I’m a time traveler. So are you. We advance through time every day of our lives, one minute after another, inexorably forward at a consistent rate. None of us moves faster than another. Humans invented time to measure our hours, only to find our days dictated by time itself. Time is something we struggle to manage. We give time names like “work” and “vacation.” We ask for personal time, private time, me time, and alone time. Whatever we call time, we never stop moving through it.
There may come a day when our children’s great-grandchildren will discover a way to throw this forward progression into reverse, to travel back and forth through time as easily as taking the train. In their future, they’ve learned how to go backward in time. Tomorrow morning, somewhere between home and work, we might even meet them on the street. They’ll say hello. We’ll say hello. They’ll want to say more, but won’t. The risk is too great. A decision made in seconds could ruin a future hundreds of years from now.
I imagine these encounters often, looking in the faces of strangers on the morning train for familiar features, for eyes full of history yet to be made. I look for the visiting future. I do this, I must admit, because of a television show.
Since 1963, the BBC has broadcast the serialized adventures of an alien called the Doctor. Descended from a long line of rule-obsessed time travelers, the alien steals a time-traveling spacecraft in their very first episode. In that first episode, the alien looked for all the world like a human, white-haired and professorial, more Benjamin Franklin than Buck Rogers. Originally intended as a means of sneaking history into the entertainment of children, Doctor Who soon moved away from pseudo-historical encounters with Marco Polo to wild adventures with fantastic aliens in other worlds.
Three years into Doctor Who ’s rather surprising initial success, the health of its aging star fell into decline. William Hartnell was almost sixty and suffered from hardening of the arteries, which made him irritable and unable to learn his lines. When Hartnell decided to leave the series, the producers came up with an inventive way to carry on. What if the alien had the ability to regenerate, to become someone else entirely?
And so, in late 1966, during a four-episode adventure introducing villainous human-shaped robots called Cybermen, the Doctor saves the day once again, only to fall to the floor of his spacecraft in the final moments. After a flash of light and some late-’60s TV special effects, a new Doctor rises. This Doctor is scruffy, with dark hair, darker eyes, and an entirely different personality. Patrick Troughton, the actor who played the second Doctor, was twelve years younger than Hartnell. He was shorter. He was sardonic. He played the recorder! It was quite a risk, insisting an audience accept another actor in a familiar role while acknowledging the new actor was an entirely different person.
Through repeated regenerations, Doctor Who has continued for fifty-four years, give or take a hiatus or temporary cancellation. In the late ’80s and most of the ’90s, when there was no television show to watch (and one very unfortunate movie), fans kept the show alive through conventions, magazines, role-playing games, and books. A company called Big Finish produced (and still produces) hundreds of hours of full-cast radio dramas set in the Doctor Who universe. Doctor Who fandom is tenacious, optimistic, and expansive.
I became a Doctor Who fan in 1983, at eleven years old, when I met a girl at an all-night church lock-in. I wasn’t used to girls talking to me at all, much less a girl talking to me about science fiction after midnight, so when she asked me if I’d ever watched her favorite television show, I nodded and said, “Maybe, sure, I think so, remind me?” Doctor Who , she said, was about an alien who traveled through time and space in a blue box called a TARDIS. Her Doctor had dark, curly hair, a long scarf, a floppy hat, and carried a sonic screwdriver.
From that weekend on, as long as I lived at home, I watched Doctor Who every Saturday night on PBS. Though Doctor Who was an episodic program at the time, Georgia Public Television played three-to-five episode arcs all at once like two- or three-hour movies. Rapt and leaning into the television, silent as I could be, I’d sit in the dark in the middle of the carpeted floor, caught up in a television show I started watching to impress a girl, a show that gave me a window into another world miles and years away from my little Southern town.
This PBS origin story is common among American Doctor Who fans. BBC programming was seemingly educational, likely inexpensive to acquire, so local PBS stations nationwide could complete their weekend schedules with the likes of not only Doctor Who , but Blake’s 7 , Red Dwarf , and The Tripods . The episodes on public television were always out of step with the BBC, sometimes by years and years. When I started watching, the Doctor didn’t have curly hair, didn’t have a scarf. My first Doctor was Peter Davison, the Fifth Doctor—blond, wearing striped pants and a sweater. He dressed like a cricketer. This Doctor was optimistic, concerned, interested in everyone and everything, surrounded by companions he treated as friends. I wanted a life like that. I wanted to be that.
