Classic Doctor Who: A guide to the Doctor’s regenerations
Mark Harrison | On 04, Apr 2021
Offering more than 600 Classic Doctor Who episodes broadcast between 1963 and 1996, BritBox and BBC iPlayer’s The Whoniverse are bigger on the inside. If you’ve watched all of the new series already, then why not join us as we turn on the TARDIS randomiser for a monthly primer on the adventures of the first eight Doctors…
We’re usually supposed to be thinking about resurrection and renewal over the Easter weekend, but when I think of resurrection and renewal, I think of Doctor Who. Without the concept of Time Lord regeneration as a way of periodically replacing the actor playing the Doctor, the series would never have lasted as long as it has.
Originally devised by writer Gerry Davis and Innes Lloyd, the idea of regeneration was first floated as a way of replacing William Hartnell, who was suffering from illness after making three seasons. A previous producer, John Wiles, had mooted the idea of rendering the Doctor invisible in one story (a lost serial called The Celestial Toymaker) and recasting him upon his return, but a short-term solution wouldn’t have enabled the show to go on for decades after his regeneration did.
To some extent, that applies to the new series too – as great as it would have been to see more of Christopher Eccleston playing the role on TV, landing a regeneration at the end of the first season and successfully switching to David Tennant has been crucial to the success of the 21st-century version of the programme too.
New Who fans have seen the Doctor regenerate in The Parting of the Ways, The End of Time, The Day of the Doctor, The Time of the Doctor, and Twice Upon a Time, but what about the older stories? If you’re curious about how the Doctor changed before the standardised golden-energy effect, BritBox has got you covered.
With mild spoilers if you’re watching in order and don’t know which stories are going to herald the end, here’s our rundown of how each Doctor faces the final curtain:
The First Doctor
“This old body of mine is wearing a bit thin.”
The Tenth Planet is a story of firsts even before the regeneration, as it introduces the Cybermen as cyborgs from Earth’s twin planet Mondas who arrive at a South Pole research base. New series fans will recognise moments from this serial from 2017’s Twice Upon a Time, where they’re both integrated and reconstructed with David Bradley’s version of the First Doctor.
As writer and co-creator of the Cybermen, Davis suggested the process of renewal, and at the end of Episode 4, the Doctor is reborn. It’s regrettable that the episode with the first-ever regeneration doesn’t exist in the BBC archive, save for a clip that appeared on Blue Peter, but it’s available on BritBox in its animated form, which was originally released in 2013.
What to watch
The Tenth Planet (Season 4, 1966)
The Second Doctor
“Stop, you’re making me giddy! No, you can’t do this to me!”
Patrick Troughton decided upon taking the role of the Doctor that he wanted to make three seasons and then move on, so in 1969, the time came to write another regeneration. The War Games comes at the end of a 10-episode epic involving a warlike race simulating and studying Earth conflicts for their own nefarious ends.
All told, this serial runs to about the same length as Zack Snyder’s Justice League, but it’s the last couple of episodes where the Second Doctor’s regeneration factors in. Marking the first time the Doctor’s people are named as Time Lords on screen, this transition sets up the show for a few seasons of primarily Earth-bound adventures, much to our hero’s chagrin…
What to watch
The War Games (Season 6, 1969)
The Third Doctor
“I had to face my fear. That was more important than just going on living…”
After five seasons of gadget-fuelled action-packed shenanigans, the final story of Jon Pertwee’s tenure manages to pack in a little bit of everything, including a second episode that’s mostly devoted to an extended vehicle-hopping chase that indulges both Pertwee and the Third Doctor’s interests. Planet of the Spiders does eventually get round to its titular location, from which psychic spiders called the Eight-Legs are making a bid for domination over Earth.
For the first regeneration of the colour TV era, this story is notable for finding a nifty way of re-establishing the changeover for younger viewers before it happens. The original intention of having a final showdown between the Master was pre-empted by Roger Delgado’s tragic death, but this six-part serial picks up some dangling threads from previous Pertwee adventures instead. Finally, it shows the Doctor bravely facing up to his own mistakes and actions at the end of his third life.
What to watch
Planet of the Spiders (Season 11, 1974)
The Fourth Doctor
“It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…”
When the long-serving Tom Baker hung up his scarf and TARDIS key, script editor Christopher H Bidmead worked the theme of endings throughout his seventh and final season, leading up to Logopolis. Facing a renewed Master (Anthony Ainley), the Fourth Doctor embarks upon a mission to prevent the universe itself from unravelling.
