(Photo by Simon Ridgway)
Updated to include 2017 Christmas Special “Twice Upon a Time.”
Christmas 2017 saw the end of an era as Peter Capaldi handed over the TARDIS key to the Thirteenth Doctor, played by Jodie Whittaker, in Doctor Who special “Twice Upon a Time.” As Doctor Who fans know, regeneration episodes are always momentous occasions, if not always great. Some regeneration stories are downright lousy while others announce the arrival of a big, important change — like this year’s introduction of the first female Doctor in the British sci-fi series’ long history.
Based on both the quality of the regeneration scene itself and the story which (generally) precedes it, we present our worst-to-best list of the Doctor Who regenerations.
Due to behind-the-scenes shenanigans and mistreatment by the BBC, Sixth Doctor Colin Baker refused to be part of season 24’s first story, “Time and Rani.” Baker wanted his three-year contract honored with three seasons as the on-screen Doctor. But it was not to be and Sylvester McCoy ended up playing both the Sixth and Seventh Doctor in the regeneration moment, leading to the worst regeneration scene of them all.
And as it happens at the beginning of the tale, it only serves as harbinger to a confusing tale in which the newly regenerated Doctor encounters his old schoolmate The Rani (Kate O’Mara) collecting famous geniuses from across the universe. She plans to use their intelligence to power an overmind and recreate the universe in her image. Also, there are chicken people who befriend the Doctor and his companion Mel (Bonnie Langford) and bat creatures with a 360 degree field of view who terrorize them. The behind-the-scenes tale is infinitely more compelling.
Though the Tenth Doctor’s final moment is compelling — right down to his admission that he doesn’t want to go — the two-part tale before it is a cavalcade of executive producer Russell T. Davies’ excesses as a writer. Unsure if he wanted the David Tennant Doctor to go out with the galaxy exploding behind him or as a consequence of a small, humble sacrifice, he tried to do both. The Master (John Simm) returns as a food-obsessed poltergeist held prisoner by a second underdeveloped antagonist (Supergirl’s David Harewood), but both are merely pawns of Time Lord President Rassilon (Timothy Dalton), whose vicious, spittle-infused performance makes you wish he was the lead villain for the entire story.
But then, just as he successfully repels an invasion by his own people, The Doctor agrees to accept death in place of his friend Wilfred Mott (Bernard Cribbins). His willingness to save Wilf is tinged with an uncharacteristic level of self-absorption (leading to a theory we’ll discuss shortly) and another half-hour in which the Tenth Doctor says goodbye to all his friends. Some of these moments, like Wilf’s tear-filled final salute, are effective, but after two-plus hours of story (and a year’s build-up to the moment), the whole affair reeks of self-indulgence.
Unfortunately, the same self-indulgence infects Matt Smith’s swansong as well. Attempting to strike a fairy-tale tone, executive producer Steven Moffat crafts a reason for the Eleventh Doctor to spend 600 years defending a town called Christmas from enemies like the Daleks and former allies as each attempt to wrestle control of a crack in time that will allow the Time Lords to return. Moffat also tries to wrap up a number of dangling plot threads dating back to Smith’s first episode. The overall effect leads to resolutions spoken at Smith’s warp-speed cadence (i.e., the real reason the Silence were after him) and the loss of momentum picked up from the 50th Anniversary Special one month earlier.
Then there is the regeneration itself, which happens over two scenes as Moffat also wants it to be epic and personal. The Time Lords give the Doctor a new life cycle and he uses its power to restore his aged body and defeat the Daleks in a spectacular special effects extravaganza. Then he returns to the TARDIS, delaying the final part of his regeneration to give a speech. Admittedly, it is well written and performed, but it drags out the Capaldi reveal to the point of absurdity.
