The Regeneration Game (1966-2010)

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I’ve been a fan of “Doctor Who” since I can remember, and certainly way, way back before it was cool to like Doctor Who. I followed it from its Saturday teatime slot, through experimental Monday Tuesday scheduling and suicidal Wednesday showdowns with soap operas to cancellation. Through the wilderness years I waited, had my hopes dashed by the Paul McGann TV Movie (which I’ll get to later) and then nine more years before it returned spectacularly in 2005.

Every era of “Doctor Who” has had triumphs and follies, but perhaps the true genius of the programme, and undeniably the reason for its longevity, is the conceit of ‘regeneration’. Never before, or since, has a series found a better way to continually recast its leading man, and not only treat it as a necessary evil but turn it into an absolute virtue – a genuine pop culture event every time it happens.

So, to mark the 50th Anniversary, I wanted to do something special, and when BBC decided to release the “Doctor Who: Regenerations” box set, the idea came to me: I would watch, and review, every “Doctor Who” regeneration story back-to-back in one sitting. The rules are simple, the story has to be the one to actually feature the regeneration. So unfortunately it cuts out quite a few classic post regeneration stories such as “Spearhead From Space”, “Robot”, “Castrovalva” and “The Christmas Invasion” and lets in “Time And The Rani”, but at least it rules out “The Twin Dilemma”. And I’m not counting the stories where someone other than the Doctor regenerates or the ‘hand job’ regeneration of “The Stolen Earth”.

Like all “Doctor Who” stories, the regeneration ones vary wildly in quality but the departure of the existing Doctor and the arrival of the new one always lends them an air of excitement that elevates them above the norm. So, without further ado, let’s get going. We’re going to time travel ourselves, you and I – eighteen hours and thirty-seven episodes into the future. So, synchronise your watches – it’s 6:00am and our first stop is the four part First Doctor adventure, which ignores the 2006 declassification of Pluto and invites us to hide behind the sofa from…

The Tenth Planet (1966)

The TARDIS arrives in Antarctica in 1986, near the Snowcap base monitoring the Zeus IV space mission. When Zeus IV detects a new planet approaching, slowly draining all the energy from the Earth, the Doctor, Ben and Polly are quickly under suspicion. But the approaching planet is Earth’s long-lost twin and home to the Cybermen!

Benefitting from being very early in the production run (it was the second story of the fourth season), the production values are actually pretty good and the arctic landscape is well realised for 1960’s British TV. The interior of the base is realised very effectively despite using only a couple of sets and canny casting gives the modest staging an element of the international scope it is reaching for. Ben and Polly are both relatively new companions at this stage, having shared only a couple of stories previously with the Doctor but they perform their roles adequately; Polly as the stereotypical damsel in distress and Ben as the de facto stand-in for the Doctor when the scene required action or effort.

the tenth planetThe Cybermen are strikingly designed and terrifyingly voiced. Later incarnations of the metal cyborgs may have been more intimidating or menacing but they were never creepier than they are in “The Tenth Planet”. They suffer from being largely incidental to the story as a whole with their intentions unclear and ultimate plan ill-defined, but their appearance was iconic enough that they would return several times and eventually rival the Daleks for their continued popularity, as well as provide the template for one of the most popular new races on “Star Trek: The Next Generation”.

By the time production had started on the fourth series of “Doctor Who”, it was clear that William Hartnell’s increasingly poor health would limit his ability to get involved in the action and “The Tenth Planet” was scripted accordingly. As such, it does feel that the Doctor does very little here but stand around, thumbing his lapels and know things – but not necessarily share his knowledge. I’ll health forced Hartnell’s absence for the filming of a whole episode and this is accommodated by the Doctor abruptly collapsing and remaining unconscious until the beginning of Episode 4.

Ultimately, everything is resolved without the Doctor – or anyone else for that matter – doing anything specific as Mondas is unable to absorb the energy it’s draining from Earth and is doomed to destruction by overload. The effect of an Earth-size planet entering, then being destroyed within, Earth’s orbit is conveniently unexplored and dismissed, and the Doctor’s change (it’s not called regeneration – not yet!) happens with little fanfare or warning. The TARDIS plays some mysterious part in the transformation, which is assumed to be the result of Mondas’ energy drain or the Doctor’s old age. The Doctor himself admits that his body is “wearing a bit thin”. But there it is – at 7:32am, the First Doctor is no more and television history is made.

In the end, it’s a modest little base under siege story that introduces a new monster, the marvellous mechanism of regeneration and provides a satisfying if unspectacular end to the First Doctor’s reign. It’s just a shame the First Doctor had to go out at such a low ebb rather than in his pomp.

