Where Do We Stand on the Regeneration Limit?
Guest contributor Robert Warburton investigates.
“Time Lords have this little trick, it’s sort of a way of cheating death. Except… it means I’m gonna change, and I’m not going to see you again. Not like this; not with this daft old face” – The Ninth Doctor, The Parting of the Ways
For a long time, regeneration and the regeneration limit have been long debated amongst Doctor Who fans. Some fans believe that the Doctor has long since passed the limit due to the now-retconned faces seen in ‘The Brain of Morbius”, whilst others believe that Peter Capaldi playing the 12th Doctor will be the 13th incarnation of the infamous Time Lord. The purpose of this article is to prove, once and for all, the regeneration limit and where it stands within the narrative of the programme.
Established in The Deadly Assassin, it has been known that the Doctor can only regenerate 12 times, or 13 incarnations of a Time Lord in total. We know that this can be challenged and that the High Council of Gallifrey can provide further regenerations to a Time Lord in times of need (such as what was offered to the Master in The Five Doctor’s if he agreed to help them track down the Doctor), and regenerations can even be used up by a Time Lord (or somebody with regenerative capabilities) to revive a dead Time Lord; such as what River Song did during the events of Let’s Kill Hitler. Instantly, we know that the limit can be stretched and moulded into whatever form the writing staff desire, but more on that later.
Within the last 50 years of Doctor Who, the franchise as seen two Time Lords, and one Time Lady, who have had the ability to regenerate who have served as either a main character, or a main villain; as well as one human with ‘Time Lord DNA’, as Madame Vastra put it. Of course, I refer to the Doctor, the Master, and Romanadvoratrelundar, or Romana for short; as well as Melody Pond (later known as River Song).
I know that a lot of people will disagree with me on this point, but we must take into account that this is excluding individuals such as Rassilon and other members of the Gallifreyan population, and also excluding Susan Foreman who was never stated to be a Time Lady within the televised narrative, only that she was Gallifreyan and not all Gallifreyan’s are Time Lords or Time Ladies. During their respective character arcs, we have seen (as of writing) 13 incarnations of the Doctor, seven incarnations of the Master, two incarnations of Romana, and three incarnations of River Song. The Master is probably the most obvious example of a Time Lord who surpassed the regeneration limit, as in only his second on-screen appearance; we see him after his 13th incarnation and has to take over Tremas’ body in order to gain a new body of his own that isn’t decaying. It’s worth noting, of course, that not all regenerations of the Master have been seen on screen as he doesn’t always regenerate, but it is interesting to note that he is the perfect example of a Gallifreyan taking on board extra regenerations after being granted them by the High Council.
During its 50 year history; Doctor Who has witnessed at least 26 different actors portray any of the aforementioned characters. Below, I’ve outlined all the actors who have played these characters (minus the Doctor), their final televised appearances and their causes of death;
- Roger Delgado: Frontier in Space – cause of death unknown due to Delgado’s unfortunate passing
- Peter Pratt and Geoffrey Beevers: The Keeper of the Traken – both actors portrayed the same incarnation of the Master after his 13th life – the Master revives himself by taking over the body of Tremis
- Anthony Ainley: Survival – trapped on the exploding planet of the Cheetah people (presumed cause of death)
- Gordon Tipple: Doctor Who – exterminated by Daleks on Skaro
- Eric Roberts: Doctor Who – fell into the Eye of Harmony on the Doctor’s TARDIS
- Sir Derek Jacobi: Utopia – shot by the Master’s scientific assistant, Chantho
- John Simm: The End of Time Part Two – confirmed by Steven Moffat to still be the current portrayer of the Master as his fate after The End of Time Part Two has not yet been revealed
- Mary Tamm: Destiny of the Daleks – cause of death unknown as Mary Tamm left the series and wasn’t invited back for a regeneration scene.
- Lalla Ward: Warriors’ Gate – cause of death unknown as she was last seen in E-Space with K9. The spin-off media expanded on her fate, but the canonicity of this can be pulled into question. It was Lalla Ward’s first scene as Romana II that showed that a Time Lady or Time Lord could pick and choose the look of their regeneration if the circumstances allowed for it.
Melody Pond (River Song)
- Sydney Wade: Day of the Moon – Melody was dying, presumably due to malnutrition and illness
- Nina Toussaint-White: Let’s Kill Hitler – shot by Adolf Hitler after basically high-jacking the Doctor’s TARDIS in front of Amy and Rory
- Alex Kingston: Forest of the Dead – died permanently after sacrificing all of her regenerations to revive the Doctor after she poisoned him in Let’s Kill Hitler.
As evidenced above, it’s clear that not only can a regenerating Time Lord or Lady be granted extra regenerations, but also bypass the regeneration limit and choose their appearance if circumstances allow for it. Below, I’ll break down the Doctor and explain why, once and for all, why Matt Smith is the 11th Doctor but also the 13th incarnation of the same man.
