Why the Regeneration Limit Is a Thing of the Past

Will Doctor Who end when the Time Lord reaches his 13th incarnation? Is there an easy fix within the series’ continuity to allow the Doctor to overcome death forever? Mez Burdett takes a look at the evidence.

“Regeneration, a complete new life cycle…”

The Doctor regenerates for the first time...

When does the Doctor’s life end exactly? At what point will our intrepid hero, a corrector of wrongs, a champion for the dispossessed and the disparaged, fail to regenerate and instead just keel over and never rise from the ashes again? A concise answer for those immediately seeking finality is Trenzalore but since we didn’t see a body in The Name of the Doctor, we can presume that the ever-clever Doctor found a way to cheat death once again. But further down the Doctor’s time line, he faces the biggest threat to his life of all: the end of his regenerative cycle, or does he?

A Time Lord can live for thousands of years; can literally go on and on potentially as long as they play it safe. But the Doctor, he throws himself into the thick of it. He seeks out trouble and tames it with a bullwhip made up of words and ingenuity.  So every once in a while, he dies. Our hero, the man who stands up in the face of injustice and says ‘no’ can sometimes meet a sticky end even though he doesn’t want to. Metebelis 3, Androzani, Gallifrey, the TARDIS floor, the Time Vortex, radiation, fighting with the Cybermen, fighting with the Master, these are just a few of the locations and reasons that the Doctor’s various incarnations have met their ends. But unlike most other shows, our man can come back from the dead. Sure, he’s all new with a different face and a different set of character tics and flaws but he’s still the same man we adore.

As a Time Lord, his body is empowered with the ability to regenerate, a little trick that Time Lords use to cheat death. One version of the Doctor dies only to be replaced by another who can carry the good work on and keep the universe running smoothly. It’s like when someone in a managerial position that you work with leaves and gets replaced, the person is different but the job remains the same.

But there’s one problem, a regeneration cycle doesn’t last forever. At least according to Doctor Who (The Old Testament), a Time Lord can only regenerate 12 times and live 13 different lives before the natural process of change eventually comes to an end. Once you hit body number 13, you’re on your last chance, whatever happens next is permanent and there’s no last minute replacement to step up and take the job. But then there’s Doctor Who (The New Testament) where the Doctor now claims he can regenerate over 500 times, we imagine he’s only somewhat serious. Apart from the statement being made in a situation where the Doctor might be more flippant than usual, the point still stands that the limit of regeneration is now a thing of the past and the Doctor will go on forever and ever or until he ends up at Trenzalore or until time is rewritten and he doesn’t end up at Trenzalore.

Let’s look at why, before you start baying for my blood and demanding that I’m locked up in a small prison cell for the rest of my life with only the Whisper Men and the odd Silent for company.

In the real world, Doctor Who is just too profitable for the BBC to ever completely call time on it forever. The show has possibly the biggest worldwide audience that it’s ever had and that shows no signs of slowing down, add that into the profits made from action figures, DVD releases, posters, clothing, kitchenware and various assorted goodies which have trebled or quadrupled since the show came back in 2005 and you’ve got something that the corporation will never let die.

The Time War

But the real world reasoning is easy, put money and value next to anything and the justifications flow freely. Let’s look at why the Doctor won’t face his last ever stand during his 13th life.


Put simply, it’s probably because of the Time War.

[pullquote align=”right”]It hardly seems unreasonable that once Rassilon was put in charge of leading Gallifrey in its terrible war, he changed things up a little so that he could offer all Time Lords an unlimited regenerative cycle.[/pullquote]It’s a trite answer I know but it’s the most relevant one that we have and makes the most sense as well. During the unseen events of the last great battle between the Time Lords and the Daleks, we can only imagine what both sides were doing in order to secure a win. We know that Rassilon led the Time Lords during this period and caused a whole heap of mess, as we saw in The End of Time, Part Two, he’s insane with a little bit of crazy as a side order. Seeing his reaction to the thought of ultimate death was certainly unsettling, he dispatched a fellow Time Lord within a second just because she mentioned the notion. Rassilon is a man who will live at all costs.

Is it so difficult to imagine that he’s already thrown the rule book out of the window and reengineered himself and his people so that the regeneration limit can go on forever, thus assuring eternal life barring accidents or something else such as, say, the end of time itself?

So, we have a war that the Time Lords are fighting in, for their very existence, past, present and future and the Doctor is involved up to his eyeballs. He’s their soldier in the front line, he fired the first shot in the Time War and he fired the last as well. So naturally, although maybe not by choice, the Doctor had his life limit extended indefinitely.