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The War Games (1969)

mertmasThere are stirrings in the house now, and so I am joined for “The War Games” by The Mertmas, my seven year old son and independent Doctor Who fan. I say independent because I swear I never did anything to directly encourage his Doctor Who fandom – I let him discover it on his own. Growing up with it, he easily accommodated the idea that the Doctor had different faces and enjoyed the fact that the faces were in the opening credits. Long before he had learned ordinal numbering, he had christened the various Doctors thus: ‘Doctor Who Cross’ (the 3rd Doctor), ‘Doctor Who Sad’ (the 4th Doctor), ‘Doctor Who Face’ (the 5th Doctor, my Doctor and therefore the one he encountered first hence he’s just known as ‘face’), ‘Doctor Who Happy’ (the 6th Doctor) and ‘Doctor Who Wink’ (the 7th Doctor). We still use this identification system now. Obviously the 8th, 9th and 10th Doctors don’t qualify and I can’t tell you how thrilled he was when the 11th Doctor turned up in the opening credits of the most recent series.

It’s often been said that your favourite Doctor depends on the one you watched when you first discovered the series, but I’m not sure that’s entirely correct. I think you ‘imprint’ on the First Doctor you see regenerate. It’s the new Doctor who really captivates you and from that moment on, you’re hooked. I started watching during the last year or so of Tom Baker’s time in the TARDIS but the 5th Doctor is most definitely my Doctor. Likewise, The Mertmas watched a lot of David Tennant’s tenure but absolutely adores Matt Smith’s 11th Doctor. He cheered and applauded when Peter Capaldi was revealed as the new Doctor but I have a sneaking suspicion that he’s already bonded and that Matt Smith will forever be his Doctor.

Now that we’re settled down, let’s get to watching. Mertmas (that’s not his real name, by the way) has seen very little of the first two Doctors outside of their appearances in multi-Doctor stories due to their relative rarity and the old Black & White issue so what better way to start him off than with the 10-part epic that ends the 2nd Doctor’s story.

At its core, “The War Games” is a gripping, exciting piece of sci-fi action adventure with an intriguing premise, a satisfyingly slow reveal mystery and a final resolution that expands the mythos of the show further than it has ever gone before, and for a show about the whole of time and space, that’s no small feat. Unfortunately, wrapped around its core is a hell of a lot of padding and repetition which drags it down somewhat.

the war gamesThe Doctor, Jamie and Zoe arrive in what they assume is no man’s land during the First World War however it quickly becomes apparent that all is not as it appears. Our heroes soon learn that they are, in fact, on an alien planet and have become caught up in a fiendish plot to conquer the galaxy using brainwashed soldiers taken from various battlefields throughout Earth’s history, overseen by the villainous War Lord and his willing accomplice, the War Chief – who is himself a renegade Time Lord.

“The War Games” would have made a spectacular six part adventure, packed with ideas, action, suspense and drama and the production team could have given us another four part adventure rather than this ten episode stretch. That’s not to say it sags, necessarily, but it does become repetitive in the middle stretch of episodes which feature variations on the theme of one or more of the TARDIS crew being captured by one of the factions then escaping with the help of another faction who may or may not be friend or foe.

The production values are terrific, though, and the BBC really gets to flex its muscles and let the costume department go to town in recreating the various eras. Both the War Chief and the War Lord are stand-out villains and it’s a pity the story concludes in such a way as to prevent their reappearance. For the first time, the Doctor names his race – the Time Lords – although their home planet will remain unnamed for a few more years. The cliff-hanger where the Doctor reluctantly calls on the Time Lords for help, revealing his location and giving up his own freedom to save everyone else is among the best the series has to offer. In fact, the story of “The War Games” is largely wrapped up in nine episodes while the tenth deals with the aftermath and repercussions of the Doctor’s call for help.

So much of the mythos of the series is set here, and the influence of “The War Games” can be felt right through the shows history, particularly in “The Five Doctors” and even “The End Of Time”, where we see how ruthless and cold the Time Lords can be. They seriously contemplate executing the Doctor for his long litany of meddling and their punishment of the War Lord by erasing him from ever having existed is truly chilling. The War Chief is a near-finished version of an adversary character who would turn up barely a series later: The Master and the idea of returning a companion to their original point in time and wiping their memories of their time with the Doctor has been used in the recent series as well.

So three hours later, we watch as the gurning face of the 2nd Doctor fade into the darkness as the Time Lords’ sentence of exile and a change of appearance is carried out. Long, but enjoyable nonetheless. The Mertmas’ verdict is that it was “good”, but to be fair he did wander off to play with some toys and have some breakfast during episodes 3 to 8. As we near lunchtime, will he be sticking around? It’s ‘Doctor Who Cross’ next, I tell him. Down he sits, looking expectantly at the TV.

