Doctor Who‘s decision to make the 13th Doctor regenerate into a female body prompted the predictable degree of controversy, but it’s not the first time the BBC series has come under fire. The news over the weekend that Peter Capaldi would bow out after the upcoming Christmas 2017 special, and be replaced by Jodie Whittaker, left many sci-fi fans gleeful at the new representation after decades of male Doctors. However, not everybody felt the same way.
Indeed, social media was promptly filled with people bemoaning the change, decrying the decision of new showrunner Chris Chibnall to cast Whittaker in the role. Chibnall takes over as head writer and executive producer from Steven Moffat, a shakeup that has arguably proved just as controversial as a female Doctor. Although he was praised for his scriptwriting in the past, not everybody felt Moffat’s direction for the show was the right now.
Of course, with more than five decades of history behind it, this isn’t Doctor Who‘s first ride on the bucking horse of popular opinion. Indeed, even the original regeneration – the process by which an old Doctor is phased out and replaced by a new one, allowing the show to continue even as the key cast changes – proved divisive.
Introduced as a concept in 1966, when William Hartnell who played the first Doctor was forced to leave the show due to ill-health, regeneration allowed him to pass the torch to Patrick Troughton. Viewers weren’t entirely convinced, with some taking issue with Troughton’s portrayal of the Doctor as more playful, bordering on child-like at times. However, time has been more generous, and Troughton’s style – and its distinctly different nature from Hartnell’s “grumpy professor” – has been credited with opening the door for wildly different iterations of what ostensibly is the same character.
Since then regeneration has been used as both a practical measure and a plot device, both occasionally requiring convoluted explanations in order to remain canon. In the late 70s, for instance, female Time Lord Romana – who had demonstrated the ability to regenerate at will, unlike the Doctor whose body only transformed when it had been mortally injured – changed to welcome in a second actress. Some fans, though, felt the process shown wasn’t in keeping with what the series had established as regeneration, a fact that could be blamed on the original actress, Mary Tamm, being heavily pregnant at the time.
Undoubtedly the biggest regeneration question, however, is just how many the Doctor actually has. One of the original ideas the series established was that the character would have just twelve opportunities to regenerate; taking into account the original body, that would suggest that the 13th Doctor, played by Whittaker, should by rights be the last. That, though, seems like an unlikely decision for the show to stick to.
Other arguments have suggested that it’s down to the ruling Time Lords to decide just how many go-arounds each of their ilk gets to enjoy. It’s one of a number of questions we’re likely to see addressed during Whittaker’s tenure as the Doctor, just like what will happen when she comes face to face with the Doctor’s wife, River Song, though arguably it’s not the most pressing one. After all, the biggest uncertainty is whether the 13th Doctor’s coat will have pockets or not.