He lies upon the floor, having only slightly survived his latest adventure. He lies still now though just a minute ago – or was it a millennium – he stood firm in the searing heat of cosmic catastrophe, a shield in a scarf. Indeed, with clothes from another fashion, with a voice that wavers between command and compassion, with eyes that contain memories no creature should have to witness, he had fought. And won. Again. Now, he looks at peace. But that is only the beginning of his next story. See there… the process of regeneration has begun. The Doctor will rise anew. And he better do so quickly.
It is one of the most clever and interesting plot devices yet used in a television show. Clever because it allows the central character of Dr Who – The Doctor himself – to keep on living through new actors without it seeming awkward (think Dumbledore the Harry Potter series, or Bruce Wayne in the pre-Nolan era). Interesting because it seems both quite simple and quite alien at the same time. Regeneration is both a wonderful blessing to The Doctor in that he gains new life at crucial junctures in his over 900 years so far accrued, but it’s also deeply sad for him to know that whilst he will go on living, his companions will not. Luckily he has a Tardis so he can visit many of them anyway.
So why am I thinking about this right now? Well, I happened to use the phrase “it’s Dr Who history” in class when discussing different approaches to the research, writing and communicating of history over time. In particular, the idea of revisionism. Some argue that ALL history is merely revisionism, with there being very few parts of the historical research field which haven’t been discovered by somebody and all we can now do is challenge or elaborate on what others have done before.
Thus to some people, including leading academics, history is regenerating all the time. It may keep its essential qualities – a history of the French Revolution for example – but may add new evidence or a new perspective or, indeed, a new face, and become a regenerated history of that event or issue or person.
It is false to assert that this regeneration only began with the application of postmodern thinking and practices to history in the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, in the case of a topic such as the French Revolution or the Crusades or numerous other topics (especially those brimming with political, cultural or religious controversy) there has always been a battle of brains and pens as to who is telling the correct version of the past. Some have even tried to reverse or stall the regenerative process by asserting one kind of history over all the others, usually for the gaining or maintaining of political power. I’m looking at you Rameses II… Napoleon… Stalin…
New generations of historians and students of history will discover, read, engage with, construct and communicate the same history in different ways as much as they will break ‘new’ ground by using new methods or applying new thinking or unearthing new evidence to add to what we understand about the past. It may be confronting at times, it may be difficult to grapple with and it may require quite a regeneration of our thinking let alone of the historical record.
It is incredibly easy and incredibly wrong to argue that history is ever ‘settled’. That history is ‘done’. That history, in fact, has ended as a necessary enterprise. However, it is clear that much of what historians do is ‘Dr Who history’, looking for new ways to interpret the unchanging past for a rapidly changing present and with the hope that a forgiving future will not consign us to the dustbin but rather to a revered place in someone’s library. Somewhere that a student may be purposefully wandering – physically or digitally – stumble over that work of history, and feel their brains begin to regenerate…
Here is the article from Alun Munslow we read in class which triggered my thinking.