Doctor Who headcanon #2

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.

On a female Doctor and sex-change regeneration

The regeneration of the Master into Missy has brought to the fore debate over the prospect of a female Doctor. The debate among the fandom about whether the Doctor should one day regenerate into a female form onscreen has been as vociferous as any debate about UNIT dating, whether Susan named the TARDIS, or whether or not Adric was an annoying tit. It was first established that sex changes for Time Lords were possible when the Eleventh Doctor remarked in The Doctor’s Wife that another Time Lord, the Corsair, had regenerated into a woman “a couple of times”. Subsequently, in The Night of the Doctor, the Sisterhood of Karn divulged to the Eighth Doctor that, with their “elevated” Time Lord science, they could bring about a controlled regeneration, even to change him into a female. Now that a major male Time Lord character has been shown onscreen to have regenerated into a woman, the prospect of a female Doctor has become more real than ever.

Personally, while I thought the Master’s sex change was very successful, and while I’m not completely closed to the idea of a female Doctor, I do have significant reservations. For one, I think portraying the Doctor as a female would be incongruous with the essential nature of the character. The Doctor, to me, is an intrinsically male character — not overtly or stereotypically male in that he’s some kind of chest-beating ape, but still very much a masculine character. Paul Verhoeven explains it well. He’s a father figure to the universe, a defensive and loving dad. It’s clear he sees himself in a very paternal way — he feels he has an obligation to look after the universe, to protect his charges from bullies and meanies of all sorts, to step in and give a helping hand, as a father should. He loves and is loved by the universe as a fatherly protector.

As well as this, there’s my personal subjective preference for the Doctor to remain a male character. I’ve come to love this character, the Doctor, independent of any of his individual incarnations. When I think of the Doctor, no individual incarnation springs immediately to mind, but I think of a number of essential traits that make this overarching character, this person, who he is: heroic, principled, selfless, eccentric, lonely, mysterious — and a man. I very much get the feeling that, throughout his various incarnations, despite looking and feeling different after each regeneration, the Doctor remains the same person, and it’s very important to me, for my investment in the character, that the Doctor always feels like the same person. To an extent, at least, I’d feel that the Doctor had become a different person if the Doctor were to become a woman. After thirteen or however many incarnations as a man, I think I’d feel that I couldn’t recognise a female Doctor as the character I knew and loved; that a female actor is likely to depart in a fundamental way from how the character has been portrayed in the past would only exacerbate this feeling. Think of it as if a loved one or a very old and dear friend suddenly decided to get a sex change. After the operation and after that person has assumed their new identity, I think most people would feel that, although that person bears a resemblance to the person they used to be in many ways, it would be as though the person one knew and loved had essentially gone, or at least changed to the point of unfamiliarity. That’s because sex is not just biological happenstance — the sex organs you happen to possess — it is a fundamental part of what makes a person who they are.

All that said, I said I’m not completely closed to the idea. Although I have my reservations, I’m willing to be open-minded, and consider any proposal for a female Doctor on its merits. If a female were to be cast as the Doctor, I’d certainly watch with an open (even interested) mind and be willing to embrace the change. I could very well be wrong: a female Doctor might not be as incongruous as I expect, and I might identify with her as recognisably the character I love. At the same time, I think my reservations are legitimate, and I can’t help but be sceptical and respectfully opposed to the idea. However, I think it may, at least, be worth road-testing the concept of a female Doctor in a one-off episode in which the Doctor inadvertently turns into a female for the duration of the episode. The way the Doctor, as a female, relates to his/her dumbfounded companions would be worth watching, although I think the idea might have worked better with Matt Smith’s Doctor (with the Ponds) than with Peter Capaldi’s: I can imagine Twelve turning into worse-than-everybody’s-aunt, played by Judi Dench or Maggie Smith.

Sex-change regeneration

There’s also the more academic matter of in what circumstances Time Lords can regenerate into the opposite sex. Personally, I’d rather that it not be established canonically that regeneration is completely random with regards to sex, and that Time Lords are equally likely to regenerate into the opposite sex as remain the same. That is, I don’t want it to be established that Time Lords, as one participant in such a debate amusingly put it, are a race of bisexual gender-fluid sequential hermaphrodites. That’s not because I’m a bigot, it just blatantly contradicts all history of portrayal of Time Lords on the programme, and would seem like a liberty taken with the canon for narrow political reasons, as a way of championing transsexualism.

The evidence is that one Time Lord, the Master, has regenerated into a woman after more than one regeneration cycle of being a man. All the other Time Lords we’ve seen have always regenerated into the same sex, with one offscreen exception (the Corsair). This doesn’t exactly suggest that regeneration is completely random with regard to sex. Furthermore, it hasn’t even been established that the Master’s latest female incarnation was the result of regeneration; given that the Master has a history of stealing bodies, and that his last body in The End of Time was basically an imperfectly reanimated corpse in a state of irreversible decay, it can’t be discounted, without further clarification, that Missy’s body was also stolen in the same way he stole the body of Tremas on Traken.

So sex-change regeneration is possible, but, until it is established otherwise, it can be assumed it is anomalous or unusual, rather than the norm. Personally I entertain three theories (which are not mutually exclusive) as to the circumstances in which Time Lords can regenerate into the opposite sex. The first is that same-sex regeneration is the norm, and that opposite-sex regeneration is a very rare, freak occurrence. The second is that, when Time Lords can control their regeneration (as Romana and the Master, and even the Doctor, it is implied, have been shown to be capable of doing), they can, if they have a sufficient degree of control, choose to regenerate into the opposite sex. As to why the Doctor’s regenerations have always (thus far) been random, I expect he either doesn’t know how (perhaps he snoozed through that class in the Academy), or doesn’t care enough, to control his regeneration. My third theory is that there needs to be an external influence on the regeneration to bring about a sex change, such as the potions the Sisterhood of Karn offered to the Eighth Doctor to control his regeneration. The three theories are not mutually exclusive, but the point is that sex-change regeneration at least seems to be unusual, and that some explanation is needed.