Sunday, December 22, 2013

Regeneration : a complete new life cycle

Since it's very nearly Christmas, I'm going to indulge myself with a shameless geek-post about continuity problems in Doctor Who. Cut me some slack here, guys - if Ruth Davidson's sincerest fears (ahem) are realised, it might be my last ever chance to do something like this.

As a more or less lifelong fan of the show, one thing that really bugged me when it was revived in 2005 was the apparent attempt to 'retcon' out of existence the established principle that the Doctor (in common with all other Time Lords) could only regenerate twelve times, and was therefore restricted to thirteen incarnations before there had to be some sort of cunning plot twist that allowed him to live on. It just seemed like pure laziness on the part of the programme-makers, because if they had wanted to dispense with the rule so badly, it would only have taken them ten seconds to drop in a throwaway explanation. It's not hard to think of what that explanation could have been - even in the days of the classic series, some fans quite liked the idea that twelve regenerations was not a biological limit, but was instead something imposed by the Time Lords upon themselves. This was implicitly supported by the suggestion in a couple of stories that extra regenerations could be gifted to an individual Time Lord. So the Doctor could very easily have just casually mentioned that he used to be restricted to thirteen lives, but as a result of the Time Lords' demise the bar had been lifted and he was now effectively immortal. But no, instead there was just a pretence that the rule had never existed in the first place, which reached its nadir with the unexplained ability of the Master to regenerate in the episode Utopia, in spite of the fact that in the classic series he had well and truly used all his lives up. Again, fans were able to concoct their own methods of explaining the contradiction away (the Master had been resurrected and therefore had perhaps been restored to the start of his regeneration cycle), but the lack of any explicit reference to the problem in the narrative made it clear enough that retconning was the order of the day.

But why? Russell T Davies, the man who masterminded the revival of the show, was a dedicated fan of the classic series who was constantly dropping in self-indulgent continuity references that new viewers were never going to pick up on. This culminated in David Tennant's Doctor reciting a lengthy and near-verbatim quote from Tom Baker's famous 'homo sapiens' monologue - ironically in the very same episode as the Master's regeneration. So Davies would certainly have been aware from the word go of the twelve regenerations rule, leaving only one real conclusion to be drawn - that he personally disliked the rule so much that the idea of even taking ten seconds to explain it away offended him, and he therefore preferred to just ignore it.

That theory was put to the test a year or two after Davies stepped down as the 'showrunner', when he penned an episode of the spin-off series The Sarah-Jane Adventures that was billed in advance as containing an explanation of how the Doctor could essentially go on regenerating forever (or, more specifically, 507 times). But in fact, there was no 'explanation' offered at all - just yet another statement that flatly contradicted the established rule. After the episode was broadcast, Davies said this in an interview -

"507 – I could not resist! I was hooting. It'll never stick, though. That 13 lives is stuck in people's heads. It is, isn’t it funny? Yet they only said 13 once or twice...

There's a fascinating academic study to be made out of how some facts stick and some don't – how Jon Pertwee's Doctor could say he was thousands of years old, and no-one listens to that, and yet someone once says he’s only got thirteen lives, and it becomes lore. It’s really interesting, I think. That's why I'm quite serious that that 507 thing won’t stick, because the 13 is too deeply ingrained in the public consciousness. But how? How did that get there? It's fascinating, it's really weird. Anyway, that'll be my book in my retirement!"

I must admit my jaw dropped to the floor when I read that. Er, no, Russell. The twelve regeneration rule was not mentioned only "once or twice", and more to the point when it was mentioned it wasn't in the same casual way as Jon Pertwee's Doctor claiming to be thousands of years old. The rule was in fact at the very core of several storylines, leaving not even the slightest conceivable mystery about how it came to be so deeply ingrained in the public consciousness. For example...

THE DEADLY ASSASSIN (1976) : In this story the Master is in an emaciated state, having reached the end of his thirteenth incarnation. A key part of his motivation is to extend his life.

THE KEEPER OF TRAKEN (1981) : The Master returns in the same emaciated state, still with the plan of extending his life, this time by taking over the Doctor's body - although ultimately he takes over the body of a character called Tremas instead. It is stated that: "I am now reaching the end of my twelfth regeneration." / "Then that is the end for a Time Lord." / "But not for the Keeper of Traken."

LOGOPOLIS (1981) : The aftermath of the Master's rebirth, now in the body of Tremas. Again, we have a very clear statement of the position: "The Master escaped from Traken? Why take Nyssa's father?" / "To renew himself. He was very near the end of his twelfth regeneration."

MAWDRYN UNDEAD (1983) : In this story, a group of undead creatures want the Doctor to donate his remaining regenerations to help them to die. Again, the position is made absolutely crystal-clear: "I can only regenerate twelve times. I have already done so four times." / "So?" / "Don't you see? Eight of them, eight of me!" / "They want your remaining regenerations?"

