Biologically speaking, regeneration in a simplified sense is defensive mechanism. The ability to heal and renew means that an organism could survive longer than the predators which seek to kill it. The extent of “regeneration” varies from organism to organism on the planet. We of course have lizards which regrow limbs, tortoises which can live for hundreds of years, and even jellyfish that can completely renew themselves into infancy. However, humanity, or any other sentient species, has nothing close to anything like that.
This is of course why immortality has always been a subject of our fiction. We regularly approach the concept by injecting into the characters our dreams of what we could accomplish with unlimited time, and our fears of what we would lose without the fear of death. The Greeks approached this by calling these characters gods. The gods of Greco-Roman myth were marred by their inability to love throughout their unchanging existence. They were political animals who took enjoyment in their manipulation of humanity for their own gains. Other cultures took on immortality in different ways, such as the Hindu concept of reincarnation. Here, the soul is immortal and seeks to better itself as it enters another body after death. The new body would match the deeds and actions of the soul’s previous life. Thus a good soul would go onto a better more pure aspect of life along with the opposite. Overall there is a theme that our relationships are shaped by our mortality.
However the immortal we are specifically talking about today is The Doctor. For the unaware, The Doctor, of Doctor Who fame, is a member of a race of pseudo- immortal aliens called Time Lords. I know you’re thinking “but pseudo-immortal is not true immortality.” Time Lords are genetically immortal, so they do not age, but they can die. However, instead of healing, the Time Lords “regenerate” into a new form. This new form is a completely different individual with new tastes, looks, and personality. The Time Lord’s memories remain though, along with his or her core personality traits.
Like every biological trait, the Time Lord’s regenerative ability is an adaptation, or a specific response to an environmental stimulus. Of course this is a simplistic take on a complex biological process, but since Time Lords are some of the oldest beings in the galaxy, this has evolved over the eons.
So, looking at why the Time Lords change their appearance rather than simply healing wounds is important. The Time Lords, specifically The Doctor, are very powerful beings not only in galactic affairs, but in sheer ability and technology. This power breeds even more powerful enemies, such as the Daleks. The adaptation of regeneration means that when the enemy of the Time Lords kills a Time Lord, they would believe he is dead, and the new appearance of the Time Lord would be unknown to the enemy thus providing anonymity and escape.
There is still another component to regeneration, which is the personality change of The Time Lord. Why, when Time Lords regenerate, do they change their personality? Once again it’s an adaptation in response to their environment. Time Lords do not regenerate from birth, they regenerate at their current age. So they do not have an opportunity to adapt emotionally to their environment and develop a personality like most sentient beings do, which is over an extended period of time. Time Lords generate a new personality in response to the situations which force the regeneration.
Specifically, let’s look at the 9th, 10th, and 11th regenerations of The Doctor. At the beginning of the new series in 2005 we are introduced to a new Doctor, the first new incarnation we have seen of him since his last appearance in his 8th incarnation in 1996. The 9th incarnation, though still representing the core ideals of The Doctor, including curiosity, the need to explore/travel, and a fondness for humanity, was dark, reserved, and hard. More than likely this came from his experiences in the Time War between the Time Lords and the Daleks. It is assumed that somewhere between his 8th incarnation and the culmination of the Time War, The Doctor regenerated or was forced to regenerate. The resultant personality was one that was much more suited to deal with repression of emotions that being in such a conflict would produce. It is why The Doctor had no companions before Rose which was unusual for him. The 9th incarnation is also much more akin to black and white judgment calls such as how he deals with threats to himself and Rose. However his growing affinity for Rose, which is counter to his regenerative “programming”, leads the 9th incarnation to make some judgment calls which endanger himself. So much so that it eventually leads to his “death” and regeneration.
When The Doctor regenerates to his 10th incarnation and takes on a new programming, we find him changed to a Doctor who is much more willing to accept emotional attachment. As emotional connection was part of what got the 9th Doctor killed, biologically speaking, the newer incarnation should be adapted to not accept emotion at all. However if we look at this from a different angle, we see that The Doctor’s biology is adapting and turning his emotionality into a strength. The 10th Doctor now surrounds himself with companions, and has difficulty acting without one. In fact as his time as The Doctor ends, the 10th is only saved by the multitudes of companions which have joined him over his years. In fact, his death occurs in saving one of his companion’s life by absorbing the excess radiation that would have killed Wilf. As opposed to his 9th incarnation who acted outside of his personality program to save Rose, the 10th incarnation cannot fight his program as much as he wants to.
The 11th incarnation’s personality change is slightly less drastic than previous incarnations. The 11th incarnation was now more childlike, or adolescent than before. Why did he change to this specific personality then? The Doctor’s biology found that it needed to approach emotional attachment differently. The 10th Doctor’s personality had formed around falling in love with Rose, and the emotional attachment that formed dominated even after Rose had been exiled from this reality. This prevented him from really understanding the relationships he was building. The 11th incarnation was a compensation for that by removing “The Rose Factor”. This was the romantic ideal which he had built up which hindered the formation of relationships outside of the romantic. Once you remove the idea of the romantic relationship from the personality, and you still have the capacity to form relationships, it leaves nothing but the familiar or family. Which means that since The Doctor was “programmed” to not have the romantic capacity needed to be a parent, he was left with being the child. However, emotionally being a child has unintended side effects, as The Doctor has become more aggressive and mischievous than he has been in many incarnations. He also has less knowledge of how his actions impede on the lives of his companions. Much like a child, he has become more selfish and self-centered. However like a child, he is developing to learn about how the previous are bad for forming positive long standing relationships.
The 11th Doctor enters his childhood at essentially the same time as his new companion, Amy. However, due to an accident, Amy matures and “grows up” while The Doctor does not. At first their relationship tries to be romantic, but due to The Doctor’s regenerative biological programming it’s seemingly impossible. With this in mind, the relationship becomes familial, brother and sister. The Doctor as we know him is finally getting what we would call “his childhood”. He is mischievous, sexually ambivalent, but most importantly he gets to experience love in a completely non-romantic way.
Overall what we are seeing in Doctor Who is the drawback to immortality. The Doctor may be immortal, but his incarnations are as fragile as the humans he chooses for his companions. These personalities may keep the immortal Doctor best suited to deal with the threats around him, but the inadvertent side-effects of their evolution are what make the alien character the most… “human” of all.
Previously on Doctor Who
Read Joe’s other articles:
Game of Thrones: Casting Roundup 1 and 2, Game of Thrones Primer II, Game of Thrones Primer I, Inn at the Crossroads Interview, Season 1 recap, The Greyjoy Rebellion, Robert’s Rebellion Pt.1, Robert’s Rebellion Pt.2, Robert’s Rebellion Pt. 3, The Religions of Westeros, The Races of Westeros