Well. News from the BBC is that the limit of 12 regenerations for the Doctor is being retconned. For those not in the know, ‘retcon’ is a term used when previously established facts of a story are changed, usually to fix conflicts that arise over time.
DC Comics has probably one of the most famous instances of a retcon called ‘Crisis on Infinitive Earths’. In that example, they had multiple versions of the same characters, Golden Age, Silver Age, complete reboots. Some characters had multiple back stories, some no longer fit, some were based on other characters that they purchased and changed – it was becoming a very confused mess, so they decided to shred it all and create a new continuity for their universe.
But let’s talk about the Doctor…
Long time fans of Doctor Who will know that the idea of regeneration came about when the original actor to portray the Doctor, William Hartnell, too ill and frail to continue on in the role, needed to be replaced. Since the BBC had a hit on their hands with the show, they didn’t want it to end and replacing the character didn’t make sense. They needed a way to replace the actor – enter regeneration; a unique quirk of the Time Lord that allowed them to channel energies to repair and regenerate their damaged or dying body. The result could be somewhat unpredictable as, though it was ‘still the same man’, his face changed, his body changed and, in some cases, his personality changed. The core was still there, though, just wrapped up in a new shiny exterior.
In other words, they could replace Hartnell with Troughton, Troughton with Pertwee, Pertwee with Baker, Baker with – I think you get the picture.
The actual limit of 12 regenerations didn’t come about until “The Deadly Assassin” aired in 1976. In that story, the Master is dying and unable to regenerate because he has used his last regeneration. His plan is to steal energy from the Eye of Harmony to give himself a new cycle of 12 regenerations – thus, the limit of regenerations was born. It’s been with us ever since.
Now, Russel T. Davies, master of the rebooted Doctor Who, will wipe that away in an episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures wherein Matt Smith, the eleventh Doctor, says that there’s no limit and that he is, in fact, immortal.
This begs the question – is that canon? I mean, it’s in The Sarah Jane Adventures. I suppose we should be grateful it’s not in that K-9 show… But why not simply have it in the regular show? Is it some cagey way of doing it without making it official? I say that, since the BBC is making such a big deal about it – it’s canon. I suppose many people will be arguing that for years. It’ll become as polarizing a conversation as the one about whether Superman really could have sex with Lois Lane or whether his super-swimmers would cause…problems…
Back to regeneration which, as a concept, has always fascinated me. I’ve often wondered why it hasn’t taken hold elsewhere. I mean, are there other books or series out there that feature characters who can regenerate themselves? I can really only think of one instance in literature, for example: The Mithgar books from Dennis L. McKiernan.
Mithgar is the world created by author Dennis L. McKiernan for a long series of books that began with The Dark TIde in 1984. In those books, there are actually multiple plains or dimensions of existence; Elves come from one, humans another, Orcs and the ‘foul folk’ another – there’s even a higher plain for the gods. Wizard’s have one too. As a Wizard uses magic, it takes a toll on their physical body and they prematurely age. These effects can be reversed by returning to their home plane of existence for a ‘recharge’.
This is the only other example of regeneration I know of but I’d be interested to know if there are others…
Also, I’m not so bothered by the reversal of the Time Lord regeneration cap as some folks are (or will be as this news spreads). They never really gave a reason for the cap in the first place – at least, not that I can remember. It was always sort of there, though. A MacGuffin (or Maguffin if you prefer) that caught our attention and moved the plot along and then became something more, something that we pondered, especially when the new show launched. Everyone wanted to know – was this the Ninth Doctor running around in that leather jacket, or the Eighth, for example. Did Paul McGann’s portrayal on Fox count? (It did).
Obviously this is a good thing for the BBC who has a hit on their hands, and for the fans who still enjoy the adventures of the Doctor after nearly fifty years – it means that he will continue on, rattling around in that old TARDIS, saving the universe week after week and entertaining new generations of fans…