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The regeneration game: the story behind the changing faces of Doctor Who

September 30, 2011

Eleven ages of a man: the undectet of Doctors – in chronological order (and from left to right), William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Paul McGann, Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Matt Smith

So then, aside from kicking-off the first proper autumn (or, for all you North Americans out there, fall) month of the year, I take it you know what tomorrow will be bringing us? That’s right, the climactic concluder to the latest season of the indubitably genius Doctor Who. Yes, with all the trailers on the box and the fevered anticipation all over the ‘Net, it’d take a Silurian condemned to the far reaches of the Universe not to know that in one day’s time The Doctor must come up with surely his greatest ever victory – cheating his own death. And his proper death at that, with no chance of a regeneration.

How on earth’s he going to do it? Good question, given we’ve all seen it happen already (at the start of the season – ‘timey-wimey’ and all that). Still, on the bright side, we do know he will manage to cheat death, as it’s been announced that the current actor in the role (Matt Smith) will remain in place for at least another two years yet. Phew, ne-c’est pas? Anyway, talking of The Doctor’s ability to regenerate, in this very post allow me, in celebration of this season’s climax, to guide you through a glimpse at his previous regenerations; that is, in layman’s terms, the on-screen moments when the TARDIS keys have passed from one Doctor actor to the next…

WATCH the video at the end of the post to see, one after another, The Doctor’s regenerations


The First Doctor (William Hartnell) → The Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton)

The Tenth Planet (1966)/ The Power Of The Daleks (1966)

At the end of the final episode of the serial The Tenth Planet, The Doctor appears to die owing to exhaustion and general old age. Indeed, earlier in this serial he’d commented to his current human companions Ben Jackson and Polly that his body was ‘wearing a bit thin’. In reality, it was actor William Hartnell himself who was wearing a bit thin. Finding it difficult to get on with the show’s new production team (following the moving on of now legendary, but then young and ambitious, producer Verity Lambert) and often unable to remember his lines (owing to an undiagnosed onset of anteriosclerosis), Hartnell’s time had come – the showrunners had decided it was necessary to replace him. But how? Doctor Who was a huge hit in the early-teatime Saturday slot, so there was no question of ending the series with Hartnell’s departure, so just how could they introduce a new actor in the same role? The answer was genius – and it came thanks to then script editor Gerry Davis and then producer Innes Lloyd. Davis reasoned that as The Doctor was now well established as an alien and not human, it would be quite acceptable for him not to die when he appears to do so… indeed, his body would in fact undergo a process of ‘renewal’. And, cannily, Lloyd pointed out that if and when they wanted to replace the lead actor in the series again, they could use this excuse once more. Thus, before the eyes of a transfixed nation, William Hartnell’s Doctor ‘renewed’ himself and became Patrick Troughton’s younger Doctor. Originally, the actual transformation wasn’t intended to be caught on-screen, but vision mixer Shirley Coward realised she could transpose the image of Troughton’s face on top of Hartnell’s – much better than having Hartnell cover his face with his cloak as he ‘died’ then have it pulled back to reveal Troughton, which was the original idea. And, even better, halfway through the transition, the image was overexposed causing the screen to fade almost entirely to white, while the TARDIS time-travel sounds and other eerie noises could be heard; the notion was that this psychedelic ‘renewal’ of the Doctor would be similar to a bad LSD trip, as was discovered last year by the release of archive BBC notes on the subject. Yes, really. Indeed, Billy Hartnell’s Doctor may have been an irascible old traditionalist, but in the end he had far more in common with the hippie-infused culture of the Swinging Sixties than he surely would ever have thought.


The Second Doctor → The Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee)

The War Games (1969)/ Spearhead From Space (1970)

