Doctor Who Theories To Explain the Latest Regeneration Twist

Wait, what?! We round up some possible answers to Doctor Who’s latest regeneration headscratcher. Spoilers.

Photo: BBC Studios

Warning: contains spoilers for “The Power of the Doctor”.

So, “The Power of the Doctor” achieved the one thing that everyone said could not be done in the age of modern telly. A genuine regeneration surprise. Well, nearly. There were some internet rumours and theories. But for the casual viewer, and Doctor Who’s most important viewers: actual children who don’t spend their time on pop culture websites, this was a mind-blowing twist they will remember for years to come.

After months of touting Ncuti Gatwa as the Fourteenth Doctor, we watched Jodie Whittaker say “Tag, you’re it!”, explode in a glowing firework display and transform into… David Tennant?

There is no way of knowing how or why the Doctor’s regeneration has resulted in the emergence of this extremely familiar face. But is that going to stop us from coming up with wild theories and guesswork? Of course not. So, let’s go:

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1. It’s a Message

This is not the first time the Doctor has regenerated into a face with a bit of history behind it. When the Eleventh Doctor got his new regeneration cycle (except actually it turns out the Doctor never only had 12 regenerations in the first place, but let’s skip over that for now) he found his new face was remarkably similar to that of Lobus Caecilius, a marble trader who the Doctor once saved from the city of Pompeii.

Eventually, in the story “The Girl Who Died”, we discovered that this familiar face was a message from the Doctor to himself, to remind him that it was always his job to save people.

So maybe the Doctor once again has to leave himself a facial post-it note. But what could it mean? The Tenth Doctor’s era had numerous recurring themes. Perhaps the starkest lesson was the snapback from his “Time Lord Victorious” speech in “The Waters of Mars”, and again, in his final raging speech that he could do so much more if he didn’t have to sacrifice himself to save Wilfred Mott. So perhaps something about humility? Although it’s got to be said, lack of humility was never really Doctor Thirteen’s problem.

Still, there may be some lesson from the Tennant era that the Doctor will be forced to learn anew. (We are still waiting to see what the Doctor’s message to himself was when he made himself look like Maxil.)

2. Degeneration Side Effects

In “The Power of the Doctor”, the Doctor did the one thing that we have been told time and time again that the Doctor can never do – regenerate back into a previous incarnation. Maybe that wasn’t just a poorly thought-out evil plan with a far too convenient reset switch? Maybe the forced regeneration, combined with the forced degeneration, has had unforeseen side effects?

But while this could work, it seems unlikely. Historically there has always been a very clean break from one showrunner to another. The worlds of Bad Wolf, Torchwood and the Powell Estate were all neatly tied up by the time Ten told us he didn’t want to go at the end of “The End of Time (Part Two)”. Moffat was careful to leave no unanswered questions around cracks in time, the first question or even River Song by the time he packed up his action figures and left Who behind. And even if Chibnall has left a pretty hefty pile of unanswered questions regarding the Doctor’s origins, secret incarnations, the fate of Gallifrey and the state of what bits of space and time were left over after the flux, it is fairly safe to assume Davies’s approach will be to assume that all just sort of fixed itself and get on with telling his own story.

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Big Finish will get a great boxed set out of it seven or eight years from now, we’re sure, but the anniversary special will almost certainly be the start of a whole new story.

3. It’s a Fake!

This regeneration was not like the others we’ve seen. For starters, the Doctor’s clothes regenerated- something we have not seen since Hartnell became Troughton. But also the regeneration took place outside of the TARDIS (avoiding the now traditional “Regeneration crash the TARDIS”), and the effect looked just a little different this time

So what if it wasn’t a regeneration? Or what if, while the Doctor was regenerating, something else interrupted it? Something like… a transmat beam, transporting the Doctor away as she transforms from Jodie Whittaker into Ncuti Gatwa, and beaming… something else back in her place.

Now if that sounds like a stretch, it’s worth pointing out that it has happened before.

Back in 1998, in the dark times between the TV movie and “Rose”, Doctor Who Magazine ran a comic strip story called “The Final Chapter”. In that story, the Eighth Doctor regenerated into a new, comics-only Ninth Doctor who looked remarkably like the fan-audio Doctor played by Nicholas Briggs (voice of the Daleks and Big Finish mastermind). It would later turn out the Eighth Doctor was fine and this “Ninth Doctor” turned out to be an imposter.

Could the TV show be pulling a similar switcheroo? We know from the trailer that Ncuti Gatwa will appear in the specials, and the brief clip he is in doesn’t look like a post-regeneration scene. Maybe there’s some mischief with a chameleon arch going?

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Maybe the Pete’s World Tenth Doctor has decided to take over the main gig? Maybe we could finally be seeing the fabled dawn of the Valeyard (the future amalgamation of the Doctor’s darker self who menaces the Sixth Doctor in “Trial of a Time Lord”)?

Still, if this regeneration is a cunning trick, it seems a bit odd to do it right after the Master has pulled basically the same trick, and the Doctor does seem very surprised post-regeneration for someone doing an evil plan.

Also, right after the reveal, Russell T Davies was out there referring to this incarnation as “the Fourteenth Doctor”, and Ncuti Gatwa as “the Fifteenth”. Now we all know Russell T Davies loves nothing more than telling great big fat lies, but one of the unwritten rules is that you don’t start actually numbering Doctors unless you really mean it.

4. Unfinished Business

David Tennant’s last words as the star of Doctor Who were “I don’t want to go”. More than any incarnation of the Doctor, the Tenth Doctor really did not want to regenerate. It wasn’t a passing of the torch for him, it wasn’t simply a question of changing his face and picking a new outfit – it was death.

It is something Steven Moffat has complained about before – trying to introduce a new, beloved version of the Doctor to an audience of children who’ve just heard the old version weeping at the prospect of his own death and telling them that his replacement won’t be the same person no matter what he says.

And where the was a traumatic death, there are ghosts. And yet, the Tenth Doctor was notably absent from the collection of previous incarnations who resisted their regeneration who Thirteen encountered in (was it her subconscious?).

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Maybe he saw the way the wind was blowing, and hitched a lift? Maybe the unresolved trauma is still haunting the Doctor, and this is their way of processing it. Once that processing is complete, the Tenth Doctor will be able to move on, and Russell T Davies will write him a much nicer parting speech that will make life easier for the next showrunner: Russell T Davies.

5. The Powers That Be Are Running Scared

Having rolled the dice with a Doctor who is a woman, the Doctor Who franchise has received relatively lacklustre viewing figures and declining merchandise sales alongside a loud backlash from the worst people on the Internet. Rather than blaming this on poor publicity and marketing, flaws within the show’s storytelling, or simply the natural decline of the brand, the powers that be have instead decided that following up a female Doctor with a Black Doctor is just too radical. To calm the audience during an important anniversary year they’ve brought back a beloved, white male Doctor with broad popular appeal, hoping to reassure a conservative and indeed, reactionary segment of fandom that this is still the show they remember from 13 years ago (or whenever they happened to be 8 years old).

This is, of course, just a theory.

6. It’s Just a Great Big Coincidence

Like, how many faces can there actually be? Surely sooner or later you’re just going to start repeating yourself by sheer chance.

The Power of the Doctor is available to stream now on BBC iPlayer.