A sense of self in a world of change
The beginnings of a bonkerish theory…
… the Christmas Special is partly set up to explain why the Doctor, after a solid run of thirteen male bodies, regenerates into a female body. And it’s connected with the First Doctor.
Moffat likes his Who metaphors: I’ve argued before that the episodes immediately leading up to the 50th Anniversary could all have been read as metaphors: each representing the various ages of the Before Gap programme. During the Capaldi era, he’s played quite heavily on the metaphor of ‘Doctor Who as legend’, as ‘story’. The Capaldi incarnation of the Doctor is often struggling to retrieve the real person who lives behind the legend of ‘The Doctor’. Robin Hood thought it was better that the legend be remembered; the Capaldi Doctor is not so sure.
Moffat also likes explaining things. The ‘explanation’ is very often a ‘blink and you miss it’, ‘available if you think about it’ kind of explanation, but Steven Moffat is still, at heart, the completist fanboy. The Doctor Falls, for example, sneaked in an explanation for why the Master became Missy after staying resolutely (and misogynistically) male for body after body. Quite simply, having met himself as a woman, the Master now knows (at some level) that he will have to make a gender switch. Missy didn’t ‘just happen’; Missy is part of a Moffat loop.
So I’d suggest that, rather than leave the Doctor’s regeneration into a female body as an ‘Oh, look, I’m a woman now, funny it took so long’ there will be an explanation – just as Moffat didn’t ignore Peter Capaldi’s previous appearance as Caecilius, but briefly explained why the Doctor had unconsciously chosen that face.
Why might that explanation be connected with the First Doctor? Because in a way, William Hartnell’s regeneration into Patrick Troughton was the real beginning of the transformation from ‘programme’ to ‘legend’. Up to that point, Doctor Who was like Journey into Space or Space Patrol. Massively popular, but didn’t outlive its time. It was regeneration that gave Doctor Who the potential to become one of the immortal stories.
But if it was the regeneration of William Hartnell into Patrick Troughton that began ‘legendary Who’, then did the regeneration of the First Doctor into the Second Doctor begin the long process of becoming ‘legendary Doctor’? Might the Capaldi Doctor see it as the beginning of the process of losing his ‘real’ self behind a legend? Given that Steven Moffat does like connecting events in-story to the history of the programme, I’d suggest that such a connection will be made.
Are the First Doctor and the Capaldi Doctor still the same person? Is that original 1960’s Doctor Who still the same programme as the bigger budgeted, CGI’d juggernaut that is the 21st Century Who? Or is that moment of doubt in Deep Breath, where the Doctor clearly wonders if there’s anything of his original self left, prophetic on both levels? In all that change, is the core self (the ‘soul’) – of the Doctor, of the programme – still the same?
What do you hold on to, when you’re a shape-shifter? What do you hold on to, when your leading actor and your production team go through periodic, complete, changes? When you can be ‘whatever you feel like when you get up in the morning?’
And, in-story, Gallifreyans aren’t just shape-shifters – unlike Zygons, their periodic regenerations shift both body and persona. They must have cultural methods of coping with this – but the Doctor has fled from his own culture. The one and only constant in the Doctor’s life is that his TARDIS likes to appear as a police box. Oh, and that he always regenerates as a white male.
Hold on to that last thought. After Moffat’s finished with the Christmas Special, it’s possible that we’ll be able to see that in a different way.
The production team have one advantage that the Doctor doesn’t have; despite the ‘missing episodes’, there’s an awful lot of Doctor Who history available for instant reference. The production team know what they’re changing from. Even though the latest actor to play the Doctor wasn’t alive when William Hartnell was the one and only Doctor, she can haul the episodes out of the archives, put the DVDs on expenses and effectively ‘remember’ the previous characterisations. If she wants to.
The Doctor doesn’t have that luxury. He’s over two thousand years old; his childhood was so long ago that he tells Bill that he can barely remember whether he was a boy or a girl. He has a photo of Susan and River on his desk – as if he’s now frightened of forgetting his own family. If the Smith Doctor was ‘the Man Who Forgets’, the Capaldi Doctor has become ‘the Man frightened of forgetting too much’. In episode after episode the Capaldi Doctor struggles to remember stories that much of the audience know perfectly well. The Second Doctor told Victoria that his family slept in his memory – which implies that he didn’t need photos; he remembered them without any props. The Capaldi Doctor keeps their pictures on his desk.
What do you hold on to, when you’re a shape-shifter who’s over two thousand years old? What do you hold on to, when your memory of your childhood is slowly fading and you need a photo to remind you of the granddaughter who was once so precious?
What do you hold onto when you’ve always hated regenerating?
We first saw the Doctor as an old man with a granddaughter. At that point, regeneration wasn’t even a twinkle in Sidney Newman’s eye; he wanted some actor with a bit of gravitas, and in the 1960’s that meant age.
But once regeneration becomes part of the lore of the programme, you start to wonder why the First Doctor would keep that first body so long that he was literally starting to wear out. Then you look at the Second Doctor (forcibly regenerated by the Time Lords) and all the following Doctors. None of them chose regeneration – except in the sense of ‘regenerate or die’.
Romana, on the other hand, seemingly regenerated because she fancied a new body. She also appeared to have considerably more control over the process than the Doctor does; the only time the Doctor managed to control the process was when the Tennant Doctor regenerated into the Tennant Doctor, by diverting some of his regeneration energy.