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Planet Of The Spiders (1974)

The Jon Pertwee era is one I liked when I was younger but was always of less interest to me than the exploits of the 4th Doctor onwards. Recently, over the past couple of years, I’ve found myself enjoying Pertwee’s time as the Doctor more and more until it’s become one of my favourites. Pertwee gives the Doctor a haughty swagger and plays him seriously. He has a great, if different, chemistry with all three of his companions and, of course, his era gave us UNIT and the Brigadier (I know he appeared in a couple of 2nd Doctor stories but he really arrived with “Spearhead From Space”).

With the advent of colour and new special effects technology, the series’ pantheon expanded like never before:  Autons, Silurians, Axons, More Time Lords, The Master, The Sea Devils, Omega, Draconians and Daleks, Daleks, Daleks! Pertwee’s final season brings us the perennial companion, Sarah Jane Smith, Sontarans, Dinosaurs, more Daleks and a return trip to Peladon. With such a rich legacy to choose from, what better way to create a fitting end to the dynamic and dashing Third Doctor than to pit him against…erm…some spiders. Okay, spiders from space, but still…

“Planet Of The Spiders” begins with the Doctor and the Brigadier sitting in recreation of an awful 1970’s working men’s club watching an execrable variety show. Eventually we learn that the Doctor is there to check up on an unusually accurate stage psychic, but not before we get to enjoy the Brigadier’s delight at the belly dancing act. The psychic shenanigans eventually tie in to a blue crystal the Doctor ‘borrowed’ many years back from the planet Metebelis III. The crystal’s presence on Earth has enabled the members of a secluded Tibetan-style spiritual retreat to unwittingly make contact with the merciless ‘Eight-Legs’ of Metebelis III and the crystal happens to be the final component of the Great One’s crystalline engine to impose her arachnid will across the universe…

planet of the spiders“Planet Of The Spiders” is a curious beast. On one hand, it’s an ambitious, intricate story weaving elements of Buddhism with planet hopping adventure and occasional moments of genuine creepiness while on the other, its pacing is desperately uneven, the special effects are very poor, even by the standards of the time and it has Gareth Hunt in it. It reaches for greatness but fails to be the celebratory send-off the Third Doctor’s era should have received. There are touches which raise a smile, though. In a nod to Pertwee’s fondness for being a Doctor of action, virtually the whole of Episode 2 is an extended chase scene which includes Bessie, the Whomobile, an autogyro, a boat and a hovercraft. Of course, this is the 1970’s so there’s also a desperately unfunny double-taking appearance by a befuddled policeman which kind of just sits there awkwardly in the episode. There’s also a slightly uncomfortable plot thread about the crystal’s effects on a man with learning disabilities at the Buddhist retreat that feels very out of date now, but clearly was intended without offence.

Continuing the tradition of padding out the regeneration stories, it does meander somewhat in the middle and it’s around then that The Mertmas lost interest and went off to do more interesting things, but it’s in the final Metebelis III-set episodes that the story really runs into trouble. Unfortunately, the realisation of the “Eight-Legs” just isn’t convincing at all. They’re clearly models and only one step up from having pipe cleaner legs. Some truly sloppy CSO work also undermines the sense of drama, despite Pertwee trying his best.

The story does much to redeem itself in its closing moments though, as the TARDIS rematerializes after an apparent three week absence and the Third Doctor stumbles out and collapses. It’s neat that the Third Doctor’s first appearance and his last are pretty much the same. Although Sarah Jane and the Brigadier are convinced that the Doctor is really dead this time, the leader of the Bhuddist retreat, revealed to be the Time Lord K’Anpo, appears and gives the Doctor’s cells ‘a little nudge’ to begin the regeneration process, which itself is finally named as such. More important elements are added to the regeneration lore during “Planet Of The Spiders”: the idea that the regeneration process generally needs support or help from the TARDIS or another Time Lord and the idea that a Time Lord’s imminent next incarnation can physically manifest before the regeneration, the latter being a key plot point for the 4th Doctor’s swansong.

Once again, we’re left with a Doctor Who adventure that’s good, but not great.

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It’s already two o’clock in the afternoon and we’re only three Doctors in but with the end of “Planet Of The Spiders”, we’ve ended the era of overly long stories. Next up:

Logopolis (1981)

Tom Baker was, and remains, the longest serving (active) Doctor Who, playing the role for seven years. Yes, others have been the incumbent for longer: Sylvester McCoy from 1987 to 1996 and Paul McGann from 1996 to 2005, but Tom was continuously on TV as the Doctor through each one of his seven years. He became the definitive public perception of the Doctor and remains the go-to incarnation to evoke the Doctor. The Fourth Doctor’s scarf is as iconic as the TARDIS itself and it’s no surprise that it is referenced in nearly every subsequent regeneration. In fact it was so profoundly tied up in the perception of the Doctor, that in the 5th Doctor’s very first story post-regeneration, a plot point is made of the fact the scarf is unravelled back to the yarn it was knitted from.

