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This is part four in a series of articles speculating on the content of the upcoming Doctor Who fiftieth anniversary special “The Day of the Doctor”. Part one can be read here, part two here, and part three here. Some elements of this post may be considered spoilers for the preceding 50 years of Doctor Who, and will reference noncanonical statements presented in trailers and interviews.
Well okay, not straight away. There is this one other thing I’ve talked around a bit but never quite locked in on. Back in 1976, a writer named Robert Holmes introduced a small point in an episode of a serial in the middle of season 14 of Doctor Who which absolutely and inescapably ensured that this show which, by its very nature, was capable of lasting forever would eventually have an absolute permanent and inescapable end. There is no choice, no alternative. If The Warlock(John Hurt) is a heretofore undocumented past incarnation, then Matt Smith is playing the twelfth incarnation, and Peter Capaldi will be the last Doctor. When he chooses to leave the role, the series will end forever with no hope of continuation.
And if you believe that, I’ve got this bridge…
Before I get to the actual speculating, I suppose we should talk a little about this. It’s been reported at length that Steven Moffat has been “working on” a strategy to “fix” the regeneration limit. This is always broached in hushed, ominous tones, as if he risked tampering in God’s domain, rousing mighty Cthulhu, waking the Red King and exposing the man behind the curtain. Which is silly.
Frankly, I don’t even especially want an explanation, just an acknowledgement. Personally, my preferred way to deal with the term limit would be for the thirteenth Doctor to fall down, mortally wounded, say something sad about how he’s all out of regenerations and this is the real end, then regenerate anyway, look down at himself, shrug, and say, “Well I guess I don’t have to worry about that any more. Must have been that thing that happened to me that one time on that planet or something.” Acknowledge that the rules have changed, move on, and don’t make a big deal of it.
But it seems like we’re resigned to a Big Deal being Made of it in the nearish future. I see four possibilities:
- The limit will be addressed in The Day of the Doctor, being extended or lifted because of something to do with The Warlock or The Doctor’s collapsing timestream
- The limit will be addressed in the 2013 Christmas Special, in relation to the Doctor’s regeneration therein.
- Moffat will stick the solution in his back pocket and sit on it until Peter Capaldi decides to step down.
- The whole thing is a feint (Moffat freely admits that he’s sometimes “leaked” false information) and Moffat is planning to just quietly ignore the issue.
The thirteen incarnation limit was introduced in The Deadly Assassin, a serial whose overarching plot is that, having expended all his regenerations and been reduced to a wraith-like form that looks a bit like a charbroiled reptile, The Master has concocted one of his trademark circuitous plans to access the full power of the black hole the Time Lords unwittingly keep under the floor in their town hall, so that he could use it to snag a couple of spare one-ups, destroying the planet in the process. The play may or may not have been flawed; we don’t find out, since The Doctor puts a stop to it.
The next time we hear, or rather don’t hear, about the regeneration limit is in the famously never-completed Douglas Adams-penned serial Shada. A production strike left this serial only half-made (No one’s ever explained to me why they opted to just swallow the cost and move on rather than filming the rest of it later and making it the first serial of the next season to recoup some of their losses. I can only guess there were some kind of weird legal issues involving fiscal years and unions), but in one of the filmed sequences, retired Time Lord Professor Chronotis is mortally wounded, and vanishes. The Doctor’s Time Lady companion Romana concludes that this is because he was on his final incarnation, so apparently a Time Lord bereft of spare regenerations simply vanishes out of existence, except that this is the only time that happens. A short while later, he pops back into existence(Most say that the reason he vanishes is unrelated to his lack of regenerations, and is just because he got sucked up out of time, but this overlooks that Romana clearly finds nothing remarkable about the disappearance), somewhat less mortally wounded, due to a malfunctioning TARDIS.
The whole “No more regenerations” thing comes up next in The Keeper of Traken. The Master, this time looking less like a lizard and more like a burn-victim, tries pretty much the same schtick as before, this time with the immense power source wielded by the leader of the peaceful Traken Union. Again he’s thwarted, but manages to soak up enough Mysterious Timey Wimey Energies that he can perform a cheap film effect to superimpose footage of himself over footage of a high-ranking Trakenite, possessing his body for the remainder of the classic series.
