Change, as this month’s big news announcement has once again demonstrated, is one of the few constants in Doctor Who. The fact that the programme has lasted in its various different forms for over 50 years is down to its ability to renew and revive itself and the most noticeable mechanism for this, of course, through the process of regeneration.
Regeneration has always been a shifting, flexible notion in the programme’s on-screen mythology which is fitting when you think about it for something that involves every cell in the body altering. Sometimes it happens through injury, sometimes illness, sometimes old age… Alarmingly, it can also happened seemingly on a whim for no particularly pressing reason at all, or be prevented from happening by force of effort. One thing that Doctor Who viewers have come to think of as consistent when it comes to regeneration is the idea that it causes substantial trauma – we’ve grown used to seeing the Doctor acting confused and rather more erratically than usual as he gets used to his new body.
Indeed, from the evidence we’ve seen, the Doctor does seem to suffer more than most who have the capacity to regenerate in the hours and days afterwards. Long spells of unconsciousness, manic episodes, fainting, mood swings, amnesia, an urge to try on questionable outfits – the Doctor has been through all of it. But others who have been through the process don’t, on the face of it at least, appear to go through the same gamut of traumas. Why should this be so?
Other on-screen regenerations have been relatively rare in Doctor Who’s long history. Romana’s transformation in that jokey opening to Destiny of the Daleks caused no ill effects whatsoever despite the frankly casual manner in which she seemed happy to rattle though her regenerations like someone flipping through a magazine at the hairdressers. The General seemed just fine after that recent gender-swapping change in Hell Bent and carried straight on with things without so much as taking the afternoon off.
Granted, there have been regenerations where the person undergoing the process didn’t exactly seem to have come out of it unscathed. Think of the Master in Utopia, cackling and plotting the minute he turned into John Simm. But you could argue that this was just the Master being himself; the character was never happier than when he was dreaming up a new dastardly scheme and the subsequent episodes revolved around the idea that the character was mad rather than bad. We’ve also seen River regenerate twice in the series and again it’s possible that any outlandish behaviour displayed afterwards is attributable to other things the character had been through (in her case being trained as a killer from childhood).
So where does this leave us? Are we to conclude that the Doctor is particularly susceptible to post-regenerative ill effects? Is it a bit like hay fever, really bad hangovers or a dodgy tummy after eating seafood – some people suffer from it and some don’t? Did the Doctor miss a couple of crucial lessons at the Academy? Is it because he’s more than just a Time Lord? Is it because he’s half-human? Is it because showing other characters going through the same kind of trauma as the Doctor does would hold up the plot and become tiresome, so it’s conveniently overlooked?
As with so many things in Doctor Who, there isn’t not necessarily any hard-and-fast answer. But what do you think? Why might the Doctor be so much more prone to being all shook up by regeneration than others who go through it? Let us have your theories!