The exit strategy for the Fourth Doctor was, therefore, suitably grand and although for the purposes of this (increasingly long) blog I’m only reviewing “Logopolis”, the whole of Season Eighteen can be seen as a lengthy farewell to the Fourth Doctor. The costume is redesigned to be more sombre than before, the science fiction is harder (or as hard as possible when one of your villains is a talking cactus) thanks to script editor Christopher H Bidmead and there’s a noticeably melancholic and serious tone to the whole series. By the time we reach “Logopolis”, the atmosphere is positively sepulchral.

logopolis“Logopolis” forms the centrepiece of a trilogy of stories covering the return of The Master and the regeneration of The Doctor. The previous story, “The Keeper Of Traken” has set the bar very high, with a wonderfully realised story of power corrupting and the desperate scheming of The Master to extend his nearly exhausted life. “Logopolis” finds the Doctor in morose mood, stomping around the TARDIS and grumpily finding busywork to do. Deciding it’s time to fix the chameleon circuit, he sets out to find a genuine Police Box, measure it in every dimension and then take the resulting figures to the planet of Logopolis where they can affect the material universe through pure mathematics. The Master’s interference with the workings of Logopolis reveals the current universe long ago passed the point of sustainability and without the constant chanting calculations of the Logopolitan mathematicians, the universe will succumb to the forces of entropy and be destroyed. Luckily, the Logopolitans had been working on a permanent, automated solution which just so happens to be an identical copy of a radio telescope on Earth and the Doctor is forced into an uneasy alliance with The Master to literally save the universe. And all the while, the Doctor is being stalked by a mysterious white figure.

I have to admit, I was always a sucker for stories which used the TARDIS interiors a lot, and boy do we get a treat in “Logopolis”. Most of the first two episodes take place within the TARDIS and, at one point, inside a recursive loop of infinite TARDISes. More key elements are added to the tapestry of Doctor Who such as the Cloister Bell and the naming of the Chameleon Circuit. “Logopolis” is ambitious in both its scale and its storytelling, with high concept sci-fi ideas being thrown into the mix at breakneck speed. On paper, it’s the perfect kind of crisis for the Fourth Doctor to go out solving in a blaze of glory. In practice, however…

It’s a real shame that, by their nature, regeneration stories tend to come at the end of a series when the budget is usually all but exhausted and it’s in this respect “Logopolis” really suffers. The first two episodes get by on using limited sets because Tom is at his mesmeric best and the dialogue is excellent but once the action moves to “Logopolis”, the production budget really starts to impact the storytelling. You can almost pinpoint the exact moment the money ran out and they started making compromises. The final confrontation between the Master and the Doctor at The Pharos Project on Earth is a case in point, with some woeful use of CSO and cheap cost-cutting at nearly every turn. At one point, the Doctor is shown to be struggling along an increasingly tilted walkway in front of a still photograph – a photograph! – of the Master peering out of a doorway. There are still some great moments, even in the final few minutes of the Fourth Doctor’s life – the use of his scarf to (unconvincingly) trip the Master up raises a smile, as does the Doctor’s decision to pause to retrieve and put the scarf back on before continuing on his way to save the universe. His eventual fall from the radio telescope seems somewhat lacklustre and, given the fall survived by the 10th Doctor from the Vinvocci spaceship in “The End Of Time”, insufficient to cause a regeneration but cause it, it does.

Given we are actually in the middle of an ongoing adventure, the regeneration scene is a refreshingly peaceful pause before the action picks up again in the following season’s “Castrovalva”. Clearly back in the studio, the Fourth Doctor lies recumbent in the grass, fortuitously having landed in an aesthetically pleasing and comfortable position.  Snark aside, the camerawork and music are spot on here, and all the shoddy special effects of the past twenty minutes are easily forgotten as Tom delivers the spine-tinglingly good line, “It’s the end…but the moment has been prepared for…” OMG! It’s the Watcher, the guy who looked a bit like a weird mummy was the Doctor all along, just like K’Anpo in “Planet Of The Spiders”. Once again, the idea that the regeneration process needs to be helped along, especially when outside the TARDIS.

The Mertmas, who has dipped in and out of “Logopolis”, is very excited to see “Doctor Who Face” appear as the music builds to a climax and the Peter Howell arranged theme tune – still my favourite by an absolute mile – kicks in.

A cosmic story in ambition and complexity if not execution and featuring a towering final performance by Tom as the Doctor, the budgetary limitations aside, “Logopolis” was, and remains, one of my favourite “Doctor Who” stories and one of the best regeneration tales.

