Scarlet fit? This is bound up in another question is the process perfect or not? The answer is no. The copy is not exact. The 'Mysteron detector' must have something to measure and that quantity would be the difference between the original and the copy (manifest in the replicated matter's imperviousness to x-rays). So we can assume that the process has certain minor flaws, trivial perhaps, but flaws all the same. Such a flaw might be considered the spontaneous reassembly of Scarlet at the moment of his injury or death, over which the Mysterons seem to have no control whatever; unless we are also to assume that they 'gave' Scarlet the power as a trump card dealt to mankind for their own amusement. Though this goes somewhat against the accepted grain of the series, it is fascinating to envision an ancient, staid, superbly efficient yet temperamental race on some distant world, amusing themselves through endless vaults of time, playing with the lives of others as if they were gods. The Mysterons have at least something in common with Star Trek's "Q" in that sense.

Endless time? Perhaps. If the reconstructions are only ever produced in accordance with the original matrix the organism will be realised at exactly the age when the scan was taken (unlike the Trek transporter which rescans the object every time it is operated). Exact gene structure, glandular secretions, the clothes the person wore and the contents of his or her stomach. To live forever all the organism must do is continue to retrometabolise. The process may work endlessly, the tiniest damage that alters the organism from the shape laid down in the matrix might be repaired at once. Cellular degeneration could never occur.

Functional immortality, then. For Scarlet, for Black (if he really is retrometabolised: he may be a "zombie," a human under total control...), for the Mysteron race. Not a clawing fight to hang on to life but the inability to die even should it be desired... Without resort to the electrode gun.
How could it be that an electrical current could undo this almost miraculous principle? Again, if we suppose the system to be flawed, it is possible that the matrix is impressed upon the copy and that should the matrix contained within the copy be lost there is no plan by which to rebuild the object. Electrical current could rearrange, influence, a field effect holding the particles in place. Without the plans the object would fall apart.

There remains, however, the question of persona. When Scarlet was duplicated his mind was replaced by the Mysteron imperatives, he was simply a living robot controlled by the aliens, the archetype of all such retrometabolised souls, synonymous with Black. Yet, upon his 'liberation' from the Mysteron grasp, by what malfunction of the system it is hard to visualise, his mind was still present in full. He was not the vegetable one might have expected. This leads one to assume that the mind of the original is not lost, it is 'transplanted' into the copy and remains thus, buried under the iron constraints of alien programming.

What must it be like to be imprisoned in one's own mind? Held at the bottom of a pit of submission as one's body goes about the bidding of faceless, unknowable beings? This terrible prospect, which would continue as long as the body was maintained, is what Captain Black, Conrad Turner, would have endured since the moment he committed the lethal error of ordering the Spectrum Mars expedition to open fire. A fitting punishment, the aliens may consider it, for the one who initiated the conflict, the one who gave them the veritable excuse to play with fire on the world of a conceptually lesser galactic being.

A feature on the subject of retrometabolism, penned supposedly by Captain Blue, appeared in the 1969 Captain Scarlet and Thunderbirds Annual, and it dealt in an abbreviated form with the basic principals of the 'transporter effect', though the conclusion that ultrasonics could be used to dematerialise an object is somewhat dubious; however, the likely assumption was reached that any dematerialisation process that acts in a purely physical manner- living organism, and that any reconstruction of it, while physically more or less intact, would almost certainly be dead. (The expression Schroedinger's Cat is a well known left-wing whisper in physics.) But the axiom that the secret of retrometabolism is a thousand years ahead of present science is a little exaggerated. A hundred years seems more likely. One century ago the airship and the submarine were the cutting edge of technology, and the internal combustion engine was still comparatively new. Once a theory is realised, application cannot be far behind.

This brings us to a fascinating piece of unsubstantiated scuttlebutt. As much as thirty years ago it was rumoured that the British Post Office had actually investigated matter transposition as a means of eliminating conventional mall delivery, and that certain results had been obtained. Whatever these experiments were, fact, or fantasy on the part of gullible or hopeful people, nothing ever came of them. There is no information available and it is doubtful that they were performed at more than a think-tank level.

So where does this leave us? A system very far indeed from a magical snap of the fingers: an understandable sequence of events that conclude with the duplication of living matter by non-biological means. It does not require the killing of the original this is simply the Mysteron way, an ingrained custom and assumption of the war. The Ed Bishop read-over on the main title intimates a necessity but it could be read as a deliberation, a preference in the etiquette of the conflict.

The Rulebook of the War of Nerves is strict. We have a chance if we're smart enough to see the signs, take the right risks and make the right decisions. It is as if the Mysterons are an elder race teaching a young one the ways of logic and life like a harsh parent. Failure means suffering for someone, somewhere, victory is rewarded with life and the Mysteron concession of incidental defeat. But another threat lies around the corner, the next step in the endless, painful lesson that will temper humankind's rash vanity that its own power is superior to anything it may meet in space.

In the classic Letts TV21 Diary of 1971 it is recorded that the War was brought to a close by peaceful negotiation, a treaty signed by human and extraterrestrial in Unity City on the 9th of November, 2077. If this off-screen information is to be considered a part of the whole mythos of Captain Scarlet and the interconnected, overlapping TV-21 Gerry Anderson worlds, then the human race paid for ten years for one mistake made by one man in a moment of panic. But that moment was First Contact, the one in which cultures met and tested each other, and we came off worst because of a dangerous assumption based on insufficient knowledge and unchecked emotion, coupled with the paranoid fear generated when militaristic powers exist, locked in one another's inexorable grip.

Looking back on the show it is apparent that humanity was a victim of its own fear, that Xenophobia was the trigger for the outrage of the ability to kill without contact, to create life and death, to reap minds, exact terrible justice for a critical mistake in the history of a planet. Ten years of the terror of the indestructible, the invisible, the retrometabolised, scarred Earth and those who knew the whole truth. It would surely be a lesson the human race would never allow itself to forget.

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