Who Mysteries: Regeneration & Breaking the Limit
John Hussey looks at regeneration and how the Doctor might break the limit.
It has been often wondered how many times the Doctor can regenerate and cheat death. Well that’s exactly what this article is for, to discuss that very question by looking through Doctor Who’s history and showcasing what rules have been applied to the mystical Time Lord society.
Let’s begin by establishing a number: answer twelve. A Time Lord can regenerate twelve times which gives them a total of thirteen incarnations throughout their lifetime. That is of course provided they don’t die before the regenerative process can take effect. This was seen in ‘The Impossible Astronaut’ when the Astronaut (aka River Song) gunned down the Doctor (aka the Teselecta) before he could complete his regeneration.
Another example would be when the Seventh Doctor was killed by Doctor Grace Holloway, who attempted to perform an operation on him – ultimately killing him in the process due to his alien anatomy. This in turn caused his regeneration to postpone because of the anaesthetics he was put on and the results caused the newly regenerated Eighth Doctor to lose his memory. Also the Master demonstrated in ‘Last of the Time Lords’ that you can refuse to regenerate and accept death instead.
To help reassure people that this is in fact a physical law and number, allow me to pass you over to the Doctor himself:
“A Time Lord has thirteen lives and the Master had used all of his. But rules didn’t mean much to him.”
This quote is from the Eighth Doctor’s narrative which is spoken at the beginning of the 1996 television movie ‘Doctor Who’. This pretty much gives a clear indication towards the number of regenerations a Time Lord has within their regeneration cycle. The regeneration cycle has been mentioned before within ‘The Five Doctors’ where the High Council offers the Master a new one in return for completing a task for them. This hints one of two things: 1) A Time Lord can easily gain a new set of regenerations via permission from the High Council of the Time Lords and 2) A regeneration cycle must be earned, perhaps suggesting Time Lords aren’t gifted with the ability at birth.
It has also been established within ‘The Deadly Assassin’ and ‘The Keeper of Traken’ what happens to a Time Lord once they have reached the end of their regeneration cycle. This was demonstrated through the Master’s decayed form, showing he was withering away and dying. Instead of accepting his fate, the Master refused to come to the end of his life and craved more regenerations. He attempted this via using both the Eye of Harmony and the powers of the Keeper of Traken as a source to create a new regeneration cycle. Both these attempts failed and so he resorted to stealing Tremas’ body. This new body lasted him many years until it was destroyed during his execution at the hands of the Daleks. The Master then became a serpent like entity which could possess other life-forms. He was eventually granted a new set of regenerations by the High Council after his resurrection in the Time War.
What will the Doctor do at the end of his regeneration cycle?
This now leaves options open as to what the Doctor will do at the end of his regeneration cycle, which is slowly creeping up on him. Could there be a way for the Doctor to cheat his final fate? Perhaps he could take the Master’s route and steal someone else’s body in order to survive? Maybe the Time Lords could return and then they can grant him a new regeneration cycle after completing an important task for them? Maybe another higher entity, like the White Guardian for instance, could give him a special device or substance that can grant him more regenerations when he requires cheating death? Or perhaps he will simply accept his fate and die knowing he has lived a long adventurous life which has spread good across the cosmos? Time will tell on this one, but it is certainly left open for speculation by the fans.
Well there you have it, another Who Mystery swept under the carpet and explained. Hopefully this article has helped out with newer viewers who were maybe unfamiliar with the regeneration cycle concept and of course I hope it has re-established the idea into older fans’ minds. All I can say is, if anyone paid any attention to the little statement made in The Sarah Jane Adventures episode ‘Death of the Doctor’ when the Doctor said he could regenerate 507 times, then rest assured it wasn’t true. This was just a little joke put in by Russell T Davies:
“507 – I could not resist! I was hooting. It’ll never stick, though. That 13 lives is stuck in people’s heads. It is, isn’t it funny? Yet they only said 13 once or twice. There’s a fascinating academic study to be made out of how some facts stick and some don’t – how Jon Pertwee’s Doctor could say he was thousands of years old, and no-one listens to that, and yet someone once says he’s only got thirteen lives, and it becomes lore. It’s really interesting, I think. That’s why I’m quite serious that that 507 thing won’t stick, because the 13 is too deeply ingrained in the public consciousness. But how? How did that get there? It’s fascinating, it’s really weird. Anyway, that’ll be my book in my retirement!”
It wasn’t meant to be taken seriously, nor was it meant to mess with continuity and rules established within the Classic Series. The Doctor has twelve regenerations, thirteen lives and is currently on his eleventh incarnation.