Seeing as there was no new Doctor Who in North America this weekend, there will be no review of a new episode of Doctor Who. Makes sense, right? Instead, today I’m going to talk about one of the best and most enduring aspects of the show as a whole, the reason it has lasted, on and off, for 47+ years: Regeneration.
At once sad and exciting, regeneration keeps the series fresh while still continuing the exploits of a character everyone knows. Doctor Who would probably only have lasted 3, possibly 4 seasons if not for this most ingenious of ideas which is now essential for the longevity of the show. It’s brilliant! When an actor tires of playing the role, instead of trying to explain why there’s no more Doctor in Doctor Who or outright cancelling the show, just have the character die only to be reborn with a new face. Often, the regeneration episode not only signifies a change in lead actor but also in main production staff, giving the stories a real “This is the end” type of feel, but always there’s a new Doctor at the end to give us a hopeful look into the future.
Let’s take a look now at the Doctor’s ten regenerations and see how the concept and style has changed since 1966.
First Regeneration: The Tenth Planet (1966)
By the middle of William Hartnell’s third season, it was clear that fatigue and failing health, as well as a number of other factors, were interfering with him playing the Doctor. Hartnell would be absent from entire episodes and the Doctor was increasingly less integral to the story. There was talk during “The Celestial Toymaker,” that the eponymous villain would play a trick that caused the Doctor to change face, but ultimately that was vetoed, and a good thing too as that would have been a temporary fix. At the tail end of “The Tenth Planet,” the second story of season 4 and the first appearance of the Cybermen, the Doctor complains that his old body has worn thin, and he suddenly collapses to the floor. What follows is television history.
With just the very minimum of effects, really just a dissolve and the sound effect of the TARDIS, William Hartnell transforms into Patrick Troughton and the show would continue with a very different lead character. In the context of the story, this was referred to as “renewal,” something that would remain ambiguous for another eight years. Of the four episodes of this serial, part 4 is entirely lost, save that little clip of the regeneration itself, thankfully preserved for us to see.
Second Regeneration: The War Games(1969)
While the change of actors proved to be a boost to the series, by the end of season 6, the ratings were again falling, and Patrick Troughton and company decided it was time to move on. During the ten-part epic finale, “The War Games,” the Doctor is confronted with another member of his race, here finally named Time Lords, in the form of The War Chief. His nefarious plot, masterminded by the somehow even more evil War Lord, is to remove whole armies from various points in Earth’s history, and force them to endlessly battle each other until they can cobble together a super army. The Doctor realizes this is too big even for him to handle so he is forced to call his people for help. The Time Lords do sort it out, but because the Doctor is a fugitive, they force him to stand trial. The Time Lords wipe companions Jamie and Zoe’s memories, save their first adventure with the Doctor and then, this happens:
Third Regeneration: Planet of the Spiders(1974)
After five years as the suave action-oriented Third Doctor, coupled with the exit of Barry Letts as producer and Terrance Dicks as script editor, Jon Pertwee decided to step down. Added to this, the previous season had seen the departure of Katy Manning as companion Jo Grant and the unfortunate death of Roger Delgado (the Master) in a road accident. The UNIT years were drawing to a close, but the Doctor was to have one raucous final adventure.
“Planet of the Spiders” brought together all the tropes of the Letts/Dicks/Pertwee era, including an entire episode devoted to a car/helicopter/hovercraft chase that didn’t need to be there. Still, what stands out about this story is Jon Pertwee. He truly gives this story his all and goes out on a very tender note. Here for the first time we actually hear the term “Regeneration,” and learn that every Time Lord has the ability to do it. The entire plot revolves around an artifact that the Doctor inadvertently stole a season prior, and it’s really his own actions that bring about his downfall, a consequence of the overconfident man he’d been in this incarnation. After being exposed to high levels of radiation, the Doctor goes missing for three weeks and Sarah Jane assumes the worst:
The floating man is another Time Lord, whom we learn was the Doctor’s old mentor. The scene is acted incredibly well by Pertwee, Sladen, and Courtney (rest in peace, the lot of them), and the Doctor’s death is quite sad. Then the hope comes along and his regeneration starts, and we catch the first glimpse of Tom Baker. The actual effect of the regeneration, though, is total crap. Two great Doctors cross-faded together. Still, the rest of the scene makes up for it.
During the Doctor’s fourth incarnation, we hear about the regeneration limit which says after twelve, Time Lords cannot regenerate anymore. This was used as a story point in the serial “The Deadly Assassin” to explain why a horribly decrepit Master was trying to tamper with the Gallifrey matrix. He’d used up his lives, basically. At the time, I’m sure, no one ever thought Doctor Who would keep going as long as it did and since we’re now on the eleventh incarnation of the character, something substantial will probably have to be done to change the regeneration limit. In an episode of “The Sarah Jane Adventures” last season, the Eleventh Doctor somewhat offhandedly says that he can regenerate 507 times. Whether this is true or just a silly joke is yet to be seen, but truly, who cares? Keep going, I say.
Fourth Regeneration: Logopolis (1981)
After a whopping seven years as the Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker and the show were parting ways. New producer John Nathan-Turner and the BBC agreed it was time for a new Doctor, and when Baker came in for his annual “I Want to Leave” meeting, nobody talked him out of it. Season 18 is conceptually interesting but otherwise unfulfilling. Baker more or less phones it in, which is unfortunate for such a great Doctor. His final story, “Logopolis,” featured the return of the Master (here played by Anthony Ainley), and was all about entropy, a theme for the entire season. Throughout the story, there is a mysterious white figure called The Watcher following the Doctor around, and we eventually learn that it is, in fact, his future incarnation. The spectre of the Doctor’s death is literally following him.