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It’s almost teatime, now. And for tea, we have a real treat in store…

The Caves Of Androzani (1984)

As I’ve already mentioned, the Fifth Doctor is my favourite Doctor, although for me it’s really more a case of first amongst equals. I was at exactly the right age when he arrived and many of his adventures remain amongst my favourites. Indeed, once I read that Peter Davison had decided to quit after three years on the advice of Patrick Troughton, my affection for the Second Doctor took quite a hit. “The Caves Of Androzani” finds the Fifth Doctor with, for him, a very empty TARDIS – only new companion Peri for company. Peri has literally just joined the TARDIS, having hopped on board in the previous adventure “Planet Of Fire”. She and the Doctor arrive on Androzani Minor ostensibly to pick up some sand for the Doctor’s bottled sand collection (That’s off-screen knowledge, by the way. It was in the script but cut from transmission, so if you’ve ever wondered why the Doctor and Peri were visiting such a desolate planet, now you know!)

Following some mysterious tracks in the sand, the Doctor and Peri stumble into an animal’s nest of sticky webbing but easily free themselves only to be captured by some soldiers and get embroiled in a complex web of plot and counter plot involving gun runners, soldiers, android rebels and malevolent corporations battling to control the source and supply of Spectrox, an invaluable cosmetic treatment and narcotic.

androzaniMuch has been written and said about “The Caves Of Androzani”. It’s a perennial contender for and occasional winner of the title greatest “Doctor Who” story of all time. It’s Davison’s personal favourite and he has often been quoted as saying if there had been more scripts like “Androzani” during his time, he might have stayed on for a fourth year. (Troughton! *shakes fist*) It deserves all the plaudits coming its way. Unlike previous regeneration stories, the stakes here are relatively small. The core conflict is a local dispute between Androzani Major and Androzani Minor. There are no galactic-scale threats, no fiendish plans of conquest or greatness. Just greed, fear and revenge. The story’s other stroke of genius is that the cause of the regeneration is so innocuous and occurs within the first five minutes of episode one. The Doctor and Peri literally brush it off and forget about it until they learn later just how much danger they are in. Brilliantly, the Doctor is instrumental in thwarting all the villains involved in the Spectrox conflict but at no point is that his main aim. You get the impression that if they’d just got out of his way, he’d have let them carry on with their machinations but because they choose to impede his single-minded objective of getting the anti-toxin to save Peri and himself, he takes them all down.

The Fifth Doctor has never been so powerful or ruthless and Davison brings a harder edge to his Doctor in this story while Nicola Bryant also gives one of her best performances as the increasingly sick Peri. “The Caves OF Androzani” is also blessed by two of Doctor Who’s most fantastic villains: Sharaz Jek (Christopher Gable), the crazed Phantom Of The Opera-like creator of the android rebellion and John Normington’s Trau Morgus, the mendacious leader of the Androzani Conglomerate which seeks to control the Spectrox mines. Normington’s performance, in part due to a misunderstanding of the stage directions, gives a deliciously sinister performance, heavily foreshadowing and influencing the great Ian Richardson’s performance as Francis Urquhart in “House Of Cards” some six years later. The direction, too, has received praise in the past and it’s well deserved. Graeme Harper, the only original series director to be brought back to work on the new series, brings a cinematic visual style to the adventure and ensures that “The Caves Of Androzani” looks as good as the story deserves, and really gets the value out of the modest budget Doctor Who had in the early eighties.

There are some really nice touches here, the best of which is the subtle hints that the Doctor is deliberately holding back his regeneration so he can save Peri, notably at the cliff-hanger of episode three. And, of course, it also establishes that holding back the regeneration can have pretty bad consequences. This time, it leads to the Sixth Doctor being traumatised and unstable. The next time the Doctor pulls the trick of holding off his regeneration, it almost destroys the TARDIS.

It’s well known that there are a couple of things which make the Fifth Doctor’s regeneration memorable. But aside from Peri’s cradling of the Doctor, it’s a spectacular and poignant end for Davison’s Time Lord and a sardonic and snappy debut from Colin Baker, who becomes the first newly regenerated Doctor to say anything following the regeneration.

A triumph of storytelling, direction, performance and emotion. After the galactic showboating of previous Doctors, it’s appropriate that the Fifth Doctor, the most modest of all the Doctors, sacrifices himself to save the life of a young girl he has only just met. Possibly the noblest and certainly the most chivalrous end of all.

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We’re nearing the twelve hour mark in my Who-athon. It’s half past five and unfortunately we’re moving from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Time And The Rani (1987)

Ugh.  Just…ugh. This is it. This is the point where it became only a matter of time before the axe fell on “Doctor Who”. “Time And The Rani” is just terrible. Because of the shoddy way the BBC had been treating “Doctor Who” and Colin Baker in particular, it took a while for the good Doctor to return to our screens. When it did, it was with a new Doctor and a regeneration was required to bridge the gap. Cue poor old Sylvester McCoy in a blond wig being rolled over.

