Why the Regeneration Limit Is a Thing of the Past

Will Doctor Who end when the Time Lord reaches his 13th incarnation? Is there an easy fix within the series’ continuity to allow the Doctor to overcome death forever? Mez Burdett takes a look at the evidence.

“Regeneration, a complete new life cycle…”

The Doctor regenerates for the first time...

When does the Doctor’s life end exactly? At what point will our intrepid hero, a corrector of wrongs, a champion for the dispossessed and the disparaged, fail to regenerate and instead just keel over and never rise from the ashes again? A concise answer for those immediately seeking finality is Trenzalore but since we didn’t see a body in The Name of the Doctor, we can presume that the ever-clever Doctor found a way to cheat death once again. But further down the Doctor’s time line, he faces the biggest threat to his life of all: the end of his regenerative cycle, or does he?

A Time Lord can live for thousands of years; can literally go on and on potentially as long as they play it safe. But the Doctor, he throws himself into the thick of it. He seeks out trouble and tames it with a bullwhip made up of words and ingenuity.  So every once in a while, he dies. Our hero, the man who stands up in the face of injustice and says ‘no’ can sometimes meet a sticky end even though he doesn’t want to. Metebelis 3, Androzani, Gallifrey, the TARDIS floor, the Time Vortex, radiation, fighting with the Cybermen, fighting with the Master, these are just a few of the locations and reasons that the Doctor’s various incarnations have met their ends. But unlike most other shows, our man can come back from the dead. Sure, he’s all new with a different face and a different set of character tics and flaws but he’s still the same man we adore.

As a Time Lord, his body is empowered with the ability to regenerate, a little trick that Time Lords use to cheat death. One version of the Doctor dies only to be replaced by another who can carry the good work on and keep the universe running smoothly. It’s like when someone in a managerial position that you work with leaves and gets replaced, the person is different but the job remains the same.

But there’s one problem, a regeneration cycle doesn’t last forever. At least according to Doctor Who (The Old Testament), a Time Lord can only regenerate 12 times and live 13 different lives before the natural process of change eventually comes to an end. Once you hit body number 13, you’re on your last chance, whatever happens next is permanent and there’s no last minute replacement to step up and take the job. But then there’s Doctor Who (The New Testament) where the Doctor now claims he can regenerate over 500 times, we imagine he’s only somewhat serious. Apart from the statement being made in a situation where the Doctor might be more flippant than usual, the point still stands that the limit of regeneration is now a thing of the past and the Doctor will go on forever and ever or until he ends up at Trenzalore or until time is rewritten and he doesn’t end up at Trenzalore.

Let’s look at why, before you start baying for my blood and demanding that I’m locked up in a small prison cell for the rest of my life with only the Whisper Men and the odd Silent for company.

In the real world, Doctor Who is just too profitable for the BBC to ever completely call time on it forever. The show has possibly the biggest worldwide audience that it’s ever had and that shows no signs of slowing down, add that into the profits made from action figures, DVD releases, posters, clothing, kitchenware and various assorted goodies which have trebled or quadrupled since the show came back in 2005 and you’ve got something that the corporation will never let die.

The Time War

But the real world reasoning is easy, put money and value next to anything and the justifications flow freely. Let’s look at why the Doctor won’t face his last ever stand during his 13th life.


Put simply, it’s probably because of the Time War.

[pullquote align=”right”]It hardly seems unreasonable that once Rassilon was put in charge of leading Gallifrey in its terrible war, he changed things up a little so that he could offer all Time Lords an unlimited regenerative cycle.[/pullquote]It’s a trite answer I know but it’s the most relevant one that we have and makes the most sense as well. During the unseen events of the last great battle between the Time Lords and the Daleks, we can only imagine what both sides were doing in order to secure a win. We know that Rassilon led the Time Lords during this period and caused a whole heap of mess, as we saw in The End of Time, Part Two, he’s insane with a little bit of crazy as a side order. Seeing his reaction to the thought of ultimate death was certainly unsettling, he dispatched a fellow Time Lord within a second just because she mentioned the notion. Rassilon is a man who will live at all costs.

Is it so difficult to imagine that he’s already thrown the rule book out of the window and reengineered himself and his people so that the regeneration limit can go on forever, thus assuring eternal life barring accidents or something else such as, say, the end of time itself?

So, we have a war that the Time Lords are fighting in, for their very existence, past, present and future and the Doctor is involved up to his eyeballs. He’s their soldier in the front line, he fired the first shot in the Time War and he fired the last as well. So naturally, although maybe not by choice, the Doctor had his life limit extended indefinitely.

Maybe that’s what makes him a much more lonely figure in the new series, he’s lost everything, his home, his family, his friends and now he’s bound forever to walk through eternity, having to relive every loss, every day. It’s no wonder that he kept John Hurt locked up in the back of his time stream.

The Five Doctors

But the reasoning behind the Doctor’s extended regeneration cycle doesn’t just stop in Doctor Who’s newer adventures since 2005. Way back in 1983 in the 20th anniversary Doctor Who adventure The Five Doctors, the Master was brought back to Gallifrey to rescue the Doctor from the planet’s Death Zone, a macabre place where ancient Time Lords bought other beings and races to fight against each other for their omnipotent amusement. The Master, somewhat reticent to rescue his mortal enemy and already holding on for dear life in a borrowed body as he had finished his natural regeneration cycle, was offered an incentive by the High Council of the Time Lords: a complete new regeneration cycle.

Way back 30 years ago, the Doctor Who universe already confirmed that it could do that, from then on death was never the only option for a Time Lord if they were good.

Anthony Ainley as the Master in Destiny of the Doctors

Speaking of the Master, a man who’s escaped death more times than Rory Williams, he also hatched a clever little plan in the 1996 TV movie Doctor Who where he planned to steal the Doctor’s remaining lives through linking them both to the Eye of Harmony. Presumably the Eye still has the power to do that, so should all of the Doctors other plans fail he could nip into his blue box for another journey to the centre of the TARDIS and top up his lifecycle, like adding credit to a phone.

The Ultimate Drama for an Immortal: The Threat of Death

All of these theories aside, and theories are all they are, the end of the Doctor’s natural regeneration cycle would make one hell of a story to keep viewers gripped. Even with all of the reasons as to why he won’t finish travelling after he uses all 12 regenerations up, the actuality of a finite number of lives for the Doctor should never really be addressed in order to always keep the audience on their toes. Maybe in 10 years time we’ll be on Doctor number 13, just in time for the 60th anniversary of Doctor Who and wouldn’t that make one amazing adventure for the Doctor as he desperately tried to avoid his final death?

Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor

Not in a ‘River’s going to kill me by a lake’ way but more of an ‘I have no options whatsoever’ way. Of course, he could find an ancient piece of Time Lord technology that ushers him in a whole new life cycle and a whole new era of Doctor Who, or he could be saved by the TARDIS and its ever useful Eye of Harmony or, if Steven Moffat’s still show running at that point, he could just carry on regenerating without an explanation, a la the 1999 Comic Relief special Curse of Fatal Death.

The point of all of this, is that the Doctor’s limit on his regeneration cycle is a thing of the past now, a dusty idea that’s had many worried for many a year and with the Time War, Biological Meta Crises, the newly revealed ability to suspend or transfer regenerations and a whole host of secrets regarding the Doctor’s unique biological make up that we haven’t even discovered yet, it’s conclusive that 13 will not be the Doctor’s unlucky number.


What happens when an eight year old kid watches the 1993 repeat run of Planet of the Daleks? He pretty much ends up here writing about the show that grabbed hold of him and never let go!

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