(If you’re unfamiliar with the nearly 50 year old show, which recently was given a Peabody Award for the entirety of the show, the lead character is an alien “Time Lord” from the planet Gallifrey. Time Lords, when suffering mortal wounds, or just wanting the equivalent of plastic surgery, can “regenerate” 12 times. This effectively gives them a new body, a slightly different personality and allows the show to recast a new actor and freshen up a bit.)
At this point it doesn’t seem 100% clear, past the haze of the announcement’s PR, whether this was Smith making the decision to step out early or the result of a pre-planned arc. It is awfully interesting that this is announced between the season finale and the 50th anniversary special. Spoilers follow, so avert your eyes if you haven’t caught up.
I just said that Time Lords get 12 regenerations. Prior to the season finale, we were all under the impression that Matt Smith was the 11th Doctor. Which is to say, he’d already regenerated 10 times. At the end of the finale, we were introduced to John Hurt as a previously unknown incarnation of the Doctor who’d done terrible things (pun intended).
It has been universally inferred that Hurt is now the 9th Doctor, squeezed in between Paul McGann’s #8 from the ill-fated TV Movie/Fox pilot and Christopher Eccleston’s #9/#10 from the beginning of the current series. This would mean Hurt’s Doctor is the one involved in the “Time War” that wiped out the Time Lords (and was supposed to have wiped out the Daleks), which occurred in the gap while Doctor Who was off the air.
Please note: John Hurt was not on this list of Doctor Who actors in the official press release. Whether that was an oversight or deliberate misdirection is not clear.
Still if Hurt is really the ninth Doctor, and not a future doctor, that means Matt Smith will be regenerating for the 12th time and into the 13th and final incarnation of The Doctor. And here it gets a bit more complicated.
In the season finale, “The Valeyard” was name-checked. The Valeyard was the villain in the 80’s serial “Trial of a Time Lord” and turned out to be a future version of the Doctor from somewhere between his 12th and 13th incarnations. Which would have to be when Matt Smith’s Doctor regenerates, if Hurt is indeed a prior Doctor.
Doctor Who is not a show that has celebrated tight continuity, but current showrunner Steven Moffat would qualify as an old school Doctor Who fanboy who’d definitely remember that sequence _and_ he’s name-checked the character.
Or perhaps Hurt is The Valeyard and that will be explained in the 50th anniversary special.
But if Hurt isn’t The Valeyard and Smith is really Doctor #12, then we’re heading for the homestretch of the series.
That is, until someone writes their way around the previously established 12 regeneration limit. It is, after all science fiction and there’s always away around these things. Especially when the Moffat version of Doctor Who revels in changing the past (something that was largely off the table in the original series).