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Doctor Who and the Regeneration Limit Argument

Doctor Who and the Regeneration Limit Argument

Ever since “The Day of the Doctor,” Whovians have been arguing amongst themselves about the numbering order for John Hurt’s Doctor and up. Is Hurt the true ninth Doctor, making Eccleston the tenth, Tennant the eleventh, and Smith the twelfth? Or does the War Doctor not fit in the number order for the Doctors? Steven Moffat has done all he can to add to the confusion, resulting in numerous sources giving seemingly-contradictory information. But can all these claims really fit together?


Do note that this article is heavily based on speculation and opinion, so readers can and most likely will disagree with some ideas expressed here.


First of all, let’s look at the pure order of the Doctors. Using actors instead of numbers, and in the order they appeared canonically (rather than the order we met them in. Wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey). We have William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, and Paul McGann, bringing us the first eight Doctors in a clear order. But then we get John Hurt retroactively added into the regeneration order, followed by the Doctors in the revival series: Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith, and soon to be Peter Capaldi.


So that’s thirteen actors in all, but when we start looking at regeneration counts, things get confusing. For instance, David Tennant’s Doctor was shot by a Dalek and had to regenerate, but pulled a fancy trick using his severed hand to redirect the energy after healing himself, allowing him to remain in his current state. Thus, he remained the 10th Doctor, while using up a regeneration. As for John Hurt’s War Doctor, his regeneration was triggered intentionally with an elixir from the Sisterhood of Karn, which may or may not make it count as one that uses one of his regenerations.


According to Moffat, though, all of those count, making Matt Smith’s Doctor the 12th regeneration. What does this mean? It means he’s supposedly on his last life, as Time Lords get thirteen lives and that’s it.


Of course, in spite of Moffat’s claim that “The twelve regenerations limit is a central part of Doctor Who mythology – science fiction is all about rules, you can’t just casually break them,” we know that rule is going to be broken, as not only has Capaldi been cast, we’ve seen him briefly during the 50th anniversary special.


There are theories everywhere as to how that will play out. The most common ones are that the regeneration limit is a law set in place by the Time Lords, and with no more of them around, the Doctor is free to regenerate as much as he wants. Another is that he has extra regenerations given to him by River Song during “Let’s Kill Hitler,” so while he’s used up all of his, he still has hers left to use. It has been established that Time Lords can be given extra regenerations, so neither theory is too far-fetched.


Neil Gaiman has also given his thoughts about the regeneration limit. “MY OPINION (which is not Canon) is that the regeneration limit is a lot like the speed limit. You can break it, but things get a lot more dangerous if you do. The Time Lords were the traffic cops: they enforced the limit. With them gone, the Doctor can keep regenerating beyond 13, but with consequences.”  Though as he has stated his opinion is not canonical, it’s just another theory to add to the mix.


Then we get to the fans themselves, and how they’re going to refer to the Doctors. Some are saying that Hurt’s Doctor is the new Nine, and they will be referring to every Doctor past him accordingly (Eccleston as Ten, Tennant as Eleven, and so on), others are calling him 8.5, or just the War Doctor. Others still are taking a third option and abandoning the numbering system altogether, and just saving everyone the headache by referring to them by actor instead.

Doctor Who

Moffat has stated that the Doctor doesn’t refer to himself by any number, and he’s just The Doctor, but for those who are concerned about numbering, we can count Hurt as the War Doctor rather than numerically.


That said, though, I think Neil Gaiman put it best: “I think the main purpose of numbering things is to communicate, and we all know who we mean when we say Doctors Nine, Ten, or Eleven. If anyone corrects you and says ‘You Mean TWELFTH!’ When you say ‘Matt Smith was the eleventh Doctor,’ then that person is being irritatingly pedantic and should be pitied, in a nice way and with a gentle friendly, not-patronizing sort of love, because they will have hard lives ahead of them.”


For the sake of all our minds, I’m not going to bring up the Valeyard, a future regeneration of the Doctor who tried to take his past self’s remaining regenerations to extend his own life during “The Trial of a Time Lord.” Let’s just ignore that for now and focus on the Doctors we have seen, rather than those that have yet to happen and might not happen any more even though we’ve seen it happen. You see how confusing this timey-wimey stuff can get sometimes?


In the end, Doctor Who is a show that, like any other, can be changed to work however the writers and show-runner feel it needs to. The Doctor will find a way to regenerate, no matter what number he’s on, and as fans, we’ll probably enjoy it a lot more if we just watch it and have a good time rather than bicker and argue about who’s numbered what. We’ll be seeing him regenerate this Christmas, so I for one will be more focused on Capaldi’s performance than his number.


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