Like “Time and The Rani” the Fox Doctor Who TV Movie features a regeneration scene near the beginning of the story. In this case, though, Sylvester McCoy reprised his role as the Seventh Doctor long enough for the changeover to make sense to fans, but baffle anyone coming to the series fresh. The regeneration itself employs the program’s first use of digital morphing techniques, but lacks the fireworks of the New Series or the inventiveness of the Classic Series. Director Geoffrey Sax also cross-cuts Paul McGann’s first moments as the Doctor with footage from 1931’s Frankenstein, creating a bizarre thematic tie he immediately abandons for a Jesus parallel just seconds later.
The story tries its best to serve several corporate masters at Fox, the BBC, and Universal — who ended up with a piece of the pie thanks to Steven Spielberg’s very brief involvement in bringing the show to the States — leading to a corny plot that resembles Fox’s M.A.N.T.I.S. more than Doctor Who. It also tries to appease older fans by including McCoy, but as former Doctor Who Magazine editor Clayton Hickman would later observe, the TV movie explains why the Doctor should never regenerate in the middle of a story.
Noted as the best story of Peter Davison’s tenure as the Fifth Doctor — often by Davison himself — the reputation of “The Caves of Androzani” exceeds its merits. The Doctor and new companion Peri (Nicola Bryant) land on Androzani Minor and immediately become involved in a feud over resources between a neighboring planet and an apparent terrorist. The political intrigue quickly grows tiresome, but early on in the story, The Doctor and Peri are exposed to “Spectrox Toxemia,” setting a clock for the Doctor to rescue Peri and, hopefully, himself.
The story’s strength lays in the Doctor’s willingness to die for his new friend. He barely knows Peri, but is willing to move galaxies to save her, which leads directly to the regeneration scene. Already beginning the change, the Doctor struggles to get Peri back to the TARDIS and give her the only remaining toxemia antidote. He barely succeeds and succumbs to the regeneration, but is unsure if it will be successful thanks to the poisoning. After a cavalcade of mid-1980s video effects and cameos from Davison’s former companions, he bolts upright as Colin Baker and creates immediate dread in the audience with his dismissal of Peri and his declaration that the change came “not a moment too soon.”
While not a traditional regeneration, the Tenth Doctor’s “Metacrisis” at the beginning of the episode is considered an official use of one of his original 13 lives. And, oddly, it marks a change in Tennant’s performance as the Doctor. Some of the egotism glimpsed in earlier stories becomes a major part of the four episodes to follow. In fact, it is easy to trace the “Time Lord Triumphant” of “Waters of Mars” and the Doctor’s fear of regeneration in “The End of Time” back to this half-regeneration.
The story itself resolves almost every plot Davies had in motion up to that point. The Doctor and Rose (Billie Piper) reunite, Donna (Catherine Tate) becomes a half-Time Lord hero and Dalek creator Davros (Julian Bleach) damns the Doctor for his own hypocrisy. It leads to a great victory as the Doctor, Donna and the Metacrisis Doctor unite all of his friends to help steer the Earth back to its proper place in the Solar System. But that victory leads almost immediately to tragedy as the Doctor is forced to remove all of Donna’s memories of their time together. While it might seem like a dress rehearsal for “The End of Time,” it manages to do most of what Davies wanted to accomplish there with far more elegance.
Though better known for its status as the 50th Anniversary Special, “The Day of the Doctor” does feature a regeneration. Though, perhaps, not a complete one, as the change from John Hurt’s War Doctor to Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor appears to either be a bit of sly effects trickery or the wishful thinking of the viewer. Either way, Hurt echoing the phrase “wearing a bit thin” from William Hartnell’s final story and creating a double joke about his ears (go back and watch “Rose” for the payoff) leads to the thing the special episode does best: offer the Doctor some redemption.
The story’s consistent theme is the guilt all of the modern Doctors carried for annihilating the Time Lords in the Time War’s last moment. A guilt which became personified in the form of the War Doctor, a regeneration the subsequent incarnations buried deep in their memories. But in finding a way to save Gallifrey, the Eleventh Doctor also redeemed his time as the War Doctor. And even if his ninth and tenth incarnations will forget what transpired and still carry the guilt of killing the Time Lords, the regeneration into Eccleston retroactively begins a redemption arc seven seasons in the making.
