‘Those were the days my friend’ (a story of Regeneration Part 2)

Welcome back Whovians to the second part of my article on regeneration. In Part 1 I discussed how regeneration occurs in the natural world and why it became a part of the story of Doctor Who as an idea of a ‘renewal’ for the programme and the character. I discussed how some amphibious and invertebrates already regenerate but what about eventual human regeneration? Could it be a possibility?

The science is getting closer to understanding the processes involved in regeneration through studying the animal world. The African Spiny mouse is of great interest to scientists and could provide further clues.  It is able to release its skin tissue when attacked, and then it can completely repair or regrow the hair follicles, the cartilage, the skin and the sweat glands, with little or virtually no scarring at all. This all-round ability to trigger its repair system could prove invaluable  for human research

The human regeneration?

Humans do currently have a limited ability to regrow things. They do, as with other mammals, grow embryos in the womb and then have the ability to heal. We also regenerate the upper layer of our skin, the epidermis, and parts of our gut lining.Children can regenerate the tips of their fingers if cells are intact, our livers will grow again if injured and bones join with a screw or a plaster cast, but other more complex structures are as yet beyond our knowledge. But how realistic is regeneration for us as a species and would it be worth the process anyway?

In theory, limb regeneration should be a real possibility in the future although there are some hurdles to overcome. Blood vessels and nerves can be regenerated but you do need to instruct muscles to grow in, for instance, an arm. Axolotl salamanders which I discussed in Part 1 do regenerate limbs but the way their skin, liver and bone regenerates is different to us. Axolotl salamanders in part use stem cells to start re-growing their limbs and the types of cells that react to a wound may be connected to if their limbs will grow again. They go through certain steps which humans don’t.

The Axolotl Salamander regenerates its limbs
The Axolotl Salamander regenerates its limbs

Whether these are due to corresponding genes which are currently switched off in humans is the subject of speculation. The genetic apparatus between humans and salamanders isn’t that different according to the scientists but something in evolution has decided those genes are not currently active.

Five years ago, part of the answer was discovered that cells called macrophages prevent the build-up of scar tissue in salamanders. They are a part of the immune system to stop infection and cause inflammation which is a signal that the body needs to repair itself. When we tear a muscle or have a deep-enough cut, damaging connective tissue, scar tissue forms. This scar tissue doesn’t offer the same functionality as the original material. Ordinarily, salamanders don’t develop scar tissue at all and salamanders lacking macrophages failed to regenerate their limbs and instead formed scars.

Scientists are very interested in this research and that the Axolotl salamanders, like humans, are neotenic, meaning they retain juvenile features into adulthood longer than other primates. Axolotl retains gills as they mature, although other salamander species don’t. This ability to stay young, (younger people it has been noted seem to heal better than older people) may also offer some insight into regeneration. Researchers have found that a gene called Lin28a which is active in immature animals but shuts down in mature animals, enabled mice to regenerate and regrow the tips of their toes and ears. Lin28a is a part of the animal’s control system for metabolism. If stimulated, it can make an animal generate more energy, as though it were younger.


For the moment the mechanisms for enabling regeneration by humans are not understood completely, whether it’s certain cells that need to be activated, the ability to stay young or if it is connected to the immune system but even if we were able to regenerate would we want to? Personally, I would like more time but not to be around forever. I understand when Ecclesiastes says ‘to everything there is a season, a time to be born and a time to die.The second Doctor stated in ‘The War Games’ that as a timelord he could ‘live forever ‘barring accidents. He may have exaggerated a little but my question to you would be would you want that long a life ?’Remember when the 10th Doctor spoke to Rose in ‘School, Reunion’ about the curse of a Timelord that he will see friends and companions die and that he would have to live on. It’s a Killer. As much as the Doctor will try to hang on to non-Time Lord people he cares for it’s impossible as they have limited life spans. Perhaps that explains why he keeps on running somewhere new. As River said once he hates goodbyes.

