Assuming that we Whovians aren't being faked out, this Christmas will see the end of Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor, and Peter Capaldi assuming the role as the Twelfth. It's sure to be an emotional set-up considering that we generally only get a new Doctor when the previous one dies. Who among fans doesn't tear up when we think about Nine sealing his fate with a kiss, dying only after telling Rose she was fantastic? Or Ten as he fatally irradiated himself to save Wilf, visiting all his companions one last time before leaving on a tearful, "I don't want to go."
Painful and sad as each regeneration is, it's undoubtedly one of the things that has enabled the show to survive for so long. "Life depends on change and renewal," said the Second Doctor moments after rising from the floor after the death of the First. The process itself, though, is still very mysterious. Just what is regeneration, anyway?
I took to some forums to allow people to ask questions, hoping to clear up everyone's understanding of the mysterious way the Time Lords cheat death.
What is regeneration?: The short answer is, "A clever solution by the writers." In 1966, William Hartnell was ready to be done with the show. He was aging, often injured on the set, and disheartened at the departure of producer Verity Lambert. The BBC was also happy to be rid of Hartnell, whose salary was by far the largest involved in the show, but still wanted to keep the popular program growing. This was born the idea of regeneration, or renewal as it was called.
When a Time Lord is fatally injured, poisoned, or otherwise driven close to the point of death he or she can channel an energy source that essentially reboots every cell in their body. Everything from height to hair color to personality can become completely different. Essentially, regeneration is a "patch" to damaged code that overrides the previous program. Memories are maintained through incarnations, but not always completely. The Eighth Doctor experienced almost total amnesia, whereas the Second actually viewed his previous self as a different person entirely at first.
Can it fail? The ability to regenerate does not make Time Lords immortal. They can still be killed, though obviously this is much more difficult. Some simple dangers that would kill a human are also fatal to Time Lords, such as drowning and an overdose of some common Earth anesthetics. Simultaneous stopping of both hearts can also work, as can exposure to acid.
There are certain weapons specifically designed to counteract the regeneration ability. The Time Lords themselves developed stasers, which can kill a fellow Time Lord in one shot. The Daleks also perfected Retro-generator radiation which can retard, though maybe not entirely stop the process. Contagious diseases which affect two-hearted species such as the Gallifreyans can be deadly. Chen-7 is an example. The poison from a Judas tree also inhibits the renewal.
A Time Lord can also simply not regenerate by will.
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How does it work?: The secret of regeneration is one of the mostly closely guarded facets of Time Lord society, and one of the reasons that they are generally cremated to prevent reverse engineering of the ability. There are currently three main theories as to the mechanics.
1. Developed by Cardinal Rassilon, Gallifreyans were implanted with pockets of self-replicating, biogenic molecules that could be released to renew dead and dying cells. This process is activated by a hormone called lindos that triggers the process.
2. A lesser-known theory is that Rassilon actually managed to turn Gallifreyans from a double helix race into a triple helix race, with the third helix holding the secret of regeneration, whatever it may be. This could explain how the ability is passed on through genetic lines.
3. Time Lord regeneration has something to do with their constant exposure to the Untempered Schism, a gap in the fabric of reality that the time vortex can be viewed through. Time Lords are required to gaze into the schism upon graduation. This theory would partially explain the semi-Time Lord nature of River Song, who was conceived in the time vortex.
Do Time Lords always regenerate as the same sex/race/species: We know that significant skin color changes are possible from the regeneration of Mels to River Song, and even more striking colors like blue from Romana. However, in general a Time Lord tends to remain close to their original form in terms of gender, skin color, and accent.
To what degree Time Lords can control what they become is open for debate. Romana changed form several times attempting to find one that suited her, and River Song stated she was concentrating on a dress size as she regenerated from a gunshot wound.
Side note... never really noticed how sexist that came across before.
Regardless, we know gender changes are possible because The Doctor mentioned they were in the case of his friend The Corsair. One theory was that suicide would instigate a gender swap, but as many of The Doctor's deaths could be considered suicides this is likely not the case. Other more extreme changes or deformities have been hinted at in various apocrypha, but have not appeared in the series proper.
Does it hurt?: No two Time Lords, indeed no two incarnations of the same Time Lord, seem to react the same way during or post regeneration. We've seen The Doctor rise more or less ready for action after some moments of slight dizziness, and we've seen him need significant convalescence after rebirth. Severity of the inducing cause of death does not seem to be a significant factor in how difficult returning to normal function is. Of all the mysteries of regeneration, the birth pains of the new Time Lord incarnation are possibly the least understood.
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How many times can a Time Lord regenerate?: This is currently the big question. Tradition holds that a Time Lord has 12 regenerations and 13 total incarnations. The Eleventh Doctor once said he had a total of 507 regenerations, but is widely thought to have been joking.
The limit on regenerations seems to be a traditional one, not necessarily a biological or physical one. It is said that the limit exists to prevent bio-decay, basically loss of connection with the original form. It is important to note that showrunner Steven Moffat recently acknowledged that the limit does exist.
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If we consider that we already know Peter Capaldi is the Twelfth Doctor, and that John Hurt is also an incarnation of The Doctor, then that means Peter Capaldi should possibly be the last if convention is held to. However, fellow Time Lord The Master has had as many as 17 possible incarnations, and the High Council of Time Lords appears to have the ability to grant more if it so desires. The ability of River Song to revive The Doctor by expending all her regeneration energy, as well as him using his own to heal her broken wrist, implies that there is not so much a finite number as a finite amount of energy. Perhaps that energy can be recharged. I suspect we'll find out very soon.
I read this novel called Lungbarrow and it said...: For more information on how stories and mythologies don't line up and may in fact be wildly different from other stories, please see the history of all Earth's religions.
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