THE FIVE DOCTORS (1983) : Reminding viewers once again that the Master has used up his twelve regenerations, the Time Lords offer him "a complete new life-cycle" as an inducement to do what they want.

THE TRIAL OF A TIME LORD (1986) : In this epic story, the sixth Doctor encounters a prosecuting lawyer who turns out to be himself in a future incarnation. The Master explains that "the Valeyard is an amalgamation of the darker sides of your nature, somewhere between your twelfth and final incarnation - and I may say that you do not improve with age". The strong suggestion in episode 13 is that the Valeyard's motivation is the same as the Master's in The Keeper of Traken, but with a twist - he wants to extend his own life by killing an earlier incarnation of himself and "inheriting" that incarnation's remaining seven regenerations. Unfortunately, this very imaginative storyline is somewhat undone in episode 14 (the final installment) when a completely different motivation is suggested instead. The contradiction came about because of behind-the-scenes chaos - the original writer withdrew his script for episode 14, and new writers were brought in at the last minute who completely misconstrued the meaning of key dialogue in episode 13.

When you take all that together, you can see how the twelve regenerations rule is rightly considered to be an indispensable part of Doctor Who 'lore', as Davies calls it. So I was delighted to hear that the current showrunner Steven Moffat will be addressing the problem (and effectively reinstating the original rule) in this year's Christmas special that sees Matt Smith regenerate into Peter Capaldi. Until recently, it had been assumed that Smith was the Doctor's eleventh incarnation and that Capaldi would be the twelfth, but the 50th anniversary episodes introduced John Hurt as a previously unheard-of ninth incarnation between Paul McGann and Christopher Eccleston - and now apparently it's going to be additionally claimed that another regeneration was used up in the David Tennant episode Journey's End, meaning that the Doctor has reached the end of the road and can't regenerate anymore (until the aforementioned cunning plot twist, which is presumably about to arrive).

This is all good news, but it throws up a few continuity problems of its own. It's been implied a good few times that Matt Smith's Doctor anticipates having several lives ahead of him - but why would he anticipate that, if he knows full well that he is the thirteenth incarnation? For instance, when he meets Tom Baker's Doctor in the anniversary special, it's hinted (but thankfully not stated explicitly) that Baker may not be playing the original fourth Doctor, but rather a future incarnation that has revisited an old body. Smith's Doctor doesn't seem remotely surprised by this, which would seem to contradict the idea that he knows his lives are all gone - although because this plainly doesn't make any sense, I would be happy enough to infer that the alternative interpretation of the scene (that Baker is in fact playing the fourth Doctor) must be the correct one. Furthermore, in the episode The Angels Take Manhattan, Smith's Doctor heals River Song's hand by using his regeneration energy - but why would he be able to do that if he doesn't have any regenerations left?

These are all minor quibbles, though. As this is such a pivotal moment in the show's development that has been speculated upon for such a long time, my main concern is that whatever explanation is given for the Doctor being able to live on, it should 'feel' right. One slight cause for doubt on that point is that Steven Moffat, just like his predecessor, has given a clear indication that he misunderstands something important from the classic series - he said in an interview that he wasn't sure if the Valeyard was really intended to be a future Doctor in a literal sense. Well, that certainly was the intention, and it was explictly stated to be the case. So that makes Moffat's unexpected mention in an episode earlier this year that the Doctor will "before the end" be known as the Valeyard a bit worrying, and makes me wonder if that whole storyline is about to be (perhaps unintentionally) retconned as well.

To be fair, introducing a future incarnation of the Doctor in a 1986 storyline was always a bit of a hostage to fortune in continuity terms, because it wasn't realistic to expect writers several decades down the line to reconcile it with their own plans. The simplest method of explaining the contradiction away would be to assume that the Valeyard was simply a 'possible' future for the Doctor, and that the encounter between the two was in itself sufficient to avert that future (the fact that the Doctor seemed fairly untroubled by the whole situation at the end of The Trial of a Time Lord would certainly support that interpretation). However, that's been blown out of the water by Moffat reinforcing the idea that the Valeyard is still part of the Doctor's future. I think the most elegant way around the problem now would be to spot a bit of creative ambiguity in the Master's original words that wasn't actually intended to be there - when he said "the Valeyard is...somewhere between your twelfth and final incarnation", he doesn't actually specify that 'final' means 'thirteenth'. It could be argued that he was choosing his words with care, because he somehow had foreknowledge that the Doctor would escape the twelve regenerations limit - in which case, the Valeyard could be absolutely any incarnation from the twelfth onwards. So I just hope nothing in the Christmas plot twist contradicts that serendipitous potential explanation!

I'll be on tenterhooks about all that, but of course mostly I'll be on tenterhooks to find out if Peter Capaldi utters his first lines in his own Scottish accent...

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating.

    As a casual watcher from time to time, all in the past, I had no idea of any of that.

    Most interesting.