The ultimate Jon Pertwee adventure features just about everything the production team could throw at it. The Third Doctor faces his fears as the spiders of Metebelis Three attempt to recover a crystal he took from the planet a year earlier and amplify their mind control powers. To stop them, the Doctor, Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) and their UNIT pals cross land, sea, air, time, and space. Episode 2 is almost nothing but a chase scene in which Pertwee drives a speedboat, a hovercraft, a small helicopter, his dependable car Bessie, and a new flying craft known colloquially as “the Whomobile.” Indulgent to be sure, but it all disappears as the Doctor leaves everyone behind to stop the Spider Queen and, from his point of view, embrace death.
And after all the Pertwee era excesses, it all comes down to a lovely scene in the Doctor’s UNIT lab where he genuinely appears to die. Pertwee and Sladen are at their best here. But just as this seems to be the end, another Time Lord appears to reframe the Doctor’s change as a “regeneration” — the first time the terminology is used. After a fairly simple vision-mixed crossfade from Pertwee to his successor, Tom Baker’s curls make their debut.
Seemingly learning from the two previous New Series regeneration stories, Moffat crafts “Twice Upon a Time” as a fitting send off for Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor while investigating, in part, the First Doctor’s (David Bradley and Hartnell) fear to regenerate. Reuniting with a form of Bill (Pearl Mackie), the Doctor gets two great sparring partners while, for once, not facing a merciless foe. Also, in saying goodbye to the program, Moffat offers a new and hopeful perspective on his “Doctor of War” fairy tale. While somewhat lacking in the plot department, the episode showcases the strengths of Capaldi, Mackie, Bradley, and guest star Mark Gatiss as performers. Also, in making a point of the First Doctor’s chauvinism, the story highlights how far the program has come as whole in light of the coming regeneration.
Built of stock parts — like the Doctor having time to speechify, the TARDIS console exploding from the energy dispersal, and the new Doctor hanging by her fingers as the TARDIS malfunctions — the regeneration scene still does good things with those standard elements. The Doctor’s speech to his next self is a grand affirmation of being kind; the key thing he learned in this life. It also manages to do it with brevity — though the point about his real name is belabored. Whittaker’s first moment as the series’ first female Doctor is just brilliant: a smile to indicate just how much of a change occurred this time and that, perhaps, the Doctor has finally let go of the last few centuries of pain.
While not as long as “Planet of the Spider,” Tom Baker’s final story as the Fourth Doctor is equally epic. It is also surprisingly elegiac as Baker’s tomfoolery gives way to a broody, sad, and suddenly old man painfully aware that a change is on the horizon. In fact, it takes literal form in the shape of The Watcher, an in-flux personification of his next incarnation. The plot involves the Master (Antony Ainley at this point) making a mistake and exposing the universe to an untenable amount of entropy. The two form an uneasy alliance which the Master then uses to extort dominance over all creation. The Fourth Doctor makes the ultimate sacrifice to stop him.
Dangling from a radio telescope somewhere in England, the Doctor knows his time is at hand and recalls all the companions he traveled with during this incarnation. He also remembers key villains like The Black Guardian (Valentine Dyall), Davros (Michael Wisher) and a previous incarnation of the Master. Once he finally falls to Earth, his recently acquired new companions surround him as he offers one last Baker smile. The music swells triumphantly as the Watcher merges with the Doctor and Peter Davison takes Baker’s place.
While the story serves as a preview of what the show will be for much of the 1980s, it is also a fitting tribute to Baker and his seven years in the role.
After almost 20 years playing the Eighth Doctor in Big Finish audio dramas, Paul McGann knew his character better than most when he was invited to appear in a short preview scene for the 50th Anniversary. And the effortlessness of his performance comes through as he revels in his romantic persona at first, but soon switches to a false bravado as death stares him in the face. Finally, he resigns himself to the knowledge that his next self will not be a Doctor, but the man the universe needs to end the Time War. By the time the lighting effect ends and archival footage of a young John Hurt takes his place, McGann’s long years in the part suddenly seem far too brief.
