Monday, January 05, 2009

Time Lord regeneration physiology; or, Does the Doctor have to be a white dude?

If you've been following the science fiction news over the past few days, you've probably heard the BBC's announcement that Matt Smith will follow David Tennant in the role of the Doctor in the long-running Doctor Who series. Ever since Tennant announced he would step down in the role, there has been rampant speculation as to who would replace them.

Some of the rumors were that the eleventh Doctor might be played by a black actor such as Chiwetel Ejiofor or Paterson Joseph (who would have been my pick) or a woman like Alex Kingston or Catherine Tate. It doesn't take more than a glance at Smith's photo to realize that he is neither a woman, nor black. Maybe he'll be the greatest Doctor ever, but even if he is, I'm still a bit disappointed that he's a super young white dude. Graeme McMillan summed it up nicely in his rant at io9:
Maybe the BBC didn't want to bring too much upset to their flagship family program, especially with the change in producers and showrunners, and worried that moving too far away from the familiar would make viewers leave the show in concern that it's not the same show they've loved for the last X number of years. If so, it's a shame, and - I think - a miscalculation; I really doubt that audiences would have had any problem with a black Doctor, or a female Doctor (or, for that matter, a black female Doctor, for anyone who wants to write fanfic that Martha Jones is actually a future Doctor herself); despite a stereotype and tradition for stuffiness, Britain is a strongly multicultural environment, and even if it wasn't, characters like Martha, or the admittedly-annoying Mickey, or even Captain Jack Harkness, had been quietly pushing the envelope on Who since its revival. Even if the BBC wasn't ready for a different kind of Doctor, the audience, I believe, was.
Of course this sparked a lot of discussion in the comments of the post, with some people agreeing and others disagreeing, with some people arguing that the Doctor just is white and is male and can't actually be anything else. But can he? What do we know about the biology of the Time Lords?

In case you aren't a Doctor Who fan, a bit of background is in order. The Doctor is a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, a member of a race who can live a very very very long time by the process of regeneration when their body is at the point of death. They aren't immortals, though, since they can only regenerate 12 times, giving them a total of 13 long lives. During regeneration every cell in a Time Lord's body is replaced, but memories (and perhaps their whole brain) remains intact. The regenerated body has a completely different appearance and personality. But how different can different be?

Over the years the Doctor has changed the color and texture of his hair, the shape of his face and mouth and nose, and even his height. While his skin color hasn't changed much, fellow Time Lord Romana was able to "try on" a blue body during her first regeneration, so it seems that variation in skin color is certainly possible. We even glimpsed a black Time Lord in the Doctor's flashback to his youth on Gallifrey in the episode "The Sound of Drums". Taking all these factors into account, I don't think it would be at all inconsistent with what we know about his physiology for the Doctor to regenerate with dark brown skin and tightly curled black hair, looking very much like a human with black African ancestry.

So what about the possibility of the Doctor changing from male to female? While it appears uncommon, the Doctor did meet another Time Lord, I. M. Forman, who had regenerated in both male and female form. It certainly doesn't seem implausible for a sex change to occur if the newly regenerated version sports modified DNA and every cell is regrown from scratch.

It seems like anything is possible. Will we see a non-white, non-male doctor? Only time will tell.

Image (top): Matt Smith, the Eleventh Doctor.
Image (middle left): Eleven Doctors, from the Doctor Who Tardis Index File article on The Doctor.
Image (middle right): Regeneration forms "tried on" by Romana in the episode "Destiny of the Daleks". From the Wikipedia article on regeneration.
Image (bottom): black Time Lord glimpsed in the episode "The Sound of Drums", from the YouTube clip.

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  1. Time Lord technology seems to be, in the show, concentrated on the capacity to store large things within smaller ones because of an ability to manipulate dimensions other than ours. The show's continuity also associates regeneration with a need for a 'push' when outside the TARDIS. So maybe regeneration isn't so much a biological matter; time lords could somehow store records of their DNA in a pocket dimension accessible by their cells in any number, given the requisite engagement of energy. This would also explain the clear imbalance of energy expended as light and/or heat, in the process, and why when, in the Christmas special, more energy than ever before came out to the point of destroying the TARDIS (an effect of the type of radiation absorbed in the story).

    Or, of course, the writers could just be making it up....

  2. Which all means, of course, that the Doctor is just rubbish at controlling the process and that Romana was not (possibly because she had higher grades than he and did not flee the academy!)


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