A Study of Regeneration: Is This Death?

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Guest contributor Andrew Bohman examines what happens to the Doctor during the change (Part 2).

As the Fifth Doctor neared his regeneration in “The Caves of Androzani,” he asked an interesting question—“Is this death?” In my previous article, I outlined a theory which touched on this idea, particularly what it implies from each incarnation’s specific point of view. I speculated how in addition to a restructuring of the body, the minds of each regeneration are separate and connected, and while one dies the other feels continuity. The purpose of this article is twofold. First, I will address some of the problems with the previous theory and offer an alternate viewpoint. Then, I will take a deeper look at that concept of death and how it pertains to specific regenerations.

The Problem with the Mind Problem

day-of-the-doctor-hurt-eccleston-regendoctorI will freely admit how the first idea has its flaws, to be my own critic. The biggest issue I have with it is this: how would the Tenth Doctor know that regeneration feels like dying if each consciousness ends separately? If each incarnation’s consciousness is personally separate from the others and from his viewpoint there has just been a physical change all this time, he wouldn’t know that the minds of his predecessors ended. The only ways to explain that would be to say that somehow he felt it start in the metacrisis regeneration he experienced and hence knew to dread it, or that each regeneration feels the break in connectivity. However you look at it, it’s still a flaw. And also, the theory is based mostly, if not entirely, on the Tenth Doctor’s regeneration. The other regenerations didn’t fight back like that, in fact the War Doctor embraced it. Perhaps it’s because they didn’t know it would be like dying (if you want to go with the aforementioned metacrisis idea) or they accepted the death itself. It’s not unrealistic to embrace death as a sort of sleep, and considering the War Doctor’s long, hard life he’d be eager to end his life and to receive a fresh body and mind, even if he doesn’t get to experience it. (However I don’t believe that’s quite as big of a flaw since it can be explained.)

So, keeping an open mind, I will now address a much simpler idea. While in my mind it doesn’t quite justify Ten’s regret and it makes for slightly less emotion, I feel to be fair I should outline it upfront. This theory is the same on the physical side in that all the cells change. The difference lies in that there is complete mental continuity. The Doctor has one consciousness and it remains constant throughout his life. The death occurs not in the ending of the consciousness, but in the restructuring of the brain. His every cell changes, and that includes brain cells. Now, he has a brain which functions completely differently—he has different feelings, emotions, thought processes, preferences (i.e. fish fingers and custard over bananas), all in all making for not just a totally new personality, but a completely reformed way of thinking (but of course keeping the same basic morals and intelligence). When the brain changes, it feels to him like his past self died. Really, a past self has basically died, it ceased to exist, so death is involved in a somewhat less literal way. That’s why he doesn’t want to go. This theory makes more sense overall, but slightly less sense in the Tenth Doctor’s case. Also, it’s not as emotional or heartbreaking, for what it’s worth. Look at it however you want, I’m still debating inside over which to choose. The following section is generalized to fit either of the two definitions of death in regeneration which I have presented.

Regeneration in Death and Death in Regeneration

master-no-death-regen-last-of-the-time-lordsNow that the speculation regarding what goes on from the Doctor’s point of view is out of the way, I’ll go a bit deeper into the idea of death and look at some specific cases. First off, is “death” always involved in regeneration? I would say, no, death and regeneration are not inseparably connected. They are related, but separate concepts. A Time Lord can die without regenerating and vice versa. We know from several instances that if one is killed during regeneration they are permanently dead. The Doctor said it in the café quote and it happened to him in “Turn Left” and, to a degree, in “The Impossible Astronaut.” A Time Lord can also refuse to regenerate and accept literal death, as the Master did in “The Last of the Time Lords.”

The less clear side is regenerating without dying. There have been several cases in which regenerations are used without apparent death. Regenerative energy is an idea spoken of often and apparently some of this energy can be used without dying—we know this from several examples, such as the Doctor using a small quantity of regenerative energy to heal River’s hand in “The Angels Take Manhattan.” So, if small amounts of regenerative energy can be used without death, can one undergo a complete regeneration without dying? For that, we must first define the physical conditions of death in regeneration.

Death itself occurs in the destruction of the cells of the body, and in a Time Lord’s case that is followed by their restructuring. Note that the theoretical idea of death presented by the preceding theories both require those two conditions for “death,” first the destruction of the body followed by its rebirth and alteration. In the second theory specifically, the alteration of the cells is what causes the “death” anyway. So, perhaps, if a regeneration occurs with only one of those two factors involved (destruction or reconstruction) death does not occur. The reason I’m speculating about this is to explain a few specific questionable cases of regeneration.

Anomalous Regenerations

The_Doctor_regen-Hand-stolenIn the past there have been several instances of regeneration which have raised question. The first which I will refer to is the Tenth Doctor’s metacrisis regeneration from “The Stolen Earth/ Journey’s End” in which he prevented the alteration of his cells by channeling his regeneration energy into his hand (for now we’re disregarding the resulting human Doctor). Did death occur in this regeneration? I would say, no. Though his body was exterminated by a Dalek, he did not change. He was able to utilize the regeneration energy to heal his cells without changing them. Hence, there was destruction without alteration, meaning no “death” was involved.

The other notable instances have actually occurred multiple times—regeneration without damage to the body. The first was when the Second Doctor was forced to regenerate by the Time Lords. He was not nearing death, but was rather being punished by essentially having a regeneration taken away from him by the Time Lords. Another instance of relevance is Romana. After deciding to change, she merely picked a new form and regenerated into it. And the most recent implication of this willing change without destruction is the curator from “The Day of the Doctor,” played by Tom Baker. While it was never clearly stated, it was heavily implied that the curator was a Doctor from the distant future who had decided to “revisit a few” old faces. All of these cases present a very difficult question when regarding death. But, according to the definition laid down earlier, this would not constitute actual death, since while there is a change of appearance there was no damage to the body’s cells, it was a willing change.

I’ll look at this specifically for each theory. According to the first, somehow in these willing regenerations the Time Lord in question has avoided ending the consciousness. Perhaps, the death occurs during the healing of the damaged cells, the point where the respective destruction and alteration converge, therefore explaining why alteration alone doesn’t result in death. As for the second theory, apparently the Time Lord has bypassed changing the brain, or at least they only changed some of it. They wouldn’t have this option in an emergency regeneration, but as they have the ability to choose their face they obviously have quite a measure of control. Why wouldn’t this control also translate to how much of their brain changes? Hence, in both of these explanations, death, literal or not, is avoided.


So to conclude, in most cases of regeneration that we’ve seen there is mental death involved, whether you believe that death is a literal ending of the consciousness or just a feeling resulting from a drastic change in the mind. That death appears to depend on several factors, and it only seems to occur when the cells are damaged and then reconstructed. This hopefully has cleared up some of the questions raised by those anomalous regenerations. In my next article, I will attempt to define the overall concept of regeneration and speculate more about it— specifically in relation to the Time Lord race as a whole.