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The Immortal Doctor Who

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

Or not.

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…

About Patrick Hester (527 Articles)
Patrick Hester is a writer, blogger, podcasting dude, Denver transplant and all around Functional Nerd. Don't hate him cuz he has a cool hat.

12 Comments on The Immortal Doctor Who

  1. Didn’t the witches in Stardust (Both the book by Neil Gamien and the Movie) use the heart of a star as a means of regeneration as using magic aged them.

  2. One example of regeneration that comes to mind is with Rachel, a minor character in Dan Simmons’ Hyperion & The Fall of Hyperion. When we’re introduced to Rachel at the beginning of the story, she’s a baby… Turns out she was a normally-aging human woman who ran afoul of the Shrike creature in the mysterious Time Tombs on Hyperion. The result is that she began aging backward, growing one day younger with each day that progressed, and forgetting everything that happened prior to her new-younger age. By the time the story takes place, she’s regressed to infancy, but in the end, she’s taken to the future where she’s put back into a normal aging pattern, thus giving her a complete second life – a kind of regeneration.


    I also wonder if we could count the gods in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods? When the “idea” or belief in a particular god is transplanted from its home country to a new land, that god is copied and begins a new life there. The older/original version of that god is still at home (unless people have ceased believing in it and it has faded away), but the copy is essentially the same personality with a new look and new life ahead of it. If there’s a resurgence in belief, these gods seem to get a bit of a recharge. I guess I’m not sure if the copying in this story counts as regeneration of a sort or not.


  3. There are examples of regenerating characters in two series I can think of right off the top of my head: Tanith Lee’s “Birthgrave” series and, more recently, Robert Reed’s “Marrow” books.

  4. Personally I knew they had to get past the 12-regen limit, however I was hoping they would do it with a bit more cleverness.  Instead of the Doctor just stating that he’s immortal, in my opinion he simply should have regenerated without knowing why.  That way, the possibility that he was in his final incarnation would be there allowing for dramatic tension.  “Did a certain regeneration (and thus Doctor!) not count?” would have been the refrain throughout the internets which honestly would have been a positive for the show.

    As it is now, we will no longer fear certain circumstances (like the Doctor being shot) that were pretty much the staple of the show.  I’m glad you mentioned Superman because it is the same problem DC faced with the seemingly invulnerable superhero.  Immortality will carry with it many challenges to the writers that I doubt they have considered deeply.

  5. Personally I doubt this if a fait accompli, because a) its not taking place in Dr Who b) its a throw away line c) it will make a great story arc for an entire season / generation.

    To me it seems more that they are dipping their toes in the water and creating a bit of ‘controversy’ to build a bigger audience for SJA.

    I am sure that the Beeb won’t let the show die because of a throw away line from 30 dd years ago, that they and Moffat will find a ‘fix’…. after-all the NuWho is hugely successful internationally and still has a stong and dedicated audience who want the show to continue.

  6. Um, Mithgar is a complete Tolkien rip-off.

    The ‘wizards’ or Istari of Middle-Earth are of a higher-plane and Gandalf “dies”, returns to ‘heaven’, re-generates and returns to Middle-Earth.


    Oh, Dennis McKiernan’s a hack & the Mithgar books are crap.

  7. I imagine Doctor Who being with us for another fifty years, so eventually they will face the fact that they will need a way for the Doctor to regenarate over the twelve time.

  8. Actually, with the events of The Big Bang, they have story elements in place to continue with the same old 12 regenerations, yet still allow the Doctor to exceed 13 lives. Basically, when the universe was reset, we gained an entirely new Doctor born not of Gallifrey, but of Amy’s memories of her “Raggedy Doctor.”

    Perhaps she knew about his ability to regenerate, but not the particular iteration the Doctor was on – to her, he was always the one and only Doctor – and so reset him as Doctor Mk I.

  9. SF author M. A. Foster used the idea in his “Transformer” series in the Eighties.  I just checked Amazon, and they are back in print.

    In one of the DR WHO Christmas specials, they played with the 12 regenerations idea where the Doctor kept getting killed by the Master’s evil device and coming back as a different famous actor.  His final regeneration was as a woman.  

    With the Time Lords gone, kind of, the writers have any number of outs for the 12 and done idea.  Hopefully, they will have learned the lesson–make a worldbuilding rule in haste, repent in leisure– and allow the Doctor as many regenerations as he durn well pleases.

  10. Okay – here goes-

    Jim – Yes.

    bloginhood – 1st part – was she immortal?  I mean, could she do it at will again and again as needed?

    2nd part – I don’t think copies work.  If that were the case, Jamie Madrox (Multiple man) would be thrown in because he can simply copy himself over and over.

    Paul – excellent examples!

    JoJo – Mithgar was, in fact, intended to be a sequel to The Lord of the Rings.  The first book (or books as I believe it was a trilogy: The Dark Tide (1984), Shadows of Doom (1984), The Darkest Day (1984) ) were submitted to the family upon completion and rejected.  The publisher, seeing that they had a good story by an excellent author (have to disagree with you on that count), asked Dennis to take another pass at it and make it an unrelated story set in a new universe – hence Mithgar was born.

    Carlson – ooOoooOoooo! Excellent thinking.  Now my head hurts.

    Marilynn – Ah, yes! You speak of the now infamous ‘Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death‘ starring Rowan Atkinson as The Doctor and Jonathan Pryce as The Master.  This was part of a charity telethon and has lived on long after the telethon itself.

    Joanna Lumley, best known over here as half of Absolutely Fabulous or possibly as Purdey in The New Avengers, is the actress you’re talking about.  What you may not know is that she was originally considered to play the Doctor for real.  Back in 1986 when the series wasn’t doing so well, Sydney Newman (Head of BBC Drama) suggested that, in order to shake things up and breathe a little life into the series, the Doctor should be played by a woman. 

    Lumley was one of several women considered for the role but, as you know, they let the series go, then Fox did their movie and eventually, Russel T. Davies came along…  Imagine how different it would’ve been had they gone that route?

    Who knows – they still might some day…

    Oh. Look at all those links. DeNardo will have to despam me…


  11. Marilynn: that was Curse of the Fatal Death, a comedy bit produced for one of BBC’s big fundraisers. Rowan Atkinson was the Doctor.

    I am curious about this Crisis on Infinitive Earths…


  12. Jeff – did I misremember it?  Was it Infinite?  I’m a year older – something had to be forgotten so I could have room for a whole new year.  Either way it was bad…


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