It’s taken 50 years, but Doctor Who is about to reach the end of the road, or so it would seem. One of the supposed central tenets of the Doctor Who series is that the Doctor can only regenerate twelve times.
With the recent addition of John Hurt’s “War Doctor” between Paul McGann and Christopher Eccleston during The Day of The Doctor and the admission that David Tennant used up a regeneration during the serial “Journey’s End,” Matt Smith is now the last in the sequence of twelve actors that have now played the Doctor.
Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat recently talked to the British Radio Times about this. Continue reading to see what he had to say.
“We’ll find out [in the Christmas special] that Matt Smith is actually the 13th Doctor. Although everyone knows that the Doctor can only regenerate 12 times.
That 12 times limit is a central part of Doctor Who mythology – and science fiction is all about rules, right? So if the Doctor can never change again, what’s Peter Capaldi doing in the Christmas Special?”
What is he doing, indeed! The very same anniversary special featured an appearance by actor Tom Baker as The Curator in which it is suggested to the Doctor that “you might find yourself revisiting a few [faces], but just the old favorites…” This sequence enigmatically suggests that the Doctor may have a long life ahead of him, with multiple future regenerations. So, what gives?
The central tenet that Time Lords (like the Doctor) have only a maximum of 12 regenerations was established in the 1976 serial The Deadly Assassin. In it, producer Philip Hinchcliffe and writer/script editor Robert Holmes needed a motivation for both the Doctor and his arch enemy the Master to willingly return to their home planet of Gallifrey for the first time in nearly fourteen television seasons. At the same time, they also needed to get around the fact that Roger Delgato, the actor who originated the character of the Master in Season 8, was dead.
Their solution was creative, if not particularly elegant: an emaciated and unrecognizable Master is dying because he used up all his regenerations and needs to tap into the forces that give the Time Lords their power in order to survive. To achieve this, he lures the Doctor to Gallifrey to become an unwilling (if not unwitting) pawn in his scheme. The limit on Time Lord lifespan is summed up in a line spoken by actor Erik Chitty: “after 12 regenerations, nothing can stave off death.” The serial was a big success and provided the mold for how Gallifrey and its Time Lords would be portrayed for decades. It also set a limit on the life of the television series that (apparently) seemed far, far away.
Or did it? Those who cleave to The Deadly Assassin as a source of truth seem to selectively forget another Doctor Who serial that focused on Time Lords in a drastically different way: The Brain of Morbius. Here, the Doctor encounters another, much more infamous Time Lord renegade known as Morbius during Season 13 in 1975.
The two engage in a game of mindbender, otherwise known as Time Lord wrestling. They attach themselves to a machine that shows each of them first as how they currently appear, with the winner forcing the machine to show the loser as he looked further and further in the past. The Doctor is able to force Morbius to appear in one previous face. Morbius forces the Doctor to show how he appeared in eleven previous faces: those of Jon Pertwee, Patrick Troughton, and William Hartnell, followed by eight others that include Philip Hinchcliffe, Robert Holmes, and other behind the camera people from the show. Philip Hincliffe has admitted that he meant to imply that William Harnell was not the first incarnation of the Doctor.
If both these serials are equally true in the Doctor Who canon (and who can say they aren’t because they were both developed a year apart by the same production team), the Master was coming to the end of his thirteenth incarnation and the Doctor was starting the middle years of his twelfth when The Deadly Assassin occurred. By this reasoning, Peter Davison should have been the last incarnation of the Doctor. We should have been talking about this dilemma in 1984, not the end of 2013.
The truth of the matter is that it doesn’t matter. Doctor Who is not one television show, but many. The actors, producers, directors, writers, and creative inspirations all change. Sometimes the show is bound to Earth, and most times it isn’t. Sometimes William Hartnell is just an old man (possibly human) from an vague time in the future with a granddaughter, and others he is the first incarnation of a renegade Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, and even others, the ninth. Or maybe he is somehow related to a mysterious figure in Gallifreyan history known as “The Other,” and possessor of a stellar manipulator known as “The Hand of Omega” that eventually destroys the home world of the Daleks. Or as Tom Baker’s fourth Doctor told both Sutekh and Morbius, he is a member of the Time Lord race but an absolute nobody in Time Lord society.
The canonical history of Doctor Who is something that is of greater worry to fans than it ever has been to anyone in a BBC production office. It is the fans who remember The Deadly Assassin to whom Mr. Moffat is speaking. It’s nice that he’s going to go to the trouble to try to reconcile Peter Capaldi with what they remember as “history.” There is but one core principle in the whole history of Doctor Who, however — Who goes on. The Doctor is dead! Long live the Doctor!