Unlike any of the other regenerations, this one is notable for featuring a spectre that’s described as “the Watcher”, glowing white as it stalks the Doctor throughout the story. Its presence and the eventual reveal of what it’s for lends to the funereal tone of the serial quite nicely. When the Fourth Doctor’s final moment arrives, it’s a fine end to the longest-running era of the show.
What to watch
Logopolis (Season 18, 1981)
The Fifth Doctor
“So, you see, I’m not going to let you stop me now!”
By the standards of Doctor Who, the Fifth Doctor’s finale is spectacularly grim. Coming towards the end of a season where he’s seen his friends leave and the Master’s (apparent) final end, he’s just started travelling with a new friend, Peri (Nicola Bryant) when the TARDIS lands in the middle of a fierce conflict between a mining conglomerate and the disfigured android builder Sharaz Jek.
The Caves Of Androzani is unique in the series in various ways, not least for being the only regeneration story written by all-time great Robert Holmes. Between miscommunications and betrayals, this grand tragedy racks up quite a death toll including, by the final episode, the Doctor himself. It’s one of the best stories of Peter Davison’s era, but also by far the darkest.
What to watch
The Caves Of Androzani (Season 21, 1984)
The Sixth Doctor
This is a slightly trickier one. After a stand-off with the BBC’s Michael Grade, the production team opted to replace Sixth Doctor actor Colin Baker at the start of the programme’s 24th season. Understandably miffed at his dismissal, Baker declined to return for a single final serial or scene. And so, the customary regeneration scene in the pre-titles scene of Time and the Rani sees the incoming Sylvester McCoy appearing briefly in a curly blond wig with the regeneration effects obscuring his face.
This means the Sixth Doctor’s actual final appearance comes in Season 23’s The Ultimate Foe, an ignominious end to a Doctor who always deserved a better quality of writing across his two seasons. Happily, Baker has reprised the role and had a much better run of adventures in the Big Finish audio plays, including The Last Adventure, which explores the events leading up to his demise more fully.
What to watch
Time and the Rani (Season 24, 1987)
The Seventh Doctor
““Timing malfunction! The Master, he’s out there! He’s out there… I know… I’ve got to stop… him…”
When the time came for McCoy to be replaced in 1996, the producers of the American-backed feature-length pilot went above and beyond, bringing the Seventh Doctor back for an extended cameo rather than starting fresh with the new Doctor as the 2005 series did.
This technically makes McCoy the longest-serving Doctor on television, albeit with a hiatus of 6 years in the middle. The movie opens with him on a mission to transport the Master (him again) safely back to Gallifrey, but things spiral out of control after a crash landing in San Francisco. The Movie is 25 years old this May, so we’ll cover what happens next more extensively in next month’s column…
What to watch
Doctor Who: The Movie (1996)
– The Eighth Doctor only has two TV stories, but Paul McGann was invited back for a regeneration scene as part of the origin story for John Hurt’s War Doctor, introduced in the 50th anniversary special in 2013. In the BBC iPlayer mini-episode The Night of the Doctor, we see Eight crash-land on the planet Karn during the Time War and submit to regenerating into “a warrior” with the help of the sisterhood from The Brain of Morbius (Season 13, 1976).
– It’s curious that we never saw the Master regenerate on-screen until the new series and the cliffhanger of 2007’s Utopia but, as mentioned, Delgado’s passing nixed any chance of the show originally establishing the same traditional handover of the role as the Doctor gets. Instead, the rival Time Lord is largely characterised as a jealous scavenger who has ran out his own regenerative cycle and attempts to steal life from others, but again, we’ll come back to The Movie…
– As mentioned in previous columns, the beginning of Destiny of the Daleks (Season 17, 1979) takes a very different approach to regeneration. Romana regenerates off-camera from Mary Tamm to Lalla Ward, who had just appeared as Princess Astra in the Season 16 finale. Pre-Colin and Peter Capaldi, the Fourth Doctor scolds her for using someone else’s face and she appears to try on various other incarnations before reverting to Ward. The great Douglas Adams script-edited this season, and it’s the sort of rule-bending mischief he gets up to in that role.