For over 50 years the concept of regeneration (though not referred to as such immediately) has been a central conceit of Doctor Who, with the BBC sci-fi series able to regularly recast its lead role thanks to the in-universe explanation that the Doctor can completely change his or her body when mortally wounded.
This has meant the series gets a regular refresh and soft reboot with every casting change, and allows it to continue beyond the limits of specific actors – but what if all that’s about to change? What if the dark truth recently hinted at about the Doctor’s species (the Time Lords, designation fans) actually relates to their most significant ability?
In other words, what if Doctor Who is about to undo everything we know about regeneration?
This idea has been circling around in our heads ever since Doctor Who series 12’s second episode (Spyfall – Part Two), which reignited the mystery of the “Timeless Child” (a mysterious figure with some connection to the Doctor previously teased in 2018) after Sacha Dhawan’s Master revealed that this unknown figure concealed some rot at the heart of Gallifreyan society.
“They lied to us – the founding fathers of Gallifrey,” the Master said.
“Everything they told us was a lie. We’re not who we think, you or I, the whole existence of our species built on the lie of the Timeless Child.”
Afterwards, we wrote a few theories as to who or what the Timeless Child could be referring to, but one reader pointed out something we’d missed – what if the Timeless Child refers to some sort of immortal being, given her name? And if that is the case, maybe the dark secret at the heart of Gallifrey is that the Time Lords didn’t invent the concept of regeneration – they stole it from this being, imprisoning her and harvesting her innate ability to rejuvenate themselves and their species.
Just think about it. Regeneration is one of the most widely-known, mainstream concepts in Doctor Who. It’s not some arcane bit of canon, or a nerdy Easter Egg – everyone knows that the Doctor changes form, even if they don’t watch the show. So what would make a bigger impact than to somehow undermine this, and reveal to the Doctor that she’s been unknowingly complicit in some atrocity all this time?
The Time Lords’ ability to regenerate has been an essential part of their success as a race, so it definitely qualifies as something that sits at “the whole existence” of the species (as the Master puts it). And it’s also something we still don’t know everything about. We know that there’s a 13-regeneration limit, and that the Time Lords could bestow a “new” regeneration cycle (as happens in 2013’s The Time of the Doctor) when this ran out, but not much about how regeneration began.
It’s been suggested and rumoured that it could have something to do with the “Rassilon Imprimatur” created to bond Time Lords to TARDISes and allow them to withstand the pressures of time travel, or a biological process Time Lord founder Rassilon created separately. Or maybe (as said in 2011’s A Good Man Goes to War) it’s something to do with exposure to the Time Vortex itself, but it’s never really been explained explicitly or definitively how the ability was created. And based on what the Master says, any explanation we’ve heard before could just be a lie anyway.
And what else about the Time Lords would be well known enough to a general audience (the people that head writer Chris Chibnall has been vocal about trying to reach) for a twist to be shocking? ‘Oh, it wasn’t Omega and Rassilon who were the founding fathers after all?’ – most people wouldn’t even know what you were talking about!
And this sort of idea has some history in classic sci-fi as well. Legendary author Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a short story published in 1973 called The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas which dealt with similar themes, imagining a truly utopian society that could only function on one proviso – the perpetual filth and misery one unfortunate child is forced to endure. This sort of harrowing moral dilemma is vintage Doctor Who, and it’d be great to see Jodie Whittaker grappling with the idea of her complicity in this scheme.
Of course, it could be slightly self-defeating to make Doctor Who’s best selling point a cruel atrocity, but we’re sure some sci-fi nonsense could be invented to allow the Doctor to still regenerate. And the idea could work almost as well if the story was tweaked slightly anyway.
Maybe the Timeless Child gets her name from some connection to time travel instead, and it’s that ability that the Time Lords have harvested from her for their TARDISes. Either way the idea of the lofty Time Lords harbouring such a grubby little secret would be a hard cross for the Doctor to bear – assuming, of course that on some level she doesn’t know it already.
After all, the Master notes that the truth is “buried deep in all our memories and our identity,” and the Doctor appears to have a vision of the Timeless Child towards the end of his speech. Maybe on some level, she always knew, and that’s why she instinctively felt the need to run away from Gallifrey in the first place, stealing her TARDIS to escape some shame she couldn’t quite feel.
That’s what happens in le Guin’s story, after all – hence the title, referring to those who abandoned the perfect society of Omelas once they learned its price.
“The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness,” the narrator says at the end of the story.
“I cannot describe it at all. It is possible it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”
Of course, it’s possible that we’re completely off-base here, and the Timeless Child refers to some completely separate twist of Who lore that will be revealed in the coming episodes of series 12, leaving regeneration and TARDISes both safe from scrutiny.
But for our part, we can’t help but think back to something else the Master said in the series’ first episode, and how much it applies to the fans watching at home as well as the Doctor.
“Everything that you think you know… is a lie.”
Doctor Who continues on BBC One on Sundays