The past is a different country

There is also considering the prospect of the change that will occur.  How much of yourself would you be able to keep, or would you want to keep if you had a choice? The tenth Doctor, before regenerating, was melancholy over the loss of who he currently was to who he would then become as ‘another man goes striding off’ and considered it almost like a death. Personally, I can’t see it like that. How many times have you heard someone say, ‘I was a different person then’ to describe how they behaved or about actions in the past.Only certain aspects of character and personality die but the person still lives.  Regeneration is the opposite of death, it’s a reaffirmation of living.

Although the Doctor is said to be the same man (now also a woman) there are the changes that occur after regeneration that do require some exploration and thought.Regeneration is if we consider the Timelords a literal physical change and it’s not a process where you can always pre-empt what you would like to look like after it occurs. I get a sense the process is normally random for timelords.  In ‘The War Games’ the second doctor was offered a chance to choose his face but as he didn’t want to change and stalled the decision the choice was then taken away from him completely and decided for him. In the ‘Night of the Doctor’ however, it was confirmed by the sisterhood of Karn that the choice of regeneration doesn’t have to be arbitrary.

The Sisterhood of Karn led by Ohila
The Sisterhood of Karn led by Ohila

Due to their ‘elevation of Timelord science’ they were able to mix up potions to order for Timelords including short, tall, fat or thin (besides a choice of personality type in his case choosing warrior) but as a human would we be able to choose, or would we still be subject to familial genetics? I don’t think we would get a choice unless the process was somehow made more cosmetic.

The change doesn’t have to be random. Fat or thin, young or old, man or woman?

Is this death?

I wouldn’t necessarily like to endure the physical pain that regeneration involves. The second, third and tenth doctor seem to experience varying degrees of pain and collapse. Would we really want to experience unconsciousness (the 10th doctor) or the amnesia brought on by the experience (the 8th Doctor) Very few of the regenerations don’t seem to require bed-rest after the initial experience and although it is temporary and short-term overall, the trauma reminds me of having an operation but on a whole-body basis. The 11th Doctor seems to have been the lucky one only being affected by having strange food cravings. The Doctor  does seem to have a more extreme reaction when regenerating than other Timelords (well except for the Master). Romana seemed to have no problem changing form and neither did River. I do wonder if the strain he puts his body under with his adventuring is a reason why it hurts so much. Luckily, he has the Tardis which allows for a space for recovery and calm.

Aside from the physical changes, there is also the change of personality with regeneration. What if you like who you currently are? We grow into ourselves and it would be hard to let go of that person. The Tenth Doctor’s last words were that he didn’t want to go which showed how deep the wrench was to give up that current incarnation. The Fourth Doctor started rambling random phrases after he regenerated and remember the gene Lin28a, active in immature animals, well the Timelord had his own version for a few hours where he had higher than usual strength cutting a brick in half with his hand although he wasn’t able to do it later. There have been more extreme reactions. The sixth Doctor underwent, after being a youthful buoyant well-mannered gentleman, a severe change of persona, an arrogant Doctor capable of extreme moods of anger and suspicion that he almost strangled poor Peri! I’m surprised he hasn’t had a mental breakdown more often due to the process he has to endure.

My favourite Doctor Regenerations

Of course, we are all Doctor Who fans and when every doctor regenerates it’s a special anticipated moment. This is subjective list of my personal favourites but its been a little hard as do you just consider the last minute or so or take the whole story into account? But here I go:

At Number 5: The third Doctor’s regeneration in Planet of the Spiders –  I rather enjoyed the quiet dignity of his regen. The Tardis brings him home and he explains to Sarah ‘I had to face my fear. That was more important than just going on living’ and comforts Sarah Jane when she gets upsets

DOCTOR: A tear, Sarah Jane? No, don’t cry. While there’s life there’s….