I started collecting as much Doctor Who memorabilia as I could find. At a Chattanooga comic book shop, I bought the Doctor Who role-playing game, knowing full well I’d never play it. I ordered posters, giant picture books, the theme song on 45, and even sent a letter to the BBC itself, asking for a signed photograph of the Doctor. Some six months later, a black-and-white headshot of Tom Baker, the curly-haired Fourth Doctor, arrived. I still have the 45, but the photo is gone.
The Doctor travels in a time machine, but what truly makes these stories better than countless other tales of travels through time is regeneration. If there’s a set of rules dictating how regeneration works, aside from casting decisions and the pursuit of ratings, the BBC keeps it under lock and key. There are theories and assumptions as to why the Doctor wakes with a particular face, but these are mostly headcanon.
Headcanon is a fandom concept, referring to personally invented interpretations that make sense only to the individual who came up with them. With a show like Doctor Who , a fan has to come up with their own reasons to keep watching. After three decades of watching Doctor Who , I have reasons of my own. The core of my particular fandom is this: Every Doctor from the First to the Thirteenth regenerated in order to apply the lessons of their previous incarnation. Blame it on my upbringing, but I can’t resist finding at least a little faith in the things I love. The way I see it, regeneration walks hand in hand with redemption and reconciliation.
When Doctor Who returned as a BBC series in 2005, the new, Ninth Doctor wore a leather jacket, a haunted demeanor, and survivor’s guilt. Presumably a regeneration after the unfortunate movie, Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor didn’t remember much of their previous life, only that the decisions made in that life were better dealt with alone. This Doctor was dynamic and restless, even rude at times, heavy with regret.
The Ninth Doctor was dealing with the trauma and resignation of Paul McGann’s Eighth, a veteran of a massive conflict called the Time War. In the regeneration that followed, David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor confronted the guilt and sadness of Nine, but overcompensated with a savior complex. Matt Smith’s Eleven had to deal with the messianic conceits of Ten, cleaning up Ten’s karmic messes while coming to grips with the threat the Doctor represented from merely existing. Peter Capaldi’s Twelve confronted the violent and drastic decisions of Eleven, asking outright “Am I a good man?” throughout the 2016 season.
In the season that followed, the most recent to air, the Doctor (the Twelfth) meets Bill Potts, played by Pearl Mackie. Bill is one more human companion in a very long list. A student at a college where the Doctor is pretending to be a professor, Bill asks the questions we’d all ask if we met the Doctor. How does this all work? What are the rules? How does what I did back then affect who I am now, and what will become of my future? Bill is amazed by the technology and the wonder, but never lets her amazement overwhelm her human concern. She notices the causal ripples fanning out from every action she takes, everything the Doctor does. Over a season of adventures, her questions also become the Doctor’s questions. By the end of the season finale, the Doctor is less concerned with being good than with being kind.
The fantasy of Doctor Who isn’t really the time travel; it’s the second chances. Entire planets are saved, whole galaxies restored, all from a choice poorly considered being considered again. Families are spared, individual humans and aliens live another day. Lost loves are found and the dead return to life. Through it all, the Doctor carries on, prevailing over evil and injustice when they can, stepping away reluctantly when they can’t. They have successes, they experience failures, and sometimes those victories require sacrifice. And when the Doctor falls—thirteen times so far—they regenerate, coming back from tragedy as someone new and different. This, more than the aliens, the time travel, the fantastical worlds, is the wish fulfillment the show offers. To return from our failures remade, granted a blank slate, a do-over, is a feat we all want the ability to perform. Certainly, I’ve tried.
My first attempt at regeneration happened in the fall of 1989. After a disastrous high school career, my collegiate prospects were far less than stellar. I’d applied to my dream college, been rejected, and still I resisted my parents’ suggestion I stay home a couple years and enroll in community college. My pride was too much for reason to overwhelm, and I insisted on leaving home. If I couldn’t go where I wanted, I’d go where I could. I was accepted at a small Methodist college in Athens, Tennessee, an hour and change north of home. Tennessee Wesleyan College was good enough, I thought. I’d go and I’d be better.
A year later, I was back home. I’d become someone different, but not in the way I’d hoped. I’d spent too much time on extracurriculars, joined the college choir, hung out with locals, stayed up and out much too late, all the while letting my grades slip and slip further. I’d learned how to be away from home, how to deal with homesickness, how to meet new friends, but I couldn’t make college work. Back in my old bedroom in the house where I grew up, I took on a part-time job at the mall, and enrolled at a community college. Another regeneration, I changed for the better this time. It wasn’t easy, but before a semester was over, I’d turned things around. I was successful, a good student surrounded by a handful of small-town professors who’d remain my mentors for years. A year and a half later, I reapplied to my dream college, and was accepted. I left home a second time. Another regeneration.
