Regeneration All Over Again: Matt Smith Leaving Doctor Who, Continuity Is Doomed

doctor_who_50th_anniversaryIt is official now: Matt Smith will be leaving Doctor Who after the upcoming 50th anniversary special and the annual Christmas special.

This is weird and potentially unsettling news for a couple of reasons. The first reason being that Matt Smith has been the face of Doctor Who as it has exploded in worldwide popularity over the past few years. Sure, Christopher Eccleston brought the franchise back to life, and David Tennant ramped its popularity way up, but it wasn’t until Smith that the show graduated to Hall H panels at San Diego Comic-Con and to mainstream press coverage. It’s easy to forget these days that, back in the 90s, Doctor Who was a niche property; back then I belonged to a local private social club (I wasn’t a member of the local Polish-American community, but I was trying to lay into a girl who was. Plus they had dollar beers. But I digress), and they had a Doctor Who pinball machine not because they were fans, but because it was the cheapest and least in-demand machine available at the time.

But not only is showrunner Steven Moffat losing (or firing, because frankly the story and statement aren’t totally clear as to who pulled the trigger on this decision) the guy who fronted the move from niche cheapie show with cardboard sets that you might catch on PBS at 4 a.m. if your cable had gone out, to the forefront of televised sci-fi, but he is opening up a potential can of continuity worms that is sure to turn this year’s Doctor Who panel at SDCC into a geekstorm so intense that it will make the members of the 501st Stormtrooper Legion mutter “nerds” under their breath.

First, let’s deal with the actual exit. Here’s Matt Smith’s full statement about leaving Doctor Who:

Doctor Who has been the most brilliant experience for me as an actor and a bloke, and that largely is down to the cast, crew and fans of the show.

I’m incredibly grateful to all the cast and crew who work tirelessly every day to realise all the elements of the show and deliver Doctor Who to the audience. Many of them have become good friends and I’m incredibly proud of what we have achieved over the last four years.

Having Steven Moffat as show runner write such varied, funny, mind bending and brilliant scripts has been one of the greatest and most rewarding challenges of my career. It’s been a privilege and a treat to work with Steven – he’s a good friend and will continue to shape a brilliant world for the Doctor.

The fans of Doctor Who around the world are unlike any other; they dress up, shout louder, know more about the history of the show (and speculate more about the future of the show) in a way that I’ve never seen before.

Your dedication is truly remarkable. Thank you so very much for supporting my incarnation of the Time Lord, number 11, who I might add is not done yet – I’m back for the 50th anniversary and the Christmas special.

It’s been an honour to play this part, to follow the legacy of brilliant actors, and helm the Tardis for a spell with ‘the ginger, the nose and the impossible one’. But when ya gotta go, ya gotta go and Trenzalore calls. Thank you guys. Matt.

Now we can talk about the potential continuity problems that this introduces… and keep in mind that this is coming from a guy who never watched the show before Eccleston took over, and who has sometimes dialed up some “classic” episodes on Netflix on nights where nothing else was on… only to wake up in front of the Netflix menu a few hours later (seriously: those cardboard sets are like Ambien to me). So my understanding of this is incomplete, beefed up by help from my co-Editor Amanda and a very helpful rundown on Comics Beat.

According to my understanding, Time Lords get twelve regenerations before they, like all of us, must suck the pipe. Until recently, we had reason to believe that Matt Smith’s incarnation was the eleventh version of The Doctor. So on paper, if Smith’s version were to get the ick, then there would a twelfth version of The Doctor, with one more regeneration in the tank, just in case the new guy gets run over by a bus or picks a companion with a taste for knifeplay or something.

However, in the latest season’s finale, The Name of The Doctor, we get the implication that there was a version of The Doctor, played by John Hurt, at some point in the past that no one was previously aware of. And if that’s the case, and we take “John Hurt as The Doctor” at face value, that would mean that Smith is actually the twelfth Doctor… meaning that whoever they grab to take over after Smith’s departure would be the last Doctor. So whoever gets the nod for the next season should be vetted very carefully, as based on the rules as they have been laid out over the fifty years of Doctor Who history, he will be unfireable regardless of work ethic, drug habit or drunkenly-obtained tribal Mike Tyson facial tattoo.

Of course, that is on paper. The reality is that the concept of regeneration was created at some point by some writer to justify the fact that they bring in new actors to play the sonofabitch sometimes. It was a conceit created in a self-contained story universe to solve a practical problem, and whatever conceit they come up with to get around it when they need to will exist for the same reason: to solve that practical problem.

But this is geekdom, so the continuity matters. And as such, SDCC will be a hotbed for those questions to be asked and argued and discussed at bars around the Gaslamp… but I already know the answer.

Which is: Doctor Who has a TARDIS. He can go anywhere and do anything. So which particular ruleset do you think really applies to a guy like that? And if you can’t think of a way around it, hell: have Clara timejump back to the Time War and grab some other poor dupe of a Time Lord to wander around with! Now you’ve got twleve more regenerations to fuck with! Whaddya mean, “that wouldn’t be ‘The Doctor?'” We’re geeks! We’re people who go to conventions and complain about Wally West being missing, while he wasn’t The Flash in the first Goddamned place! Just give the new guy a twelve-foot knit scarf like Tom Baker and it’ll all be okay by his first Christmas special.

Look: it doesn’t matter how Moffat explains it, so long as he makes it entertaining when he does. He’s had a good record with that in the past four years. So let’s see how this plays out.