His may be a hugely popular incarnation of The Doctor with today’s fans, but back in the day Patrick Troughton’s take on the character unfortunately coincided with a dip in viewing figures for the show. By the end of the ’60s, it appeared the public simply wasn’t as crazy for Doctor Who as it had been in the middle of the decade. A change needed to be made then, but in actual fact it was Troughton who decided to step down from the role, as opposed to the showrunners asking him to do so. After three years, like Hartnell before him, the actor found the schedule of filming between 40 and 45 episodes a year was too much, plus he was concerned by potential typecasting. Fortuitously, his decision suited the Beeb and the producers as, between them, they came to the conclusion that cost constraints would be imposed on the now seemingly less popular show. What was the effect of this then? Well, at the end of Troughton’s final serial, the excellent The War Games, as punishment for continuously meddling in the lives of other lifeforms, The Doctor would be banished by his own Time Lord race to a single planet – Earth. Yup, no more elaborate, expensive, studio sets for Doctor Who; exterior filming in country villages and interiors in easily mocked-up offices and manor houses would be the order of the day for the next incarnation, the dandy dynamo that was Jon Pertwee. And yet, for all that, one concession, arguably a real improvement, was made – six months after Troughton’s Doc had bowed out, whirling about and gargling away into a monochrome void (presumably at the beginning of his latest ‘renewal’), he reappeared as Pertwee’s Doc falling out of the TARDIS and into a wood… in colour. Yes, with the BBC leaving behind old black-and-white and embracing all the colours of the rainbow at the start of the new decade, The Doctor’s early ’70s adventures may have been completely Earth-bound, but thanks in no small part to their new colourisation, they once more struck an enormous chord with kids of all ages up and down the nation.


The Third Doctor → The Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker)

Planet Of The Spiders (1974)/ Robot (1974)


In establishing his Doctor as a heroic, if patrician, dapper man of action, Jon Pertwee’s was surely the most popular incarnation thus far, yet after four years in the role he decided to move on. Just as William Hartnell’s had been before him, his decision was in part influenced by the fact that colleagues with whom he’d been comfortable on the show had left or would soon be leaving the programme, specifically producer Barry Letts and co-stars Katy Manning (who had played his long-time companion Jo Grant) and Roger Delgado (who had originated The Doctor’s Time Lord adversary character The Master and had tragically died in 1973). In looking for a replacement, the outgoing Letts saw the British fantasy film The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad (1974) and was impressed by Tom Baker’s performance as the villain. Although it was intended The Fourth Doctor would be played by an older actor, the 40-year-old Baker won the part and, of course, absolutely made the role his own. His portrayal – all unpredictability, curly hair, boggling eyes and crazily long scarf – took the show to new heights and new viewers, not just in the Britain of the ’70s, but also in the US where Baker’s episodes were the first to be shown in syndication. To this day, for the majority of TV viewers his is surely the most identifiable interpretation of the Gallifreyan gallivanter. The baton was passed from Pertwee to Baker, in the presence of classic companions Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), at the end of the episode Planet Of The Spiders, in which The Doctor saves the day but sacrifices himself when he contracts radiation poisoning, and at the start of the next episode Robot, in which the audience witnesses the completion of the actor handover; Baker confusedly spouting lines of previous Doctors and dressing up in different guises (including a Roman soldier) before settling on his Aristide Bruant-inspired togs that’d become his trademark. One further point of interest: it was during this change-over that the transformation of one Doctor into the next was first referred to on-screen as a ‘regeneration’.


The Fourth Doctor → The Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison)

Logopolis (1981)/ Castrovalva (1981)


By 1981, Tom Baker had played The Doctor for seven unbroken seasons; he’d been through a full costume change, three producers and four main companions (one of whom he’d married, the second Romana, Lalla Ward). In short, despite little real sign of his popularity dimming, he deemed it was time to bid the TARDIS goodbye. Mind you, his relationship with the show’s latest producer John Nathan-Turner wasn’t what it might have been. New to the job, the latter had wanted to rein in the veteran star’s considerable influence on the show’s direction and had initiated changes when he’d taken over in 1980, including the aforementioned redesign of Baker’s costume, a synth-style updating of the theme tune and a new credits sequence and logo. Sensing that Nathan-Turner really wanted a new actor in the role, Baker bowed out at the end of the ’81 season. Unsurprisingly, the idea behind the casting of the next Doctor was that the role should go to someone who was dissimilar to Tom Baker, both physically and personality-wise. While the portly Richard Griffiths (of Pie In The Sky and Harry Potter fame) was considered, ultimately it was Peter Davison who was chosen, not least because as a fair-haired, 30-year-old he was clearly a departure from Baker, but also as he was already a household name thanks to playing one of the leads in the popular drama All Creatures Great And Small (1978-90), he wasn’t a complete unknown either. As to the actual regeneration itself, during Baker’s final serial Logopolis, a ghost-like, white humanoid figure had kept appearing, which at the point of The Fourth Doctor’s death it became clear was, in fact, a sort of transitional state between him and his next version – referred to as The Watcher, this creature merged with The Doctor as he began to transform. And that’s not the only way in which this regeneration is more elaborate than previous ones. Not only is it witnessed by three companions, but prior to his death-fall from a telescope dish, The Doctor experiences visions of enemies mocking him (including The Master, a Dalek and a Cyberleader) and, during his regeneration, visions of all the companions of the Baker era appear, which include, yes, K-9 the robotic dog – what a loyal canine, eh?


