A Study of Regeneration: Enlightenment from the Eleventh

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Guest contributor Andrew Bohman examines what we learned on regeneration from The Time of the Doctor.

These last few months have marked an interesting journey for the Whovian world, and with the 2013 Christmas special, Doctor Who has now embarked on a new path in a new era. We learned quite a bit from this last episode: some plot arcs have been cleared up, the regeneration limit was addressed, and a new Doctor has been installed. But I’d like to examine “The Time of the Doctor” looking exclusively at what it contributes to the subject of regeneration, which I have been expounding upon for the duration of this series (Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3). The episode is rich with philosophical resources which I will now attempt to harvest as best I can.

The Limit Conquered (For Now)


In the scheme of the show, perhaps the most important aspect which has been resolved is the regeneration limit. To put it in perspective, “The Time of the Doctor” essentially resolved a story arc which began in 1976 with “The Deadly Assassin.” It is well known that each Time Lord has a limited cycle of regenerations—twelve per cycle. The Eleventh Doctor had already used up all of his regenerations, but was granted a new cycle by the High Council of the Time Lords. This seems to mean that the Doctor can regenerate twelve more times (well, eleven since he used one up already). As discussed in my last article, we know that the Time Lords have the ability to grant regenerations—that was revealed in “The Five Doctors.” This seems to be the most obvious way around the limit, and while I was personally hoping Steven Moffat would dream up some brilliant explanation which nobody would have thought about, it works simply and efficiently. So, for now we are reassured for another few decades, or however long it takes for the Doctor to use up this next cycle.

I found the manner in which the Time Lords granted the Doctor the regenerations to be particularly interesting. We didn’t get to see what was going on from their point of view, all we saw was Clara’s plea for help, followed by a wisp of golden energy slipping from the time crack in the sky and into the Doctor’s body. We’re still none the wiser about the method and technology which they may have used to grant these regenerations. Perhaps there wasn’t machinery involved at all and the High Council pooled together their efforts, each sacrificing a regeneration to produce a cycle for the Doctor. However it appeared that the energy itself was guided to the Doctor’s body by some sort of technology, as if the energy was programmed to latch on to the Doctor via his biodata extract. In addition, based on the visual effect it seemed like the energy itself was concentrated, dormant regenerative energy, giving the impression that in each Time Lord there is a highly concentrated, inactive pocket of regenerative energy, and for each regeneration a quantity of this energy is taken and activated.

A Destructive Healing

“I tell you what, it’s going to be a whopper!”

matt-smith-time-regen-towerAs the frail, aged Eleventh Doctor stood on the bell tower and confronted the Daleks, he used the first of his newly granted regenerations in an explosive manner which has never been seen before. The Tenth Doctor’s regeneration caused damage to the interior of the TARDIS, but it wasn’t nearly as dramatic as this. Huge columns of the burning power burst outward to destroy the Dalek ship and all the Doctor’s surroundings like a bomb, revealing the massive power that this healing energy really possesses. Why was this regeneration different? Well, to explain my beliefs on that I’ll have to go out on a little side trail.

As I mentioned in the previous article, a single regeneration is a sum of energy which is used to regenerate. However, what I didn’t mention is that not all of this energy is used in the initial change. In “The Christmas Invasion” the Tenth Doctor revealed that for fifteen hours after regeneration there is residual energy which continues to heal his body on demand, in this case it regrew his severed hand. This implies a sort of grace period in which a Time Lord cannot be harmed, also demonstrated by River Song in “Let’s Kill Hitler” when she healed her body after receiving a volley of bullets from a group of Nazis. Getting into a scientific analogy, think of regeneration as like a chemical change. According to the Law of Definite Proportions, in a chemical reaction when reactants combine they combine in proportions and any excess is not used. What that means is, for example, if you were to combine hydrogen and oxygen to make water and you had too much hydrogen compared to the amount of oxygen available, all the oxygen would be used up with the proportionate amount of hydrogen, but some of the hydrogen would be left over. That’s sort of like the regeneration process. In the initial change, there is a specific amount of energy which is needed, but each individual regeneration (as in a sum or “packet” of energy) contains more than enough. All the energy needed for transformation is used up, and the rest is left over and lingers on the Time Lord as residue, still remaining handy if needed (pun intended, sorry).

