Time Lord regeneration is both the secret to the continuing success of Doctor Who, and one of the great mysteries of Doctor Who mythos. It’s easy to forget that the Doctor isn’t human, but each time the Doctor regenerates, losing his old face and persona and gaining new, we are reminded of the alienness of the Doctor and his kind, the Time Lords, as represented by the wonder of regeneration. Time Lords are creatures of time — they “walk in eternity”, as the Fourth Doctor so enigmatically put it. The essence of time is change, and regeneration reflects this aspect of time. You think you know the Doctor, but there goes and regenerates, and suddenly he’s no longer the man you know. When you appreciate that the Doctor has done this twelve times in a lifespan of over 2000 years, you realise how really alien and inhuman the Doctor, and his species, is.
Much ambiguity surrounds the concept of regeneration in Doctor Who lore. It has never really been made clear what actually happens when a Time Lord regenerates. True to form, we fans have tried our best to nail down the precise mechanics of regeneration, but, ultimately, until more explicit evidence is provided, it is a question open to interpretation.
Which is where headcanon comes in. Some time ago I read a contributor’s piece on Doctor Who TV which speculated that regeneration involves the total “death” of the Time Lord in body and mind, wherein the consciousness of the Time Lord’s former incarnation is disintegrated alongside the physical body and is replicated in the new body. In this way, each incarnation of a Time Lord has a separate consciousness. I’m not satisfied with this explanation, as I don’t really like the idea that the only relation that any given incarnation of the Doctor has with his previous incarnations is that they are made up of the same atoms and share memories. This theory almost denies that the Doctor is the same person as his previous selves. Are a man’s memories all that makes him who he is?
I prefer to think that regeneration is an organic process that is supposed to rapidly “renew” the Time Lord’s body, rather than dissolving the old body and constructing an entirely new body. The change happens at a cellular level: the cells remake themselves to rejuvenate the whole body. This process is imperfect, though, and the regeneration process will result in a physical change of appearance — a side-effect of regeneration. The regenerative process also has the effect of frazzling the brain, resulting in an altered personality, but, ultimately, continuity of consciousness. In this way, aspects of personality due to “nature” (i.e. preferences, persona) change, but not those due to “nurture” (i.e. values and principles, memories, things that are learned or due to experience).
This interpretation can also be distinguished from theories that see regeneration as involving a “body-swap” wherein an existing body is simply changed into another body (while consciousness and memories are retained). I don’t see regeneration as exchanging one body for a completely different one, but as a complete and drastic renewal of the same body. I think it is the disposition towards seeing regeneration as a simple “body-swap” that leads many to embrace the possibility of a female Doctor: the argument is that there is no reason the Doctor could not regenerate and find that he has ended up with a female body. In contrast, the way I prefer to see regeneration — as a renewal of the existing body rather than changing one body for another — means the idea of a female Doctor is more problematic, as it is hard to see how a male body could renew itself into something other than a male body. The objection could be raised, “But how is it any different from a young man (Eleven) regenerating into an old man (Twelve)?” Ignoring the fact that Eleven had physically aged to an extent that made him physically older than Twelve when his regeneration process began, I’d suggest that such changes as physical age, height, complexion, hair colour, facial structure, weight, etc, are essentially superficial changes of outward appearance. In contrast, a change from man to woman, involves a fundamental chromosomal shift, which begs the question: if one chromosome can slip, why not two? Why do not Time Lords routinely regenerate into non-humanoid forms?
I suppose the way one looks at the mechanics of regeneration also depends on what explanation for the origins of regeneration one accepts. To my knowledge, two different explanations for Time Lords’ ability to regenerate have been offered in the show. The traditional explanation, developed in the expanded media, was that regeneration is an artificial aspect of Time Lords’ physiology inserted by Rassilon during his shaping of Time Lord civilisation. The more recent explanation propounded in the revived series is that Time Lords evolved the ability to regenerate naturally, per A Good Man Goes to War:
DOCTOR: “But she’s human. She’s Amy and Rory’s daughter.”
VASTRA: “You’ve told me about your people. They became what they did through prolonged exposure to the time vortex. The Untempered Schism.”
DOCTOR: “Over billions of years. It didn’t just happen.”
This explanation posits that Time Lords evolved the ability to regenerate due to billions’ of years exposure to the time vortex. A similar process, River Song’s conception in the TARDIS, brought about the ability to regenerate in her.
These two explanations are plainly in clear contradiction with each other: either Rassilon did artificially insert regeneration into the Time Lord genome, or he didn’t; either regeneration is a result of natural evolution, or it isn’t. Such a contradiction can be resolved by resorting to Rule 3 of my headcanon rules: “Any blatant contradictions between onscreen explanations can be resolved by preferring the most recent explanation.” Rule 9 also comes into play: “Only the television show is explicitly canon; the audio stories, novels and comics are canon if you want them to be, but are not necessarily so.” Since the traditional explanation was only propounded in the expanded media, its canonicity must be subordinated to the later onscreen explanation. Another related piece of Time Lord backstory developed in the expanded media but retconned in the revived series was the idea that Time Lords are “born” fully grown through an artificial process of being “loomed” into existence from DNA strands — The Sound of Drums and Listen have showed Time Lords as children (the Master and the Doctor respectively), as did The Day of the Doctor, which made mention of “2.47 billion” children who died on Gallifrey (and indeed showed some Gallifreyan children).
So I prefer the “evolutionary” explanation for regeneration rather than the “artificial” explanation. It occurs to me that, if one accepts the evolutionary explanation, one would be more disposed to seeing regeneration as a restorative process (as I do) rather than as a process involving a total reconstitution of the body, or a body-swap. Conflicting views of the implications of regeneration, can be, if not resolved, but at least better understood, when the different interpretations of the mechanics and origins of regeneration are understood.