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The 11th Doctor (Matt Smith) knew that he was on his last regeneration. In The Time of the Doctor, he explains to Clara that he has already used up all 12. Why then, when he saw the Curator in The Day of the Doctor, did he seem to believe (or at least entertain the possibility) that he was one of his future regenerations?

The only explanation I can think of is that at the time of meeting the Curator, he still had hope that he would somehow be able to get more regenerations, and that after centuries of guarding Trenzalore, he eventually lost that hope. The problem I see with this explanation is that if he had ever considered the possibility of getting more regenerations, wouldn't he have just asked the Time Lords for help like Clara did? If anyone could help him get more regenerations, it would be them.

  • Remember the doctor still hasn't become the valyard, so he knew there is one other regeneration at least – user46509 Sep 10 '15 at 21:15
  • @CarlSixsmith The Time War. Timey wimey. Possible futures. In short, not necessarily. – Politank-Z Sep 10 '15 at 21:17
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    He hadn't figured it out yet. He spent 300 years alone in Trenzalore, and when he started to get old maybe he wondered why he hadn't regenerated yet. He put 2 and 2 together and realized he wouldn't regenerate again. Of course, it's speculation, that's why I put it as a comment. – tilley31 Sep 10 '15 at 21:26
  • The Master had already used up all his regenerations and he is still running around, so the Doctor knew that it is possible that he himself would also find a way to survive somehow. – Thomas Weinbrenner Sep 10 '15 at 21:50
  • Like he said to Clara before going up to face the Daleks: "I could have once (changed the future), when there were Time Lords. Not any more. " – tilley31 Sep 10 '15 at 21:52
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DOCTOR: I could be a curator. I'd be great at curating. I'd be the Great Curator. I could retire and do that. I could retire and be the curator of this place.

CURATOR: You know, I really think you might. (Yes, that is the current silver haired version of the fourth Doctor you just heard. There's Tom Baker, leaning on a walking stick.)

DOCTOR: I never forget a face.

CURATOR: I know you don't. And in years to come, you might find yourself revisiting a few. But just the old favourites, eh?

This bears little resemblance to regeneration as we know it. We've never known a Time Lord to regenerate to aged versions of previous incarnations, much less repeatedly.

Allowing that The Doctor believed, even tentatively, The Curator to be the genuine article, I can only speculate as to The Doctor's speculation on how he might become The Curator. Aside from giving Tom Baker a cameo, the point of the scene was to establish a future direction for The Doctor: finding Gallifrey. One might speculate from the remaining dialog, that The Curator is The Doctor, after having found and saved Gallifrey, and retiring.

How might The Time Lords thank The Doctor, at the end of his lives, for having achieved such a momentous outcome? The gift of being able to live out his retirement as his favorite versions of himself seems generous, within The Time Lords' power, and indicative of their perception of The Doctor as an irritant. "Gee, Doctor, it's really great that you won our war, saved our lives, and restored us from limbo, but it would be really great if you could just have a seat over there."

Bear in mind that The Doctor doesn't know much about Trenzalore yet: he doesn't know that his battles there will be connected to Gallifrey, nor that they are going to happen soon. The Doctor might have rationalized that his death at Trenzalore happened after saving Gallifrey and his time as The Curator.

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