A recent comment by showrunner Steven Moffat has thrown Doctor Who fandom into chaos – just how many times has the Doctor regenerated? It is established canon that a Time Lord can only regenerate 12 times (giving him 13 incarnations), barring external influence (more on that later). And since the revival, we’ve all worked on the assumption that we were seeing the 9th, 10th, and 11th Doctor. The last episode threw in a wrench – A possibly previously unknown Doctor (or “non-Doctor”, per Smith – I’ll refer to the incarnations by the actor’s name), which would likely boost everyone at least from Eccleston up by one. But this also got me thinking about regeneration in general – what is it, how do completely different bodies and personalities come about, what control is there, and how does the limit work?
Of course, all of this has to contend with the fact there never was any consistency to begin with…
The question at hand
First, about the question raised…how many times has the Doctor regenerated so far?
Well, first off, we all sort of assume that Hartnell’s Doctor was the first. He does state as much in “The Five Doctors”. And Davison says he is the fifth. Also, in “Mawdryn Undead”, the Doctor decides to save Nyssa and Tegan by using his remaining regenerations to grant regeneration to Mawdryn and his compatriots, the number of which happened to match his remaining eight regenerations that we were aware of at the time.
But in the T. Baker episode “The Brain of Morbius”, the game played between the Doctor and Morbius, if taken what is displayed logically, appears to indicate as many as 8 incarnations before Hartnell. But what is displayed isn’t explained definitively either, so it is possible to discount it. In fact, there is a cut between when we see Hartnell and the other faces, so we can’t know what was displayed in between – they could have all been previous faces of Morbius. Then again, if we get into the label of “The Doctor” applying only to certain incarnations, as implied by the last episode, they may not consider other incarnations of the time lord to be “The Doctor”, and thus do not number them. But then we’re way past the 12 regeneration limit long before we get to the revival – Davison would have been the thirteenth and theoretically last, but we got two more after him before the original series went on hiatus, and no explanation. Plus, the 12 regeneration limit was established the season after “Brain of Morbius” in “The Deadly Assassin” – interestingly, written by one of the co-writers of “Brain of Morbius”, Robert Holmes.
Could we have missed something? Current theories are that some regenerations weren’t really regenerations at all. All the ones we’ve seen on screen appear to be – we see the transformation, typically when the Doctor is injured and “dying”. But they are presented in different ways (possibly due to changing special effects available). But we did not see Troughton regenerate into Pertwee – it happens off-screen, and the Time Lords forced the change of appearance. Could they have just changed his appearance without it being a regeneration? If so, -1 regeneration. But I argue against this – in both “The Three Doctors” and “The Five Doctors”, the two are treated as individuals. And again, Davison states that he is the fifth.
What about after that? We don’t see what happens between McGann and Eccleston. There was some assumption they were Eight and Nine, and perhaps he regenerated during/after the Time War. But now we have this “non-Doctor”, who in fact might be in between the two. Even if we have the -1 from earlier, that puts a +1 back from Eccleston up, for a net zero change.
Could the non-Doctor be something different? Could he be a later incarnation? Possibly. Smith has knowledge of him, but that doesn’t matter – the other Doctors gained knowledge of their later incarnations in the crossover episodes in the past (is that odd? Knowing you’ve regenerated several times? Like seeing your own gravestone…) But Clara, who entered the Doctor’s time stream and interacted with all of his incarnations up through Smith, said she did not know the non-Doctor. If he came after Smith, that might make sense – but there is a logical problem there. The rift she enters through is supposed to be created by the ultimate death of the Doctor…she should have seen all the incarnations. Was the non-Doctor somehow excised from the Doctor’s regenerations? Does that mean he doesn’t count against them?
Enough to make your head spin – or hear drums…
Anyways, it may not even matter. It is established that Time Lords CAN get additional regenerations, possibly through a variety of means – a couple known ones are via large amounts of energy (“The Deadly Assassin”), or granted by the Time Lords themselves (“The Five Doctors”), or transferred from another (“Trial of a Time Lord”). And River Song used her remaining regenerations to save the Doctor – perhaps transferring her remaining ones (as many as ten – we only see her regenerate twice).
So the writers can write around it easily enough.
What is regeneration?
What exactly happens? It is basically explained as a rejuvenation at the cellular level, but results in a change of appearance. A person’s appearance is generally dictated mostly by DNA – does that mean the regeneration starts at the DNA level? Do Time Lords have DNA as we know it?
Romana established that regeneration and appearance can be controlled (“Destiny of the Daleks”), when she decides to change her appearance and tries several “bodies” on for size (even one that was somewhat non-human). And this coincides with the Time Lords’ forced regeneration from Troughton to Pertwee, offering a choice of different faces. The Doctor, to our knowledge, has only regenerated due to damage…this could cause the process to flux randomly, re-assembling the base DNA in unintended ways. But then it seems pretty lucky that he ends up with all the parts in the right places…
But what about the personality? Is that part of the DNA re-sequence? The new person has the memories of his predecessor, but is a very different person. I think there is something more complicated than just getting a new body.