So how does this apply to Eleven’s regeneration on the tower? I believe that the Eleventh Doctor purposely employed some, if not all, of what would be his excess regeneration energy, using more than what was needed for the healing and change in order to defeat the Daleks. This resulted in more power being expelled from his body. Even though this type of energy is usually for healing, massive amounts of spontaneously released energy is still destructive. Even with regeneration, the Doctor can still be brilliantly resourceful and utilize it to defeat his enemy.

A Delayed Change

time-doctor-regen-handThe Eleventh Doctor’s regeneration introduced a new prospect—his healing and transformation were separate. The regeneration itself, the healing, occurred on the bell tower, but the change happened later in the TARDIS. We’ve seen the Tenth Doctor’s surface cuts start to heal at the beginning of his regenerative process, a sort of pre-regeneration mending, but it wasn’t nearly as defined as the Eleventh’s. He underwent a complete cellular healing, burst of light and all, without altering the cells. The Doctor was able to hold off the final change and hang on to his last few precious moments as that incarnation. As he explained,

“It’s started. I can’t stop it now. This is just the reset. A whole new regeneration cycle. … Taking a bit longer, just breaking it in. … It all just disappears, doesn’t it? Everything you are, gone in a moment, like breath on a mirror. Any moment now, he’s a-coming….”

He describes the change itself as a “reset,” and he suggests that a reason (but probably not the only reason) why it’s taking longer is because it’s the first of the new cycle and it’s still “breaking in,” perhaps meaning the regenerations are still getting situated within his body. He warns here that the change will be in a moment’s time, and that “everything he is” will be gone in that moment (which I would translate to be where the figurative “death” will occur, glancing back at past articles).

capaldi-regen-timeWhen the transition into Twelve does happen, it’s a single jarring snap, shocking both Clara and us viewers alike. It seems to suggest that the changing of the cells is instantaneous, but what takes time is their healing. They’ve always been simultaneous in the past, so we’ve never been able to see that before. Contrary to what I originally believed, it could be that the cells are all healed and then they change (for some unexplained reason), rather than being damaged to the point where the only (or easiest) way to repair them is to alter them completely. Or, it could be that when the Doctor used the extra energy to destroy the Daleks the greater amount of utilized energy let him heal first and separate the repairing from the transformation. It could also be explained by the nature of his death: old age is not like severe damage where the only option is to drastically reform the cells, they have just “worn thin” as the War Doctor put it. So, the worn-out cells were easy to rejuvenate, as were the cuts on the Tenth Doctor’s face, meaning he could heal his body to youth without having to change right at that moment. And finally, one simple potential explanation is to just say that this first new regeneration is different from the others.

Last Words

“We all change, when you think about it. We’re all different people throughout our lives. And that’s okay, that’s good, you’ve got to keep moving, so long as you remember all the people that you used to be. I will not forget one line of this. Not one day. I swear. I will always remember when the Doctor was me.”

And thus ended the Eleventh Doctor, with a touching farewell and a good illustration which contributes to the world of regeneration philosophy. There’s not much to expound upon this, the Doctor said it all himself. Each regeneration is different, like us when we go through different phases of our lives, be it in a much more profound way on his part. Breaking from my philosophical tone, this adds more than anything to help us emotionally. It’s not so much the Doctor revealing what regeneration is like to Clara as it is the Doctor reassuring us fans. Change is always needed, though we love each incarnation they always have to move on, but we must always remember them. That, I think, is the most important thing we can learn from regeneration in “The Time of the Doctor.”