Doctor Who is a show about time travel that observes decades of lore, so it goes without saying that continuity can be a problem from time to time. This is certainly the case concerning the question of Doctor Who's regeneration rules for The Doctor, which is an aspect of the story that has been played with quite a bit over the years.
Now, with Season 13 on the way from BBC America, it's my wish not only to describe the complicated story involving The Doctor's regeneration but also explain where it is currently. Let's dive in, beginning first with the rules the series first established regarding how the character can die and come back as a completely different person.
The Doctor's Original Regeneration Cycle
The Season 14 serial "The Deadly Assassin" explained the Doctor Who regeneration cycle as a rule that was a part of Time Lord biology. A Time Lord can only regenerate 12 times, meaning after the 13th incarnation, they would truly die. This way, the show could switch leads a good deal of times throughout its run, and leave the problem of what to do when that run is up for the future writers to address.
It's possible Doctor Who's team didn't know just how far into the future the show would go before that problem, considering the show was canceled in 1989 and wasn't revived until 2005. Even so, the Doctor Who regeneration cycle was only on its Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston), so it stood to reason the show had some time to figure out exactly what to do about that plot point should the show become a hit.
The Eleventh Doctor And A New Regeneration Cycle
The Doctor Who regeneration cycle was addressed much sooner than the final incarnation in the cycle, as the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) explained to companion Clara Oswald he exhausted all of his regenerations after an aborted regeneration and the discovery of an unknown "War Doctor" who existed between his Eighth and Ninth incarnations. Now towards the end of his life and dying, Clara pleaded with living Time Lords via a "crack in time" asking they help the Doctor for all the times he's helped them.
The Time Lords seemingly obliged, and The Doctor was able to use his 13th regeneration process to defeat an invading Dalek army. Afterward, it's revealed The Doctor had been granted a new regenerative cycle and would be allowed an additional 12 regenerations. This allows for the Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi) to exist and eventually leads to Doctor Who's first female and current Doctor, Jodie Whittaker.
The Thirteenth Doctor And The Timeless Child
The Doctor Who regeneration question has only gotten more complicated in Season 12 after a bombshell reveal by The Master to The Doctor. The season finale finally answered the Season 11 mystery of the Timeless Child and revealed the news that The Doctor was not actually a Time Lord or even from Gallifrey. She was adopted by a Gallifreyan named Tecteun, who discovered the child had regenerative capabilities after a fatal fall off a cliff.
Tecteun studied the child and eventually found a way to work the capability into Time Lord DNA. The Time Lords engineered the regeneration capabilities into their own genetics, but decided all Time Lords would be capped at 12 regenerations. With that said, the experimentation sequence showed The Doctor regenerate several times in a short amount of time and appeared to have the capability for far more than the 12 regenerations viewers originally knew about. That's certainly possible due to The Doctor allegedly not being a Time Lord, assuming The Master's story and presented visions are accurate. It's worth noting there's the "Fugitive Doctor" introduced in Season 12, who would either be from a past incarnation or future incarnation of The Doctor. If she's from the past, then I would think it would confirm The Master told the truth as The Doctor exceeded their regenerations before Clara begged for help.
Which Regeneration Story Is The Truth?
The major question surrounding Doctor Who's regeneration cycle at the moment is whether or not The Doctor continued to regenerate past the 12th regeneration because the Time Lords bestowed him a new regeneration cycle, or because The Doctor was never a Time Lord at all. One of these stories is the truth, and depending on which one is the real story, it could mean some pretty big things for the show's universe.
In the case that the Time Lords did grant The Doctor a new set of regeneration cycles, then The Master may not be telling the whole truth about why he destroyed Gallifrey. I'm not sure what the play in messing with The Doctor's head would be in this case, but sometimes The Master's intentions behind his plans aren't immediately clear. This could be an elaborate trap for The Doctor even she doesn't realize yet.
The other possibility is that The Doctor has always had an unlimited amount of regenerations, and Clara's plight to the Time Lords in the time crack went completely unanswered. It was kind of harsh on the Time Lords' part, but if the higher-ups knew The Doctor was never in any danger of not regenerating, no harm, no foul, I guess. It's also possible The Doctor had an unlimited number of regenerations, but later had her DNA limited by the Time Lords as well. Doctor Who's regeneration rules can be tricky, and as many fans are aware, as is writing interesting twists in the franchise without messing with continuity.
Current showrunner Chris Chibnall has spoken about the Doctor Who regeneration twist and told Radio Times this had been his plan since he agreed to take over the show. Chibnall is aware of what a significant retcon the Timeless Child twist is, but also teased there will be more to the story that will play out beyond what fans saw at the end of Season 12. The point being The BBC knows what Chibnall's plan is in the long run, and presumably wouldn't let him directly contradict one of the most steadfast rules of The Doctor without knowing it has a satisfying conclusion.
So, What's The Current Situation With The Doctor's Regeneration?
To put it simply, the latest we know is that The Doctor is not a Time Lord, and seemingly has far more regenerations than the originally stated 12. With that said, we don't know the full story, and with The Master largely orchestrating The Doctor's discovery, there's plenty of reason to be skeptical.
Chris Chibnall still has a plan for how this shakes out and has confirmed there's more to it than what fans have seen. Rest assured, if you're confused on what's going on with Doctor Who's regeneration story, you aren't the only one. The good news is answers are coming, at least, according to Chris Chibnall.
Repeats of Doctor Who are often shown on BBC America, but the series can also be binged on HBO Max. For more on the series, read on about the rumors about Jodie Whittaker's upcoming exit, and share in the comments who you'd like to see potentially replace her.