Doctor Who@50: The Regeneration Game

An on-going series of thematic essays exploring the icons of Doctor Who during its 50th year

10 RegenAmong fans who have come to Doctor Who as a result of the 21st century reboot, there can be a tendency to believe that everything which is central to the series arrived fully formed within the classic show and was just continued on into Christopher Eccleston’s adventures. Certainly the idea of the mysterious traveller who can go anywhere in Time and Space was at the heart of the series from its inception, and the Police Public Call Box shape of the TARDIS wasn’t that far behind. However, it was three years before one of the other parts of the jigsaw was invented – the concept that would eventually become known as regeneration.

David Tennant has wryly noted that as soon as a new Doctor is cast, everyone wants to know how long he’s going to stay; and the minute that he’s left, they want to know when he’s going to return to the series. The idea that the lead actor of the show can change to such an extent is now fundamental to the nature of Doctor Who, and going back as early as 1986, comments were made to the then-incumbent, Colin Baker, to the effect that three years in the role was sufficient.

Hartnell 10thYet regeneration was something that developed out of necessity – as so many aspects of Doctor Who have over the years. William Hartnell wasn’t an old man, he was simply playing one: as has been regularly pointed out, the latest addition to the Doctors, Peter Capaldi, will take over the controls of the TARDIS at the same age as Hartnell was when he began the series, and no one would sensibly call Capaldi old. However William Hartnell was an unwell man, and his fraying temper and increasing problems with his lines meant that the producers began to look into ways of easing him off the show. The Doctor’s invisibility during his battle with the Celestial Toymaker looked as if it might provide a ready excuse to recast the role, but the opportunity wasn’t taken. If that had happened, it is extremely unlikely that we would be celebrating the show’s golden anniversary. But in the summer of 1966 – after the initial drafts of what became the regeneration story, The Tenth Planet, had been completed – the decision was taken to retire Hartnell, and incorporate the change of lead actor into the mythology of the show.

QuatermassThe idea of casting a new lead actor wasn’t new, even within the limited history of televised British science fiction. Nigel Kneale’s Professor Bernard Quatermass was played by different actors in each of the three serials during the 1950s, John Robinson replacing The Quatermass Experiment’s Reginald Tate for Quatermass II after the latter’s death a mere month before filming began on the serial. Andre Morell had succeeded him for Quatermass and the Pit, and Brian Donlevy had played a brusquer version of the professor on the big screen. (Andrew Keir and John Mills would later play the part.) The week before The Tenth Planet started transmission, children had to get used to a different voice for Virgil Tracy when the part was recast for the short second season of Thunderbirds. Lead actors had come and gone from series without causing serious problems: Ian Hendry departed The Avengers, with Honor Blackman and later Diana Rigg becoming Patrick Macnee’s companions in danger.

1 Regen originalThe critical difference, though, was in what Doctor Who’s producers did: they recast the lead role, and at the same time created a different character, who was nonetheless meant to be the same person. (Unsurprisingly, perhaps, there are those who believe the 007 producers followed their lead when replacing Sean Connery with first George Lazenby and then Roger Moore as James Bond – it’s almost impossible to consider that the latter two are playing the same person as Connery, yet the fiction of the series between 1962 and 2002 made it clear that they were meant to be one and the same.) The audience, totally unprepared for anything even remotely resembling the events of the final five minutes of the episode, saw William Hartnell collapse to the floor of the TARDIS and Patrick Troughton replace him. The following week, they saw Troughton look in a mirror and see Hartnell’s reflection for a moment, confirming that despite the differing face, this was the same man beneath Like the Doctor’s companions, Ben and Polly, they had no idea what was going on. It was like magic, like Merlin making himself younger: “I’ve been renewed. It’s part of the TARDIS. Without it, I couldn’t survive,” the Doctor – confusingly referring to himself in the third person initially – told the young humans.

Most of the traits we associate with regeneration were established in that first post-regenerative story. The Doctor is confused to begin with; his companions aren’t sure what’s going on; he acts in a manner that’s almost certainly contradictory to the way in which his predecessor behaved. As Colin Baker noted in the special announcing Capaldi, Troughton had the hardest job of all the actors to play the Doctor after Hartnell: he had to re-establish the show, prove that it was still the programme that the children wanted to watch, yet take it in a different direction. With his stovepipe hat, his recorder, and his almost child-like demeanour – a far cry from the patrician first Doctor – Troughton achieved that within one story (something which some other Doctors, it has to be said, have failed to do).

It’s important to remember that at that point in the show’s history – late 1966 – we had no real idea of the Doctor’s origins. Those viewers who remembered the opening episode might recall his line about he and Susan being cut off from their own planet, but very little else had been revealed: another of his race had been a thorn in the Doctor’s side in a couple of stories, but otherwise – the name of his homeworld? No idea. Why he left it? No real clue. His home was the TARDIS, and that assisted him with this transformation from an elderly man into a much more spritely figure. As far as we knew, he had one heart (no matter what retconning novels might have us believe nowadays) and although he had some super-human capabilities, he wasn’t that different from us.

