Fast Return Switch #003: Is the Doctor a Mind or a Body?

In the third installment of the podcast, I turn to the concept of identity, specifically as it refers to the Doctor’s character in the program. Having assumed so many different forms, and having various personalities, how is it possible to identify the Doctor? What would we classify as the Doctor’s “self”? Is this self a physical or immaterial entity?



Is the Doctor a Mind or a Body?

“Who am I? Who am I?” Remember when Xoanon in The Face of Evil had a crisis of identity? He expressed a fundamental question of existence: What is the nature of the self? What makes me me? How am I distinctive? I’m not going to attempt to answer that question here in general sense. I’m more interested in the character of the Doctor, and how the show Doctor Who defines the Doctor’s identity. Hey, the name of the show suggests that this would be one of the crucial themes dealt with in the program. If the Doctor approached and said “Who am I?” How might we answer? What makes the Doctor the Doctor?

The answer depends quite a bit on whether persons are defined by their bodies or their minds. In other words, is biological continuity the most important part of identity? Or are psychological traits? Or a bit of both? The mind-body problem is a philosophical issue that has been discussed for millennia. How does the show Doctor Who tackle the question? Is the Doctor a mind or a body?

The Doctor doesn’t really have biological continuity, right? Some might say the Doctor does. After all, every time the Doctor gets a new body, it’s right in the very spot that the old body was. And the Doctor is always a Time Lord, always has two hearts and other physical traits, probably, that Time Lords have. But it has been established in the show that no vestige of the physical body of a Time Lord remains after regeneration takes place.

First, a regenerated Time Lord has a very different outward appearance each time it happens. Physical differences can include height, weight, hair color, skin color, eye color, voice, apparent age, sex, and perhaps even species. Species, you ask? Yes, at least on the outside. So for example, we see Romana regenerate at the beginning of Destiny of the Daleks, and a couple of the bodies she tries out are clearly not Gallifreyan in appearance. The Doctor too takes on a body resembling another species when he regenerates into the Peter Capaldi Doctor: we are told in The Girl Who Died that the body was modeled on the body of an Earth person from ancient Pompeii. We presume that it is not the same body, but only a replica, as the Doctor still has two hearts, so his internal physiology is Time Lord. But on the outside, a human. Just about any physical feature can be altered in regeneration, so that the new body need not resemble the old one in any way. We presume that the bodies must be at least humanoid, but who knows? Maybe not.

Second, even the inside of the body must be renewed upon regeneration. If, as the First Doctor says in The Tenth Planet, “This old body of mine is wearing a bit thin,” he was more likely than not referring primarily to its vital organs, which make the body function properly. Body organs, while still remaining Time Lord, are renewed during regeneration, including probably also the brain itself. It is safe to assume that the internal organs are not identical to the old ones, nor are they simply younger versions of the old ones. They’re different. Of the physical material, nothing remains. How do I know that? K’anpo tells Sarah in Planet of the Spiders that all the cells of the Doctor’s body have been devastated and would regenerate. Corroborating this statement, the Tenth Doctor tells Rose in “Born Again” (the 2005 Children in Need mini-episode) that every single cell in his body has been replaced. So we can say that the new body is new even on the cellular level.

And yet we know that, because the Doctor is the Doctor, some pieces of him must survive the regeneration process, or else he would no longer be the Doctor.

Philosophers are open to the idea that a person can exist without their body. But scientists are another lot. Most among them would say that the body and the self are identical, that there is no person without the body. They say that all mental events are created by physical events, that there is a material brain, but not an immaterial mind. This very physically-oriented, literalist, animalistic view, however, does not work in the Doctor Who universe, as we know that the Doctor’s personhood or self is not identical with his body, and in fact his entire body can cease to exist, while he himself can live on in a new one. He makes it clear that each time he changes, he is still himself. “I am he, and he is me,” Three says of Two in The Three Doctors. If your body stops functioning, and you get cremated into ashes or eaten up by worms, most scientists would say that you are gone. Physical things don’t last forever. But the Doctor’s bodily destruction does not mean there is no hope that the Doctor can live on. The Doctor has a body, but the Doctor is not his body. So what is it that lives on? How are we justified in saying that, after regeneration, the Doctor is the same person?

