Did Doctor Who just introduce another secret Time Lord?
New baddie Swarm might have a darker connection to the Doctor - and regeneration - based on his first appearance.
The Halloween Apocalypse was an action-packed introduction for Doctor Who series 13, delivering 50 minutes of thrills, chills and Weeping An-gills (sorry) as the Doctor and Yaz (Jodie Whittaker and Mandip Gill) tried to save the Earth from the devastating Flux. Among other things.
Obviously, there’s a lot to dissect from the episode – but one of the most striking moments had to be the introduction of new (or possibly old) baddie Swarm, who claims to be an ancient foe of the Doctor now wiped from her memory (thanks to events glimpsed in series 12 finale The Timeless Children).
Exactly what their shared history is remains unclear – he describes them as “dancing across space and time, locked in combat” – but a few clues point towards Swarm being more than your average plastic-faced alien baddie (with apologies to Tim Shaw).
What if… and bear with us here… he’s some sort of Time Lord?
OK, it’s true, it sounds like we’ve taken leave of our senses. But we can’t shake the sensation that something connects Swarm to the Doctor’s species, especially since – in his very first scene – he appears to regenerate.
Trapped in a distant, ancient prison, Swarm’s cage fails and he’s unable to escape during the course of this episode, killing one of the Division operatives sent to check on him and somehow absorbing the other. Of course, we learned last series that The Division are sort of Time Lord Black Ops – like Gallifrey’s CIA – so the fact that they’re watching over him is interesting in of itself.
But when Swarm breaks free, he does something curious. Absorbing energy from one of the operatives, he rejuvenates himself, changing his appearance and declaring that he is “renewed at last!”. He also changes actor – ‘Old Swarm’ is credited to Matthew Needham, while Swarm Prime (if that’s what we’re calling him) is played by Sam Spruell, with a distinctly different, skull-like appearance. Considering the levels of prosthetics involved, why bother changing between actors unless you were making a particular point?
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So what have we seen here? A dangerous figure, with ties to the Time Lords… who is able to rejuvenate his body… which changes his face and the actor playing his character. Sound familiar?
His choice of the ‘renewal’ wording is also telling. When Jo Martin was introduced as a previously-unknown incarnation of the Doctor in 2020’s Fugitive of the Judoon, her status as an earlier version was signposted by her habit of calling the TARDIS “my ship” just like First Doctor William Hartnell.
And similarly, the very first time we saw a regeneration onscreen (between William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton) it was referred to as a renewal.
“I've been renewed, have I? That's it. I've been renewed,” Troughton’s Second Doctor says.
Swarm, supposedly, has been in prison since “the dawn of the universe” – is this similar language a suggestion that he could have been part of the earlier society of Time Lords?
It’s certainly an intriguing idea – though of course, some details count against it. For one, the regeneration looks different to how it’s been presented in the series in recent years, and seems to involve draining the life from another figure. Arguably, Swarm could have just been draining life force, and restoring his appearance to what it always used to be before millennia trapped in a cage.
Swarm also doesn’t look like a traditional depiction of a Time Lord. While technically they could regenerate into any appearance, almost all of them have usually appeared entirely human (or rather, humans look like Time Lords – long story), casting further doubt on this theory.
Still, it could be that the truth is somewhere in between. In series 12 finale The Timeless Children, we learned that the true origins of regeneration were not on Gallifrey, with a much younger version of the Doctor bringing the ability through from another universe, only to have the trick spliced into Gallifreyans.
Maybe Swarm (and his sister Azure, played by Rochenda Sandall) have some connection to the Doctor’s pre-Gallifrey life. Maybe they’re her true species from the other universe, long lost to her after multiple regenerations. Or maybe they’re some sort of rival to the Time Lords, able to recreate their regenerations with their own, darker version.
After all, not every regeneration is the same. We’ve seen The Master steal other people’s bodies or regeneration cycles, infect someone as a weird little snake and generally break the rules around regeneration faster than the series can make them up. Who’s to say what Swarm does to the Division operative isn’t something similar?
Or maybe he’s just an alien who can suck a bit of life force, like a spiky Dementor. We really, truly probably are overthinking this, and will be back here in a few weeks more red-faced than Swarm himself.
Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained. And if there’s anything we’ve learned from this era of Doctor Who, it’s that we shouldn’t take anything we think we know about Time Lords as a given.
Read more about Doctor Who:
- Doctor Who - The Halloween Apocalypse review: Chris Chibnall turns up the heat for a fast, fun-packed opener
- Doctor Who’s The Halloween Apocalypse is like a series finale, but backwards
- Doctor Who's series 13 premiere featured nods to an old Doctor and two classic companions
Doctor Who: Flux airs new episodes on BBC One on Sundays. For more, check out our dedicated Sci-Fi page or our full TV Guide.