The notion of Doctor Who‘s Time Lord regeneration was initially a matter of necessity. With original Doctor actor William Hartnell having increasing difficulty remembering his lines, the BBC and the show’s producers faced the unhappy prospect of having to replace their lead actor. Since they were dealing with an alien species nobody knew much about, they cooked up the very clever idea that Time Lords, at the end of their life, could regenerate into a new body and start all over again. Those regenerations have been handled a variety of ways over the years, but when it came time for David Tennant’s Doctor to regenerate into Matt Smith’s version, then-showrunner Russell T Davies took an uncharacteristically somber approach, treading it much more like an actual death than the earlier instances had. With Smith himself now poised to step aside for Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, executive producer Steven Moffat has promised fans that this regeneration will be very different from Tennant’s.
“I don’t want to go.” With those five words, Tennant broke the heart of many a Who fan, and gave Smith even more of an obstacle to surmount when it came to winning viewers over as the new guy. But while the handling of Tennant’s regeneration was an emotional gut-punch, it also didn’t really track with the previous regenerations. After all, technically he’s not dying, he’s just getting a new body. As Moffat told SFX magazine (via Doctor Who TV), “He escapes death, he evades death, so that’s a triumphant ending rather than a sad ending.”
Still, every Doctor’s departure is a sad occasion for the Who fans who have come to love them, so the way “The End of Time” handled it essentially mirrored their experience. And although everything the Doctor was is still passed on to the next incarnation, the next Doctor is still very much his own man, with his own fears, passions, and quirks, so there’s no reason one of his lives would be frightened or sad that their time as the man they had been was now over. Even though he will carry on, he will still be different. As Moffat puts it:
I was trying to think about it from the point of view of what it would be like if someone told you, ‘When you wake up tomorrow morning, you’ll still be alive, but you won’t be the same. You will like different things, you will sound different, you will look different, and have a different temperament.’ That would be utterly terrifying.
That would feel not like death, but something quite mortifying — you would be horrified by the idea of just being rewritten like that. I think that’s what contemplating regeneration must be like for the Doctor. So there’s an element of that, but because it was played that way the last time we wouldn’t play it the same way this time — that would just be wrong.
So while Smith’s final moments in the upcoming Christmas special The Time of the Doctor will no doubt have his fans pretending there’s dust in their eyes, don’t expect a repeat of Tennant’s sorrowful final moments. In fact, Smith’s Doctor will keep on doing what he’s always done, right to the end: make the audience laugh. Moffat says:
There’s a scene at the beginning where we kept joking, ‘We should have a live studio audience for this bit,’ because it was very much Doctor sitcom. I thought if you were going to say, ‘Here’s your last go at the Eleventh Doctor’ he should be as he was, and what you will miss is not him crying — I think the danger is if you cry the audience don’t. It’s about ‘This is the last hurrah. These days will not come again.’
Matt Smith’s last stand against the Daleks, Cybermen, Weeping Angels, and the Silence will unfold on Christmas Day in The Time of the Doctor.