If the Doctor is not a physical or material entity, then the Doctor must be a mental thing, an immaterial mind. Of course, we could wax religious here and say that the Doctor has a soul, and that this soul migrates to a new body at death. However, no such concept is ever expressed in Doctor Who, and it contradicts the idea that regeneration is a Time Lord technology, a scientific innovation. Regeneration, in other words, is not a natural process for Time Lords. It’s something they invented to prolong their individual lives.

If we were to use computer jargon, we might say that the Doctor’s hardware changes, but the software is preserved. His software is downloaded onto a new hard drive. Have you ever seen a movie in which two people’s minds are switched? Freaky Friday, for example. When the mom’s mind is in the daughter’s body, we are led to believe that this is truly the mom. It’s not that much different with the Doctor. It’s as if his mind enters a new body. This happens not only in regeneration but in other instances as well. At the end of “Face the Raven” and throughout “Heaven Sent,” the Doctor is teleported across space, his body destroyed on one teleportation platform and reassembled on the other (with completely new atoms). In a literal way, he dies and is given a brand new body. But because his mind is put intact into the new body, we can say he is the same person, even when this happens over and over again. Regeneration works in much the same way.

Of what is the Doctor’s personal identity or software composed? The answer to that question would tell us what constitutes the self for Time Lords in the Doctor Who universe.

A good way to answer this question is to note from the show what survives the regeneration process. We have seen the Doctor change many times. What does he carry with him each time?

Not everything psychological remains. Certain aspects of the Doctor’s character change: he has a completely different set of mannerisms; his temperament and sense of humor can be different; his taste in clothing, food, and music are often different. These character differences may demonstrate that regeneration alters more than just the physical nature of the Doctor, though I would argue that the physical change probably has had an effect on these other things. So, for example, if the Doctor’s brain has changed, then maybe different impulses in that brain affect its pleasure senses and create different reactions to stimuli. Perceptual experiences depend on the reaction of our sensory organs to various stimuli, and these sensations can change our mental state. We therefore might conclude that the change in the Doctor’s tastes, temperament, and mannerisms are all affected by the new physical body.

A popular argument going back to John Locke says that memory is the most important part of identity. A new study suggests that people generally believe morality is the most important part. We see a carryover of both of these in the Doctor’s case.

First and foremost, the Doctor does take with him his memories. Remember when Rose doubts that Ten is the real Doctor, when she first sees the regeneration? He insists, “It’s still me.” What does he give as evidence? His memory of when they first met. He does the same to convince Harriet Jones: he demonstrates his memory of when they were trapped in Downing Street. Memory is preserved in regeneration. Indeed, one could argue that without memory, there is no continuity of personhood. In other words, if someone does not remember anything at all of the personal past, that one is not the same person as the one who experienced those past events. “A man is the sum of his memories, you know—a Time Lord even more so” said the Fifth Doctor in The Five Doctors. This is not to say that all memories must remain intact—the Doctor often forgets things, and so do we for that matter. This does not mean we have lost our identities. For that to happen we would need to lose all of our memories. The Third Doctor had his knowledge of how to operate the TARDIS erased by the Time Lords, but he was still himself. Even in the case of the Doctor’s experience in “Human Nature,” when his physical body was made human and he had amnesia, or of the Master who had amnesia in “Utopia,” we cannot say they lost their identities completely, because even though their memories were gone, something of them still remained, certain vestiges of their character.

Memories, you see, aren’t all that there is to a person, and they are not all the Doctor takes with him into each new body upon regeneration. His basic character—I don’t mean minor elements, such as personal taste; I mean the foundations of his character—they stay with him. For example, even after regeneration he remains fundamentally an altruistic person. He remains consistently opposed to injustice, prejudice, slavery, inequality, authoritarianism, and legalism. He stands instead for the values of tolerance, freedom, equality, justice, and individuality. His desire to interfere in history in order to help people or set matters right is still present. His interest in all things scientific, in solving puzzles, in learning and coming to understand things better—that hunger is still there. Certain loves—such as his love for the planet Earth, and his love for certain people—all still there. Beliefs—these too seem to be retained. The character view of self says that identity is one’s traits in a coherent whole, a texture of being, you might say. In the legal system of Gallifrey, a Time Lord may be held accountable for actions performed in another incarnation, which means that enough of a person’s character is passed through regeneration for the new incarnation to be considered culpable; in other words, one can’t plead innocence by reason of regeneration. There thus is, in regeneration, a continuity of mental substance. This mental substance represents the Doctor’s identity.