Time and the RaniMuch of the first series of the Seventh Doctor was written without knowing who the actor was and, as a result, we get a weird kind of generic approach to Doctor Who which veers wildly into the realm of light entertainment. The stories are fluffy nonsense and the focus is firmly on guest stars, and not great guest stars either. The production values were more akin to those on daytime chat shows.

“Time And The Rani” concerns the Rani’s plans to do…something or other with…um…some gestalt brain kind of thing. And there’s an asteroid, and some four-eyed monsters called Tetraps and…and…some fishscale people…the, um…the, um…Lakertyans. Oh, you know what? It’s just rubbish. Utter, utter nonsense. Given how good a Doctor Sylvester McCoy would become, it’s a tragedy that he was given this drivel to start with. If the Seventh Doctor had started with his second season, the history of Doctor Who could have turned out quite differently, regardless of the BBC’s antipathy.

Now it may just be that I’ve been at this for twelve hours now, but I found this story hard to concentrate on and harder to care about. The Rani’s plan doesn’t make a lick of sense, but at least Kate O’Mara gives it everything she’s got. Her impersonation of Bonnie Langford’s Mel is actually a hoot. Sylvester shows hints of the Doctor he will become and, newly equipped with GCI, the effects are actually okay. The new title sequence is gorgeous and there’s a great effect involving a kind of landmine/ disco Zorb.

There’s little else to recommend it, though. The series was in trouble and this adventure, and the three that followed it, were the self-inflicted wounds which would eventually kill the series. Thankfully, it would turn out that “Doctor Who” itself was able to regenerate, in time…

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Well, that wasn’t fun. It’s coming up to dinner time but I’ve quite lost my appetite.

Doctor Who: The TV Movie (1996)

Despite the encroachment of Americanisms into the very British nature of “Doctor Who”, there’s a lot to enjoy in Paul McGann’s one and only outing as the Doctor. The story is actually very slight, and is effectively a rerun of the old chestnut of the Master seeking a new cycle of regenerations. This time, he plans to use the Eye Of Harmony which now resides in the heart of the TARDIS to steal the Doctor’s remaining lives.

The opening monologue makes no sense to anyone who’s ever watched the series before. Why, if the Master was caught, would he be put on trial on Skaro by the Daleks? Ignoring the fact the Seventh Doctor destroyed Skaro, the Daleks aren’t known for their zealous prosecution of evil. But never mind. Moving on…

As disappointing as his very first appearance as the Doctor was, Sylvester McCoy’s last appearance as the Doctor is glorious. More sombrely dressed and with a palpably world-weary air, the characterisation is cleverly balanced between what we remember from the old TV series and what we’ve grown used to in the Virgin novels. The TARDIS looks fantastic: cavernous and Victorian gothic with just a hint of steampunk. It’s also an incredibly brave story choice to have the Doctor step out of the TARDIS only to be gunned down in a random gangland shooting.

the movieOf course, the irony is that it’s not the gunshot wounds which end the Seventh Doctor’s life, it’s the unnecessary and bungled surgery by would-be companion Dr Grace Holloway that brings about his end. It’s a nice touch that the regeneration is delayed because of all the anaesthetic used during surgery and, as a result, the Doctor suffers amnesia for a while. This is also a rare instance of a regeneration taking place outside of the TARDIS and occurring without any help from another Time Lord.

There are altogether too many car chases for this to be “Doctor Who” and it never feels quite right but Paul McGann is undeniably fantastic as the Doctor. On one hand, I’m torn between wanting to have seen more of his Doctor but also not wanting to have had the series continue in the template set by this TV movie. The canon-troubling revelation of the Doctor’s potential half-human heritage especially troubles me as it smacks of a lack of understanding of the appeal of “Doctor Who”.

Thanks to the fantastic work done by Big Finish, fans of “Doctor Who” have been able to enjoy years of adventures with the Eighth Doctor (they’ve also done peerless work in ‘rehabilitating’ the misunderstood Sixth Doctor) but TV wise, we’re left with this middle-of-the-road better than it could’ve been single adventure and it would be nine more years before we got to see another regeneration, but like Colin Baker, Paul McGann would have to do without a final appearance…

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The Mertmas has now gone to bed as it’s past eight-thirty now. It’s a bit of a shame though, as we’re coming to ‘his’ era of “Doctor Who”…

Bad Wolf/ The Parting Of The Ways (2005)