The Fifth Doctor → The Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker)

The Caves Of Androzani (1984)/ The Twin Dilemma (1984)

And so to the most controversial regeneration to date. When in 1984 Peter Davison decided to enact what’s become known to fans as ‘The Troughton Rule’ (moving on from playing The Doctor after three seasons, as Patrick Troughton originally did), showrunner John Nathan-Turner took a surprising step. Not only did he cast another Baker – burly, curly blond-haired Colin – as the character’s next incarnation (some sources attest merely because the latter had made him laugh at a party), he also decided to stir things up by making the new Doctor and, thus, this latest regeneration the most challenging so far. Immediately Davison’s always affable version had transformed into the new one (at the end of one of the programme’s best ever serials, the Shakespeare tragedy-like The Caves Of Androzani, thanks to contracting a lethal disease from which, true to form, he saves his latest companion in place of himself), Baker’s Doctor establishes himself as an arrogant, irritable and, frankly, unlikeable character – he attests companion Peri (the bust-dacacious Nicola Bryant) is an ‘egotistical young lady’ because she uses three ‘I’s in her first line to him as she understandably stammers after having witnessed the regeneration. The idea was that the tricksy, crusty exterior to Colin Baker’s Doctor would be slowly peeled away to reveal the warm-hearted, heroic chap underneath the audience had known and loved for more than two decades. But, following his unveiling in the opening episode of his first serial The Twin Dilemma (which is consistently considered the worst in Who‘s entire history), his new persona appears to be more unstable than after any previous regeneration. Not only does he suffer from heavy confusion and amnesia, but in a truly bizarre and disturbing moment he forgets who Peri is and attempts to strangle her. Yes, really. Then he relents, apologises and decides in recompense he must banish himself to a far flung planet for eternity. Yes, really. Colin Baker’s Doctor was off to a bumpy start and, for right or wrong, it wouldn’t get any easier for him…


The Sixth Doctor → The Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy)

Time And The Rani (1987)

Probably the public’s least popular Doctor, Colin Baker’s was, quite frankly, doomed from the start. After his ill conceived and badly received introduction, he struggled to gain traction with viewers thanks to the slowburn character arc intended for his incarnation in which he’d become likeable and less prickly as his adventures went on. By the time of The Sixth Doctor, the show had long since lost its rightful place at the heart of BBC1’s Saturday tea-time schedule and was now bouncing around weekday early evenings and, at one stage, was even moved back to Saturdays as an afterthought. The effect of all this, combined with the unpopularity of Baker #2’s Doctor, ensured that the programme’s viewing figures were now, relatively speaking, in the toilet. Indeed, it hadn’t helped that BBC1’s new controller of programming Michael Grade felt that Doctor Who had become farcical, violent and past its sell-by date, so much so that he postponed Baker’s second season for a full 18 months (this shortfall was to some extent made up for by Baker and Nicola Bryant as companion Peri, during the gap, appearing in a six-part Who story on a Radio 4 children’s show). In the end, the eventual second season comprised a single 14-episode long story entitled The Trial Of A Timelord, in which The Doctor himself was on trial – a deliberate reference, it’s believed, to the show being ‘on trial’ in the real world. Seemingly fed up then, Colin Baker left at the end of this season and so, for the third time in five years, producer John Nathan-Turner was faced with re-casting the role. The actor he turned to was Sylvester McCoy (the first Scot to land the gig), who’d made a name for himself as a comedy performer on children’s TV shows like Tiswas (1974-82). McCoy made his debut – 10 months after Baker’s final fling – in the first episode of the serial Time And The Rani, when The Sixth Doctor regenerates into the Seventh, presumably (given it’s never specifically explained) owing to injuries from the TARDIS crash-landing on a planet to which its been drawn by an enemy. The regeneration only involved McCoy, as Baker passed on bowing out; the former wore a blonde curly wig while his face was obscured by clever (if very ’80s) special effects, as the transformation into, well, himself took place. Colin Baker, like he is the public’s, is probably my least favourite Doctor, but he surely deserved a better end to his Doctor duties than that.