The matter comes up again in Mawdryn Undead. Here, a race of aliens have granted themselves a kind of crappy form of immortality through a botched attempt at making themselves into Time Lords (A similar sort of thing happens in Underworld, with the Minyans using technological assistance to regenerate “a thousand” times, which they find extraordinarily unpleasant), and they want to force The Doctor to use his own regeneration energy to help them off themselves, which would, because there are eight of them, use up all his remaining lives, leaving him unable to regenerate. He gets bailed out when a nearby paradox offs them instead.
Later on that season, in The Five Doctors, the Time Lords offer The Master a new set of regenerations if he does them a solid, while Lord President Borusa masterminds a scheme to steal a magic ring that will grant him immortality.
The upper limit on regenerations comes up next in The Twin Dilemma, though I imagine hardly anyone got that far since it happens all the way at the end, and no one remotely sane would keep watching that long. The Doctor’s old friend Azmael is in the process of being possessed by an evil slug monster, and takes care of the problem by inducing regeneration in spite of the fact that he’s got none left.
The regeneration limit is obliquely addressed again in The Trial of a Time Lord, whose big last-minute reveal is that an Evil Future Doctor has crossed his own timeline in order to abscond with his prececessor’s remaining incarnations. How the hell this would work is never made clear.
The Master is still trying to pull an end run around death in Doctor Who, basically trying the same trick as in The Deadly Assassin, only this time with more car chases and less of a coherent plot. This time, he plans to crack open the black hole at the center of the TARDIS and order it to suck out The Doctor’s remaining lives.
After this, we never again hear about limits on the number of regenerations in the TV series. There are a few near-misses: The Doctor loses his ability to regenerate temporarily in The Sound of Drums due to genetic manipulation, then again in Let’s Kill Hitler due to poisoning. In the latter case, Melody Pond uses her own regeneration energy to restore the Doctor, losing whatever regenerative capacity (The Minyans, Mawdryn, and Jenny all displayed an inferior sort of Time Lord-like regeneration. Melody Pond is the only non-Time Lord we’ve seen undergo a full Time Lord style regeneration. As far as we know, she does it twice, in Day of the Moon and Let’s Kill Hitler. It’s not clear if she was subject to the same limits as the Doctor. My gut instinct is that, had she not lost her regeneration ability, she still would have had fewer total regenerations available to her than a proper Time Lord, because she’s still almost entirely human, and only displays a subset of Time Lord characteristics) she had.
What I’m getting at here is this: with one exception, every time the matter of a regeneration limit is brought up, it is in the context of someone finding a way around it. Forget hands, I can count the number of Time Lords who have died as a result of exhausting their store of regenerations on one finger(Before you mention it, River doesn’t count — even if we fudge it and consider her a Time Lord for the purpose of argument, she explicitly states that regeneration wouldn’t be an option in that situation).
And meanwhile, we’ve got the evidence on the other side:
- The War Games – The Doctor tells his companions, “The Time Lords are an immensely civilised race. We can control our own environment, we can live forever, barring accidents, and we have the secret of space time travel.” Taken at his word, this would seem to indicate an unbounded capacity for regeneration. Of course, it could equally mean that an individual incarnation has no fixed upper bound on its lifespan (as might be hinted by Melody Pond’s offhand remark in Let’s Kill Hitler about the possibility of aging backwards). Or it could be simple hyperbole; no one but a Doctor Who fan would fault the Doctor for treating “thousands of years” and “forever” as roughly synonymous when talking to people whose lifespans are measured in tens of years.
- The Brain of Morbius – This one is practically a whole article on its own, so I’ll get back to it.
