A Study of Regeneration: Origins & Nature

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Guest contributor Andrew Bohman examines the origin and nature of the process. (Part 3).

Regeneration is one topic which will always hold an air of mystery and wonder. It is difficult to understand and hard to define, some of the many reasons why it has held my interest for so long. In my past installments (Part 1 / Part 2), I have underlined and theorized on what happens to an individual Time Lord during this process, but now it is time to go beyond that and to define the process itself as a whole. Where did it come from? What is its nature? And, though very shortly this question may be obsolete, why the limit?

The Origin of Regeneration

Untempered_schismThough it’s shrouded within mystery due to lack of information, we do know a little about how the inhabitants of Gallifrey came to be able to regenerate. Originally, the Gallifreyans were typical sentient humanoid beings, intelligent but without the power of the Time Lords. However, over time, they gained their advanced technology and their special abilities, particularly regeneration. Some believe that the founding Time Lords, particularly Rassilon, are responsible for this, but some of the dialogue of the show implies otherwise. According to Madame Vastra in “A Good Man Goes To War:”

“You [speaking to the Doctor] told me about your people. They became what they did through prolonged exposure to the Time Vortex. The Untempered Schism…”

This suggests that the Time Lords gained the ability to regenerate because, over billions of years, they developed alongside an opening in time itself which was located on Gallifrey, the Untempered Schism. Also, this reveals a sort of connection between regeneration and time energy. This will all be further addressed later.

Biological, Technological, or Legal?

matt-smith-heartsWe know what regeneration implies on the surface, and I have presented theories on what happens from a mental standpoint, but the very nature of regeneration is open to speculation. Is the process biological or technological? What I mean by that is, is it a natural part of the Time Lord’s physiology (naturally brought on by the exposure to the vortex) or is it the result of Gallifreyan technology (harnessed from the vortex and implemented into Time Lords), or both somehow?

For one, it seems at first that it would be more of a biological process, as it directly changes the cells, the biology, of a Time Lord. However, noting the fact that the Time Lord society was extremely advanced, they could have brought on this biological ability by a scientific discovery, probably that of Rassilon as he founded the society. But noting the previously discussed Time Vortex example, it seems as if the ability to regenerate is the result of a mutation rather than Time Lord technology. Or, it could be some combination of both, as if the mutation began and the Time Lords used technology to control it. I’ll start looking at a few different examples to see what we can glean from them.

In “Mawdryn Undead,” the Doctor encounters a group of scientists led by one named Mawdryn who, in failed attempts to become Time Lords, have trapped themselves in a painful, hellish form of immortality. (Spoilers for the episode to follow.) Apparently they had stolen from the Time Lords an “artificial regenerator,” a machine which can aid or cause the regeneration of a Time Lord. This, for one, clearly shows a connection with technology and regeneration, if not that regeneration was originally caused artificially, that it is certainly compatible with technology. Continuing with this episode, Mawdryn reveals that he and his eight companions can only reverse the process and find rest (death) if they each take one of the Doctor’s regenerations, eight total (which, at the time of the Fifth Doctor that was all he had left). To make a long story short, the Doctor eventually complies but is fortunately saved by a well-timed time paradox. The energy from the paradox is channeled into the regenerator and used to bring the eight afflicted scientists to rest, without the Doctor having to sacrifice any of his regenerations. In essence, energy from the time vortex was directly used to undergo a process which could normally only be carried out with regeneration. This tells us a great deal about the specifics of regenerative energy. As was hinted with the Untempered Schism theory, temporal energy is therefore compatible, if not synonymous with regenerative energy. That brings a whole new light to the technicalities and nature of regeneration, and to the regeneration limit (touched upon later). It is linked to the time vortex, and hence time itself.

