[Spoilers ahead for Doctor Who’s “Twice Upon a Time”]
This year’s Doctor Who Christmas special was always going to be a regeneration episode, which I 100% didn’t mind. They’re inevitably at least a little maudlin, but the regeneration scene itself always such an intense distillation of character that it’s worth it. Here the Doctor is not only forced to confront his own mortality, but also the fact that he is in the middle of the unstoppable process of becoming someone new.
What a great motif to lead us into the stretch between Christmas and New Year’s as we’re all making resolutions to become someone new – and looking back at the newness our selves have gained over the last year.
Especially because regeneration episodes don’t just focus on the transience of the Doctor’s ego – they focus on the things that inform it. His memories. His love.
The Doctor has a leg up on all of us with his deaths in that he gets to keep his memories, because his mind doesn’t die with his body. Much has been made in sci fi about how memory makes up the self – I was thrilled to see Bill’s return in another body exploring this idea and its rightness and wrongness – and the Doctor is a good litmus test of a character for that maxim, simply because each regeneration of himself is so different. Shouldn’t they be similar because of his memories, because of the learned reactions he should have because of them? Like the rest of us humans?
Yes – and no. Because, like us, the other half of his ego is informed by how he loves. And if his memories remain intact, the way he loves and holds onto that love varies wildly from regeneration to regeneration. That’s why the companions are so important in general, but especially in regeneration episodes. To love is for a part of you to live outside yourself. To lose that love is to lose a part of yourself. It’s hard to lose that part of yourself by force. It’s harder still to do so by choice.
And that’s the heart of regeneration.
Nine (Christopher Eccleston) died as a consequence of saving Rose, and was a bit of an anomaly in that he was entirely at peace with his loss of self, with the full knowledge that she’d be there on the other side of his transformation.
Ten (David Tennant) kicked and screamed his way through four whole extra episodes against his coming death, alone by guilt and choice, having sworn off love and friendship because of the hurt it inflicted on himself and others, and completely unable to let any of it go because of what it would mean for himself.
Eleven (Matt Smith) wasn’t alone, and did his best to comfort a confused Clara with the part of him that wasn’t focused on looking for an absent Amy, who formed out of his own self and memories and gave him “her” blessing to let go.
By the time we get to Twelve’s (Peter Capaldi’s) regeneration three seasons later, he’s on his own again for a regeneration, this time not exactly by choice: a bad place for a Doctor to be. And unsurprisingly, he handles it badly, refusing to regenerate, less because he doesn’t want to lose his self than because he doesn’t want to live and love and lose that love any longer. The Doctor has always carried loss heavy with him – that’s the memories half of his ego that’s his constant – but this is the first time we’ve seen a Doctor completely ready to let go of his whole self.
Two miracles happen: he gets Bill back temporarily, and he gets his memories of Clara back permanently. Two important parts of himself restored at the end, neither telling him he must not allow himself to die, both loving him and only wanting him to remember them.
It’s enough. There can be no memory without existence. There can be, for him, no existence without change. (See his commentary on Bill’s new existence as a mere bundle of memories.) And so Twelve wearily picks himself up and prepares himself for the next phase of his life – of his love – with this prayer to his next self:
“Laugh hard. Run fast. Be kind.”
It will be interesting to see how the Doctor handles his regeneration into Thirteen (Jodie Whittaker), simply because after his regenerations, the Doctor has never been unclear on who he is – even if his companions are. He knows he’s still himself, and he’s excited to explore his new dimensions. If Thirteen’s first words after looking at her new face (“Oh, brilliant!”) are anything to go by, this regeneration won’t be any different.
Because once your transformation is complete and the crisis is over, you’re okay. How could you not be? You are you: how could you be anyone else? It’s the moments before the transformation that you resist, that you have to talk yourself through, because it hurts to let go of the things and people and ways that you love. It hurts to let go of yourself. How can you not be afraid of the person who will take your place? What will they do? What will they remember?
How will they love?