- School Reunion – The Doctor intimates that he is immortal. Again, this may be simple hyperbole
- The Death of the Doctor – In this episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures, Clyde Langer, surprised that the Doctor’s appearance has changed, asks how many times he can regenerate. The Doctor responds “Five hundred and seven.” His tone conveys that the answer is a dismissal of the question rather than a serious response, but if “twelve” is a perfectly good answer, why not just say that? Even if we don’t accept “Five hundred and seven” as a legitimate answer, it’s noteworthy that the Doctor makes a special point of not giving the commonly accepted answer.
- The Angels Take Manhattan – River describes The Doctor as immortal, though she does suggest that regeneration energy may be a limited resource, as she chides him for “wasting” it to mend her broken wrist.
The Brain of Morbius. Ah, The Brain of Morbius. One of the biggest outright pickles that sits there and laughs in the face of anyone trying to compose a simple, straightforward and sane view of Doctor Who continuity, worse even than that thing that happened in Mawdryn Undead that is the reason why in modern Doctor Who everyone refers to the Third Doctor’s exile as being in “The seventies… Or was it the eighties?”
The Brain of Morbius, I should hardly need point out, is a masterpiece. It’s Doctor Who does Frankenstein — no, not just Frankenstein; it’s Doctor Who does Hammer Horror Frankestein. Its one great falter is that they couldn’t swing Christopher Lee to play Morbius (Returning the favor for that time in the 60s where Peter Cushing played Dr. Who). But there’s this bit near the end of its final episode which no one’s ever come up with a fully statisfying answer to.
Morbius, a dead Time Lord criminal, has been brought back to life in a chimera body created by a mad scientist. The Doctor taunts the villain into agreeing to fight him to the death in the remarkably boring Time Lord sport of “Mind-Wrestling”, an event that consists of two combatants exchanging taunts and gurning at each other until one of them dies, possibly of shame. While this is going on, a succession of faces appears on a screen between them.
Here’s how it goes: The Doctor and Morbius gurn and taunt at each other for a bit, and the Morbius’s brain explodes, and the Doctor collapses and nearly dies, and how you interpret that scene depends almost entirely on your agenda. One of two things seems to have happened:
- The Doctor bested Morbius, causing his brain to explode (Morbius’s brain is in a lucite dome at the time, and he’d been warned that thinking too hard would cause static electricity to build up and kill him), but the strain of doing so nearly kills him.
- Morbius has bested the Doctor, wounding nearly to death, but the strain of doing so caused his own brain to overload and explode.
The primary argument for preferring option 2 over option 1 is that Morbius continues to taunt the Doctor all the way to the end, rather than at any point mentioning that he’s in a spot of bother. You know, exactly what would happen if you were an arrogant evil overlord type who was being cleverly outfoxed by a clever rogue.
The sticking point is those faces. What we see projected between the combatants is first Morbius’s proper form, similar to a bust we’d seen earlier, then The Doctor’s. In succession, we then see the third, second, and first Doctors.
And then we see eight more faces…
Is your mind blown? While this is happening, Morbius shouts taunts like “How far do you go?” and “Back to the beginning!” What does it mean? The canon-friendly interpretation is that after Billy Hartnell’s image is replaced by a fop in a powdered wig, things have turned The Doctor’s way and we’re now seeing Morbius’s past incarnations — that winning the game is based on making those images reflect successively earlier incarnations of your opponent, and now The Doctor is winning, and Morbius’s taunts are either self-delusion or an attempt to break the Doctor’s focus.
But we’re never told how this game works, not really, we’re just guessing. Maybe the fight is to show more of your past faces than your opponent, and what we actually saw was Morbius taking an early lead by showing himself, the Doctor briefly rallying, then Morbius retaking the lead by showing eight of his past selves. Heck, we don’t even have any reason to conclude that all the faces must be their incarnations. Maybe The Doctor or Morbius won by coughing up other, random images. Maybe it was a draw, with the Doctor’s strategy being not to win, but simply to stretch the game out by generating meaningless images. Maybe generating false past incarnations is clever strategy in this game.
Or maybe it is exactly what the people who made that episode back in the 1970s actually intended it to be: The Doctor lost because Morbius generated the images of all eleven of the Doctor’s predecessors, including the eight pre-Hartnell Doctors. (Or maybe he won because of that. Or whatever. The one thing we can say with certainty is that this is an intensely stupid and confusing game). Of course that’s what they are.
