A minor controversy has been unleashed by the decision to give the main character in Doctor Who and unlimited lease on life.
The title character, a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, has the ability to cheat death by “regenerating” — adopting a new body and persona while retaining his memories and basic features of his personality, such as a strong sense of justice and love of adventure that sets him apart from most of his race.
Since the 1980s, it’s been well established that a Time Lord can perform this feat only 12 times, giving them, effectively, 13 lives. (They can still be killed if the regeneration isn’t given time to play out properly.)
Now the BBC has elected to void this, quietly slipping a fleeting mention into an upcoming episode of the Doctor Who spinoff The Sarah Jane Adventures that there is no limit to the number of times the Doctor can regenerate.
I’ve never doubted that the “rule of 13” would one day be rescinded in some way as the character approaches his 13th and “final” death. A recent near-regeneration sort of muddied the waters a bit — did it count against the total? And with Matt Smith (pictured in the Sarah Jane episode “Death of the Doctor”) recently stepping into the role as the 11th Doctor — and the third in five years — this eventuality is closer than it has ever been.
The Doctor is too valuable to the BBC and too beloved by fans to truly ever die. Some say this dehumanizes him needlessly and makes him a less approachable character, and that it makes him no better than his eternal foe, the Master, another Time Lord who “stole” lives to continue living beyond his 12th regeneration.
In the show’s 20th anniversary episode “The Five Doctors” in 1983, the Master is called upon by the other Time Lords to rescue the Doctor from an unknown foe. In return, he is offered a “new cycle of regeneration” that would allow him to live without the need to rob others of their life force.
I’m happy to see Doctor Who continue for as long as good writers and providing good stories. As the Master said when asked to come to the aid of his oldest foe, “a cosmos without the Doctor scarcely bears thinking about.”
For me, the biggest drawback of the decision to make the Doctor truly immortal is that it ruins the whole premise of “The Curse of Fatal Death,” a 1999 skit for a charity telethon that cast Rowan Atkinson, Richard E. Grant, Jim Broadbent and Hugh Grant as the Ninth, 10th, 11th and 12th Doctors who regenerate in rapid succession, ultimately giving way to Joanna Lumley as the 13th (and first female) Doctor.