But what about the Doctor’s gender? With so many changes occurring as the result of regeneration on the physical level, surely things like gender must change too. Right? Well, that depends on whether gender is a manifestation of the body or the mind.

We must remember that sex and gender are not synonymous. Sex (sometimes called biological gender) refers to the set of reproductive organs that we are born with, while gender identity refers to how we perceive ourselves. Granted, in most people biological sex and gender identity coincide, but we know from study that in some people, these do not coincide, and gender dysphoria can be experienced. This is important to realize, so that we can understand the case of Time Lords, whose biological sex can change in the regeneration process. Does gender also change?

Well, the Time Lords don’t have gender, one might argue. Doesn’t the Doctor say something of the sort in “World Enough and Time.” They’re “beyond gender.” Uh, not exactly. He says, “We’re billions of years beyond your petty human obsession with gender and its associated stereotypes.” That’s not the same as saying there is no gender. He says the Time Lords are not obsessed with it, that they don’t have human gender stereotypes. But the Time Lords do have gender identity. Watch any episode set on Gallifrey and tell me they don’t. Do their men and women dress exactly the same? Look, for example, at a photo of Chancellor Flavia and Chancellor Hedin. Note their clothing. Note their hairstyles. Oh, the Time Lords have gender identity all right.

So back to the question. Does their gender change upon regeneration? So far we have established that identity in general includes memories, basic character traits, self-conception, beliefs, values, loves. Surely gender, which is a form of self-conception, is integral to the fabric of a person’s being. If we take into account that a Time Lord’s identity is preserved through regeneration, we thus must conclude that gender self-conception is carried over to the next body. If we were to take the contrary view, which some people do, that gender identity is determined solely by one’s physical traits, then we could believe that if the Doctor regenerated into a woman, the Doctor would in reality be a woman in every sense of the word, but we simultaneously would be taking the position that people today who claim their birth sex and their gender do not match are at the very least mistaken, if not mentally ill.

‘Not so,’ you might say. ‘I simply believe that on Gallifrey, which is an alien planet, gender works differently than it does here. There, one’s gender is determined by one’s sex. So if a Time Lord regenerates into a man, he is a man, if into a woman, she is a woman. On Earth, yeah, it’s different, so I can believe that humans have gender identity which can be at odds with their physical features, but on Gallifrey they always coincide.’ Well, setting aside the precarious nature of that position, which intentionally or not, erodes the argument that gender identity is a fundamental component of a sentient species that has gender, this view is not borne out in Doctor Who itself. In Doctor Who, that there is such a thing as gender identity among Time Lords apart from sex is reflected in the episode “Hell Bent,” in which the General regenerates from a man into a woman. She then says, “Back to normal, am I? The only time I’ve been a man, that body.” This reveals two things: 1) for her being a woman is “normal.” Her gender identity is female; 2) the fact that most of her incarnations have been female suggest that one’s gender identity has an impact on what body a Time Lord will receive upon regeneration. The body and gender identity may not always coincide, but more often than not, they do. The fact that the Doctor’s body has most often been male suggests that the Doctor’s gender identity is male. Thus, even if he regenerates into a female body, which we know he will do very soon, he will still be a he on the inside, that is, he will perceive himself as male, in the Galifreyan sense, of course. He may choose, for convenience or some other reason, to have people use the feminine pronoun to refer to him, and he may even be affected to a certain degree by the physical aspects of his new body, but he likely will not change his self-conception. He never does.

The whole concept of regeneration is fascinating, and I’m sure as the show continues we will learn more about it. Since 1963 we’ve been getting acquainted with the Doctor and coming to love much about him, while acknowledging, of course, that he isn’t perfect. That his identity is retained each time he changes is something of which we can safely be assured, and it puts our minds at ease. We will always have the Doctor with us, I think. He may not always be recognizable by his physical features, but once he begins speaking and doing, you can’t miss him.