Maybe that’s what makes him a much more lonely figure in the new series, he’s lost everything, his home, his family, his friends and now he’s bound forever to walk through eternity, having to relive every loss, every day. It’s no wonder that he kept John Hurt locked up in the back of his time stream.

The Five Doctors

But the reasoning behind the Doctor’s extended regeneration cycle doesn’t just stop in Doctor Who’s newer adventures since 2005. Way back in 1983 in the 20th anniversary Doctor Who adventure The Five Doctors, the Master was brought back to Gallifrey to rescue the Doctor from the planet’s Death Zone, a macabre place where ancient Time Lords bought other beings and races to fight against each other for their omnipotent amusement. The Master, somewhat reticent to rescue his mortal enemy and already holding on for dear life in a borrowed body as he had finished his natural regeneration cycle, was offered an incentive by the High Council of the Time Lords: a complete new regeneration cycle.

Way back 30 years ago, the Doctor Who universe already confirmed that it could do that, from then on death was never the only option for a Time Lord if they were good.

Anthony Ainley as the Master in Destiny of the Doctors

Speaking of the Master, a man who’s escaped death more times than Rory Williams, he also hatched a clever little plan in the 1996 TV movie Doctor Who where he planned to steal the Doctor’s remaining lives through linking them both to the Eye of Harmony. Presumably the Eye still has the power to do that, so should all of the Doctors other plans fail he could nip into his blue box for another journey to the centre of the TARDIS and top up his lifecycle, like adding credit to a phone.

The Ultimate Drama for an Immortal: The Threat of Death

All of these theories aside, and theories are all they are, the end of the Doctor’s natural regeneration cycle would make one hell of a story to keep viewers gripped. Even with all of the reasons as to why he won’t finish travelling after he uses all 12 regenerations up, the actuality of a finite number of lives for the Doctor should never really be addressed in order to always keep the audience on their toes. Maybe in 10 years time we’ll be on Doctor number 13, just in time for the 60th anniversary of Doctor Who and wouldn’t that make one amazing adventure for the Doctor as he desperately tried to avoid his final death?

Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor

Not in a ‘River’s going to kill me by a lake’ way but more of an ‘I have no options whatsoever’ way. Of course, he could find an ancient piece of Time Lord technology that ushers him in a whole new life cycle and a whole new era of Doctor Who, or he could be saved by the TARDIS and its ever useful Eye of Harmony or, if Steven Moffat’s still show running at that point, he could just carry on regenerating without an explanation, a la the 1999 Comic Relief special Curse of Fatal Death.

The point of all of this, is that the Doctor’s limit on his regeneration cycle is a thing of the past now, a dusty idea that’s had many worried for many a year and with the Time War, Biological Meta Crises, the newly revealed ability to suspend or transfer regenerations and a whole host of secrets regarding the Doctor’s unique biological make up that we haven’t even discovered yet, it’s conclusive that 13 will not be the Doctor’s unlucky number.

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  1. TonyS says:

    An excellent article and I completely agree with you. It may also be the case that the 12 regenerations thing was an artificial construct. A rule imposed by the Time Lords. Get to the end of life 13 and resign yourself to death and storage in the Matrix. No Time Lords- no rule.

  2. Bradondo says:

    There are many ways to get around this and frankly I’ve never been concerned that they wouldn’t find one. Aside from the idea of the 13 being a Time Lord rule (now defunct, of course) rather thn a natural fact of Gallifreyan life, we also know that the Time Lords gained their regenerative ability through prolonged exposure to the time vortex. Now let’s see…who in all of space and time has had more exposure to the vortex than probably all other Time Lords combined? Oh, yes…the Doctor, of course. I actually adress this idea–that on his 13th incarnation tye Doctor may not know whether he’ll regenerate again–in my fan film script. It gives me a somewhat world-weary Doctor to play, alone and a bit more philosophical than usual as he has time to ponder the possibility of final death soon approaching. He is of course still as curious and defiant, still uses humor and flip cimments to conceal his motives and feelings, but he can’t help but be reflective in a way he generally resists. It’s fertile material for character drama.

  3. Ivriniel says:

    The regen limit being a Time Lord rule makes no sense in the context of the Five Doctors. Why is Borasa making all this effort to achieve immortality if the regen limit is something that can easily be gotten around?

    Pointing out that there is no body at Trenzalore and arguing that this means the Doctor is not really dead, completely ignores what the Doctor said about the fact that there is no body in the tomb. He said Time Lords don’t leave bodies. What’s more, the Great Intelligence wasn’t expecting a body either. In any case, unless that was another TARDIS, that was Sexy, dead on the fields of Trenzalore. Would the Doctor have escaped without her? I don’t think so.

