Just The Doctor, Thanks

It doesn’t take much of an excuse for me to want to Talk About Doctor Who. Really, it doesn’t. But this is quite a nice love letter to the series from James Parker over at The Atlantic, and I’ll take the chance it presents —

This is all meat and drink to the 21st-century viewer, who has no idea who he is either. We are now entering the era of post-secular television—of Lost and Heroes, of time loops, unearthly powers, chaotic entrances into parallel dimensions—and the Doctor and his wheezing sci-fi are, finally, bang up-to-date.

— to talk about the latest kerfuffle in the Whoverse.

On its face it’s not the worse thing to befall speculative fiction that the Doctor is immortal. On a purely production level, a show that’s been going off and on for about a half century doesn’t seem like it would be tripped up by a little thing like losing the main character (Ahem), but reaction to the change in canon (oddly made in the CBBC’s Sarah Jane Adventures) has been mainly critical on story grounds.

Which seems odd to me, after all it’s not like english literature doesn’t have its fair share of immortal characters dotted across the landscape. The show even has its own character who is, for all intents and purposes, immortal. Perhaps the Doctor will come upon the day where life really does begin to seem like butter over too much bread. In the last season he certainly made it clear that the TARDIS has let him skip the boring days, and that he would have a difficult time living a normal life, without the Daleks to defeat and silences to break. Maybe someday the Daleks’ latest invasion of the galaxy at l won’t be quite interesting enough to stop and he’ll go west, but having the character’s end be of his own choosing or the tragedy of a too-quick death won’t dispel the magic of the story.

That said, it does seem to run counter to the arc of the last few Doctors since the restart, who, despite being on the younger end of the Doctor-Actor range spectrum, have increasingly noted their age and general universe-weariness (though, really, given that Doctor #1 was 950ish, and Doctor #11 is still 950ish, I’m not sure how much he’s actually aged, except possibly emotionally). Perhaps the closest match to an immortal Doctor would be Dream of the Endless (though, let’s face it, in terms of cool-factor he’s probably a bit more of a Death). Immortal characters still have arcs, and given the relatively short time frames of most works of literature it’s hardly like a character’s oncoming death is a critical motivator of plots. For the Doctor, life has always been about constant movement, especially since the loss of Gallifrey.

The focus on the character’s final death misses the fact, entrenched in series since the reboot, that each regeneration is really a death in and of itself. Look at the anguish of Ten’s last few episodes, or the quiet sadness that met the regeneration of Nine. To see the Doctor’s final death as the only real one for the purposes of the story is missing the trees for the forest.

Comments (5)

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  1. Doc Coleman says:

    I wish people would stop saying that The Doctor is immortal. He never said that he was immortal. He said that there wasn’t a limit to the number of times that he can regenerate. Those are two VERY different things.

    Romana established that Time Lords can choose to regenerate at will, and doing so gives them a certain amount of control over the regeneration process. All of the regenerations that we’ve seen for The Doctor have been effectively uncontrolled, resulting in a crapshoot of appearance and personality. The Doctor chooses to live with each persona… and ends up keeping it until events force a regeneration upon him.

    How much different the world would be if a depressed personality could regenerate and have a new body and a new outlook on life?

    Of course, that is assuming that The Doctor wasn’t just lying to keep from thinking about the end of his own regeneration cycle. If you assume that The Doctor lied, there is a limit to his ability to regenerate, but due to the life he leads, and to an influx of temporal energy in Mawdryn Undead and at the end of the 2005 season, that limit may be higher than twelve regenerations.


    • Bill Peters says:

      I guess the response to this is that it’s also clearly established by The Master’s storyline beginning in The Deadly Assassin (where he’s clearly at the end of his thirteenth regeneration and hungry for ways to prolong his life of steal more regeneration cycles) that there is a hard limit to regenerations, though the Time Lord society had some way to give an individual more.

    • Gareth says:

      To be pernickety he didn’t say that there was no limit on the number of times he can regenerate. He said that he could regenerate 507 times. You could argue that, as with the Master, he can transfer to a new body and gain a new set of regenerations, but that’s a conversation that veers away from previously established canon into speculation.

  2. Peter Wood says:

    I do hope that there is some “catch” to moving past the 12 regenerations, simply from a story standpoint. Obviously there was going to be a way around it, just as there was for the Master – by the time we get to John Simm he’s at what . . . 16?

    Personally, I think it would be an excellent time for the Doctor to switch genders.

  3. Sabre Runner says:

    Yes, there are immortal characters but I think the problem, which is also my problem, is that true immortality just doesn’t suit the Doctor. Once you make a character immortal, it makes him slightly less accessible. And the way the Doctor is, an old super-intelligent alien who plays with things we would consider mortal dangers, he’s much fun but not very identifiable. That’s why he has a companion. I think that by making him completely immortal, he maybe beyond approach.

    But I guess I’ll really have to wait for the second season. Still I think they could have done it better (The Deadly Assassin was already mentioned).