Fan debates on regeneration in Doctor Who seem to forget a simple truth: no one gets to run forever.
Recently on several Doctor Who social media fandom pages, members have been considering the eventual changing of the guard of our current Doctor, Jodie Whittaker. While some have imagined the inevitable parting swan song with tremendous sadness; others, less enraptured by the past couple of series, look forward to the end with relief.
As these virtual conversations evolved however, the debate soon turned to the identification of everyone’s “favorite regeneration”.
Many named the first and most historically relevant regeneration of William Hartnell, which understandably set the stage for all subsequent regenerations of the Doctor. Others were keen to remember David Tennant’s parting, the soul-stirring and masterful beauty of Murray Gold’s Vale Decem, and Ten’s gutting cry of reluctant departure.
And although all Doctors were honorably mentioned as this debate raged on, this author for one, was reluctant to participate in the conversation at all. The truth is that I was deeply troubled by the juxtaposition of the word “favorite” with the word “regeneration”, and the absolute oxymoron that they create in my mind.
For myself and for so many others, the Doctor has taken special meaning in my life. The idea of selecting a favorite regeneration at all seemed contrary to the experience and meaning of those storylines.
The Doctors themselves have shared their thoughts on regeneration (not mentioning a favorite either). For example, the Eleventh Doctor confesses that, “it all just disappears…everything you are, gone in a moment like breath on a mirror” (The Time of the Doctor). In Twice Upon a Time, the Twelfth Doctor takes regeneration even closer to death. After finally and reluctantly coming to terms with the importance of his continued existence in the universe, he admits, “I suppose one more lifetime wouldn’t kill anyone… Well except me.”
Herein lies the point of confusion for me in this fan debate.
What in fact is a favorite regeneration?
Is a favorite regeneration the death of your least favorite Doctor, your least favorite face of all the Doctor’s faces? Is it the best speech, or the best advice? Is it the loveliest goodbye, or the most hopeful or peaceful passing?
The regeneration of the Eighth Doctor Paul McGann is for me one of the greatest moments of catharsis in the entire running of Doctor Who. Not only because Stephen Moffat’s Day of the Doctor script is such a touching tribute to the saga of the Doctor, but for so many other multitudes of reasons.
Among these are the tremendous talent and dedication of Paul McGann, the place of honor bestowed to Big Finish and the Eighth Doctor’s companions, and the opportunity to allow such a brilliant Doctor his moment of regeneration on screen.
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But what I appreciate most about this regeneration is actually that the introduction of the War Doctor spared the Eighth Doctor the greatest horrors of the Time War.
Yet even then, with a merciful regeneration, the Eighth Doctor would never know that it was his own strength and volition that triggered and drove his regeneration. He would never know that he hadn’t actually lost his name and become a warrior. He would never know that Gallifrey would be saved. He would never know, because who he was, was now gone.
It takes almost 40 minutes to watch all of the regenerations of the Doctor back to back. If you haven’t yet tried this, I highly recommend it. For me, it does not seem possible to view these moments without being touched by the sadness and loss of regeneration.
I would challenge any fan to a full viewing without a shed tear. Because ultimately no matter the pretty speeches and promises of renewal and resolution, regeneration is a chasm.
And fans, as the ultimate eternal companions, start again just the like the Doctor.
How would you define a “favorite” regeneration? What criteria would you use to judge it? Are the most emotional exits the best? Let us know in the comments below!