    Now, I wouldn’t be shocked if the Doctor’s body is dead, but that his mind is alive with River in the Library. He gave her Time Lord death rites. Makes sense he would make arrangements for himself, before the end.

    Finally, nothing about Trenzalore says that this can’t be a have your cake and eat it too moment. Nothing says it was the Doctor’s 13th incarnation that died at Trenzalore.

    • zarbisupremo says:

      Time Lords don’t leave bodies when they die ? May I point you in the direction of The War Games, The Deadly Assassin, Arc Of Infinity, The Five Doctors, The Twin Dilemma, Last Of The Time Lords, and Turn Left. I don’t remember the Doctor giving River Time Lord death rites.

    • That one’s easily explained.

      1) Accident happen, and Time-Lords can die, regardless of how many regenerations remain. Borusa was himself witness to one invasion of Gallifrey, and an attack by Omega in another incarnation. Why risk death if you can have immortality?

      2) the final incarnation we saw was a megalomaniac, and probably didn’t want to regenerate again.

  4. vincent or drvwho says:

    the timelord can have an extra five lives if i remember correctly as this was mentioned one time the doctor has been back to gallifrey

  5. You also need to add that in SJA Matt’s Smith’s Doctor says he can regenerate 507 times – which negates the 12 regeneration idea though it does put a limit on it still. LOL

    • He mentioned that.

    • Rule1 The Doctor Lies says:

      Well SJA isn’t exactly high canon, but even RTD pointed out that the 12 regen limit is so deeply ingrained in the fan’s minds that he doubts his flippant mention of a 500+ limit would change anything. It was probably less than a serious comment on the Doctor’s part.

  6. Spacephantom says:

    It has to be remembered that the 12 regeneration (13 lives) limit originated from a single line of dialogue in “The Deadly Assassin”, to explain why the Master was in such a terrible decayed state. Whether Robert Holmes ever intended it to be part fo the DW canon, as an absolute limit on a Time Lord’s lifespan, is debatable, but I kind of doubt it. It has become an imortant bit of DW lore though, so certainly requires explanation in the not so distant future.

    Another such line was the one about the Doctor being half human in the 8th Doctor movie, which most people chose to ignore. Writers have often chosen to ignore certain aspects of previous episodes that don’t suit them or that have become inconvenient. For me the limit being a Time Lord imposed rule, which now no longer applies since the Time War, is the best explanation. Ivriniel makes a good point about Borusa, but that could be easily ignored by writers without too many people objecting. Also it could be explained away simply by the fact that Borusa had gone a bit mental in that regeneration.

    • Ford says:

      The Thirteen regeneration limit is also mentioned in the keeper of Traken. The Master say’s to the the Doctor “I am nearing the end of my Thirteenth regeneration”, to which the Doctor replies “Then that is the end for a Time lord.” So there is some sort of biological limit to just how many times Gallifreyian physiology can under go the stress of complete cell displacement, renewal, and rearrangement.

      I personally have never had a problem with the limit, as I think it gives the show a more grounded feel, in knowing that the Time lords, for all their great knowledge and power, are still mortal. Making them, I feel, more believable.

  7. TonyS says:

    The 12 regenerations would have passed into history and possibly been forgotten had the 1980s not been so obsessed with continuity. Specifically, the threat in “Mawdryn Undead” hinges on 8 mutants needing the regeneration energies of a Time Lord to kill them and finding a Time Lord who had eight regenrations left.

    The plot of “The Five Doctors” does cause problems because of Borusa’s search for immortality. Maybe endless regenerations is not the same as immortality. Maybe Borusa wants to ensure he cannot be assassinated. Maybe it’s just that he was nutty as squirrel poo?

    Personally, I’d just ignore it and hope people don’t comment when it comes to casting Doctor 14.

    • I don’t understand why this is even being debated.

      Borusa was not previously mental. In The Five Doctors he is. Ergo, it is this incarnation or Borusa who wishes for immortality, in the same body. He’s already deranged by regeneration and doesn’t want to go through it again.


      • David F says:

        I’ve always wondered what kind of hedonistic lifestyle Borusa was leading that he regenerated with such frequency.. The Doctor races around getting in danger, so it’s no surprise he’s burning through a regeneration cycle that’s supposed to last for thousands of years. (His first body, after all, lasted for hundreds of years, before he started travelling and taking risks.) But Borusa was basically just attending meetings and trying on a variety of hats.

        Maybe he was just extremely accident prone.