So far today, I’ve watched adventures from the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s and yet nothing – nothing – has dated as badly as the opening episode of this two part finale for Christopher Ecclestone’s Ninth Doctor. The inclusion of references to “Big Brother”, “The Weakest Link” and “What Not To Wear” that seemed to clever and amusing at the time seem silly and out of place now, a mere eight years later. By trying too hard to be in with gimmicks of the time, Russell T Davies has ended up making one of the most embarrassing episodes of “Doctor Who” ever. It does, however, bring back the grand tradition of regeneration stories being padded out way beyond their required running time. In this case, RTD also uses it to retrospectively make “The Long Game”, an earlier episode of the season, seem less pointless and forgettable by tying it into the overarching conspiracy which leads to the Ninth Doctor’s final battle, but it all seems a bit forced and awkward and the whole Weakest Link gag is stretched out way too far. But once the episode gets our heroes to the control room and they encounter The Controller, the story kicks up to high gear and boy, when it gets good it’s really good. The final exchange between the Doctor and the Daleks over their attempt to use Rose to coerce the Doctor is brilliant and a perfectly judged cliff-hanger.

parting-ways-1The second episode starts well, with the rescue of Rose and a confrontation with the imposing Dalek Emperor but soon gives way to a sluggishly paced mid-section which tries desperately to create a sense of eve of battle tension but just ends up feeling like waiting. Once the Daleks do attack the space station, the battle is quite well realised and a surprising number of characters don’t make it through the battle. The Doctor’s decision to trick Rose and send her back in time to safety leads eventually to the payoff of the season-spanning mystery of the Bad Wolf but it’s ultimately an unsatisfying and cheap resolution as it ends up being both a predestination paradox and a gratuitous deus ex machine to resolve the story. The Doctor’s moral dilemma of whether or not to use the energy wave which would destroy all the Daleks but also everyone of Earth reaches for but falls short of the Fourth Doctor’s ‘Have I the right?’ musing from “Genesis Of The Daleks” and the fact that the Dalek invasion is vanquished by literal narrative hand waving gives the whole affair a sense of anti-climax. It’s a great idea to have Rose bring Jack back to life but accidentally bring him back to life too much, creating one of modern Who’s most interesting characters (interesting until the character was done to death and beyond in the gratingly uneven “Torchwood”) and the fate of Lynda with a Y has lost none of its power to shock and sadden.

The Doctor, again, sacrifices himself to save the life of his companion alone and in doing so becomes the First Doctor to deliver a grand soliloquy before he goes. The regeneration effect, now standard, makes its first appearance as does the concept of regenerating while standing up. Still happens in the TARDIS, though. Also making it a welcome return is the pithy few words of introduction from the new Doctor before the theme tune crashes in and David Tennant’s ‘new teeth…that’s weird’ is a great introduction to his Doctor, showing off a much less dour approach than his predecessor.

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Okay, we’re into the home stretch now and I’m getting tired. It’s a about quarter to ten and between now and midnight (and bed!) lies…

The End Of Time (2010)

By the time we approached the end of the Tenth Doctor’s reign, I’d become quite bored of David Tennant’s Doctor. The barely disguised fact that Russell T Davies was pretty much in love with the character of the Tenth Doctor plus increasingly arrogant writing of the ‘lonely god’ had made me keen to see the back of Doctor Ten and welcome Doctor Eleven. However, having only had a couple of disappointing specials to tide us over until the two part Christmas epic, I had high hopes that something special would be pulled out of the bag for the finale of the Tenth Doctor.

There is a general belief that “Doctor Who” stories with the word ‘Time’ in the title are jinxed and destined to be disappointing. “The End Of Time” does nothing to disprove this theory. There are certainly good ideas for stories here but it’s all a bit of a mishmash and feels like RTD couldn’t figure out quite which idea to use so he decided to use them all. Maybe none of them on their own were enough to sustain a two and a quarter hour running time. The pieces fit together, but only just.

The return of the Master, now with glowing skeleton powers feels a bit left-field and leaves too many aspects unexplained to be satisfying. The story moves along through coincidence and contrivance rather than any strong narrative drive and for much of it, the Doctor is reduced to running around or standing and looking angsty. The Naismith’s are underwritten, their only purpose being to bring the Master into contact with the Eternity Gate. Throw in a couple of comedy aliens, the Vinvocci, and that’s pretty much the entirety of episode one. Oh no, wait. I forgot – the entirely unnecessary, desperately naïve and crushingly obtuse continued references to President Obama’s speech which will unveil a magical plan to ‘solve the financial crisis’. That, more than anything else included in the episode strains the suspension of disbelief. The ‘silver cloak’ is a nifty idea but it’s used as a throwaway gag and then serves no purpose ever again. It’s lazy storytelling. The final cliff-hanger, where The Master transforms every human on the planet into a copy of himself always struck me as an odd play for him to make. Surely on a planet where there are over six billion identical copies of the Master, the least likely outcome is that they would all happily cooperate with each other. A much more likely outcome is a massive bloodbath as each copy tries to eliminate the competition and rule supreme. Oh well, it’s a nice visual gag at least. Yeah, it’s repeated ad nauseum for twice as long as it’s actually funny but it’s nicely done. Also, for good measure, we throw in potential peril for Donna as the Master’s transformation threatens to break her memory lock, restore her recollection of her time with the Doctor and kill her. We also learn that our mysterious narrator who has been layering on the portentous hyperbole is actually a Time Lord – a Time Lord on Gallifrey no less, addressing an audience that looks suspiciously like a redressed set from “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace”.