If that were true, it would imply an immense secret history of Doctor Who, a long chain of lost pasts, with room enough, perhaps, even for The Warlock somewhere.
Only Robert Holmes came along the next year and fracked it all up by declaring that Time Lords only have thirteen lives, which would have put the Doctor way over around 1984.
Or did he?
Here’s a fun fact: No one ever actually says that a Time Lord has thirteen lives in the classic series. Not even once. In The Deadly Assassin, Engin says, “After the twelfth regeneration, there is no plan that will postpone death.” In Shada and The Twin Dilemma, they say only that someone is on their “last” life. In The Five Doctors, the Master is offered a “complete cycle”, but a number isn’t mentioned. Even when the nature of The Valeyard is revealed in The Trial of a Timelord, The Master says “Twelfth and final,” rather than “Twelfth and thirteenth”.
And if you find yourself watching the 1996 TV Movie, look at Paul McGann’s lips every time he says that a Time Lord has thirteen lives. His ADR says thirteen, but his lips say twelve. Because they filmed that entire movie with the premise that a Time Lord has twelve lives, and it wasn’t until after shooting wrapped that they suddenly realized that there were actually supposed to be thirteen.
They aren’t the only ones to make this mistake. In fact, the way I remember it, at least in American fandom, the usual interpretation until the early 90s was that the dialogue in the series indicated twelve total lives. It was only later, really only by the time of the New Adventures book line, that fandom settled on reading Engin’s line to mean “One incarnation you are born with plus twelve additional ones available via regeneration,” which any number of sweaty basement dwellers will tell you is the One True Obvious And Only Possible Way Of Reading It And You Are [Slur Redacted] For Saying Otherwise. It’s twelve regenerations, not twelve incarnations. Never mind that those words were used as exact synonyms in the show, in the novelizations, and in the various licensed publications throughout the 80s.
Only I kinda think it’s not. I kinda think that when Robert Holmes was writing The Deadly Assassin, at some point, there was a writer’s meeting, and Bob asked “So how many lives do Time Lords have?” and someone pulled out their notes from The Brain of Morbius and counted and said “No less than 12.” In fact, I think that Robert Holmes deliberately set up a plan to have Tom Baker be the last Doctor. No, he did not mean for the show to end at Logopolis; that would be silly. But think about it: we know The Doctor and The Master are contemporaries. The Master has used up his regeneration allotment. Folks usually try to explain this away as “Oh, the Master burned through his quick because of his evil machinations,” but come on; he managed to hang on to the body he stole from Tremas despite being crushed in the collapse of Castrovalva, imprisoned by the Xeraphim, incinerated by the magic fires of Sarn, trapped in the Rani’s TARDIS with a hungry Tyrannosaurus, and turned into a cat person on an exploding planet, and then, without the power of regeneration, goes on to survive being executed by the Daleks and falling into a black hole. And we’re to believe he burned through ten lives off camera? No, it makes more sense to suppose that if the Master was on his last life, The Doctor would be at least close.
Jon Pertwee’s regeneration at the end of Planet of the Spiders is really the first time we see the Doctor regenerate in the “standard” model. The two previous bodily transformations were not brought on by mortal wound. The Second Doctor was, in essence, executed: the Time Lords forced him to change his appearance as part of his exile. The First Doctor, close as anyone can tell, regenerates from old age. He’s not obviously hurt or wounded or even sick (Though many try to back-patch this by assuming malingering effects from several life-force-snatching incidents in his recent past); he just gets tired, falls down, and changes.
But in Planet of the Spiders, the Doctor is dying. He’s received a lethal dose of radiation from the Metebelis crystals. He’s in pain, barely coherent. And then there’s a very nice crossfade, and he’s suddenly Tom Baker. (And Sarah Jane’s hair has grown out, but that’s neither here nor there). The rules have, if not changed, been clarified: this isn’t just a mechanism for ushering out a veteran actor who’s no longer fit enough to play the lead in a weekly series, or to usher out a respected character actor who’s realized he’s got better things to do with his life than be in crap like The Dominators: this may actually be a Get Out of Death Free card. If you’re the sort of person who believes that cliffhangers matter because the audience isn’t sure if the hero is going to survive past the first scene of the next episode, this is kind of a problem.
