A Study of Regeneration: The Mind Problem

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Guest contributor Andrew Bohman examines what happens to the Doctor during the change.

Regeneration is both a blessing and a curse to the Whovian world. It is a process which has enabled Doctor Who to survive and thrive for fifty years, changing and bringing new life to the show, while at the same time it ends a beloved incarnation of the Doctor, bringing heartbreak to us fans each time. But what exactly is regeneration? Is it a mere alteration of physical features and personality, or is it something deeper, something that caused a reluctant Tenth Doctor to say “I don’t want to go?” In lieu of yet another Doctor’s regeneration, I will offer my thoughts on the subject and what it exactly implies.

Gleaning from the Past

tennant-final-line-regen-want-to-go-end-of-timeEvery Doctor’s regeneration has been different, from its cause to its visual effect, and each one gives us a little more insight on the process itself. But the regeneration I think tells us the most about the process is the Tenth Doctor’s. What separates Ten’s regeneration from the others, among other things, is the early warning he received about his “death.” (I’ll get to the meta-crisis regeneration later.) His regeneration was predicted several episodes in advance and its imminence was clear to him well before it occurred. The knowledge of it wore on him and he spent a long time trying to escape from it (most of which I speculate is not onscreen, between “The Waters of Mars” and “The End of Time”). He really didn’t want to go, and that’s the first time we’ve ever seen anything like that with the Doctor. Nearly all the others accepted it, but Ten fought back. This, I believe, tells us more about the actual process of regeneration than any of the predecessors.

The Matter of the Body

Before venturing into the deeper philosophical questions, first I feel I should address the most basic aspect of regeneration: what happens to the physical body. I think it is without much question or debate that the matter constituting a Time Lord’s body has continuity. That is, the pre-regeneration Doctor is made up of the same atoms as the post-regeneration Doctor. They are both the same organism, but they have changed. The only other alternative is to say that somehow, perhaps by Time Lord technology, the bodies are “swapped.” That takes an extreme in which the Doctors are all physically distinct beings with a shared, general title (like “The King of England”). However, that doesn’t seem to be supported by the dialogue within the show or by logic. I would say that the physical change occurs at the cellular level. The matter and atoms have continuity, but the cells change. That accounts for the new appearance. Upon the destruction of the previous body, instead of repairing the damaged cells they re-make themselves, a drastic form of healing which yields a completely new physical body. However, this only accounts for the physical side of regeneration, not the mental aspects.

The Question of the Mind

troughton-regenThe most vague and mind-bending question regarding regeneration is naturally the most difficult to explain—what happens to the Doctor’s mind? We know that he keeps his memories, and that he gets a new personality, but our knowledge doesn’t extend much beyond that. Here is where the Tenth Doctor’s dilemma comes into play. As mentioned, the Tenth Doctor resisted his death. This, I believe, reveals what goes on from the Doctor’s point of view as opposed to our own. From the café scene with Wilfred in “The End of Time,” the Doctor says perhaps the single most helpful line on this subject in the history of the show:

“I can still die. If I’m killed before regeneration, then I’m dead. Even then, even if I change, it feels like dying. Everything I am dies. Some new man goes sauntering away, and I’m dead.”

This line is the entire basis for the theory which I am about to present. It introduced a concept never before addressed onscreen and almost answered that question of the mind, or at least it provided the key to the answer. This, for one, rules out in my mind the explanation that it’s a mere change. One could argue that the Tenth Doctor is vainly mourning over a lost personality and appearance, but it doesn’t really fit with his character to get so upset over that. So what could be so dreadful about regeneration that he treats it like death? What could be happening from his point of view? Somewhere, a form of death is involved, so where does it happen? Now is the time for logic and speculation, where the debatable ground lies.

“It Feels Like Dying”

Looking at that quote and at Ten’s final words, it seems that from a mental standpoint, the Doctor really does die. You’ll have to bear with me on this for a while, it’s very difficult to understand and even more difficult to explain. My theory is basically that from the pre- regeneration Doctor to the post-regeneration Doctor, the mental continuity is broken. The former incarnation actually dies, from his point of view. His consciousness— his soul, if you wish— ceases. How can this be, you might ask, if the latter incarnation retains his memories? To answer that, I would say that there is mental continuity from the latter. From his point of view, there has just been a change. He remembers everything that all his previous regenerations experienced as if he’d experienced them from his own point of view. Quoting the Fifth Doctor from “The Five Doctors,”

“A man is the sum of his memories, a Time Lord even more so.”

tom-baker-regenEach incarnation of the Doctor is the same man, they aren’t different men with the same title. They all share the same memories and hence are the same Time Lord.

The tricky part of this is that for there to be mental continuity with one incarnation and mental death to another, there is the implication that each incarnation has a different consciousness which ends separately, somehow. This is where this theory becomes shady and more difficult. How can they have separate consciousnesses with the same mind? I will offer multiple thoughts on this (and they’re just thoughts at that, not beliefs). First, we humans have two consciousnesses in a way—the subconscious mind and the normal conscious mind, both in the same person. So, with this in mind, the Doctor has different consciousnesses similar to how we do, the difference being that they are all the same type of consciousness and do not necessarily coexist. Another thought is that, going with the Fifth Doctor quote, each incarnation’s consciousness is comprised of a different but overlapping sum of memories. The First Doctor has his own memories. The Second has the memories of the First Doctor and himself. The Third has the memories of the First, Second, and himself, and so on.

Still confused? I don’t blame you. The third idea I’ll present is the one that inspired this whole theory in the first place, and hopefully it clears up what I’m trying to say. I have come across this concept several times, and the first time I read about it, it was being used in a similar context related to regeneration (but not the same concept) which in turn triggered this idea. Imagine a theoretical teleportation system in which you go into a chamber and you are scanned. Every atom, every neuron position, is exactly copied. Then, it sends the information to a distant planet where an exact replica of you is generated using the information. The original version of you is then disintegrated. The generated person shares every memory with the original, he just felt like he was transported. He goes on living your life, the same memories but different matter. You, however, are dead. From your point of view, you ceased to exist. I think this basically explains what it’s like to regenerate as a Time Lord, except in this case the matter remains constant but the appearance and personality are what changes.


So, my theory, in summary, is that during regeneration the Doctors physically change and their consciousness dies and is reborn as a new consciousness. Note that it does not necessarily reflect a set-in-stone belief I have, it’s just a theory which admittedly does have several rough spots and could change in the future as the show goes on. It’s a dreary thought I know, and it makes each regeneration all the more heartbreaking— the Tenth Doctor’s especially. It’s something to keep in mind while Eleven regenerates, despite how it might toy with the emotions.

In the forthcoming articles, I’ll push a bit further into the idea of death in regeneration and then I’ll explore several different aspects and philosophies of the process.