Regeneration as a plot device

As a British sci-fi fan, I can hardly let this week’s Dr Who hullaballoo go by without some sort of comment. So today I’m going to write about regeneration, and some of its implications as a story-telling trick in Dr Who.

I grew up watching Dr Who. My earliest television memory is the fifth Doctor, horribly injured in The Caves of Androzani, regenerating into the sixth Doctor. Looking back, the combination of horror and hope that comes from that scene did a lot to shape my taste in stories. For me, as a six-year-old, it was a unique and compelling moment, far more powerful than any death they could show in a Saturday evening family adventure.

Six more goes and I get to be Malcolm Tucker
Six more goes and I get to be Malcolm Tucker

In one sense, the Doctor’s regeneration is just a way around a limitation of television production. Actors get bored or dissatisfied or ambitious. They want to move on. So if you want to keep a show about one character going then you need a way to overcome that. The BBC couldn’t use million pound pay deals, and they care enough about their audience not to fob them off with a lookalike. So instead they came up with regeneration. They looked at the limitations they had and worked within them to create something new – it’s that boundaries business all over again.

But like the best responses to limitations, regeneration has helped them to achieve something more.

First there’s the most obvious thing. By introducing the new actor at a climax for the previous one, just as the audience’s emotions are up, they ensure that you’ll care about the new guy. You’re excited about whatever great thing the last Doctor ‘died’ doing. You’re relieved that this beloved character has survived. You see the new doctor and you are filled with positive emotions. Roll credits before he has time to mess it up. Now you’re all excited for the next series.

Excited, terrified, it's all the same thing, right?
Excited, terrified, it’s all the same thing, right?

It’s also a way to change the highest stakes for the character. Death isn’t always the worst thing you can do to a character. It certainly isn’t the most interesting, as if the character dies then you stop seeing their journey. But if there’s something they fear more than death – loss of control, a loved one suffering, being dishonoured – then the writer can put them through the wringer and still keep going. Regeneration has a similar effect. It actually reduces the risk of death, but introduces another risk instead – the risk of losing one’s self, of becoming an entirely different person.

Think about that for a minute. What if you took a knock to the head and woke up dark and traumatised (Dr Ecclestone) or flippant and erratic (Dr Smith)? Sure, you might still be alive, but the person you were is gone. Worse yet, you probably don’t care. How harsh is that on the person you were? Or on the people around you? By taking death out of the equation, regeneration doesn’t soften what’s at stake – we never believe that our Saturday TV heroes are going to die – it actually makes things more emotionally hazardous.

Wait, are you saying I'm immortal?
Wait, are you saying I’m immortal?

All that’s what you get with any decent writer using this plot tool. Throw in someone as tricksy as Moffat and he’ll take the consequences one step further. He’ll look at that structure and see the implications others haven’t explored. Like a magician watching another’s trick, he notices the difference between what the audience think they’ve seen and what’s actually visible. And like some kind of crazy script-writing David Blaine, he’ll stick a trick into the gap. At the end of the last series, it was a new Doctor in a space between regenerations (or at least that’s what we’re meant to believe for now). Who knows what he’ll come up with next?

They say necessity is the mother of invention. That’s never been more true than in the case of the Doctor’s regenerations. And I can’t wait to see this next one.

Here’s hoping for a real Tucker-style Capaldi performance.



Meanwhile, what do you think? Do you enjoy the regenerations? Do you have fond memories of a particular one? Are you as sick of this weekend’s hype as I am, and as excited about the new Doctor as I am (seriously, Capaldi, that’s awesome!)? Let me know.