So it’s not long after Planet of the Spiders (arguably) makes the Doctor properly immortal that The Deadly Assassin comes along and makes him mortal again. Maybe, it suggests, the Doctor can’t regenerate again — maybe Spiders was his last mulligan. (And if they actually do want to keep doing this show after Tom gets sacked, we’ll come up with something. No one’s going to care. Heck, we let Terry Nation write basically the exact same story four times)
And there are other reasons to prefer a twelve-total interpretation. Thirteen is no slouch in the symbolism department, but I think twelve edges it out. There’s six sides on the TARDIS console: 12/2. The regeneration limit was introduced during the tenure of the fourth actor to play the role: 12/3. There’s three chapters of the college of Time Lords: 12/4. And, I think most relevantly, there’s twelve numbers on a clockface.
So if we put these ideas together, eight secret past Doctors and twelve total lives, even as concepts that were later discarded and forgotten, we find ourselves with a historical precedent for a moment when the production team may have wanted to grapple with the possibility that regeneration would be off the table when Tom left. Perhaps some remnant of this is why the later Tom Baker era abounds with encounters that put the Doctor in contact with sources of immense or healing powers: The Elixir of Life (The Brain of Morbius); The Eye of Harmony (The Deadly Assassin); The Key to Time (The Ribos Operation-The Armageddon Factor); The Tachyon Recreation Generator (The Leisure Hive); The Doedechahedron (Meglos); The Warrior’s Gate (Warrior’s Gate); The Keepership (The Keeper of Traken); Block Transfer Computation (Logopolis). Perhaps those were the fruit borne by the germ of the idea “We need a magic thingy that could give the Doctor an extra life.”
Or not. Whatever. There’s loads of evidence to the contrary both before and after. Hartnell is explicitly the “earliest” Doctor in The Three Doctors, and “the original” in The Five Doctors, neither of which allow for any extra Doctors. In The Deadly Assassin itself, the Doctor claims to have regenerated “several” times, a vague line but a strange word to use for an even dozen. In Underworld, it’s down to “two or three”, while in The Five Doctors, the fifth Doctor explictly says he’s the fourth regeneration, and the opening narration to Doctor Who identifies Sylvester McCoy as “my seventh life”.
One of the more popular alternate theories about the Unclaimed Eight is that they are only sort-of faces of unknown previous Doctors. Hm. Maybe this has legs; didn’t I say before that I rather fancied the idea of The Warlock being only sort-of an unknown previous Doctor? Could The Warlock be one of those eight? Not likely; none of them are even close to John Hurt-ish. But perhaps there was a ninth face, perhaps the Doctor’s grevious injuries were due to the exceptional effort he spent to hide that one.
To understand what the rest of fandom might mean by relegating the Unclaimed Eight to quasi- status, it’s necessary, against my several reservations, to talk about what the fanboys call The Cartmel Masterplan, but which a more honest person might call “The vague outline Andrew Cartmel scribbled down on the back of a cocktail napkin, but never really wanted to do anything with himself.”
It was a plan to reinject the old sense of mystery and wonder into the character of The Doctor by explaining everything about him. It’s not as goofy as it sounds, really, and the basic outline of the plan is mostly okay, but since the show got cancelled, it was realized mostly during the Wilderness Years, as the people making Official and Unofficial Who jumped headlong into their own navels.
The plan, such as it was, derives almost entirely from one line in 1987’s Remembrance of the Daleks. The story reveals how, when The Doctor left Earth with a brace of kidnapped schoolteachers in November, 1963, he’d been right in the middle of hiding an ancient Time Lord Superweapon, created by the founders of Time Lord society, Rassilon, and Omega and…
Someone else, who isn’t named. And the Doctor says, “And didn’t we have trouble with the prototype?”, though he quickly corrects it to “They” and changes the subject. The implication, clearly, is that the Doctor himself is the third founder.
