Regeneration is perhaps one of the most brilliant aspects of Doctor Who. It is regeneration—both of its lead character and of the show itself—that has allowed the programme to continue for such a long time. Actors, producers, and entire production crews come and go, and yet the show goes on. Whether it’s the separation between classic Who and “Nu” Who, or the changeovers of producers and script editors, Doctor Who has seen many periods over the years, and sometimes, to compare two of those periods is to compare two incredibly different styles that somehow manage to be the same show.
Perhaps the most common way to separate the periods of the show is by the Doctor’s incarnations. William Hartnell played the Doctor from the first episode, “An Unearthly Child”, until “The Tenth Planet”, early in the run of the fourth season. We can easily think of this time as the First Doctor Years. Indeed, this is the way I broke down my recent series of reflections where I looked at my own experiences with Doctor Who over my lifetime. I looked at the first Doctor and then the second, and so on until the eleventh, then finally wrapped it all up with anything else that didn’t fit in those previous eleven categories. This has always been an easy way to break the programme up because each Doctor is easily identifiable and it’s always been easy to assign a number.
Except now things have changed a little.
The numbering is not quite so obvious as suddenly there is an extra Doctor we didn’t know of before. In “The Day of the Doctor”, John Hurt played an incarnation between Paul McGann’s Doctor (the eighth) and Christopher Eccleston’s (the one we’ve previously considered the ninth Doctor). Of course, we can still break things up by Doctors easily enough. We can refer to the David Tennant Years instead of the Tenth Doctor Years. Or we can keep saying the Tenth Doctor Years, since David Tennant was the tenth in the sequence as we saw them. Yet the addition of an extra incarnation has created some confusion. Should we call Eccleston’s Doctor the ninth or the tenth? Strictly speaking, he is now the tenth incarnation of this specific Time Lord, yet only the ninth to use the name Doctor (discounting the fact that John Hurt’s incarnation does consider himself the Doctor again by the end of “The Day of the Doctor”). The question then extends to David Tennant (the tenth or eleventh?) and Matt Smith (eleventh or twelfth?). It has the potential to cause some minor confusion when discussing the different Doctors, and one that’s about to get a little more confusing with some additional revelations (see below). It’s not a big problem, to be sure, and it’s one that fandom will likely overcome quickly enough. However, there are larger problems with the addition of a previously unknown Doctor.
Regeneration arose in Doctor Who as a way of keeping the show going after William Hartnell had to leave the show. He was too ill to continue (not to mention, the producers also wanted him gone due to his irritability), but the BBC didn’t want the show to end and the producers didn’t want to just put a new actor in the role without some sort of explanation. Thus, regeneration was born. It was a way to keep the show moving by not only rejuvenating the character, but also the show itself. Since then, the Doctor has regenerated numerous times, and we have seen each Doctor in sequence. We don’t always see every moment of the Doctor’s life. Indeed, we’re missing most of the eighth Doctor’s life, and the Time War represents possibly centuries of his life that all happened off-screen (apart from glimpses in stories like “The End of Time” and “The Day of the Doctor”). However, we’ve never skipped an entire incarnation—not until now, at any rate. The show has always moved forward. When a new Doctor has taken over, the previous Doctor’s story has finished. Occasionally, earlier gaps are filled in and the Doctor even encounters his previous selves from time to time. But for the most part, we’re always seeing a later point in the Doctor’s life.
However, when the new series began in 2005, it started with a brand new Doctor and we never got to see the regeneration from the previous Doctor. This was for a very good reason. The show needed to gain a new audience, and to start off with a regeneration (the way the 1996 TV Movie did) would no have worked nearly as well. However, this lack of a regeneration did leave the potential open for another incarnation between McGann’s and Eccleston’s. It left the potential that things didn’t happen they way we thought they did—and Steven Moffat certainly loves that kind of reveal!
To be fair, Doctor Who has always been about change, and just because something has never happened before is no reason for it not to happen now. And indeed, this is not strictly the first time a production crew has attempted to add additional unknown incarnations to the Doctor. In the Tom Baker story, “The Brain of Morbius”, when the Doctor is mind battling Morbius, we a succession of faces, starting with Tom Baker’s, then Jon Pertwee’s, Patrick Troughton’s, and William Hartnell’s. But the faces don’t stop there. Suddenly there are other faces never seen before. The intention was that these were the faces of incarnations that came before William Hartnell’s. The idea was simply, how do we know for sure that the first Doctor really was the first? (Of course, this ignored the statement in “The Three Doctors” from a few years earlier where a Time Lord refers to William Hartnell’s Doctor as the “earliest”.) The idea never stuck and the show went on to continue to consider William Hartnell’s Doctor the first, and the extra faces in “The Brain of Morbius” are easily explained away as the incarnations of Morbius rather than the Doctor. But it was an attempt very similar to what Steven Moffat has now done with John Hurt’s Doctor—the big difference being that by actually having John Hurt appear and interact with other Doctors, rather than just being a picture of a face, it is no longer possible to rationalise him away as someone else.
So what exactly is the problem with this? I will admit that it comes down a great deal to personal preference. It’s, quite simply, not what I would have done. And that’s hardly a fair criticism. Yet I can’t help but feel that this has robbed viewers of a part of the Doctor’s life that we should have seen at least some of (and seeing it retroactively in “The Day of the Doctor” doesn’t really count). There’s also a limit to how many times you can reveal that things didn’t happen the way people previously thought they did before it gets tiring, and as I said, Steven Moffat likes that kind of reveal. I’m tired of it. But it’s not something that I can’t get past. I can even enjoy it. I think John Hurt does a great job in “The Day of the Doctor”, and I’m willing to accept that Matt Smith is now the twelfth incarnation of the Time Lord usually known as the Doctor.
The following may be seen as a spoiler, although Steven Moffat has announced it in interviews without spoiler warnings, so it’s out and about and pretty widely known. So I’m going to go ahead and talk about it in advance of today’s showing of “The Time of the Doctor”, the final Matt Smith story.
Matt Smith’s Doctor is the final Doctor: the thirteenth. How exactly is this possible? Was there yet another one between John Hurt and Christopher Eccleston? No, not this time. Rather, this refers back to the cliffhanger of “The Stolen Earth” when David Tennant’s Doctor apparently starts to regenerate. In the opening of “Journey’s End”, the Doctor redirects the regeneration energy into his severed hand, using only enough to heal himself but without actually regenerating. Steven Moffat has decided that this was a use of a regeneration, making Tennant both the tenth and eleventh...er...eleventh and twelfth Doctors, and Matt Smith the final, because Time Lords only get twelve regenerations, making thirteen lives the maximum.
Now, I actually like that that non-regeneration in “The Stolen Earth”/“Journey’s End” has consequences to it. I’ve never liked that there hasn’t seemed to be any previously. And I’ve frequently criticised the lack of consequence in Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who, so some consequence for a change ought to be a good thing. The problem here is that the consequence is being created simply so that the Doctor can get out of it, thus negating the consequence again. Admittedly, the episode hasn’t aired yet, so I’m maybe jumping to conclusions, but unless the Doctor actually dies at the end of the episode, Peter Capaldi turns out to have been a lie, and the show ends forever, then there’s once again no consequence for the Doctor’s actions.
I’m not in any way saying the show should end. I would be crushed if that happened. Obviously, the Doctor needs to somehow survive past his final regeneration. We even know it’s something that’s possible. In “The Five Doctors”, the Time Lords offer the Master a new set of regenerations, and it’s clear by his ability to regenerate in “Utopia” that at some point he got a new set. However, now is not the time for this to happen to the Doctor. This is something that should be built up over the long-term, not revealed and resolved in the very same episode. While the new series has acknowledged that Time Lords have a limit to how many times they can regenerate, it has never once specified that limit as twelve. The closest there’s been is in “Death of the Doctor”, an episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures, in which Matt Smith’s Doctor tells Clyde he can regenerate 507 times (of course, the Doctor does appear to be jesting at this moment). The last mention of the twelve-regeneration limit was in the 1996 TV Movie. As such, many viewers are going to be completely unaware of it, and will be quite surprised to learn that Matt Smith is the final incarnation—especially as a further explanation of how he’s actually used up twelve will also be necessary.
In order for the twelve regeneration limit to have the most impact, it needs to be introduced in the new series before the Doctor reaches it. It’s something that should be overshadowing the final Doctor’s entire existence because suddenly the Doctor is actually in danger of dying. This is something that should inform the Doctor’s actions. It might make him extra cautious, or it might even make him take ridiculous chances because there’s nothing else left to live for, but either way, it’s not something that should be completely ignored. Yet it has been completely ignored for the entirety of Matt Smith’s time. The reason for that is quite simple: Matt Smith wasn’t the last Doctor until Steven Moffat came up with the idea when Smith decided to leave.
No, I don’t have a conduit into Moffat’s thoughts and can’t say for certain he hasn’t been planning this for a long time, but I think it’s reasonably apparent that he hasn’t. This is pretty clearly a case of a writer getting a new idea and trying to shoehorn it in. It’s the same sort of thing seen with the introduction of Mels in “Let’s Kill Hitler”. There, we are introduced to someone who is supposedly Amy and Rory’s childhood best friend, someone who is apparently an extremely important person in their lives and yet we have never heard of before. Moffat does this kind of thing a lot. He introduces new ideas without fully developing them or what came before them—or what comes after. One moment, Amy is a model. Then she’s a writer. Amy and Rory have a loving relationship. Then out of the blue, they’re getting a divorce, but that’s introduced and resolved in the same episode and then never mentioned again. Clara is a nanny to her friend’s children. Now she’s a teacher. Events in characters’ lives never progress organically. They just jump from one to the next with no context as to how they get there, and all because Moffat basically gets an idea of “Wouldn’t it be neat if…?” So now Matt Smith is suddenly the final Doctor just because, wouldn’t it be neat if he was? In my view, that’s not a good enough reason.
Steven Moffat has missed a huge opportunity to make Peter Capaldi the final Doctor. There is so much that could have been done with that. All that was required was a little bit of patience to let things actually develop. Alas, Moffat really seems to be a writer who has to use all his new ideas immediately, rather than work towards them. And that’s a shame. I have no doubt that Peter Capaldi will do a great job as the first of a new line of Doctors, but I will mourn what could have been.