The Doctor’s Incarnations
William Hartnell, of course, played the first incarnation of the Doctor in the debut story “An Unearthly Child” on November 23rd, 1963 at 5:16pm. Since then, countless actors have had a crack at playing the Doctor in various media and forms, including Richard E Grant and Rowan Atkinson. Of these countless actors, 12 have stood as the definitive and ‘canon’ incarnations of the man himself, and this seems to be where the main confusion comes into play for a lot of fans. Just to recap; I will only be stating nothing but evidence within the televised narrative.
- William Hartnell, the First Doctor and the first incarnation: The Tenth Planet – succumbing to his age, the Doctor’s body was wearing thin and he regenerated for the first time.
- Patrick Troughton, the Second Doctor and the second incarnation: The War Games – having been put on trial by the Time Lords, the Doctor was forced into exile and forced to ‘change his appearance’ and therefore regenerated
- Jon Pertwee, the Third Doctor and the third incarnation: Planet of the Spiders – whilst on Metabelis III, the Doctor was poisoned by the radiation from the crystals and regenerated
- Tom Baker, the Fourth Doctor and the fourth incarnation: Logopolis – whilst fighting against the Master and attempting to save the world, the fourth Doctor fell from the Pharos Project radio telescope and, with the help of the mysterious Watcher, regenerated
- Peter Davison, the Fifth Doctor and the fifth incarnation: The Caves of Androzani – the Doctor and Peri were poisoned by the drug spectrox whilst on Androzani Minor. With only one antidote, the Doctor chose to save Peri’s life at the cost of his own
- Colin Baker, the Sixth Doctor and the sixth incarnation: Time and the Rani – the cause of death for the Sixth Doctor was never revealed, however some fans joke that this incarnation died after hitting his head on the TARDIS console after the Rani fired upon his TARDIS whilst it was in flight.
- Sylvester McCoy, the Seventh Doctor and the seventh incarnation: Doctor Who – the Seventh Doctor exited his TARDIS in San Francisco and was shot by a gang member, later dying on the operation table due to the surgeons being unfamiliar with his Gallifreyan and twin-heart biology.
- Paul McGann, the Eighth Doctor and eighth incarnation: The Night of the Doctor – after crashing on Karn whilst trying to save Cass from her crashing ship, the Doctor died. The Sisterhood of Karn revived him for four minutes, allowing him to have a regeneration induced by the Sisterhood and regenerate into the War Doctor after deciding that the universe no longer had any need for a ‘doctor’, but instead a ‘warrior’
- John Hurt, the War Doctor and ninth incarnation: The Day of the Doctor – this is where it gets tricky. The War Doctor, whilst he didn’t officially use the title of ‘the Doctor’ until the end of his life, still used up an incarnation of the Doctor to fight in the Last Great Time War. He regenerated after realising his body, just like his first incarnation, was wearing thin and couldn’t carry on any more.
- Christopher Eccelston, the Ninth Doctor and tenth incarnation: The Parting of the Ways – having been saved by Rose Tyler becoming Bad Wolf after absorbing the Time Vortex from the heart of the TARDIS, this incarnation took the energy within himself to save Rose, but caused every single cell in his body to start dying.
- David Tennant, the Tenth Doctor and eleventh incarnation: The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End – after being shot by a Dalek, the Doctor begins to regenerate. However, because the Tenth Doctor was vain about his appearance and didn’t want to change, he used all the energy he needed to in order to heal his injuries, however siphoned off the remaining energy into a bio-matching receptacle – the hand that he lost in a sword fight against the leader of the Sycorax in The Christmas Invasion. He healed himself and used a whole regeneration, but did not change his appearance. It’s stated so in the episodes and therefore David Tennant used two regenerations during his tenure
- David Tennant, the Tenth Doctor and twelfth incarnation: The End of Time Part Two – in order to save Wilfred Mott from dying in the radiation chamber which housed all the left over radiation from the Immortality Gate, the Doctor switched places with Wilf and took all the energy himself, beginning the regeneration shortly afterwards
- Matt Smith, the Eleventh Doctor and the thirteenth incarnation: The Time of Doctor – we have no concrete knowledge of how the Fall of the Eleventh will take place, but it will happen on December 25th, 2013, almost four years after Matt Smith’s debut as the Doctor
In summary, the regeneration limit has been proven in the past to be an integral part of Doctor Who mythology, but also an easily hand-waved ‘rule’ if needed in a particular circumstance. The Doctor himself is on his final life, and who knows how he’ll be able to regenerate into Peter Capaldi come Christmas Day. All I know is that I, like thousands of other fans all of the world, will be waiting patiently to see what the future holds after the Fall of the Eleventh when the clock strikes Twelve.