The ultimate unfolding of the masterplan was far stranger. The ultimate execution was that this third Time Lord, known as The Other, disapproved of some of what his colleagues were doing, and so he had himself cuisinarted, eventually to be reincarnated as The Doctor. Part and parcel of this plan was the idea that Time Lords are universally sterile and therefore would never do any of that icky kissing with icky girls, and that Susan therefore is not really The Doctor’s granddaughter, as Time Lords reproduce using a genetic cuisinart, into which they toss old Time Lords, Logan’s Run style, so that their DNA can be recycled in more or less the same way that Jenny was created in The Doctor’s Daughter. Susan, the unfolding story explains, is actually The Other‘s granddaughter, having met The Doctor when he popped back in time to nick a set of ancient Time Lord Superweapons.
It’s not a meritless idea, but it’s overwrought, overcomplex, and exudes more narrative gravity than the Eye of Harmony. The one upshot is that it gives us “Those extra faces in The Brain of Morbius are The Other’s incarnations.”
And by extension, if you’re willing to accept that load, you can add “The Warlock is secretly The Other” to the list of possibilities.
But anyway, in the selfsame interview where Steven Moffat revealed that he’s got a plan in mind for the while regeneration limit thing, he suggests that “I think you should go back to your DVDs and count correctly this time,” said Moffat, “there’s something you’ve all missed.”
This is really the only concrete clue we have here. “We’ve counted wrong” and we should “Check the DVDs”. What could this mean?
Some people, in between lying to their mothers about when they’re going to get a girlfriend, job, and/or apartment, have suggested that the “thing we’ve missed” is that (DUN DUN DUUUUUUUN!) The first and second Doctors didn’t regenerate!
You see, the word “regeneration” wasn’t introduced until the 1970s. In Power of the Daleks, Patrick Troughton says not that he has regenerated, but that he’s “been renewed”, and that it is, “Part of the TARDIS.” While in The War Games, the Time Lords say that the Doctor will “change his appearance”. So clearly, those aren’t regenerations. They’re “being renewed” and “changing his appearance”! Duh! What are you, dumb?
This is, of course, an intensely stupid thing to believe, and anyone who finds it remotely convincing should be ashamed of themselves. It is such a stupid thing to believe that when I tried to come up with an analogy I could use for the phrase “Believing that is as stupid as if you believed that–“, the only thing I could come up with is this thing. Believing that the first two regenerations aren’t regenerations because they hadn’t settled on the word “regeneration” yet is as stupid as believing that the first two regenerations aren’t regenerations because they hadn’t settled on the word “regeneration” yet.
And there’s some “why” beyond just “It is on the face of it incredibly stupid.” Firstly, Power of the Daleks is completely lost, so you’re not going to see that bit if you “go back to your DVDs”. Secondly, the actual dialogue exchange goes like this:
BEN: Oh, so that’s it. You’ve been renewed, have you?
DOCTOR: I’ve been renewed, have I? That’s it. I’ve been renewed. It’s part of the Tardis. Without it, I couldn’t survive. Come here.
The Doctor isn’t telling them that he just did a thing which is called “renewal” and not “regeneration”. Ben suggests the term, and the Doctor repeats it back to him.
And if you’ve watched the DVD of The War Games, then– Well, actually, then you have my condolences, because good grief is that serial a slog. Seriously, the plot of The War Games is basically:
- The Doctor and company find themselves on one of the great battlefields of Earth’s history.
- They make their way to one of the camps where they are immediately assumed to be enemy spies
- With his trademark charm and charisma, the Doctor wins the trust of the soldiers
- For some reason, they have to cross the battlefield and infiltrate another camp
- Repeat steps 1-5 for four hours
- It turns out it’s aliens. The Doctor decides it’s too big a job to handle alone so he calls his people
- They sort everything out and then put the Doctor on trial for making a nuisance of himself
Seriously, this one time back in the mid 90s, my local PBS station accidentally played episode 5 like 3 times back-to-back and I swear you can not tell.
