One of the main reasons Doctor Who has stayed with us for more than fifty years has been the concept of regeneration. Every few years the show is refreshed, rebooted, and ready for a new audience. A new face gives a new perspective on the character.
But for a long time people have been asking why, if regeneration offers so many possibilities, have the choices been so similar?
For almost as long as the concept has been around, people have wondered; will the next Doctor be a woman? Thirteen regenerations on, and still no. People have also been asking; will the Doctor always be white? Before Matt Smith was announced, Paterson Joseph was considered a likely candidate for the Eleventh Doctor. Idris Elba and Adrian Lester were also commonly heard names before the Twelfth Doctor was cast.
Within the show’s cannon, the possibilities for regeneration have been presented as potentially limitless. In The Death of the Doctor (not just a recurring theme during the Matt Smith era, but an actual episode title), from The Sarah Jane Adventures, the Doctor is asked about his new face;
CLYDE: Even your eyes are different. It’s weird, cos I thought the eyes would stay the same. Can you change colour or are you always white?
DOCTOR: I could be anything.
Rewind to 1969 when the Second Doctor was being forced to regenerate by the Time Lords in The War Games. They offer him a selection of new bodies that range from fat to thin, old to young and so on. Fast-forward to 1979 and in Destiny of the Daleks, the Doctor’s Time Lord companion Romana, regenerates. She doesn’t just regenerate in a flash of light with a sudden and unexpected new form, but seems to try out different bodies of various sizes, colours, and shapes before settling on one she likes.
There are other instances where changes of almost every aspect are discussed as possible. Multiple heads (Parting of the Ways), shift in gender (The Doctor’s Wife and Dark Water/Death in Heaven), change of skin colour (Let’s Kill Hitler), and more besides.
The potential regeneration forms seem to be vast. Yet here we are, thirteen incarnations of the Doctor, and all strangely similar. As each regeneration has loomed, speculation has often turned to the questions of if the doctor will change sex, gender, race, or any other factor.
Let’s take a look at another show that depicts a main hero who can, upon their death, become another incarnation. In the Nickelodeon animated epic, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and its sequel, The Legend of Korra, the protagonist is able to reincarnate and become a new person, but possessing some consistent character traits and the ability to connect to the memories of their past lives. The Avatar – the reincarnating spirit – is depicted multiple times as having been various races, genders, nationalities, and even has gone through physical and mental disabilities.
In The Last Airbender, Avatar Aang is a young boy who grew up as a monk in a society loosely based on Tibetan Buddhists. In The Legend of Korra, the Avatar has been reincarnated as a young woman named Korra from a tribe loosely based on Inuit culture. Even with dramatic physical and personal differences between incarnations there are still constants. There is a desire for balance, a goofy sense of humour, a propensity to clumsiness, and a fierce drive towards justice.
The show deals with bringing balance between nations and cultures that are often at odds, and part of the way they reach that balance is through the Avatar who embodies aspects of all the Nations at some point. In The Legend of Korra, the Avatar struggles with trauma and PTSD, goes through tremendous suffering, from which she chooses to become more compassionate, even to her enemies.
Doctor Who is also a show that has, very often, been about bringing peace, compassion and understanding. In the words of the Christopher Eccleston;
“For all the danger the Doctor encounters, the basic message of the show is seize life, be optimistic and see the positives. The series is written with passion and humour, and there’s an innocence about it. It’s a kind of celebration of life in all its forms. [The Doctor] doesn’t react with horror when he sees a blue, three-headed monster. He reacts with wonder, and I think that’s a very important message to send out to children.”
The Doctor sees the universe in all of its wondrous shapes and sizes. It’s time the character became more diverse, and more complex. To change and experience the universe through new eyes, to take the stories through different contexts and perceptions can only deepen the character, make them more interesting, and, ultimately, more compassionate.
Perhaps the BBC is afraid of the backlash of those who are politically apposed to diversity and change in one of their flagship family dramas. Undoubtedly, a shift in gender, sex, or race will be seen as ‘political pandering’, but let’s be honest, keeping the Doctor as a white man all this time has been political pandering. A decision to keep the Doctor in the same old format is a decision to placate a certain section of the audience who can’t or won’t accept such a change.
Sidney Newman, co-creator of Doctor Who, called for a female Doctor back in 1986. Patrick Troughton in a 1983 interview, when asked when the Doctor would be a woman said, “What a good idea!”
Colin Baker, Carole Ann Ford, Louise Jameson, Freema Agyeman, Matt Smith, Karen Gillan and even Steven Moffat have all called for a female Doctor. List after list appears on the internet every time a new regeneration looms. So there is clearly an appetite for change. The only question is will the BBC and the Doctor who team go through with it?
Joel Cornah, is an author hailing from a small isolated village in Lancashire. He was awarded a degree in English and Creative Writing from Liverpool JM University and spent seven years writing a comical newspaper for The Barrow Downs Tolkien discussion forum. He is a published author, having written the novels The Sea-Stone Sword and The Sky Slayer, the novella The Spire of Frozen Fire, and has had many short stories featured in anthologies. He also has written for WhatCulture’s Doctor Who section and currently runs a small café and bookshop in Lancashire.