The French drama ‘The Returned’ (‘Les Revenants’) tells the story of what happens in a small mountain town when the dead reappear, alive and well with no memory of their death. The series is strangely haunting and a perfect scenario for Doctor Who or Torchwood.
Spoilers for The Returned!
By the end of the 1st series there is still no explanation for what has caused this phenomenon. For the most part those who have been returned to life don’t know how they’ve been resurrected or for what purpose.
For the most part the series explored how the returned and those they left behind were affected by the gap in time between the deads demise and reappearance. The teenager Camille found her parents had divorced and her twin sister was now older than her while Simon found his fiancé was planning to marry someone new.
The Returned didn’t appear to be entirely human either. They rarely slept, had an unending hunger and towards the end of the series began to display marks on their body which could have been evidence of decay. Simon also proved that they couldn’t be killed, taking a bullet only to reawaken in the morgue.
The little boy Victor was even more unusual, able to induce vision in people. In two cases this led to their deaths. Victor didn’t seem to be entirely in control of this ability and it is possible that another agency was acting through him.
At the same time water from the reservoir was vanishing, apparently reappearing by the nearby power station. We learned that beneath the reservoir was the remains of the original village, flooded when a dam broke. This terrible tragedy is suggested to be the reason that the dead have come back and by the end of the series the town is deserted and then flooded itself.
Through the course of the series knowledge of the Returned had spread through the community creating a divide. The police were hunting the returned, while their loved ones protected them in the charity centre ‘Helping Hands’.
There was an undercurrent of mistrust, fear and jealously. Were the returned human? Were they dangerous? Even the returned began to question their own humanity while those who had a brush with death questioned whether they were unknowingly returned as well.
These explorations of the human condition and how a community reacts to strange phenomenon are all good examples of how similar stories can be done in a Doctor Who adventure.
The phenomenon doesn’t have to be the dead returning to life. It could be the arrival of an alien spaceship, the manifestation of psychic powers, the discovery of minerals with unusual properties or something even weirder.
Once you’ve decided what the phenomenon is you can think about who is affected and how do they react. This will help you establish the important NPCs that the PCs can encounter and what their motives are.
Their reactions will drive the story. To create a dramatic story one or more of these reactions will put people into conflict and cause further problems. It is the PCs job to not only react to the phenomenon themselves but prevent the community from falling apart.
You’ll want to think about whether the phenomenon will end on its own (possibly before the PCs have answered all their questions) or whether it requires action to be taken. In either case you’ll want to consider how much time will pass during the adventure.
It could only be a few hours but the longer it runs the more consequences you can explore. It could be a week (as in ‘The Power of Three’ or the Torchwood mini-series ‘Children of Earth’), months ( as in the Torchwood mini-series ‘Miracle Day’) or even years.
If ‘The Returned’ occurred in the Doctor Who universe there are several possible explanations. Here are just a few.
Torchwood has shown that life can be returned to a dead body, both using the Resurrection gauntlet and in the ‘Miracle Day’. Jack’s own special ability is that he can’t be killed.
It could be that the unknown artefact that the Family discovered has a counter-part in the small town (possibly in the drowned ruins of the village). It would only need a function to restore the deads physical body in addition to restoring their life (and the water found in Camille’s coffin suggests that it does).
In this scenario there is no agenda to the dead being returned. It is exactly what it appears to be. The question would remain if they are now immortal, whether it is temporary and who else might return.
If this wasn’t isolated to a small community but occurred on a global scale then problems of over-population would quickly become an issue (especially if the dead were as hungry as those in the town). Not to mention what happens when evil historical figures return or hordes of long dead soldiers, raiders and conquerors.
In this case the PCs might have to find a way to stop or reverse the phenomenon. Can they really deny the gift of life to others?
Shape Changing Aliens
The events of the Returned could be the latest plot of the Zygons or the Faceless Ones. While it might seem unusual to pretend to be people who died they could be hoping that the humans need to believe in miracles will make them accept that this is a resurrection rather than an impersonation. What better way to infiltrate a community that gain shelter and aide from the deceased loved ones?
They’d need to have detailed information about the people they are impersonating to carry this off but any unexplained gaps or hints that they aren’t human can be attributed to the resurrection.
It could be that the shape shifted aliens are sleeper agents and they themselves are unaware of their true nature. When they are activated they could turn into living weapons or find that their alliances have shifted.
It could be that the Returned don’t remember their deaths because from their perspective it hasn’t happened yet. Something could have thrust them forward in time. This could be a natural event, the results of time travel experiments or due to aliens with advanced technology (even a Time Lord). PCs will have to decide whether the Returned can be allowed to stay or if they must be returned to their deaths to preserve history.
The unusual abilities and disfiguration could be due to mutations caused by unstable time travel (a mild version of what happened to Magnus Creel). Much like Magnus their bodies are leaking energy, requiring them to eat constantly and their unkillable nature could be a result of their pre-destined deaths in the past.
The Returned might not have died at all. They could have been abducted. This works best when their bodies were never found but even if they were it could be that the aliens left cloned corpses behind to prevent people looking for their captives.
The question here would be what did the aliens want and why are they returning the people now. The tv series ‘The 400’ provides a good exploration of this idea.