But anyway, at the end of the story, the Doctor is sentenced to exile on Earth, and when he protests that he’s already alienated the entire population of Earth, they toss in a quick face-lift to sweeten the deal:
DOCTOR: But you, you can’t condemn me to exile on one primitive planet in one century in time! Besides, I’m known on the Earth. It might be very awkward for meSee, there’s like 30 vaguely penguin-shaped babies with mop haircuts who totally aren’t anything to do with me, but their mothers keep on throwing around words like “paternity test”.
TIME LORD: Your appearance has changed before, it will change again. That is part of the sentence.
See! That one guy from that one forum shouts, They said “change your appearance”! That’s totes not regeneration!
Except, of course, for what’s part of the sentence. I don’t mean “Part of the sentence the Time Lords pass as punishment for the Doctor’s crimes.” I mean “Part of the grammatical unit in which the Time Lord says that the Doctor will “change his appearance”, namely the clause that goes “Your appearance has changed before.” There is absolutely no room for any reasonable doubt that this scene is stressing the continuity between what’s about to happen and what happened back at the end of The Tenth Planet. And if you’re not convinced, two episodes earlier, The War Chief, a villainous Time Lord allied with this month’s villains uses the same damned words:
WAR CHIEF: You may have changed your appearance, but I know who you are.
I won’t go as far as to say that this absolutely isn’t what Moffat plans to do. But I’m going to stand by the absolute fact that it would be a profoundly stupid thing to do. I’ve never been Moffat’s staunchest defender. He’s a perfectly fine writer most of the time, but his first season of Doctor Who left me cold, his darling character River becomes progressively less interesting every time she shows up, his signature monster, the Weeping Angels become progressively less frightening each time they show up, he’s got an unfortunate penchant for gender essentialism and well-meaning paternalism, his approach to minority races, religions and sexual identities is a sort of 80s-sitcom style of kindly and tolerant condescension (the same mindset that gave us all those fantastic shows from my childhood that were hailed as being enlightened and progressive, but whose high concepts boiled down to “Isn’t it cute how those women/African Americans/Homosexuals think they’re people?” They were great shows and I’m sure did a lot to improve awareness and acceptance and all that, but man was it uncomfortable when you realize that the central joke of, say, Benson was meant to be “See? He’s black, but he’s the smart one! That is totally not the way things are in real life! What a twist!”), and if he tried this crap, I think that would probably finish him in my estimation.
So with that settled, what could it be that we’re going back to the DVDs for? The other natural contender is, of course The Brain of Morbius. Does Steven Moffat intend to canonize the Unclaimed Eight? It seems a bit unweildy, but Moffat, like Davies before him, is something of an ascended fanboy, so I could see him not being able to resist.
Is there anything else it could be, though? Well, you might argue that since Colin Baker doesn’t appear in Time and the Rani (Since he got canned unceremoniously between seasons, the regeneration was instead shot by putting Sylvester McCoy in a wig and clown costume facing away from the camera, and starting the regeneration visual effect as he’s turned over so that the “before” face is never visible.) that there could be some shennanigan going on there.
But there’s one other thing that pops into my head.
See, Moffat didn’t say to go back to the classic series, or go back to the old episodes, or anything like that. He said go back to the DVDs. Could that be a hint?
Well, probably not, but it’s fun to imagine. And you know what I’m thinking about? I’m thinking about a commentary that Russell T Davies did for The Stolen Earth. That episode ends with The Doctor caught by a glancing blow from a Dalek gun. Since he’s only clipped, the shot is not instantly lethal, but as Rose, Jack Harkness, and Donna Noble watch in horror, the Doctor announces that he’s regenerating, then explodes with golden energy.
This is one of the most effective cliffhangers the show’s done, and it is, as anyone who’s been reading this far can imagine, sorted away in the opening scene of the next episode, when the Doctor zaps his spare hand (long story) to “short out” the regeneration.
