When the Doctor's number is up

Dear Johnny Fanboy,

Here's a potential problem for the future and a thought-provoker for die-hard Doctor Who fans as well as the BBC.

As per Who mythology, the Doctor can only regenerate twelve times and we are currently on the Tenth Doctor. What are the BBC going to do when the series eventually reaches the Twelfth Doctor and he needs to regenerate - again - and the BBC wish to continue the series?

Andy K
(A sad Doctor Who fan)

Johnny Fanboy replies:

Actually, the BBC won't have to confront this problem until the Doctor reaches the end of his thirteenth incarnation (twelve regenerations after the First Doctor makes thirteen Doctors in total) but I take your point. However, the mythology already contains some handy get-out clauses.

As far back as The Deadly Assassin, the very story that laid down the "twelve regenerations" rule, it was also established that a Time Lord could extend his or her existence by gaining access to a suitably powerful energy source. In this story, the Master, having used up all of his lives, tries to regenerate again by exposing his decaying body to the energies of the Eye of Harmony on Gallifrey. Though the Fourth Doctor stops him, the Master manages to achieve a partial recuperation into a slightly less emaciated form.

In another Gallifrey/Master story, The Five Doctors, the Time Lords offer the Master "a complete new life cycle". It is not explained how they aim to achieve this (though I guess it would probably involve the Eye of Harmony), but the Master does not doubt that this is possible. In the same story, it is alleged that Rassilon, the legendary ruler from Gallifrey's distant past, achieved "timeless, perpetual bodily regeneration", though he ultimately chose eternal sleep because he realised that immortality was "a curse, not a blessing".

In The Sound of Drums, The Master reveals that the Time Lords "resurrected" him to fight for them in the Time War, though again it is not revealed how they managed this feat.

Though Gallifrey and its Eye of Harmony no longer exist, the Rift has proven to be a more than adequate substitute power source for the TARDIS (in Boom Town and Utopia), so when the writers eventually need to facilitate a thirteenth regeneration for the Doctor, or indeed a complete new life cycle, the Rift might prove to be useful. So too might the power of the Time Vortex, as used by Rose Tyler to destroy the Daleks, save the Ninth Doctor and resurrect Captain Jack in The Parting of the Ways. Given his moral objections to immortality in stories such as The Brain of Morbius and Utopia, the Doctor may resist attempts to artificially prolong his life, but others (such as his companions) might decide that the universe needs him too badly to allow him to pass away.

It's also worth pointing out that adventures in other media have suggested that the Doctor had some kind of existence before the incarnations seen on TV. Ben Aaronovitch's novelisation of Remembrance of the Daleks and Marc Platt's novel Lungbarrow both hint at a connection between the Doctor and the Other, a contemporary of Rassilon. It is implied that the Doctor could be a reincarnation of the Other. This might explain the pre-Hartnell faces seen during the mind-bending contest in The Brain of Morbius (if the faces are those of the Other or subsequent reincarnated forms). In a deleted scene from Remembrance of the Daleks, the Doctor tells Davros that he is "far more than just another Time Lord".

So, when the Thirteenth Doctor eventually utters his final words, it needn't be the end, if the moment has been prepared for. Where there's life, there's hope. It's far from being all over...

Return to: