Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Regeneration (but were afraid to ask)

Doctor Who has introduced us to the concept of Regeneration. However, it has left it to the fans to parse through nearly 50 years of programing to piece together the clues and hints left throughout the series to try and understand this mysterious and alien ability.

Regeneration allows Time Lords,when mortally wounded or old, to undergo a transformation into a new physical form. The new form is usually accompanied with a slight change in personality.

The different personalities of The Doctor and his radically different appearance occassionally leads fans to ponder: is this a new man who just has the memories of previous Doctors?

I would argue that, to quote the 10th Doctor after his regeneration, It's "..the same man, new face. Well, new everything."

The change in personality is probably caused by alteration of the Doctor's brain chemistry. It's not a stretch, we see that in nature today. Why are some people perpetually depressed without cause? Occassionally it's due to body chemistry. If the Doctor is inhabiting a completely new body, it seems plausible to think that the body chemistry differences from body to body might affect changes in personality. He has the same knowledge and memories but the physiological changes affect his personality, energy levels, etc.

There is also the impact that appearance has on how people relate to the Doctor. Since the Doctor doesn't control the appearance he obtains after he regenerates he has to accomodate to how people react to his physical form (and the assumptions people make about him based on his appearance).

Perhaps the Doctor, for example, at his core has always been a ladies man. However, due to his physical appearance he hasn't always been able to act on those urges. It seems unlikely that 20 year old blonde shop girls or medical residents would be throwing themselves at a Doctor who looks like Hartnel or McCoy. So the Doctor takes the attitude of wise old man or father figure based on how people are reacting to him.

A clearer example of this concept, of the Doctor manipulating (or adapting), to peoples perception of his appearance is Troughton's Doctor. We all accept that the Doctor is no fool. However, the second Doctor often appeared and acted the part of the clown. The second Doctors greatest weapon was getting his enemies to underestimate him. Once he regenerated into the third Doctor, his aristocratic, dignified appearance no longer allowed him to rely on that bag of tricks.

So I would argue that at his core the Doctor is essentially the same man. His soul, and moral center are not altered. He maintains his core personality traits: insatiable curiousity, wanderlust, sympathy, heroism, intolerance of injustice.

Any changes in personality are the result of a number of factors: physiological changes to his brain chemistry, the effect a change of appearance has on his attitude (younger body - more energetic, etc), and a conscious decision on the Doctor's part to utilize others perceptions of him to his advantage.

Finally, I would argue that even if the Doctor was not changing physical form, life events would cause changes in personality. When we first meet the Doctor he is about 200-300 years old. He is now over 907 years old. How many literary characters have we followed for over 600 years of their life? The Doctor is unique in this regard.

Have you maintained the same personality throughout your entire life, or has it evolved? Do people have the same personality in their teens than in their 30s? The answer obviously, no. So changes in the Doctor's personality could also be attributed to his aging. While televised portions of the Doctor's life occur within a decade of real time, withing the Doctor's chronology occassionally hundreds of years have passed. While in New Who the Doctor's adventures appear to be occuring in real time (the Doctor appears to have only aged the amount of years the show has been on the air) in Classic Who hundreds of years were said to have passed between regenerations. The fourth Doctor for example claims to be less than 500 years old while the 11th Doctor is now said to be about 907. Obviously, 400 years haven't passed since Tom Baker donned his long scarf so Classic Who allowed for gaps in time between televised adventures.

Beyond simple aging, life experiences affect personality as well. Much has been made of Eccleston's Doctor being darker than Tennant's as proof that the Doctors are different men. This doesn't account for the fact that those the Doctor was in different places in his life. Eccleston's Doctor was fresh out of the Time War. He had emotional wounds that had yet to heal. He was bitter.

Rose changed that. Rose brought hope and joy back into his life. Rose helped the Doctor heal. So it's little wonder that Tennant's Doctor was more joyful and lighthearted than Eccleston's Doctor. He wasn't a different man, he was just in a different place. In the same way someone a week after the death of a parent would behave much differently then they would 5 years later.

How do the Doctors differ per regeneration? I would say it's the same man, just at a different point in his life. The fact that his life evolves different than ours is what makes him alien and fascinating.

A Brief History of Regeneration

The first regeneration, though it was called renewal at the time, occured at the conclusion of 'The Tenth Planet'. The first Doctor collapses from exhaustion and comments that his body was "wearing a bit thin". He then regenerates into the second Doctor Patrick Troughton.

In the second Doctor's first episode, 'The Power of the Daleks', the Doctor draws an analogy between regeneration and a caterpillar turning into a butterfly.

When the second Doctor underwent regeneration it was forced on him by the Time Lords at the conclusion of 'The War Games'. In 'The War Games' it was referred to as a "change of appearance". This suggested at the time that it was a superficial change. The second Doctor protests "you can't just change what I look like without consulting me!". Here the change is discussed as superficial not as the death of the second Doctor as an individual.

The first official use of the term "regeneration" occurred during the regeneration from Pertwee to Tom Baker (third to fourth Doctor). This is also the first time the personality shift is mentioned. In 'Planet of the Spiders' it was explained that the Doctor's brain cells had been shaken up in the process. That his behavior would be erratic for a time.

In 'The Deadly Assasin', a fourth Doctor episode, it is stated that a Time Lord can regenerate 12 times before dying. A total of 13 incarnations per Time Lord. In 'Mawdryn Undead' the fifth Doctor explicitly states that he has 8 incarnations left.

The Master is an example of a Time Lord that has exhausted his regenerations. When The Master finds himself at the end of his cycle of lives he escapes death by taking possesion of another body, transfering his mind.

In 'The Five Doctors' The Master is offered a new cycle of regenerations, implying the 12 regeneration can be circumvented. It also may imply that the regeneration process is achieved through science and is not a biological ability (my theory has always been that it is achieved through nanites - check one of my other posts in this blog for more on that topic).

The only time the Doctor makes a distinction between his death and the death of a particular incarnation is during 'The End of Time'. The Doctor makes it clear he regards regeneration nearly as bad as death because, as he claims, "he dies and a new man walks away". On a smaller scale though, I would say that humans experience that as well as they transition from major life events (graduating from college, turning 30, the birth of a child, middle age, etc). How many of us at times have felt that the person we used to be is dead and another person has taken their place? Are you still the carefree partier you use to be in college or have you become someone altogether different, someone with a job and responsibilities?

In the end isn't that what good science fiction is supposed to do-give us an allegory for our own lives and experiences?

In conclusion, I believe The Doctors are all the same man, so should you.

P.S. Don't judge him based on his evolving wardrobe either, I'm sure you have some pretty questionable outfits in the back of your closet.

1 comment:

  1. You're leaving out "Underworld" where the Minyans are established as being the first race meddled with by the Time Lords, including receiving regeneration technology that they use with equipment to regenerate thousands of times without the body alteration. Also, the regeneration of Romana in "Destiny of the Daleks" where she has active control over her regenerated appearance with no apparent trauma, nor any sense of remorse from her or the Doctor at having wasted a lifesaving regeneration to get a different look.

    It's clear from various statements that:
    1. A normal regeneration is a social decision in Time Lord society, and is done in a safe manner where the individual can select the outcome and perhaps have a more consistent personality. This is reinforced in "The Deadly Assassin" by the "facelift" comment.
    2. The regeneration limit is arbitrary. One could speculate it's to keep the Time Lords from thinking themselves gods, or from becoming a stagnant group of the same individuals.
    3. Regenerating into a new body rather than the original one was a decision made by the Time Lords. From statements in "Underworld" it can be inferred that exhaustion and instability of repeated regenerations in the same body is a factor.