Russell T Davies, as I mentioned, recorded a commentary for this. And in the commentary, he tells one of his trademark lies, and says that the Doctor is Really Truly Regenerating and is Really Truly about to turn into a new man (I do not actually know if this is the DVD commentary. That commentary track was originally released over the internet. But hey).
What if we take Russell at his word? What if this regeneration “counts”? What if, say, The Warlock is actually the incarnation that got aborted when The Doctor cheated his own cheat? And even if he’s not, let’s go with the implication of River’s line in The Angels Take Manhattan and imagine that regeneration energy is a finite resource. What The Doctor did here couldn’t be free. The Tenth Doctor “burned” one, making Matt the penultimate Doctor (or the final one, if The Warlock counts. (Astute eyes will note that the Doctor appears to regenerate in The Impossible Astronaut, and refers to the possibility of regenerating in Let’s Kill Hitler. Fair enough.))
And then there’s one last thing. Go back to your DVDs, he said. Unfortunately, it took more googling than I’m willing to do to trace that quote back to the original source, since apparently he’s given more than one interview where the regeneration limit has come up, and it seems like he gave interviews in August and October where he affirmed the 12 regeneration limit, but it’s not clear to me from which of these the “Go back to your DVDs” line hails.
Why does it matter? Because between August and October, there were three new DVD releases:
- The Tenth Planet with animated reconstruction of the missing episode 4
- The Ice Warriors with animated reconstruction of the missing episodes 2 and 3
- Scream of the Shalka
Since US releases lag behind a bit and also my wife and family don’t like it when I buy Doctor Who DVDs a couple of months before Winter Gift-Giving-Holiday-Clusterfrack (Wife’s Birthday/Son’s Birthday/Christmas/Anniversary/My Birthday/Valentine’s Day), I don’t actually own any of these yet, so if there’s actually a big reveal that you get if you click on the “H” in the logo on the title screen of The Ice Warriors, I wouldn’t know. The Tenth Planet could certainly hold some secret hint that we might deduce, but if so, it’s not visible from the script or the telesnap reconstruction I’ve seen.
But what’s that third thing? Yeah, that. Scream of the Shalka was a 2003 animated serial staring Richard E. Grant as a painfully uncharismatic Doctor, who had already had a cameo as the “Conceited Doctor” in 1999’s charity spoof The Curse of Fatal Death, and who would go on to play Simeon/The Great Intelligence in series 7, with Derek Jacobi as a reformed android version of The Master, prefiguring his role in series 3 as Professor Yana/The Master, with a cameo from David Tennant, who just happened to be in a nearby studio when they were recording, and, being a consummate Doctor Who fan, begged to be written in. The serial was meant to be the big flagship launch program of the BBC’s BBCi website, and so was released with some extra special fanfare which has led some (Okay, just this one very arrogant jerk really) to insist that Shalka is absolutely way more official and the 100% canon continuation of the series no matter what anyone else says than the BBC books, which were similarly licensed and branded, or the Virgin books which were similarly licensed and branded or the Big Finish audios which were similarly licensed and branded. Because those were just books and radio plays, while this was made for the internet which is totally the same as being made by the BBC proper to be aired on television, and not at all like those obviously noncanonical made-for-TV animated serials Dreamland and The Infinite Quest which totally don’t count even if there’s an episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures that is quite directly a sequel to Dreamland (Two even; in Prisoner of the Judoon, Androvax uses nanotechnology to rebuild the alien craft that featured in Dreamland after hacking Area 51’s computers. In The Vault of Secrets, the Alliance of Shades, and the character of Mr. Dread in particular, return, having been largely retired in the time since Dreamland).
But could Shalka be what Moffat was referencing? Not hugely likely, but still, that’s kinda tempting. Especially with Grant’s shockingly uninspired performance as The Doctor, it seems like there could be great fun to be had by declaring that the Shalka Doctor was some relic of Simeon’s interference with the Doctor’s timeline, and, of course, it would introduce one more “extra” Doctor to be slotted in somewhere.
So, what do we get out of all of that? Let’s find out…