The next instance of note is from “The Five Doctors,” and it provides a bit of information that reveals a huge amount of information about regeneration. The High Council of the Time Lords offered the Master a new set of regenerations in return for helping to save the Doctor. That idea reveals that regenerations can be transferred, gained, and that the Time Lords have power over this. Not only does this hint at a more technical process, but it introduces the concept of regeneration being a legal process. That is, the Council of the Time Lords, which is a government, has the ability to control and grant new regenerations, meaning that law has a part of it. If Time Lords have the ability to do this, why wouldn’t they give themselves and other Time Lords new regenerations? Obviously, there is some sort of law involved which regulates regeneration, to keep the people in check and prevent misuse or overuse of regenerations.

river-transfers-regenerationsOne possible explanation regarding law is that regeneration is a natural biological process which one can undergo an indefinite number of times, but the Time Lords themselves established and enforce the limit. If this is the case, by granting the Master new regenerations they are basically giving him a pardon to regenerate twelve more times. Putting the 1996 Doctor Who TV Movie into play, this would seem less likely as the Master’s whole aim was to steal the Doctor’s remaining regenerations, unless “regenerations” in this case constitute a legal allowance which the Master was trying to steal from the Doctor to cheat the system. This also would not explain River imparting her regenerations to the Eleventh Doctor in “Let’s Kill Hitler.”

Another way to put it would be to say that the Time Lords grant more regenerations by mechanically “infusing” them into the Time Lord’s body, or giving them more regenerative energy. This seems more likely, as it would explain nearly every instance of the transfer of regenerations. It still would classify regeneration as bound by the law, as the government controls this technology and uses judgment on when to use it. Maybe they set this limit themselves and are the ones who grant a Time Lord their regenerations in the first place. There are many, many possibilities that could spring from an idea of technologically controlled regeneration, but for the sake of time I won’t go into all of them.

So, overall, I would personally classify regeneration as a biological process harnessed by technology and controlled by law, i.e. a little bit of each. It is in essence a biological process, and Time Lords possess technology in relation to regeneration. And apparently, they have established a sort of governmental control over this technology. How much of that process is technological is up for speculation—is it a natural process just harnessed by machinery, or was it caused by that machinery in the first place? As of now, we don’t know for sure.

The Limit of Regeneration

Peter-Pratt-The-MasterSo far I have mentioned the regeneration limit briefly, all leading up to a more focused examination of its nature. We all know that Time Lords can each regenerate twelve times, making for a total of thirteen incarnations of themselves. I already suggested that the Time Lords can legally control this process, but at its base I do not think legislation is responsible for the limit. It wouldn’t very easily accommodate the instances of regeneration transfers outside of the Time Lord government. While perhaps influenced by the law, I think that the direct reason for a limit is simply because each Time Lord has a limited amount of regenerative energy within them.

One definition of “regeneration” in the Whovian context is, “a sum of regenerative energy used and/or required to undergo a single regenerative change.” Each Time Lord has only twelve regenerations, twelve sums of regenerative energy capable of undergoing a single regeneration. Once that energy is used up, they can’t physically regenerate any more. Coming once again to the example of the healing of River’s hand in “The Angels Take Manhattan,” River chastised the Doctor for wasting some of his regenerative energy—wasting a portion of the quantity of that energy which lets him regenerate (are you wondering why he had any left if he’s already used all his regenerations? I’ll give my thoughts on that in a future article). So, to beat the limit and gain the ability to regenerate once more, he needs to somehow obtain more regenerative energy.

From earlier in this article I have been referring to temporal (time vortex) energy and regenerative energy being compatible, and this is where it comes into play. Since temporal energy is interchangeable with regenerative energy (as we can tell from Vastra’s quote and the instance in “Mawdryn Undead”), all the Doctor needs to do is to somehow infuse this temporal energy into his body and it could possibly act as a fitting substitute for regenerative energy. This may require advanced Time Lord technology and a good bit of scientific knowledge (both of which the Doctor has plenty of). It would also require an opening to the Time Vortex (such as a paradox or the heart of the TARDIS), but it’s certainly a plausible way for him to cheat the system.


So, there are my collective thoughts on the nature and origin of regeneration. It was brought on by the Time Vortex, is regulated by energy derived from the Time Vortex, is biologically ingrained within the Time Lords, is technologically controlled by the Time Lords, is legally influenced by their government, and is limited by regenerative energy. I’m curious to see what this next episode will bring to the world of regenerative philosophy (as I like to call it), particularly the limit issue. We’ll see very shortly. For all I know, it could change how we view regeneration forever… It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…