Steven Moffat’s first TV Who, The Curse of Fatal Death, described regeneration as ‘the miracle of the Time Lord’, and it’s difficult to disagree with that description. It has bought the show longevity, effortlessly enabling the lead actor to be replaced again and again while maintaining the continuity of the character of the Doctor. Along with the TARDIS, the magic door to the whole of time and space, it’s the fundamental reason why the series has continued since 1963 – no small feat for a plot device born out of desperation when the series’ producers decided that an increasingly erratic William Hartnell had to be replaced when his contract expired.
It’s hard now to get a sense of just how strange and unsettling the first regeneration must have been in 1966. The surviving clips from The Tenth Planet suggest that the transformation was presented as a frightening process – both for the Doctor and his companions. The first Doctor had been presented as frail before – he collapses in The Dalek Invasion of Earth and is still weak and tired in the next story; he’s visibly aged by the time destructor in The Daleks’ Master Plan, and drained by the vampiric Elders in The Savages – so when he tells Polly ‘this old body of mine is wearing a bit thin’ it isn’t anything extraordinary. But when he gets back to the TARDIS after defeating the Cybermen, something is clearly wrong. The clips show strange lights playing over Hartnell’s face. He gazes at his hand on the console, then across the ship, taking it in one last time, looking old and afraid. The controls start to operate themselves. Then Polly screams – a genuinely chilling one – as the Doctor collapses. His face explodes in blinding light – and when it fades someone else is lying in his place. None of this makes any attempt to comfort the audience. The first Doctor gets no valedictory speech. It’s a sudden and shocking change. Unlike later regenerations, it hasn’t even been foreshadowed by the themes in the story, and whatever fan lore might say, there’s no real explanation offered onscreen. It just happens, and whatever justifications we try to come up with now – that the first Doctor had been holding back death for a long time, that Mondas drained his life force, that his death is the capstone to a story about the hollowness of trying to artificially extend existence – are with hindsight. If anything, this is Doctor Who’s JFK moment – a jolt into an uncertain new era, with no chance for fond farewells. In that respect, the first regeneration is different from all that came later.
The second Doctor’s regeneration takes a different approach, one that tentatively paves the way for future changes. The War Games is clearly leading up to the regeneration – presenting the second Doctor with a bigger problem than he’s ever faced before. Not only is he up against another one of his own people, an equal and opposite force, one who stands for everything the Doctor most despises – war, cruelty and exercising power over others – but that’s just the precursor for Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke to pit this most anarchic Doctor against the ultimate authority figures, the Time Lords themselves. The final episode of the story tells us more about the Doctor than the rest of the 1960s episodes combined – revealing the Doctor’s people, his home planet, and his reason for running away in the first place. It’s consciously significant, myth-making stuff, and becomes a cornerstone of the series from this point on. So, as well as giving us a nemesis that’s entirely apt for this specific Doctor – a hallmark of future regeneration stories – the last episode also allows Troughton’s character to give a spirited defence of his actions. Showing us ‘all these evils I have fought’ is an idea that crops up again in Tom Baker’s last episode, nicely summarising things for the audience by reminding us of the Doctor’s greatest hits. The second Doctor then gets to say goodbye to his friends – an idea that recurs in almost all of the subsequent regenerations – before he is executed by his captors. Capital punishment is probably the most horrific method of changing the Doctor, and it’s hardly made any less unpleasant by Troughton pleading his way to his death.
