Sunday, July 14, 2013

A Doctor's Dozen: A Doctor Who Book Report on the Thirteen Doctors Problem

Why is there a monkey dressed as a German soldier in WWI?

"When they came [to America] to launch The Eleventh Hour, I went along to this screening in LA and journalists put their hands up, and one of the first questions was, 'WHat will happen when he reaches the thirteenth regeneration?' There's a fascinating academic study to be made out of how some facts stick and some don't--how Jon Pertwee's Doctor could say he was thousands of years old, and no-one listens to that, and yet someone once says he's only got thirteen lives, and it becomes lore.  It's really interesting, I think.  That's why I'm quite serious that that 507 thing won't stick, because the 13 is too deeply ingrained in the public consciousness.  But how?  How did that get there?"

-Russell T. Davies

I've said sometimes that Moffat bases his version of Doctor Who on a mis-remembering of what the classic series really was.  This quote makes it clear that Davies is mis-remembering the classic series as well.  The Doctor's age has fluctuated so much over the years that, no, nobody remembers him saying that he was thousands of years old. The First Doctor claimed to be about 100, the Fourth Doctor claimed to be about 700, and then pretty much every Doctor between 6 and 11 claimed to be 900.  How could any of these numbers stick in anybody's head?  We've all just assumed he's lying.  Rule 1, after all.

It was first established in the Fifth Doctor episode "Mawdryn Undead" that Time Lords can only regenerate 12 times.  For those who failed elementary school math, you'll realize that that doesn't mean that there can only be 12 Doctors, but that there can only be 13.  Davies, as shown above, seems to mis-remember the number of times the 13 Doctor's issue was brought up.  He thinks it was just once.  He is very wrong.  It was not a minor plot point in "Mawdryn Undead," as the episode was about someone trying to steal the Doctor's remaining 8 regenerations.  The Valeyard was said, by the Master, to be created between the Doctor's 12th and final incarnations.  It was established in the Fourth Doctor episode "The Deadly Assassin" that the Master had already used up all of his regenerations, which is why he was clinging to life and needed to steal a body.  The Eighth Doctor said in the narration to the Doctor Who that the Master had used up all of his thirteen lives.  There were a few other casual references, but it was used as main plot points in a number of episodes.  That's why 13 stuck in the public consciousness, Russell.

When Davies mentions the number 507 here, he is referring to the fact that, the one time he got to write for the Eleventh Doctor, in his guest appearance in the Sarah Jane Adventures episode "Death of the Doctor," the Doctor was asked how many times he could regenerate, and he answered "507."  The number was Davies's little "fuck you" to the fans, as the digits in that number add up to--you guessed it--thirteen!  507 has not only failed to stick in the public consciousness, fans are rejecting it because we flat out find it insulting that he thinks you can just throw away a piece of the mythology like that.  It's easier to throw away the Doctor's claim of 507 under Rule 1.

Now we find ourselves in an interesting situation.  The number thirteen was obviously chosen during the Fifth Doctor era because nobody thought they had to worry about the show going through another 8 regenerations.  Now we're here decades later and Moffat has decided to speed up the process.  By adding "True 9," or the "John Hurt Doctor," every Doctor number since 9 has to be bumped up by one.  Eccleston was truly the 10th Doctor, Tennant the 11th, Smith the 12th, and the new Doctor who will take over for Smith in December...will technically be the 13th, and final, Doctor!  That means that Steven Moffat will most likely be the person to decide how the 13th Doctor problem is to be resolved.  Moffat is going to decide how to pull off the impossible regeneration.

So why do I call this the Thirteen Doctors Problem?  The first reason is that it's a narrative problem.  We have no doubt that this show is going to keep going, so it's a narrative hurdle we know that they have to overcome before the show moves forward.  But my biggest concern is whether or not they're even going to bother addressing it.  To use Davies's solution--to take Route 507, if you will--would be insulting to the fan base.

We know the lore better than you do.  Don't try to change it without really thinking about it and researching it and coming up with a solution that doesn't insult our intelligence.  So my fear that Moffat is going to listen to Davies and just ignore the issue is the main "problem" to which I refer.

Someone at Comic Con mentioned to me his theory:  that, in "Let's Kill Hitler," when River saved the Doctor with her regeneration energy, it was said she used up the rest of her regenerations to save him, so maybe she gave him her remaining regenerations.  We only know for sure that she had regenerated at least 2 times before that.  It's unlikely that she regenerated any more than two times (but it's not impossible).  Thus, she would give him probably 9 more regenerations, and keep us from having to deal with this problem again for another few decades.  Interesting idea.

Do Gallifreyan sex-ed teachers teach you that sex can lead to things like babies, STDs, or losing 9 of your lives?
Personally, I think the Cartmel Masterplan gets us easily out of the problem.  The Doctor is a god, so how can he die?  I do believe in the Cartmel Masterplan, as you know if you've been reading me for a while.  But I don't think anybody will--or necessarily should--state explicitly on the show that the Cartmel Masterplan is canon.

I'm going to do something I don't do often and tell you what I would do if I was the head writer of Doctor Who (and, damn, do I wish I was):  The Doctor is injured one last time.  As he starts to become weaker, he starts to say his goodbyes to those around him, thinking the true end has finally come.  Suddenly, he regenerates, and the 13th Doctor appears and says "That's not possible!"  Then I'd wait for a while to explain it, if I bothered to explain it at all.  Nobody explained what regeneration even was until the 3rd time it happened.  Maybe I'd just let the mystery of why the Doctor can still regenerate hang around for a while for someone far down the line from me to solve.  I think that adding some of that mystery back to the show would be a lot of fun.

Also, as we get closer to the "final" regeneration, it's important to ask:  Will the Doctor start to become more afraid of his death since he thinks the last one is coming soon?  Being in your final regeneration must be pretty terrifying for a Time Lord.  Will he start to become more cautious?  Or will he become even more reckless, hoping to squeeze as much as he can out of the last of his lives?  If I know Moffat's writing, I think the latter is more likely.

I'm really glad that Davies is not in the driver's seat right now, but it's not entirely clear where Steven Moffat stands on this issue.  So let this be my plea to Moffat:  When the time comes for the "12th" Doctor to regenerate, address the Thirteen Doctors Problem.  I don't give a single shit how you do it, as long as it's something that does not insult our intelligence (like Route 507).  Just address it.  Somehow.

Oh, and also, make Richard Ayoade the 12th Doctor!

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