2 RegenThe transformation from Troughton into Pertwee was forced on the Doctor by the Time Lords in The War Games: he’s offered a choice of appearances (something which chimes with the later sequence showing Romana’s regeneration in Destiny of the Daleks more than those who want to chide Douglas Adams will allow), and when he refuses them all, the Time Lords choose for him. Again, when he awakens from the regeneration, he’s confused, but soon begins to pull himself together.

The next regeneration in the show wasn’t the Doctor, but his Time Lord mentor K’Ampo Rimpoche, whom he met up with shortly before taking the Metebelis crystal back to the Great One. Rimpoche, who had more control over his metabolism than the Doctor, was able to project a version of his future self (who called himself Cho-Je, and clearly was able to interact with matter without a problem), who then ‘took over’ as K’Ampo when the old man tired – an idea that was mined later in the show’s run for the character of the Watcher in Tom Baker’s finale, Logopolis. Cho-Je/K’Ampo gave the process a push, and once again, the new Doctor was erratic in his first adventure, Robot.

Regen RomanaDuring Tom Baker’s tenure of the TARDIS, we learned a lot more about the Time Lords and regeneration: according to The Deadly Assassin, they can only regenerate a dozen times, but this is obviously not meant to be the end. The Master was portrayed in that story as a shrivelled wizened husk searching for a way to find a new life cycle, something he achieves in a different way in Baker’s penultimate story, The Keeper of Traken, when he takes over the body of Consul Tremas. Other species were given some powers relating to regeneration – the Minyans in Underworld, notably – and the Doctor’s Time Lady assistant Romana was able to choose the form into which she regenerated, taking on the appearance of a princess she and the Doctor had encountered earlier. Questions were also raised over the number of bodies a Time Lord could have by the mental battle waged between the Doctor and Morbius when what seemed to be multiple earlier incarnations of the Doctor could be seen (an element that has yet to be adequately tackled in the show).

regen 4 watcherA future projection of the Doctor, the Watcher, assisted with the fourth Doctor’s regeneration, and the fifth Doctor was even more confused than some of his predecessors in his opening story. Davison’s Doctor was willing to sacrifice his remaining regenerations to save his companions, in Mawdryn Undead (as River would later do for the eleventh Doctor), and we also learned that a whole new life cycle was within the Time Lords’ gifts (as offered to the Master as an inducement to help the Doctor in The Five Doctors).

Dying of spectrox toxaemia, the fifth Doctor thought that the regeneration felt different – hallucinating old friends and even the Master talking to him – and the sixth Doctor was certainly far more erratic for much longer than his earlier selves. It’s been suggested that the Valeyard made his influence felt that early in this Doctor’s life, causing the problem, which would certainly explain some aspects. The Valeyard himself was created between “the Doctor’s twelfth and final regeneration” (which could neatly tie in with events in The Name of the Doctor, if Smith really is the twelfth body, albeit the eleventh Doctor, and someone went into the scar on Trenzalore).

6 regenThe next changeover was, at least on screen, quite odd: it seemed that hitting his head on the console was enough to make the sixth Doctor regenerate. Numerous licensed stories have tried to make something more of this, but the fact remains that it is the least prepossessing of any of the Doctor’s ends. Seven turned into eight after some time dead, following the failure of an operation to remove bullets from his system because of his different internal organs. Around the same time, the Master was once again able to take over another’s body.

What happened then remains open to question (although from all the clues dropped, it seems we will learn some of it in the 50th anniversary special). The next time we saw the Doctor was in what has been known as his ninth incarnation (Eccleston following Paul McGann), but somewhere the missing Doctor, the character played by John Hurt revealed in The Name of the Doctor, has to be fitted in. In the meantime, the Time Lords had all been wiped out (bar the Master, who had concealed himself using a Chameleon Arch), leaving the Doctor the last of his kind. If he was immediately post-regeneration, he had none of the confusion that any of his other selves have had (although he apparently hadn’t yet checked his new appearance).

9 regenThe twenty-first century variant of the show altered the way in which regeneration was portrayed: Hartnell, Pertwee, Baker, Davison, and McCoy (twice, once standing in for Colin Baker) were all supine when the process began. When Christopher Eccleston told Rose that he too had been fantastic and started to transform into David Tennant, he was standing up, with energy flooding out of him. This has been continued in all the sequences since – the Master’s change from Derek Jacobi into John Simm in Utopia; the “false” regeneration at the end of The Stolen Earth; the genuine Tennant into Smith changeover in The End of Time; and Mels’ changes in Day of the Moon and Let’s Kill Hitler! – with a period of confusion still following (although both River and the Master seemed to be in control very quickly). We learned some other useful facets of regeneration: a Time Lord can regrow a limb if it is cut off within fifteen hours of regeneration (the residual artron energy), and the energy can be offset into a suitable plotpoint, er… receptacle as required.

With at least one more regeneration on the cards this year – let’s hope that we also see McGann become Hurt become Eccleston as part of the flashbacks in the 50th anniversary story – there are still plenty of surprises to be revealed about the process. In the real world, it has allowed actors to move on when they are ready, and the show to receive a revitalising jolt to the system, with the idiosyncrasies of a new Doctor – and is definitely one of the key elements in keeping the series fresh. After all, there aren’t that many shows that have been going for nine years, let alone fifty…

This essay now forms part of Who Beyond 50: Celebrating Five Decades of Doctor Who. Click here to order it from


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