Is the Doctor going to regenerate early?

Did that trailer show Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor about to make an early exit?

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If you were the makers of Doctor Who, saddled with the knowledge that everyone was more interested in who’ll next play the lead in your series rather than the new episodes coming to TV, what would you do?

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Would you just ignore it, focus on promoting the new series and hope everyone gets bored of asking? Or would you turn the speculation to your advantage, teasing the idea of the Doctor regenerating early in your trailers just as everyone’s excited by the prospect? 

Perhaps unsurprisingly the Doctor Who team seem to have gone down the latter track, with the latest teaser for the series hinting at a regeneration for Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor even more strongly than an earlier trailer did.

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Whereas before we only saw the Doctor’s hand start to glow now we see his regeneration in full flow, and in a recent interview the departing Capaldi seemed to suggest that he’d already filmed his final sequence despite not yet having started shooting on the Christmas special where he’s supposed to make his exit.

“I did [the regeneration] the other day,” Capaldi said. “It was a strange day. It was explosive. He goes out a fighter.”

So what could this all mean? Could it be that Doctor Who is going to pull the rug out from under us and see an early regeneration, introducing the mystery next Doctor before this series has even finished and creating one of the biggest upsets in recent TV history? 

Well, let’s be honest – probably not. As we’ve discussed previously, even if such a move was mooted it’s unlikely that it would be included in a trailer (it rather spoils the massive twist if you show it months before it happens, no?). It’s far more likely that this footage (and the “death” Peter Capaldi has filmed) is a fake-out similar to when 2008 episode The Stolen Earth ended on the cliffhanger of David Tennant regenerating (which also happened to be around the time of some speculation about who’d play the next Time Lord).

Not to ruin a 9-year-old episode for you, but the Doctor didn’t really change then, and he probably won’t now. Hell, even in the last series of Doctor Who a similar tease was used, showing Capaldi’s Doctor with hands a-glowing in a scene that later turned out to be about the Daleks stealing his regeneration energy for themselves.

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Still, an open question does remain about how the series will back out of the already-teased regeneration scenes. It’s most likely that that the Doctor will initiate the process only to halt it in some way, although (as some fans have suggested) it could also be that this regeneration will begin then take a while to kick in, in a similar fashion to both David Tennant and Matt Smith’s departures (both of whose Doctors had a short grace period between starting to regenerate and actually changing their appearance). 

Then again, it could be that something more unusual is going on. In another interview Peter Capaldi has suggested that this regeneration will be “more complicated” than usual.

“There’s this notion now that it’s the same process he’s gone through every time, and that’s not true,” he told the New York Times.

“It’s only the last couple of regenerations that have been, as it were, fairly straightforward ones. I can’t go into the details of a lot of it, because I know what happens, but I don’t know how it happens.”

And then in this week’s Graham Norton show Capaldi muddied the waters even further, saying he’d filmed “[his] character’s death” while suggesting that this didn’t mean he’d actually completed the regeneration itself into a new form. Hmmm…

Frankly, it’s anyone’s guess what a “more complicated” regeneration will look like, but given that this will be the first since the Doctor exceeded the procedure’s in-built limit and received a new cycle (in 2013 episode The Time of the Doctor), it’s likely there could be some teething problems.

Maybe the new regeneration will begin but then reverse or halt, keeping the Twelfth Doctor stuck in a dying body until he more successfully regenerates in the Christmas special (perhaps also explaining why Capaldi could already have filmed his “death”). Maybe he’ll only regenerate halfway, or start the process in the final scenes of series 10 and spend the majority of the Christmas special trying to keep the change at bay.

Or maybe outgoing head writer Steven Moffat’s regret at not keeping Capaldi’s regeneration a secret would lead him to pull the ultimate plot twist – seeing Capaldi regenerate into another incarnation, only for THAT version to also perish before changing into the new Doctor as chosen by incoming head writer Chris Chibnall. Sure, it’d be hugely alienating to the viewership and you couldn’t just have some random actor as the Doctor for half an episode, but hey – it’d also be really cool. 

In the end, though, no matter how many exciting theories we posit it’s most likely that Peter Capaldi’s Doctor will start to regenerate in an episode of the new series, then stop and stay the same, before changing just as expected in December’s Christmas special. The scenes Capaldi filmed were probably the “fake-out” regeneration, some technical sort of “death” that doesn’t really count or (at best) his final scenes from December filmed early for production reasons (eg they required an actor they won’t have in June). 

So, no, the Doctor’s probably not for turning just yet. Even if it is sometimes fun to wonder how they’d pull it off.

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Doctor Who will continue on BBC1 on Saturday at 7:20pm