The history of regeneration in Doctor Who is convoluted – not surprising when you consider the facts that a) the show has 50 years worth of writers and b) it was a concept invented on the fly. It happens to fit perfectly in a show about aliens and travel through time and space, but it was borne of necessity.
Regeneration was conceived when the First Doctor, William Hartnell, had to leave the show due to health issues. Rather than introduce a new character, or substitute another actor and pretend nothing changed, they chose to do a little of both – introduce a new actor, and declare him to be the same essential soul, but acknowledge his obvious transformation. Indeed, regeneration opens up many creative possibilities; since each regeneration is literally a “new man,” producers can take the Doctor in new and varied directions. Each actor is free to bring his own interpretation of the character.
Sure, there are traits that some consider essential to the Doctor – that he has the depth of a man with centuries under his belt, but a whimsical, adventurous side as well; perhaps a bit eccentric, since he is, after all, an alien – but these are really traits that have revealed themselves after years of being kneaded and sculpted by each actor and team of writers. The Fourth Doctor was the first disarmingly quirky, personality-based, “character” Doctor. The Sixth Doctor, though not a favorite of many, revealed a decidedly darker side to the Doctor. The Ninth Doctor was the lonely warrior, something returned to over and over in New Who.
In general, the Doctor regenerates when his previous self is gravely wounded; it’s a way of “cheating death,” as the Ninth Doctor says. However, the transition between the Second and Third Doctors was forced, a punishment by the other Time Lords. At the time, the Third Doctor is merely peeved that his appearance was changed without his permission. Over the years, though, regeneration is given more weight, until at the other end of the spectrum you have the Tenth Doctor actively mourning his impending transformation, claiming it truly is a death. Why so serious? Mostly, a plot line having to do with the Master.
Why We Can’t Have Nice Things
The Master has long been the arch-nemesis of the Doctor. Originally, his aims were simple: to rule the universe (and maybe cause trouble for the Doctor as well). Eventually, though, he was driven by a very specific, personal, life-or-death matter: regenerations. In “The Deadly Assassin,” it is revealed that a Time Lord can have only thirteen incarnations (twelve regenerations). The Master has apparently been living a hard existence and is at the end of his regeneration cycle – but he’s not ready to go yet. His next several appearances center around plots to gain himself extra time. Most notable is “The Keeper of Traken,” where he gains a new body in a relatively horrifying way.
More of Guideline Than a Rule?
Just as when the Second Doctor regenerated into the Third as punishment from Gallifrey, it’s unclear how much of this regeneration limit is biological and how much is law. In “The Five Doctors,” the High Council offers The Master an entirely new regeneration cycle in exchange for his help. In New Who the Master is in a body that was granted to him by the Time Lords for the Time War. So the question is, with all of the Time Lords presumably dead, is there still a restriction in the number of regenerations? New Doctors have made throwaway lines to the effect that he’s basically immortal, which would seem odd coming from a Doctor growing ever closer to the end of his regeneration cycle. Most fans had accepted that the “Thirteen Incarnations” rule was to be more or less ignored; after all, back when the show was on its Fourth Doctor they probably wouldn’t have predicted that we’d actually see an end to the Doctor’s regeneration cycle.
Shake Your Fist and Say, “Moffat…”
A new actor will be playing the Doctor in the 50th Anniversary Special, but it’s not yet clear who he is. An older version of the Eighth Doctor? After all, we never did see him regenerate into the Ninth, so we have no idea how old he got. A completely new incarnation who did something so terrible he’s been erased from recognition? Possible, but if that’s the case, and we know that Matt Smith’s Doctor will be regenerating at the end of the year, that means we’ve zipped right to the end of the Doctor’s regeneration cycle: the last incarnation. In the face of that knowledge, surely there won’t be a limit, right?
Well, showrunner Steven Moffat is now taunting fans once again. At a Radio Times event, he confirmed that there still is, in fact, a regeneration limit – but that there’s also something we’ve “all missed.” He suggests we go back to our DVDs and count again.
There’s no telling what he’s actually referring to. My guess? He’s referring to the episode “Let’s Kill Hitler,” where River Song uses all her regenerations to revive the Doctor. Perhaps we’re meant to infer that River actually transferred a nearly-full regeneration cycle to the Doctor as well (in which case… overkill much, River? Could have been helpful in the Library later. The Doctor didn’t need to use a whole cycle to fix your busted wrist). Still, with Moffat, he could be referring to anything.
Either way, I doubt we’ll be seeing the end of the Doctor any time soon. What about you? Do you like the restriction and drama of a regeneration limit? Where do you think the mysterious Doctor played by John Hurt fits in? Is there any Time Lord you’d most love to resurrect? Share your thoughts below!