Let’s look at this again; it seems that the Doctor has never willingly regenerated – and in fact, once chose to keep the same body. The Tennant Doctor compared regeneration to dying – a ‘new bloke’ walks away. The Capaldi Doctor had to insist that he was still ‘me’, the same person as the Smith Doctor.
But then, unlike those Gallifreyans who regenerate among Gallifreyans, the Doctor generally regenerates surrounded by people who struggle to accept the new body, the new persona. Regeneration, for the Doctor, has become traumatic. Through the eyes of his companions, he sees just how much each regeneration changes him; no wonder that he has to insist that he is, indeed, still ‘me’. And unlike the Master, or Romana, he doesn’t generally start his regeneration process exclaiming ‘great, a new body to look forward to’.
Metaphors again: the Companion is the audience surrogate; their difficulty in accepting the ‘new Doctor’ represents the audience struggle to accept the ‘new bloke’. Until Smith, new Doctors generally had an old Companion or a continuing character (like the Brigadier) to make the cross-over with them and be the lightning rod for any audience confusion. But how far can the Doctor change until they stop being ‘The Doctor’? How far can the programme change the Doctor until the character stops being that Doctor created by William Hartnell, Verity Lambert and Sydney Newman?
Moffat likes paradoxes. At what point in the Doctor’s life will the paradox of Theseus’ Boat come into play? Can the Doctor replace everything about himself over a dozen times, and still be the original? Is he still that little boy who’s afraid of the monsters in the dark?
He tells Bill that he’s not sure whether he was a boy or a girl any more – yet Rule One is: the Doctor lies. Because when he returns to Gallifrey he (twice) goes straight back to the barn where that little boy hid.
He’s changed everything about himself a dozen times. Except for one thing. He’s still that little boy.
If gender selection at regeneration is a true 50/50 chance, then the probability of the Doctor managing all male regenerations this number of times is about 1 in 4000. Moffat’s been hinting that it isn’t truly random; the General loudly insists that she’s never trying that again, the Master has met Missy. The suggestion is that Gallifreyans can, at some level, select which gender they will become. The General prefers being female, the Master prefers being male; so that’s what they usually choose.
And the Doctor doesn’t like regenerating. He’s scared that he’s going to lose himself; that the ‘new bloke’ might be the one who finally makes the break from that original self, that the humans who generally surround him at regeneration might one day be right – regeneration makes him a different person, not just a different persona. So if there’s one thing he can control, one thing he can choose not to change – is he going to dare to change it? Or is he going to always keep that connection with the original self, the little boy in the barn, by always being the white male of his childhood? The little boy and the 2000+ year old man are still, literally, the same man.
If that’s the case, would the Doctor ever dare to regenerate as a woman? Or would that represent, to him, the last, final break with his childhood, his first body, his self?
And then we go back to meeting the First Doctor. Because it’s not just a question of whether the Capaldi Doctor remembers that long ago self. It’s a question of whether that long-ago self can recognise his incredibly older, much regenerated self – as still himself. The Doctor’s met himself before, of course. But those other meetings were much closer in time.
If the First Doctor recognises the Capaldi Doctor as himself, as ‘Doctor Who’, even after thousands of years and over a dozen regenerations, then those ever-changing personas were just … personas. The core self, the soul, has always remained. The Doctor has always been the Doctor. The Doctor Who of 1966 is still recognisably the Doctor Who of 2017.
But there’s more. Because the Doctor (and Doctor Who) has changed. You can see it in the role of the Companion, you can see it in the way the man who would kill a primitive human now counts humans as friends, you can see it in many, many ways. It is not just a matter of that original self being able to recognise his future self as himself. It’s a matter of the Capaldi Doctor being able to recognise that the changes that have happened weren’t all bad. He is, after all, still scarred from nearly committing genocide. He’s still haunted by the thought that he might not be a good man. He’s scared that his changes might have been for the worse.
So meeting his original self also becomes a matter of recognising that it might not necessarily have been a bad thing to change some aspects of that original self. Some childish things we keep. Others we put away. Sometimes, what we need is to look in the mirror of our old self – and realise that we like the way we’ve changed.
Did the Doctor ‘lose himself’ by becoming the legendary ‘Doctor Who’? Or was the ‘change’ he’s so worried about really ‘growth’? Did becoming the legend make him more truly ‘The Doctor’ – and is ‘The Doctor’ who he truly wants to be? Is the legend something to live up to, rather than to deny?
If his first self recognises his current last self, then the Theseus Boat Paradox has an answer. However many times the body changes, the person within the body is the same person. However many different personas there are, the self remains. His ‘self’ (or soul) is the constant thread that runs through the Doctor’s lives. Regenerations are not a way of losing oneself; they’re the Gallifreyan way of changing and growing. Humans struggle to understand that – but the Doctor isn’t human.
And with that understanding, he can not only choose to regenerate. He can choose to step outside the self imposed limits of the previous regenerations. He no longer has to cling to that little boy by always being a boy; he can recognise that, man or woman, he will always be the same person as that boy.
And recognising that, secure in that core self – he might choose to no longer be a good man – but try to be a good woman, instead. After all, he’s just seen how it appeared to change Missy for the better. Maybe it’s time to try a major change
But she might keep the hoodie. 😉