Here’s a dark thought I recently had while contemplating the upcoming end of Peter Capaldi as The Doctor that is almost certainly going to make my Christmas needlessly sad this year: Is the act of regeneration a fundamentally abusive one? I don’t mean that in a fan way, how we all (rightfully) go on and on about the damage that the show does to us emotionally. I mean in a canonical sense, one that the players experience within the narrative.
Suicide and the threat of suicide are one of the many classifications of emotional abuse. The latter as a means of control, but the former as a means of revenge. There’s a classic example in literature when in the pages of Atlas Shrugged a minor character whose name I don’t feel like Googling commits suicide in the bed of a woman who declined his romantic invitations. On her wedding day, no less. The object was clearly to hurt, and real-world examples are not hard to find. The phrase “you made me do this” sends chills down many people’s spines for a reason.
Of course, the question of whether the regeneration of The Doctor is death as we would understand it is complicated, but for the sake of argument, let’s take Ten at his word and assume that a new man saunters off with the life of The Doctor while the old one is gone. Let’s look at some of those deaths.
Several can be ruled irrelevant to my question. Seven, Eight and the War Doctor died alone and bereft of companions, the last one intentionally so. The Second Doctor also, I feel, should not count in this as he, alone of all The Doctors, actively opposed regeneration and his companions were mindwiped (yes, I know the continuity arguments, but stay focused). The Meta-Crisis Tenth Doctor is also not included in this list for obvious reasons.
But what of the rest?
Almost no Doctor prepares his companions for the process. Ben and Polly were baffled at the change of the First Doctor to the Second. Peri was the same for the Fifth to the Sixth, as was Rose from the Ninth to the Tenth. To these young women (and one man), their dearest friend had been killed, and now they were forced to accept another in his place on his terms. Viewed in a certain light, that is really, really gaslighty, even if we look at things from The Doctor’s point of view. Nine even went to the trouble to record a farewell primer (which doesn’t exactly hurt the suicide analogy), but never thought to mention he might regenerate until the last possible minute.
Even with Clara Oswald, who is ostensibly the only companion present at a non-Meta Crisis regeneration who had to have known the concept even existed, there’s something so cruel in it. She literally begs of him, “Please don’t change,” even though the change is the end of the weak old man she’d met earlier and the start of new adventures.
The simple answer to all of this is that The Doctor is kind of a thoughtless git, and I dare anyone to argue THAT particular point with me. The obvious aside, I see three possible motivations in The Doctor’s cavalier attitude toward his own death and the emotional damage it inflicts on those he loves (Eight at one point remarks he’s going through bodies as if he owns a particularly dangerous bicycle).
The first is that he is constantly hoping to spare them the pain. This rather flies in the face of logic for the Tenth Doctor and his farewell tour, particularly when you consider the guilt Wilfred Mott must have felt at The Doctor’s sacrifice. Hell, go beyond that to the famous instance of Six trying to kill Peri in his post-regeneration madness, the woman Five had died to save. Having been an apostle of this funny pop culture religion for many moons, I don’t think this one has legs.
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The second is my original premise. Regeneration is a final act of emotional abuse by The Doctor on those whose circumstances have ended his current incarnation. It’s a petty moment of hurt amidst all the nobility The Doctor is an avatar for, or maybe…
It’s a lesson, albeit a very painful one. One of the last things Eleven says as he hallucinates Amy in front of Clara is that Amy was the first face that face ever saw, and Clara immediately becomes the first face Twelve ever sees. Our actions, in The Doctor’s grasp of time, both save and doom the world. Meeting Amy and Clara was both the trajectory of Eleven’s life and the catalysts of his final death.
It hurts the ones we love to die, to be no more. Whether there is a Doctor is often immaterial to the fact of whether there is YOUR Doctor. The Doctor, who is unique among Time Lords for actually seeming to care who exactly he is during his incarnations, actually makes meaning of the span each inhabits. As such, he can only hook his fleeting mortality to ours by, well, dying. He dies to show us how life matters, even if that death is cruel.
There’s a literary convention based off a world religion that describes this concept perfectly, but I can’t for the life of me recall it at the moment. Something about some resurrecting dude from a place that sounds like Gallifrey but isn’t.