At the end of the final episode, the Doctor thwarts the Master’s plan, but sadly falls off of the high antennae known as the Pharos Project. After a lengthy scene where the Doctor reviews his companions and adventures, the Watcher combines with the Doctor and the Fifth Doctor is created:
Fifth Regeneration: The Caves of Androzani (1984)
After three years, Peter Davison wanted to bow out and was given arguably the best story ever made in which to leave with a bang. The penultimate story of season 21, “The Caves of Androzani,” was a story about the greed of men causing destruction. The Doctor’s entire goal in the story is to save his companion, Peri, from the sickness his own rampant curiosity caused. The Fifth Doctor gets to be heroic to the nines, and when he finally saves Peri, sacrificing himself in the process, he seems certain this time he will properly die. But he doesn’t, of course. He is haunted by visions of his past companions and his archenemy, the Master, before we see the first few seconds of the Sixth Doctor:
Davison’s performance is especially strong here, and throughout the entire story and it’s so good that one wishes he had more stories like this during his run.
Sixth Regeneration: Time and the Rani (1987)
The Sixth Doctor’s reign had been a short one, unfortunately, and after the truncated 23rd season, the decision was made that if the series was to continue, which a lot of people at the Beeb did not want, it was going to have a new lead actor. Colin Baker was unceremoniously fired and Sylvester McCoy was hired to play the Seventh Doctor. The first episode of season 24 began with a regeneration. See if you can guess what’s different about it:
Yes, that aired on television. You probably asked “What the eff?” several times during that minute-long clip and I’m not going to try to explain it because it makes no sense. But you probably also noticed the strangest part of that, which is that Colin Baker is nowhere to be found. Having been sacked, Baker declined to take part in a regeneration (rightfully so), and as such we get Sylvester McCoy in curly blonde wig.
Seventh Regeneration: The TV Movie (1996)
Doctor Who had been cancelled in 1989 after 26 years and seven lead actors, but in the 90s, there was an attempt to bring the show back with a TV movie to be used as a backdoor pilot for an American/British/Canadian version of the show. It didn’t get picked up, but it did give us the opportunity, for better or worse, to see McCoy regenerate and give a sendoff to the classic series, albeit stupidly. After getting shot by gangsters 15 seconds after landing on Earth, the Seventh Doctor is taken to the hospital where a surgeon kills him on the operating table. Thanks to the use of anesthetic, the Doctor is not able to regenerate for awhile, so he’s in the morgue when he finally does:
Universal, which co-produced the movie, owns the rights to Frankenstein. GET IT? Despite their best efforts, this ends up just being Sylvester McCoy making stupid faces and Paul McGann trying not to look too stupid while making stupid faces.
Eighth Regeneration: Doesn’t Exist
One of the brilliant things Russell T. Davies did when he brought back Doctor Who in 2005 was to start the show afresh. Eventually we’d get bogged down in history and backstory, but the audience learned it right along with the companions. In the same way the Third Doctor had been introduced, the Ninth Doctor just appears and the adventure begins. We can assume he hadn’t regenerated too long ago as he sees himself in the mirror and seems surprised. We’ll probably never know exactly what happened between the TV movie and the beginning of “Rose,” but I like to think the Eighth Doctor is the one who ended the Time War by killing all the Daleks and Time Lords and this caused him to regenerate into the battle-weary survivor who was the Ninth Doctor.
Ninth Regeneration: The Parting of the Ways (2005)
Christopher Eccleston didn’t want to stay on in the role of the Ninth Doctor after his first series. There are a myriad of reasons for this, but at the end of the day it meant that the new audience would have to deal with the concept of regeneration very early on. What makes his regeneration so great is that he remains as flippant and silly as he ever was. It’s a sad scene, surely, but he tries to make it as easy for Rose as he can, which in turn lets the audience know it’s all okay:
If the Ninth Doctor’s regeneration had been too drawn out or sappy, where he says how he doesn’t want to die and that, the audience would have a harder time accepting the new guy taking his place, which is already a touchy prospect. Applause to RTD for doing this one the way he did.
Tenth Regeneration: The End of Time (2010)
After 3+ years in the role, and garnering huge amounts of praise for playing the Tenth Doctor, David Tennant finally decided to step down. It was also the end of the Russell T. Davies era, and as such, he threw everything in the entire universe into the final two-part special, “The End of Time.” As a story, it makes no sense at all, but it does offer a lot for Tennant to do and some really great scenes between him and Bernard Cribbins. The Doctor knows he’s going to die throughout the story and once he finally reaches the point where he starts regenerating, it’s something like 20+ minutes of screen time before it actually happens, during which time the Doctor visits all of his previous companions and saves them or just does something nice for them. When he’s finally alone in the TARDIS, he tearily says that he doesn’t want to go:
The same reason I love the 9-10 regeneration is the reason I hate the 10-11 regeneration. Whereas the Ninth Doctor tells everyone it’s going to be okay, the Tenth Doctor tries to make us so sad about his leaving that we are immediately put off by the happy-go-lucky weirdness of the Eleventh Doctor. I like the Tenth Doctor a lot, but there are ways to go out gracefully and that wasn’t it. Anyway. I look forward to your letters.
So that’s all the regenerations, the proper ones anyway; I didn’t count the half one in Series 4 that gave us the Handy Doctor or the one SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS because frankly this post is too long anyway. I hope you all enjoyed this journey through the changing faces of the Doctor, and I’ll be back next week for the review of “The Almost People.”
-Kanderson also doesn’t want to go, and so isnt. But he would like it if you followed him on teh TWITTERS