The Seventh Doctor → The Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann)

Doctor Who (The TV Movie) (1996)

Given it coincided – after 26 unbroken years – with the cancellation of the original (or ‘Classic’) series of Doctor Who, Sylvester McCoy’s departure from the programme might be said to be more ignominious than Colin Baker’s. Only that would be wrong, for after a seven-year hiatus, McCoy had his chance to say adieu when he accepted the invitation for his Doctor to regenerate into the next, the Eighth. But what exactly was he asked back for? Well, it wasn’t the return of the show, but a standalone TV movie merely entitled ‘Doctor Who’; although plans were afoot for a rebooted series had it taken off. In fact, the project – a co-production between the Beeb and the US media giants Universal and Fox – was a resounding success in both Canada (where it first aired) and the UK (where it raked in an impressive nine million viewers), but in capturing just over five million viewers in the US, for whose market it was targeted more than any other, it was deemed a failure and thus became something of a curiosity of the Doctor Who canon. Perhaps because of pressure from its big-money American backers, perhaps not, the decision was made to re-cast the lead character once more, with the gifted and then young-ish Paul McGann brought in. Famed for his co-lead in the classic comedy Withnail And I (1987), McGann offered the audience an intriguingly sensitive, yet mysterious and whimsical version of The Doctor, sporting a shaggy dark mane (although he’d turned up to play the role shaven-headed and thus had to wear a wig). I rather like McGann’s interpretation, so it’s a shame he only got one TARDIS trip – he has made many more in audio adventures and comics and appears at fan conventions, mind. His regeneration is arguably one of the best too, as the trusty old TARDIS materialises in the centre of San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1999, out steps McCoy’s Doctor and, accidentally, is gunned down by gang hoods. A hospital scene ensues which, because his Time Lord body contains two hearts, goes horribly wrong and effectively results in his death and – with Frankenstein overtones (a monochrome movie version of the story even plays on a TV while the regeneration takes place) – The Seventh Doctor comes alive on a slab in a morgue. McGann’s Doctor was born like a monster then, yet proved to be anything but.


The Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) → The Tenth Doctor (David Tennant)

The Parting Of The Ways (2005)/ The Christmas Invasion (2005)

Nine years after the Doctor Who TV movie, which was perfectly likeable but at which the public shrugged, the ‘Doc was back in a brand-spanking new 13-part BBC series. This time the public didn’t shrug, it lapped it up like, well, fish-fingers and custard. The brainchild of writer Russell T Davies, the revamped show not only ensured Who was a Saturday night ratings blockbuster for the Beeb once more, but also became a cultural firmament of New Labour Britain. With its multi-ethnic, multi-sexual casts it was a fantastical sci-fi drama that was curiously socially reflective of the urban UK of the Noughties. Being the forgotten Doctor as far as the populace were concerned, Paul McGann enjoyed no curtain-call, instead a very much post-regeneration Ninth Doctor (portrayed by the very Northern, Salford-born and all-round excellent thesp Christopher Eccleston) jumped straight into the new escapades with energy, gusto and passion. And yet, for all that, he decided to quit the show after just one season. Many in the media were surprised, even bemused, assuming he was concerned by the danger of being typecast and kept from heavy, worthy roles if he remained travelling through time and space. Apparently, this wasn’t the case at all; over the years it’s emerged the most likely reason for his departure was he felt that much of the new show’s hard work – and especially the stunt work – was too rushed and thus handled potentially dangerously by its producers who had simply never run a show of this sort before. Whether that’s true or not, well, Rassilon probably only knows, but out went Chris and, of course, in came Dave. The former regenerated into the latter (to spectacularly satisfying effect) after kissing Billie Piper’s companion Rose, in order to prevent her absorbing the fatal time vortex she had consumed in opening the heart of the TARDIS to defeat old enemy the Daleks; don’t worry it all makes sense if you watch his final episode The Parting Of The Ways. So the leather jacketed Eccleston left and sexy Tennant (after Sylvester McCoy, the second Scot to be Doctor, even though he chose ‘Mockney’ as his accent of choice) stepped into the Doctor’s sneakers, making his full debut in the programme’s first Christmas special , er, The Christmas Invasion, in which he saved the world in his pyjamas. Well, we are talking The Doctor, after all.


