Making Sense of the Tenth Doctor’s Regeneration

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Guest contributor Morgan Gudgin examines Tennant’s divisive exit.

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This Christmas another Doctor Who special will air, and in it Matt Smith’s version of the Doctor will regenerate into a brand new incarnation. We don’t yet know what will cause the Eleventh Doctor to give way to the Twelfth, but we can only hope that while it will be spectacular to watch, this incarnation won’t spend a sizeable chunk of the episode revisiting every companion the Doctor has ever had and trying to stave off the inevitable.

Don’t get me wrong, I really liked Tennant’s take on the Doctor, but there is no avoiding the fact that in The End of Time he took a long time to actually go. In fact his departure was handled in a very different manner to most of the other incarnations. With the exception of the Second Doctor (who arguably had very good reason in that he wasn’t dying and was being punished by the Time Lords) no Doctor has really protested against their imminent regeneration – after all, there is always a very good reason the process has started, such as lethal radiation exposure, spectrox toxaemia or falling off a radio telescope. Typically the fatal circumstances that started the process in the first place are going to make that incarnation accept and welcome the change of body and personality that comes with regeneration, since the alternative is death.

So why was the Tenth Doctor so opposed to his? Many fans found the Tenth Doctor’s departure annoying and overblown. It seems that many felt the whole regeneration sequence was too long, unnecessarily maudlin and ultimately too unlike those of past incarnations.

Let’s revisit the lead-up to the regeneration. The Tenth Doctor was first alerted to his upcoming demise by the telepathic Ood after he and Donna freed them in Planet of the Ood, and the prediction was reinforced in rather creepy fashion by the psychic Carmen in Planet of the Dead. After interfering in a fixed point in time in The Waters of Mars the Doctor saw a vision of Ood Sigma that he believed was a portent of his death – so he ran.

eotdec-(1)In The End of Time, the Doctor meets Wilf and tearfully relates that he is going to die, and after returning Gallifrey and the Time Lords to the Time War, has to save Wilf from a fatal radiation pulse by absorbing it himself. Even after this and the beginning of the regeneration process, the Tenth Doctor chose to put off the actual regeneration as long as possible in favour of visiting every single previous companion in a sombre and prolonged farewell tour. Eventually he finishes and, suffering considerable pain from either the remarkably delayed radiation poisoning or from withholding the regeneration for so long (or a combination of the two), retires to his TARDIS to take a last flight around Earth while emotionally exclaiming ‘I don’t want to go!’ before regenerating to the very funereal, final sound of Murray Gold’s “Vale Decem”.

It’s fair to say that all of this stands in stark contrast with the final moments of pretty much every other incarnation of the Doctor, who have generally dealt with their demise with serenity, humility and acceptance. Compare how the Tenth Doctor went out with how the Ninth Doctor left us – quickly, calmly, even happily, making jokes at his own expense and not really seeming all that fazed by what is about to happen to him, yet with the Tenth Doctor it all seems rather out of keeping with how it’s been done before, and even out of character for the Doctor. However, it does make sense if you consider the following points:

  • Most of the Doctor’s previous regenerations happened fairly quickly and without any considerable lead-up, and are often a product of necessary sacrifice. By the time it’s upon him, the Doctor has already been fatally injured and so likely welcomes regeneration to the alternative, which would in most cases be a decidedly unpleasant death. The Tenth Doctor, by comparison, is warned of his approaching fate quite some time in advance and while he is still fit and well, so he is left with plenty of time to deliberate on the cause, meaning and consequences of something that he is told he won’t survive. Look how the Eleventh Doctor reacted upon learning he was destined to die at Lake Silencio – he put it off for as long as possible and went on something of a farewell tour lasting about two hundred years. Sounds more than a little familiar.
  • Remember that although the Tenth Doctor first learned of his demise from the Ood while travelling with Donna, for much of the time prior to his regeneration he was travelling alone. The companions provide a stabilising influence for the Doctor. This meant that for the Tenth Doctor there was nobody to step in and say ‘you’re probably overreacting and you’re definitely obsessing’. We’ve seen on several occasions why the Doctor should always travel with a companion, so perhaps there are others – we all know the Doctor is a great thinker, but what happens when he starts thinking about his own death and there’s nobody there for him to talk to about this subject, nobody present to stop him or inspire him to focus on it or even something else in a more productive and positive manner? Perhaps Donna telling the Doctor he needs somebody with him ‘Because sometimes, I think you need someone to stop you’ is more layered than we expected.
  • The Tenth Doctor’s behaviour seems out of keeping with prior incarnations (for example, the Ninth Doctor was at times accepting of his death, as long as it was a good one) but that might just be the point – different incarnation, different personality. Although the Doctor has core elements of his character that more or less stay the same, there is still considerable variation in his personality every time he regenerates. For example, this incarnation views regeneration as very much like death rather than a change of face and persona, calling the next incarnation ‘some new man’. This view might even be unique among incarnations of the Doctor, not least because…
  • …as far as we know this incarnation of the Doctor is the only one who has experienced the complete (or nearly complete) process of regeneration without actually changing into a new person. The modern regeneration process in particular seems pretty traumatic and unpleasant, but any new incarnation might not fully remember the entire episode. The Tenth Doctor probably does, however, since he needed to regenerate but was able to siphon off the surplus regenerative energy after the damage to his body was repaired to avoid becoming a new man. Therefore he probably remembers just how unpleasant it is, and his apprehension of what might otherwise be a perfectly normal regeneration starts to make sense.
  • Most importantly of all, it seems that the Doctor was not expecting to regenerate, he was expecting to die – as in completely. What the Ood say to him is rather cryptic and vague, but ‘your song is ending’ does sound pretty final. Carmen adds a bit more ominous detail, and when the Doctor is talking to Wilf in the café he mentions regeneration as a possibility but doesn’t seem to think that’s going to be the outcome. Instead he seems pretty certain that he is simply going to die, that he will be the last incarnation of the Doctor and there’s nothing he can do about it – we’re not so much watching the Tenth Doctor running from an impending regeneration as the Doctor running from his imminent death. Under these circumstances, his depressed behaviour, desire to put it off as long as possible and ‘get his reward’ by looking in on every previous companion makes a lot more sense.

Although we as viewers were aware that we were witnessing a regeneration into a new body and not his actual death, the Doctor doesn’t know this and so his actions and behaviour begin to make sense. By the time he stumbles into the TARDIS and takes off, he presumably feels that his time has come and is expecting the imminent regeneration to fail – perhaps this is a danger with radiation or more likely when a Time Lord suppresses the process for as long as he did, which he only did so as to see all his old companions one last time.

After a furiously powerful regeneration, which I always assumed was because it was suppressed for so long, the surprise on the Eleventh Doctor’s face and his immediate inventory of body parts the moment the energy subsides suggests that the Doctor was genuinely not expecting to continue in another incarnation.

The Tenth Doctor had a good run and a lot of memorable stories, and if nothing else, his regeneration was certainly interesting. Let’s hope the Eleventh Doctor gets an equally memorable send off – and let’s also hope it makes a bit more sense.