The third regeneration is clearly influenced by the second – unsurprising given Terrance Dicks’ involvement in both – but much more confident, so much so that it becomes pretty much the benchmark of how these transitions should be handled. The process itself is still kept vague and semi-mystical – the transcendental appearance of a Time Lord monk to help the Doctor on his way assures that – but everything that leads up to the moment is handled with an air of grim inevitability. It’s also the only regeneration that’s actually explained by showing us another Time Lord regenerating just before – as K’anpo transforms into Cho’je and explains what he’s doing to Sarah Jane, so that she (and the audience) is ready for the main event. Planet of the Spiders really does have an end of era atmosphere – Jo Grant is present in writing, Mike Yates reappears one last time, the Doctor’s mentor – mentioned many times by the third Doctor – finally turns up, and the third Doctor himself must face up to his own death as the consequence of his intellectual arrogance, which has already killed one man and potentially condemned the universe to alien domination. The spiders, as a manifestation of greed and pride, are thus entirely appropriate enemies. The Doctor is made to realise the price of his actions, and chooses to sacrifice himself to prevent further deaths. Finally, he says goodbye to his friends, and expires after delivering the most perfect epitaph imaginable. This is textbook stuff, and forms the basis of every future, planned regeneration.
I used to think Logopolis, Tom Baker’s farewell, was an inapt and inept way to write out the fourth Doctor. The story is deeply flawed, getting tied up in dull discussions about bubble memory and Christopher H. Bidmead’s beloved computer science when the author could have more profitably focused on the fascinating idea of the next Doctor turning up early because things have got so dire that the chain of cause and effect is breaking down. It’s implied that the Doctor immediately knows that the Watcher – a ghostly figure – is the harbinger of his death. He talks about the causal nexus unravelling. When he goes to speak to the Watcher on the bridge – ‘I’ve just dipped into the future. We should be prepared for the worst’ – he is tacitly acknowledging that he’s sealed his fate: in seeking advice from his future self he now needs to ensure that this future self comes into existence to be able to give him the advice he’s just taken. The fourth Doctor doesn’t fall from the Pharos telescope. He lets go. He lets go because he needs to put time itself back on track. Like Sherlock Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls, he knew this was coming, and has chosen to go over the edge: ‘It’s the end. But the moment has been prepared for’. All of these ideas are somewhere in the episodes, and the novelisation – but they’re buried so far down in the mix, under layers of debate over the laws of thermodynamics and CVEs, that they’re almost lost. And that’s a great shame, because battling time itself is an entirely fitting way for this most elemental of Doctors to go. Logopolis has a great, much-admired funereal atmosphere, and bringing the Master back properly for the final, epic confrontation that Pertwee and Delgado never got does work. But the story sinks under the weight of needless technobabble and badly cast companions, so it never comes close to matching Pertwee’s swansong. Still, a threat to the entire universe is now becoming pretty much standard for these final stories, and along with the clips of old monsters and companions, and a beautiful epitaph, it’s not a bad end.
Peter Davison’s finale, The Caves of Androzani, the last planned regeneration of the “classic” run, is a bit different. Like The War Games and Planet of the Spiders, it is the perfect end for its era. The fifth Doctor’s run was overshadowed by the death of Adric – the first time a long-standing regular had been written out in that way. Adric’s replacement, Turlough, is introduced in almost the same circumstances that Adric died – rescued from a time-travelling ship about to explode above the Earth, and even inheriting the dead boy’s room. Turlough’s redemption by the fifth Doctor is therefore an atonement for his failure to save Adric. However, another companion, the robot Kamelion, was destroyed by the Doctor himself when it was taken over by the Master. So when his new friend Peri falls terminally ill with Spectrox Toxaemia, the Doctor, haunted by his past failures, goes to extremes to sacrifice himself to save his companion. Eschewing universe-destroying plots by intergalactic megalomaniacs, The Caves of Androzani pares down the regeneration to the Doctor desperately trying to prevent Peri from dying. The rest of the plot is practically incidental, though well done. And it’s the pure simplicity of the central story that makes it so entirely compelling. All the best traditions of regeneration – the inevitable countdown to death, the clips of old companions, the tearful farewell – are present and correct. The fifth Doctor’s final word, ‘Adric’, is wonderfully apposite. Everything that was tried and tested and worked in the last three exit stories brilliantly comes together here.