While somewhat slow to modern eyes, “The Tenth Planet” is a cornerstone Doctor Who story. It sets up a premise the show would use extensively for the next three seasons: the Doctor (William Hartnell) and his companions – in this case Ben (Michael Craze) and Polly (Anneke Wills) — find themselves in an isolated science station in Antarctica. The science team is tired and frazzled, but on the brink of a huge discovery: a second Earth-like world within the Solar System. Soon, everyone on the base faces the menace of an implacable alien force. In this case, it is the Cybermen, making their first appearance in a primitive form the new series made great use of during the recent season 10 finale. The Doctor must use his wits and his compassion to save the day.
And while his successor would find himself in similar circumstances time and again, the First Doctor’s constant complaint of fatigue and his complete disappearance in Part 3 tells you something is wrong. While he first dismisses it as his old body “wearing a bit thin,” by the end, it is clear he is dying. But just as he leaves Ben and Polly to rush back to the TARDIS, he says something deeply prophetic: “It is far from being all over.” When the two catch up with him in the console room, he is splayed on the floor. Console switches move of their own accord and the Time Rotor shifts into gear. Thanks to the primitive vision mixing, the still, lifeless Doctor seems to vanish in a burst of intense white light. When it subsides, the frail white haired grandfather is no more. In his place: a hobo with a Beatles mop top. With this change, Doctor Who was forever altered.
Patrick Troughton’s final story as a Doctor Who regular is a sprawling epic of petty aliens, bewildered soldiers from multiple eras, and a mystery War Chief whose manner rings all too familiar to the Second Doctor. Spanning 10(!) 25-minutes episodes, “The War Games” takes the Troughton Doctor to just about every emotional space he could go. It also put him in the middle of a crisis he could not solve without the aid of his people, the Time Lords. Then, finally, it took him home.
Part 10 features the first appearance of the Doctor’s home world (which would go nameless until 1973’s “The Time Warrior”) and the truth about our favorite time traveler: He stole the TARDIS when he first left home and broke the Time Lords’ rule banning interference with the development of other worlds and times. Consequently, they put him on trial. Troughton gives a rousing speech, but the die is already cast and the Doctor accepts his sentence. He must regenerate — referred to within the story as “changing his appearance” — and accept exile on Earth in the 1970s (or 1980s depending on who you ask) until the Time Lord tribunal considers leniency. The episode’s final shots of a now faceless Doctor protesting his fate, and moaning in agony, are some of the most haunting in the black-and-white era of the program.
But balancing out all the prime regeneration story aspects of epic storytelling, emotional resonance, technical accomplishment, and epochal change, is the New Series’ first season finale, “The Parting of the Ways,” which comes out on top. Reeling from the revelation that the Daleks survived the cataclysmic end of the Time War, Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor announces his intention to rescue his friends and end the Dalek threat all the while flashing his unsettling smile. Eccleston is finally comfortable in the role, bringing menace and whimsy in equal measure as he outsmarts the Daleks for most of the episode. But at the end of the day, Rose Tyler must save him from the Daleks by looking into the very heart of Time Vortex and scattering their atoms across time and space. The Doctor, in turn, saves her by absorbing the Vortex energy already burning her into dust.
With the crisis averted, the Ninth Doctor does his best to prepare Rose for what’s about to happen. But in that attempt, he realizes something no other Doctor ever noticed as their end came: He was fantastic! The first regeneration of the new series is framed as a victory. The Doctor has set aside some of his war wounds and stands proud as he is consumed by regeneration energy. When the light show ends, the Tenth Doctor emerges with a new sense of hope and a bewilderment about his teeth. Ultimately, nothing could prepare Rose — or the audience — for that. Though most fans knew Eccleston would be gone by the season’s end, the scene was still surprising in the way it rethought regeneration.
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