At Number 4: The Ninth Doctor in ‘Parting of the Ways’  The doctor has absorbed the Time Vortex and tries to get through the pain of what’s coming by making light of it by talking about the planet Barcelona and dogs with no noses. I love when he talks about his ‘daft old face’ and tells Rose she was fantastic and although there’s a golden glow the regeneration doesn’t destroy the whole Tardis in an over dramatic over the top way. It’s done and dusted and David Tennant appears

DOCTOR: Rose, before I go, I just want to tell you, you were fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. And do you know what? So was I.

At Number 3: I was torn here between two. However, the 4th Doctor in Logopolis gets this spot  As the doctor fights to hold onto the scaffolding he sees his enemies in his mind’s eye which is a really nice touch. It’s a bit like seeing your life flash before your eyes as he really struggles to hold on.

DOCTOR: ‘It’s the end. But the moment has been prepared for’

There is a sense of destiny after he falls and is lying on the ground as he remembers his companions and friends and then beckons to the ghostly white watcher.  DOCTOR: ‘It’s the end. But the moment has been prepared for’ What a classic line as the Watcher merges with the Doctor I l love it!!

The 4th Doctor merges with the Watcher
The 4th Doctor merges with the Watcher

Very honourable mention to the 10th Doctor: The End of Time Part 2. It’s actually all the preceding scenes with Wilf that give me a lump in the throat as poor Wilf apologises for getting stuck in the Gate’s control room. The companion goodbyes were extended but I liked the Doctor meeting Rose before she travels with him.  It was a sweet moment. The idea of the Ood singing the doctor to his rest as’ his song is ending’ felt very touching as he slowly and painfully reaches the Tardis. It strikes me as so sad that this sociable doctor is all alone in the Tardis and the look on his face as he seems to be fighting every step of the way to stop it. However, I do try to forget the last line ‘ I don’t want to go’ as it lacks some dignity around the acceptance of the change so I couldn’t include it.

At Number 2 The Night of the Doctor: : As much as I might criticise Steven Moffat’s writing at times in this seven-minute short he captures the character of the eighth Doctor beautifully. The Doctor has died, and things are dire. Tick tock you really get a sense time is running out for him…. He mocks the Sisterhood of Karn but Ohila is steadfast, strong, willing to beg, help the Doctor, persuade this man that he must take a stand as the universe is being destroyed around them. I love the to and fro between him and Ohila. The doctor has only got involved on the fringes as if his pacifism will be enough, but it isn’t anymore as innocent people are dying.  It seems it is only the death of Cass that affects him. It feels as if he thinks what has he got to lose anymore and I love that sudden decisiveness to change his stance.

Doctor No More
DOCTOR: I don’t suppose there’s a need for a doctor anymore. Make me a warrior now.

At Number 1:  The fifth Doctor in Caves of Androzani There is just something so heroic in the action of giving Peri the last of the bat’s milk. So fifth doctor! After such a bleak and long journey, he knows he might die but still does it unconditionally.

THE DOCTOR: I might regenerate. I don’t know.

I love the way its filmed as well as he collapses on the floor of the Tardis, harking back to the first Doctor’s regen, No crucifix type standing as per modern era. It feels very personal and focused and then the images of his companions appear talking to him to fight and then the Master saying he must die. A fight of good and evil in his last moments. It builds to a crescendo of noise and suddenly Colin Baker sits up and looks around. Yes, I love this regeneration scene. It is nostalgic for me as I was gutted Peter Davison was leaving at the time and he didn’t get  always get the best stories through his run ( but that’s another topic, my friends)

THE DOCTOR: I might regenerate. I don't know.
THE DOCTOR: I might regenerate. I don’t know.

So that’s my list but do you agree? What’s your favourite regeneration ever and why? If you could regenerate what look would you like to be able to have?  Post your thoughts on here or on Twitter. Let’s talk!

Join me next time for the final part of my regeneration trilogy as I look back at the final moments of Capaldi’s doctor with my review of  Twice Upon a Time’ Until then you were fantastic.


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