The individuality of incarnations
What follows is a my own theory, and it may not even make sense, but it attempts to reconcile some inconsistencies.
We know that Time Lords perceive time differently – they can see the past, present and future in some form. They can identify fixed points in time, and know what can be – or has – changed. They don’t, however, seem to see past their own individual timeline.
One thought I’ve had for a while is that each incarnation is in fact a separate individual, with all of them existing at the same time with their own timelines, meeting at “pinch points” along the way, which is the regeneration. When a body of one is damaged enough, it forces a pinch point in the time streams, crossing one into the other. Who or what the individual is prior to the pinch point is unknown (insert some timey-wimey stuff here), but they do have some sort of existence.
Why? Because I needed some explanation for the Watcher. Throughout the episode “Logopolis”, a mysteriously shrouded ghost-like entity follows T. Baker, helping out. He seems to understand who/what it is, but doesn’t explain. But at the end, after he’s fallen and is badly injured, he says, “The moment has been prepared for…” and the Watcher appears, then merges with him – regenerating into Davison. As such, the fifth incarnation must have existed prior to the regeneration in some form. But we never see this again – this particular pinch point, for some reason, was more complicated than usual. I’d say that this moment having been prepared might mean a smoother regeneration – ala the controlled ones mentioned earlier – but this one seemed to disrupt the Doctor’s thinking more than most.
Speaking of which, the mental disruption could be accounted for by the re-integration of the Time Lord’s memories into the incarnation, supplanting whatever existence they had before.
I think this also fits Tennant’s explanation of what it is like to regenerate in “The End of Time” – it is like death, in the fact that that particular individual does indeed die or cease to exist, with an entirely new person taking over, but with their memories, although depending on the situation those memories can take some time to settle in.
Now, about that pesky 12-regneration limit…
Is it natural, or artificial? There seems to be some indication that it is an artificial limit imposed by the Time Lords – after all, they can grant more, or take them away.
But then Melody Pond gains the ability to regenerate from being conceived on the TARDIS, exposed at some level to the time vortex, and other episodes also seem to indicate that the Time Lords gained this ability through their access or manipulation of time.
If the limit is natural, Melody/River would have the same regeneration limits as a Time Lord – and given that she expended/transferred her “remaining” regenerations to save the Doctor, it casts doubt that the limit is artificially imposed by the Time Lords.
How does the limit work? My theory is that by whatever mechanism the regeneration takes place (left to the writers), it can only scramble/replace the DNA in the cells so many times. Think of it like telomeres – the “endcaps” of chromosomes, that break down over time as cell division takes place (probably far too simple an explanation). Each regeneration damages the “time telomeres” (I’ll just refer to them as that), which has the ability to withstand the process 12 times without catastrophic cellular damage, containing all the “time damage”energy done by the Time Lord. By then, they are “worn out” – no more time telomeres to contain the energy, and instead of regenerating, the body breaks down and the energy is release, forming the time column/rift as seen in “The Name of the Doctor”.
Alternately, and this might work better, these time telomeres can exist in any life form, but are usually only activated or “energized” by direct and early exposure to the time vortex (as with Melody Pond). Only 12 such telomeres exist normally, and provide the energy to create the pinch points to join the Time Lord with the next incarnation and regenerate the body (the “regeneration energy” often shown in later regenerations).
The Time Lords can gift additional regenerations through unknown procedures that can transfer the time telomeres from one Time Lord to another (the device in “Mawdryn Undead” was a stolen Time Lord design.) As for River transferring regeneration energy to the Doctor, it may be possible while the regeneration energy is still available to use that energy to transfer some or all remaining telomeres to another.
But now there are no other Time Lords…how could the Doctor continue regenerating?
Well, the Master attempted to use the power of the Eye of Harmony in “The Deadly Assassin” to regenerate…but it is unclear whether this would be a true regeneration, or just extending his life. He was only partially successful – he did survive, but his body was still damaged. He did later use energy to merge himself into a new body in “The Keeper of Traken”, but this was not a regeneration either…he basically took over Tremas’ body…or was it? Could he have forced a “pinch point” with a nearby person, using the energy since he no longer had his own? Is this how regeneration really works? Taking over some poor unexpecting soul in the Universe? Perhaps this again explains the changes of appearance and personality…
Perhaps the Doctor could discover the device or other means the Time Lords used. Or, if the Time Lords have somehow artificially placed the limit then it can be undone…at any rate, we are running out of time to find out, and my hope is that they do indeed address it on-screen, however it is done…