The classic series never attempted to top The Caves of Androzani – it never got the chance. Colin Baker was sacked and understandably declined to come back to record a handover. Sylvester McCoy made a cameo appearance in the 1996 TV movie. In both cases, a regeneration was ill-advisedly inserted at the beginning of the new Doctor’s first episode, slowing down the story and making it difficult for a fresh start. Wisely, when the series returned in 2005 the ninth Doctor wasn’t lumbered with a shoehorned transformation scene but got straight into the action. So, the next proper regeneration story was 2005’s The Parting of the Ways. In a season that concerned itself with the fall-out from the Time War, appropriately the regeneration happens as a result of the final battle of that war, with the Doctor facing his ultimate enemy, the Dalek Emperor, who has also survived the conflict and been driven half mad as a result. But though the Doctor is willing to sacrifice himself to the Daleks, in a nod back to that finest of all regeneration stories it’s ultimately for the sake of one young woman that he chooses to give up his life. Introducing the idea of regeneration to a new audience, Russell T Davies went right back to the original, with shots from Christopher Eccleston’s final moments eerily referencing Hartnell’s departure. But while Polly was terrified by the first regeneration, the ninth Doctor does a good job of reassuring Rose (and the viewers) that while he might be dying, he’s actually cheating death. It’s the first regeneration since Pertwee’s that’s actually explained to the audience as it happens, and while Davies rightly maintains the ‘miracle’ of the process, he takes a lot of the fear out of it.
The next regeneration – the tenth Doctor’s abortive transformation that results in a half-human copy – is the first time it’s been used as an audience-teasing plot device (Steven Moffat subsequently re-used the idea in The Impossible Astronaut et. al), and by rights belongs in the same category as the first Romana’s jokey regeneration in Destiny of the Daleks. The tenth Doctor’s actual death, in The End of Time, explores regeneration in more detail than any previous story. He describes it as feeling like dying, and although, like the third and fourth Doctors he knows it’s coming, unlike them he is desperate to avoid it at all costs. Plunged back into the Ragnarok of the Time Lords at the end of the Time War, whereas his previous incarnation fought the Daleks’ leader, the tenth Doctor faces the Time Lord President, who’s revealed to be every bit as twisted as the Emperor. Russell T Davies seems to reference every previous regeneration story in this one – the Doctor lands in a snowy waste and another planet appears in orbit above Earth (The Tenth Planet), he faces one renegade Time Lord whose appearance heralds the arrival of all of them (The War Games), dies from choosing to suffer radiation poisoning as a punishment for his arrogance (Planet of the Spiders), after falling from a great height and having to join forces with the Master (Logopolis), getting his jacket, hands and face badly cut up, and dying to save one human being (The Caves of Androzani), and being shot down by gunmen in a wasteland (The TV Movie). The Doctor actually recognises that he’s become too arrogant, riding roughshod over the laws of time. Fascinatingly, the tenth Doctor’s end is in his beginning – in his first story he changes history, preventing PM Harriet Jones’s three-term “golden age” and paving the way for the Master to become Prime Minister of Great Britain and ultimately summon the Time Lords back from beyond the grave. In the preceding episode, The Waters of Mars, he learns the terrible cost of time meddling. In The End of Time, he pays the price for it. And yet, he gets his ‘reward’ – time enough to say goodbye to all of his companions before explosively transforming into the eleventh Doctor. The End of Time is perhaps most like The War Games – not only because of the Time Lords’ arrival and a pretty wholesale change in the cast, but because it draws a line under the major themes of the previous decade.
Although the Doctor has now regenerated eleven times, the process still retains some of the wonder and strangeness of that first transformation, in 1966. And each regeneration has taken something from the ones that went before, so that despite the vast variation in the visual effects, causes and explanations for the change, there’s an essential continuity that ties them together. The best regeneration stories give the sense that the Doctor has to make a momentous choice – to sacrifice himself for some greater cause, to abandon himself to the fall. They synthesise the key concerns of his era – anarchy, arrogance, guilt – and confront him with his flaws. And they say that while this Doctor’s song is ending, his story never ends. That’s the miracle of Doctor Who.