Why making Doctor Who immortal is a terrible mistake

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Marc Bernardin
Dec 14, 2012

As we reported earlier this week, the time-traveling, world-saving rapscallion at the center of the Doctor Who universe can now—thanks to a startling retcon—regenerate as many times as he damned well pleases. Which is a horrendous idea.

One of the fundamental tenets of storytelling—a thing we teach children as soon as they can grasp it—is that every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. What starts will, inevitably, finish. Nothing lasts forever, no matter how much we might wish it so. And, for a good long time, the Doctor—himself a story that's been told for more than 40 years—adhered to that rule, after a fashion. Though his body might be subject to corporeal damage, his spirit, his soul would endure. He could regenerate into something new—a different face, a different man—but still, demonstrably, the Doctor. (It was also masterstroke of television exigency, a perfect workaround for replacing actors who either wanted to leave or outlived their usefulness.)

But the Time Lord could only regenerate 12 times. And that was it. Turn off the lights and lock the door. And for a long time, that rule stood: as firm a part of the Doctor Who canon as the TARDIS and a lonely time traveler's need for a Companion.

Until now.

Until a tossed-off line in an upcoming (but already filmed) episode of The Sarah Jane Chronicles turned the Doctor into a functional immortal. Oh, I'm sure someone in the Who camp will say that he can still be "killed," but he'll be able to regenerate until after the stars go out. Which removes the wonderful permanence of the Doctor's existence.

Characters, like people, are stories in and of themselves. They're born, they live, they struggle, and then they die. They run their course. Without that ending, that inevitably finality, those characters lose all their urgency. As Alan Moore wrote in his introduction to a collection of The Dark Knight Returns: "All our best and oldest legends recognize that time passes and people grow old and die. The legend of Robin Hood would not be complete without the final blind arrow shot to determine the site of his grave. The Norse Legends would lose much of their power were it not for the knowledge of an eventual Ragnarok, as would the story of Davy Crockett without the existence of the Alamo."

The Doctor had his ending elegantly hard-wired into his very biology—at some point, he would run out of Get Out of Death Free cards and be forced to stare down his own mortality and decide, ultimately, what he'd choose to spend his last life on. A man is not a hero if he does good deeds with no fear of repercussion—he's a hero if he does it in spite of that fear. And a hero doesn't become a legend unless he's given his life for something greater than he is.

By stealing the Doctor's mortality, the Who braintrust have stolen his chance to be a legend. And, really, the Doctor deserves better than that.

And so do we.