The Tenth Doctor → The Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith)

The End Of Time Part Two (2010)/ The Eleventh Hour (2010)


There’s always a lot riding on any Doctor Who regeneration, of course, but because  the new series was by now a hugely (and rightly) hyped, unequivocal cash-cow for the Beeb, it felt like everything and the kitchen sink was riding on this regeneration. In a way, it was. On the back of his hugely successful interpretation of The Doctor, David Tennant had surely become the nation’s favourite TV actor – if not its favourite of any medium. His version of the time-hopping hero with two hearts always felt like it was made for the people; up to date with pop culture, falling in love with a nice blonde from a council estate and bantering and bickering with Catherine Tate’s gobby companion Donna, he was the most human Doctor to date. He consistently challenged Tom Baker for top spot in polls of the ‘Docs and still does. In which case, Tennant – as much as midas-touch-like executive producer Russell T Davies – felt like the fulcrum of the show; just what’d happen to it when he left for pastures new? That question, of course, was answered last year when the outsanding Matt Smith was cast as The Eleventh Doctor (then aged just 26, the youngest to date) under the stewardship of new showrunner Steven Moffatt. The new Who has changed under the Moffatt/ Smith direction, for sure, it’s perhaps less accessible and a little more complex, less soapy more sci-fi, if you will (and so, arguably more genuinely Doctor Who), but it very much remains the same show, in which CGI brings alive alien worlds like never before, companions play a bigger role in ensuring an emotional wallop and story arcs across entire seasons enthral fans. And, maybe most important of all, its viewing figures remain as high as they did during the Tennant era. The Tenth Doctor regenerated into The Eleventh on New Year’s Day 2010 at, er, the end of The End Of Time Part Two, when after saving the world from the double threat of The Master and all the other Time Lords, our hero absorbed fatal radiation in order to save Bernard Cribbins (surely a worthy sacrifice in anyone’s book). So powerful was this regeneration, though, that it seemed to semi-destroy the TARDIS, sending the thing crashing to Earth and in need of a regeneration of its own, which took place in Matt Smith’s opening episode, the nattily entitled The Eleventh Hour, in which he also meets new BFF Amy Pond (Karen Gillan). And the rest, as they say, is history. Or the present. Or the future. Or… well, you catch my drift. 


Watch the final episode of this season’s Doctor Who, The Wedding Of River Song, tomorrow at 7.05pm on BBC1(HD) in the UK and Northern Ireland, at 8pm (ET) on Space in Canada, at 8/9(pm)c on BBC America in the US, and next Saturday at 7.30pm on ABC1 in Australia 


10 Comments leave one →
  1. September 30, 2011 11:55 am

    I am sorry to be a pain, but I should be an expert on the Doctor. I remember as a 7 year old, the very first episode… “An Unearthly Child”. Fortunately, “You Tube” makes it available to view.
    You have made the same mistake as many other writers / chronologers.
    The present Doctor, Matt Smith, is the THIRTEENTH face of the Doctor.
    You have omitted Peter Cushing, who did 2 films as the Doctor.
    Also, you have forgotten Richard Hurndall. When they filmed “The 5 Doctors”, unfortunately the first Doctor, William Hartnell” was no longer with us.
    I apologise again. This is one of those constant media errors that irritate and annoy me intensely! However, I will forgive you for joining the error brigade. :-))

    • September 30, 2011 12:46 pm

      Well, Peter, in all fairness, Peter Cushing played an ‘unofficial’ Doctor in his two ’60s feature films and Richard Hurnndall played The First Doctor in his ’80s outing as Hartnell had died… so *officially* there’s only ever been 11 Doctors, I believe.

      That is, if one’s not counting all the ones that appeared in the Steven Moffat-written Doctor Who And The Curse Of The Fatal Death comedy special for Comic Relief in the ’90s, of course… 😉

  2. September 30, 2011 6:06 pm

    Your comments are understood, George.
    However, I remember there were children from my school class who saw only the films. Peter Cushing was the first (and only) Doctor they ever saw because their parents took them out on the evening the TV Doctor was shown. Therefore they only knew of Peter Cushing.
    Those same children and others had never seen the late great William Hartnell. I quote Richard Hurndall from “The 5 Doctors”… ” speaking to Tegan and Furlough “I am The Doctor. The ‘Original’… you might say.” QED.
    In the minds of some young children, Messrs Cushing and Hurndall were undoubtedly the real thing! The “official” Doctor(s).
    I quote your page title above “The regeneration game: the story behind the changing faces of Doctor Who.” That is a 2 sided comment. Whilst neither Cushing nor Hurndall actually regenerated, they were changed faces of the Doctor.
    Therefore, perhaps you are correct as well. ANYBODY who has appeared as the Doctor should be included.
    I never saw Comic Relief. I am sorry, but I felt that charity money for the needy SHOULD have come from the millionaire fat underworked men who ran the countries like Ethiopia. I actually thought of it as a “Robin Hood” tax at that time, about 10 years before that phrase became popular.
    I was too busy working and earning charity money for myself!

  3. February 24, 2012 3:48 am

    Reblogged this on The Beautiful Times.


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