I was raised Methodist, but this television show has been my church on more than one occasion. And the lesson I’ve taken most often from Doctor Who is that any one of us can regenerate. At any given moment, if we find the energy, if we’re so inspired, we can stop and rebuild and become someone new.
But regeneration is not always as easy for us humans as it is for the Doctor. When the Doctor’s regeneration doesn’t quite work, or when it takes a period of adjustment, they call the condition “regeneration sickness,” and although none of us watching are two-thousand-year-old space aliens, it’s something to which we can all relate. New home, new love, new job, new life, even the most promising of new situations can leave us misaligned with ourselves. For the Doctor, regeneration sickness lasts an episode at most. For humans, we can find ourselves out of sorts for years. The Doctor is compassionate and wants everyone to live, but plays with a stacked deck. They know they have a safety net; their regenerations always work. It’s a dangerous example after which to pattern a real life, to live life like a video game, particularly when you choose to forget the life you left behind.
From a different angle, however, these thirteen regenerations aren’t thirteen different Doctors, but one Doctor over the course of a very long, very interesting life. The outward appearance changes, as does the attitude and personality, but the same can happen to any of us. I’m much better company today than I was in college. Would my teenage self even recognize the person I’ve become, much less believe the things I’ve done, places I’ve been? Look at who I was then. Look at who I’ve been. When we look back over a life, we often wonder how we got to where we are. Similarly, there’s a great comfort in the rare longevity of this TV show. Fifty-four years is such a very long time, particularly in this age of reboots and do-overs.
Speculation began months ago about who would replace Peter Capaldi after his imminent departure from the series. Capaldi had been a fan himself from when he was a child, was thrilled to take on the role as an adult, but after two seasons, it was time for him to move on. Who would be the new Doctor? Names flew left and right, several of them women. The very thought of a woman Doctor threw a number of long-time fans off their hinges. In the days and weeks before the announcement, there were concerns about political correctness in space and ridiculous suggestions that time travel was for men only. “Nobody wants a TARDIS full of bras!”
On July 16th, just after the finals at Wimbledon, the newest Doctor was named. My fiancée and I were driving to Philadelphia on a Sunday morning, and we’d stopped at a service plaza along the New Jersey Turnpike for coffee. Back in our rental car, we checked Twitter and there it was: an announcement video from the BBC itself. I pressed play and we leaned over my iPhone, anticipating disappointment. A minute later, I could barely contain myself.
The Twelfth Doctor will be succeeded by Jodie Whittaker, the first woman to ever play the lead role. After a life like the Doctor’s, a life of thirteen faces, all of them white and male, a woman at the controls of the TARDIS is long overdue. There’s only so much to be learned (or taught) from a visibly male perspective.
The news of Whittaker’s role has split the Doctor Who fan community. Several fans are thrilled at the change. They’ve been ready for a woman Doctor for years. The 2017 season was full of hints of the change to come, hints that energized the fan community with an optimism it hadn’t felt in years. Many actors from the show, past and present, have nothing but the best to say about Whittaker. And yet, for the fantasy Doctor Who has offered over more than half a century, some fans are threatened by a woman in a role played historically by a man. Much like the response to 2015’s gender-flipped reboot of Ghostbusters , there have been cries of ruined childhoods and a predicted demise of the Who franchise entirely. It seems ridiculous to claim tradition over a television show based on the inevitability of change and the infinite possibilities of choice, but here we are. Twitter is rife with trolls abandoning Doctor Who , saying the show is ruined, even making misogynist comments about Whittaker herself, months before she appears on their TVs. Even Peter Davison, the actor who played the Fifth Doctor, my first Doctor, has gone on record saying a role model for boys has been lost.
The Doctor has been a role model for me most of my life. Not as a man, but as a human being. Like the Doctor, I want to be forever curious, rarely satisfied with a simple answer, always traveling and learning, and endlessly compassionate. Doctor Who shifts with each new season, different showrunners coloring the plotlines from their own palettes of characterization. In the last few seasons, the Doctor’s adventures have become boldly, even profoundly, sentimental, reflecting back across the many faces the Doctor has worn since the beginning. What better time than now to use an appreciation of a long life lived well as a springboard into a future of even more possibilities?
This Christmas, we’re getting a new Doctor with a new face, and they’ll have their own adventures and opportunities to save the universe through second chances. The Doctor changes when they must, becomes the kind of hero they need to be. If there’s any hero we need in 2017, let it be a brilliant alien with the face of a woman making decisions against impossible odds, making a positive difference across all time and space. The Thirteenth Doctor is going to be someone’s first Doctor, the first for several people, and nobody forgets their first.