  8. In ‘Lets kill Hitler’ River gives her remaining regeneration energy to the doc.

    At that point she had regenerated twice, so if the ’12’ rule applies she gave him ten lives.

    • Was it stated how many regenerations she had used up?

      • @StarlitGrace says:

        Unless River regenerated more than we have seen, then she had ten left. And at the end of the episode Amy said that she gave him all of her regenerations. Then in the Library, as the countdown was running out, the Doctor said that not even a Time Lord could survive it and she didn’t seem to care, suggesting that it wouldn’t matter anyway. I am always surprised when people don’t mention this.

  9. Jon Roberts says:

    It really doesn’t matter, if the programme continues then the head writer at the time will come up with a plausable way to give him more lives. QED.

    • gina says:

      thats what SM did used river to give him extra lives after he had finished his ones,but thenthe doctor had a clever plane use the tesalecta robot to be there at lake silencia.

  10. Ben Rhodes says:

    While I loved this article
    RTD Confirmed the 500 thing was a Joke
    thats my only problem, rest makes sense

  11. vortexter says:

    The rule about the regeneration cycle is exactly that- a rule that was enforced by the Timelords because of the immortality trap. Potentially a Timelord can live forever so a limit was placed of 12 regenerations by Rassillon. He knew that immortality was a curse not a blessing hence the game of Rassillon being a trap to ensnare anyone aiming for endless life (we know at least three others lost the game and were imprisoned with Rassillon forever.) However it seems that the principle of bestowing regenarations in certain circumstances was in practice by using the Eye of harmony as the Master new it would give him new regenerations him even in close proximity (presumably he knew this when he stole the Timelord files). The 8th doctor enforces this by saying that ‘there are no rules in the fight for survival’ at the end of the allotted regeneration cycle to Grace and again the Master uses the eye in the TARDIS to remove more regenerations. I agree with the theory that this limit would have been the first thing removed during the Timewar. Why have your soldiers die after regenerating 12 time when they can regenerate forever?

  12. David F says:

    I’ve always been puzzled that fans seem so hung up on this idea of a regeneration limit. It was only invented in order to motivate the Master’s desperation in The Deadly Assassin, and it’s a shame it became part of the lore.

    All it would take is a single line of dialogue to dispel it: “My people used to impose a limit, to prevent abuses of power. Now they’ve gone, I have no idea.” They good do it at any time, and in the space of five seconds, the whole issue would be dealt with.

    But then, maybe it could be a source of drama. A “final” Doctor, who is vulnerable and in effect mortal, would be a good source of drama. It would be a great ongoing narrative arc, until the inevitable discovery that he can carry on regenerating after all.

    Doctor Who has rewritten its own internal rules so often that it’s silly for anyone to think the limit is any barrier to the continuation of the show.

  13. Robert Hardy says:

    It might make for an interesting story arc if the 13th Doctor resigns himself to death and then, to his own surprise, regenerates after all … the 14th Doctor’s first words could be “HOW … ?” to be followed by an ongoing mystery to solve, of just who or what was keeping the Doctor alive!

  14. Geoff says:

    Steven Moffat answered this question in DWM, he said there was an agreement passed down from producer to producer ever since 1976 that upon reaching the 13th regeneration the incumbent producer would “make something up”!

  15. dr jon says:

    What I think will happen is what has been mentioned by a few other people,river gave her remaining lives to save the dr. He absorebed the energy from her, he may not realise it and if he doe’s he may not know how many lives he may have left to use. Which could be a good thing as the people at home won’t know and when he has regenerated a few time then know one knows if he would live or die.

  16. drvwho says:

    what if the doctor in john hurts character has to live out his life indefinatlely as part of his punishment for his part in the time war and were just seeing the doctor in the past tense

  17. Morbius says:

    I couldn’t disagree more. I believe that the Regeneration limit is very much a part of the Doctors future, mainly because it hasn’t been reached yet, whether Smith is the 11th or 12th. No, I don’t think that the show will end with the 13th Doctor. But I do think that the regeneration limit is too big a part of the history of the show for it to be simply ignored completely. Even a full episode wouldn’t be enough to address the regen limit. It is to great of an opportunity to miss out on. It would be a waste if when the time came the writers simply said, ‘ Oh, that was only a rule and since I’m the only one I can go on forever’. Far more interesting if the 13th has to face a reason/foe that makes it nessecary for him to gain more regenrations. Either by bringing back the Time Lords or through some other means.

  18. Aimee Steele says:

    I don’t want him to die

  19. sam says:

    I agree with the statement about River giving him all her regenerations and the Doctor long term exposure to the vortex. The Tardis will think of some way to keep him alive like it did to Capt. Jack.

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