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The Riddle Of Regeneration: Explaining The Secret Process At The Heart Of 'Doctor Who'

Along with that iconic theme tune and the irreplaceable TARDIS, Doctor Who features a biological process that is key to the show’s winning formula: regeneration.

By Max FarrowPublished 7 years ago 6 min read
The Master regenerates inside the Doctor's TARDIS [Credit: BBC]

Along with that iconic theme tune and the irreplaceable TARDIS, Doctor Who features a biological process that is key to the show’s winning formula: regeneration. But even though the show is over half a century old, regeneration remains as mysterious and changeable as show’s titular character; so let’s take a look at what we do know about regeneration.

What Is Regeneration?

Firstly, Time Lords such as the Doctor are the ruling inhabitants of the planet Gallifrey. An ancient, powerful and highly advanced race, River Song (Alex Kingston) referred to their bodies as miracles – which is very hard to argue with really, especially when we consider regeneration. Though the show has detailed the process a little differently over the years, regeneration is when Time Lords — such as the Doctor — are sick, wounded, or dying of natural causes. Instead of dying though, their bodies undergo a massive change, and by the end of it, the Time Lord has completely transformed their body’s appearance, and regained their health in the process.

It’s still unclear how the Time Lords acquired this ability; Doctor Who’s expanded universe suggested that Rassilon – a major figure in Time Lord culture - artificially engineered their bodies to facilitate it. However, the show has more recently hinted that Time Lords naturally evolved this way, thanks to their proximity to the Untempered Schism – a fissure in the fabric of reality

What Is It Like To Regenerate?

The Eleventh Doctor fears his regeneration in 'Doctor Who' [Credit: BBC]

You might think that regaining a younger, healthier body would be a cause for celebration, but the show’s early production notes might put you off trying it out for yourself. The producers described it a horrifying experience to undergo, saying that the Doctor “...has the hell and dank horror...” of a bad acid trip every time he changes.

Ever since those bygone days, Doctor Who depicts regeneration as a very painful thing to go through, since the Time Lords are conscious of the fact that every one of their cells is being rewritten. Plus it takes some time until they fully recuperate from the procedure, though this might be due to the huge changes in their psychology. Time Lords are still the same person after regeneration, but their brains get shook up too, meaning that they pick up new personality quirks and habits. Each time he’s regenerated, the Doctor has often been disorientated and has displayed very erratic behavior until the process finishes.

The Eleventh Doctor experienced powerful – and very odd – food cravings shortly after he had changed. Conversely the Eighth and Twelfth Doctor’s suffered from delirium and severe memory loss. But the most extreme case was the Sixth Doctor, who became very paranoid and even attempted to strangle his assistant Peri not long after his transformation. Moreover, because of the pain and the differences between each version of himself, the Tenth Doctor said that every regeneration felt like he was dying anyway.

So Can Time Lords Live Forever?

At this point you may well be guessing that these awesome aliens are practically immortal then, which is completely understandable. After all, if they aren’t killed before they reach old age, Time Lords can live for hundreds of years in each form alone! But that doesn’t mean that they are invulnerable. Time Lords can willingly halt the regenerative process so that they effectively commit suicide, as the Master chose to do rather than be imprisoned by the Doctor in ‘The Sound of Drums.’ Plus, they can be killed by outside forces.

In ‘Turn Left’s alternate reality, the Doctor was shown to unequivocally die because he drowned too quickly for his regenerative energy to take effect. Similarly, even if the process does start, the gradual transformation still leaves Time Lords vulnerable to another fatal attack, as we saw in ‘The Impossible Astronaut.’

The Astronaut shoots and kills the Doctor mid-regeneration. 'Doctor Who' [Credit: BBC]

Additionally, throughout the course of Doctor Who, the show has featured numerous poisons, illnesses and devices — such as the Master’s laser screwdriver — that can suspend or negate regeneration and kill a Time Lord outright. So whilst they are hard to murder, it isn’t impossible!

And then of course, there’s that longstanding restriction which means Time Lords can only change twelve times, giving them a total of thirteen lives overall before they finally expire. However, both the Doctor and the Master have been able to wriggle out of that pesky restriction, so it’s a rule that isn’t entirely set in stone.

What Can Time Lords Regenerate Into?

The Doctor may have a predominately appeared as a white man so far, but it’s by no means his default state forever. In the Doctor Who spin-off, The Sarah Jane Adventures, the Eleventh Doctor was asked if his race had to always say the same. He replied that he "can be anything," which means that we may see an Asian or black Doctor in the future.

But when he said he could be anything, the Doctor really meant it! Aside from being able to change race, Time Lords, such as the Corsair, the General, the Master/Missy and the Doctor himself can also change gender through regeneration. Plus, its long been hinted that Time Lords and Ladies may be able to take on mutated or non-humanoid forms.

The Ninth Doctor may have been joking when he said he could end up with "two heads" or even "no head", but both the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors showed relief that they still had legs and fingers. It seems then that the Doctor is right: you may never know what you’ll end up with when regenerating.

Can Time Lords Control Regeneration?

When it comes to transforming Time Lords, the trickiest and most contradictory issue in the show’s history is this: how much can they influence their change?

For the most part, it’s depicted as an involuntary process whereby the Time Lord in question has no say in their upcoming form or personality. For example, whilst he has been able to channel and suppress his regenerative energy, the Doctor has yet to fulfill his long-lasting desire to have ginger hair; but again, this lack of control doesn’t seem to be a default rule. After all, the Doctor has explicitly stated that he can’t assume his previous forms, yet the mysterious Curator implied in the 50th Anniversary that our hero might be able to willingly revisit his favorite incarnations later in his life.

Then again, this haphazardness might just be an issue that only the Doctor faces. When the Master changed from his guise of Professor Yana into his seventh incarnation, his wish to be young and strong like the Doctor was granted. Plus, in ‘Destiny of the Daleks’, one controversial sequence saw Romana “scrolling” through her new forms until she found one that suited her.

However, whatever the case with singular regenerative control, it’s long been established that outside forces such as the TARDIS and fellow Time Lords can influence their transformations too. The Doctor’s time machine has smoothed over his transitions on several occasions (how can you not love that ship?) and the ruling council on Gallifrey has actively forced the Doctor to transform into his third incarnation as punishment. On another later occasion, they also supplied our hero with energy for a whole new regenerative cycle. And speaking of choice, if Time Lords really do want to choose, the society known as the Sisterhood of Karn has developed potions which can help configure their next body and personality.

Come on, guys! Make your minds up!

Is Regeneration Real?


Although we won’t see any creatures emitting that tell-tale golden light in our local parks, regeneration does actually exist in our animal kingdom. Many spiders, snakes and lizards shed their worn-out skins as they age and grow, similar to how the First Doctor did when he was “wearing a bit thin.” But in an even more impressive move, salamanders and starfish also have the ability to re-grow amputated limbs, and as pupae, caterpillars completely liquefy their bodies to reform themselves into butterflies! Now, doesn’t that sound familiar?

We’ve seen some pretty outlandish things in the history of #DoctorWho, so it’s quite surprising that biological regeneration does have some small basis in reality. But as much as we may want to re-emerge phoenix-like from death or try out a new body every now and then, it doesn’t look like fans will be able to regenerate like the Doctor anytime soon. Although, as we look forward to the show restarting again soon, we can definitely expect the Doctor to disclose even more some more details about regeneration!


About the Creator

Max Farrow

A fanatical film-watcher, hill-walker, aspiring author, freelance writer and biscuit connoisseur.

These articles first appeared on Movie Pilot between Jan 2016 and Dec 2017. Follow me on Twitter @Farrow91

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