EndOfTimeThe return of the Time Lords and the method by which they return is actually pretty cool but only serves to make much of the rest of the filler material all the more annoying. The Naismiths, the Vinvocci, the Silver Cloak, the Master’s inexplicable super powers are all superfluous to the story. I can’t, though, count the Noble family among the unnecessary baggage solely because of Bernard Cribbins’ wonderful Wilfred Mott. If it wasn’t for Cribbins, the many flaws inherent in “The End Of Time” would be more apparent, but he gives a sensational performance, perfectly encapsulating the kindness, wisdom and bravery of the character. Timothy Dalton’s salivating performance as the battle-crazed and ruthless Rassilon is also a highlight and makes you wish he had more to do. I miss those old “Doctor Who” episodes where the action took place on Gallifrey and the Doctor was drawn in to the court intrigue of Time Lord society.

As well as the mishmash of almost complete ideas, “The End Of Time” also borrows liberally from its predecessor regeneration tales. Gallifrey’s approach to Earth mimics that of Mondas (and also has the same non-effect on planet Earth), making psychic contact with the Time Lords is from “The War Games”, the psychic link manifesting as a physical bridge echoes “Planet Of The Spiders” and the Master and Doctor reluctantly joining forces to prevent the end of the cosmos comes from “Logopolis”. Even the eventual decision by the Doctor to sacrifice his own life to save Wilfred’s after all the other crises have passed hits the same story beats as “The Caves Of Androzani”. That’s a level of self-referencing that would make John Nathan-Turner proud.

The Doctor’s egotistical and anguished rant at the unfairness of the universe underlines just how arrogant this Doctor had become and his credibility-straining ability to hold off his regeneration while he visits past companions feels like a gross overindulgence, maybe more of the writer than the character of the Doctor. The throwaway information that Mickey and Martha have married to create an alien-fighting charisma-free team is pointless, and the visit to Sarah Jane Smith makes you wonder why he doesn’t pop back to visit any other previous companions. They share a common theme, though, as each visit involves the Doctor saving a life: Martha’s from the Sontaran and Luke from being run over. Things get even weirder when the Doctor decides the best way to be remembered is to act as a galactic version of Grindr and wordlessly set up Midshipman Frame as an easy target for the sleazily predatory Captain Jack Harkness. Of all the visits, only Joan Redfern (“Human Nature”/ “Family Of Blood”)’s great-granddaughter Verity Newman has any genuine emotional heft, although it’s a cute gimmick that the Doctor encounters Rose at New Year 2005, the year she will meet the Ninth Doctor.

Bloated, overloaded with incomplete ideas and overlong, “The End Of Time” is much more about the end of the Russell T Davies era than a true celebration of the Tenth Doctor. We could have had an epic story of the Time War, involving the Master and the return of the Time Lords but instead we got Russell T Davies’ wish list of ‘cool things’.

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***STOP PRESS***

The Night Of The Doctor (2013)

Night_of_the_doctor_regenerationWow. How much awesome can you pack into just under seven minutes? Turns out the answer is: a lot. From his opening line, Paul McGann absolutely nails it as The Doctor and makes me wish we’d got more of the Eighth Doctor all over again. The story cleverly underlines just how terrible the Time War was in a way the series has struggled to do before when Cass refuses to be rescued by a Time Lord. The crash landing on Karn and resurrection by the Sisterhood are delicious Easter Eggs to long-time fans of the series and it’s a joy to hear the Eighth Doctor’s Big Finish companions be made canon by their mention here.

The set up for the regeneration is intriguing and leads directly to the mystery of The War Doctor. In a way, it’s oddly reassuring that the Eighth Doctor refused to participate in the Time War and had to deliberately discard the title of Doctor in order to intervene.

The Mertmas and I have watched this about a dozen times now, devouring every single second. If you’ll excuse us, I think we’re going to watch it again. Roll on “The Day Of The Doctor”!

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5 thoughts on “The Regeneration Game (1966-2010)

  1. I’m not a Doctor Who fan, but that’s only because I’ve never put in the time. I’ve seen a few episodes from each Doctor’s era, and I adore Tom Baker’s take on the character. And the few episodes I’ve seen from the current BBC iteration were top-notch. Where would you recommend I begin if I want to get serious?

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    • That’s a tricky question, as if you jump in at a particular point and then work your way forward, you’ll encounter a fair amount of dross as well as the gems. There are key stories for each Doctor which either work particularly well for that particular Doctor or add to the series mythology in an interesting or important way. io9 did an article which was quite good: http://io9.com/5032573/how-to-discover-classic-doctor-who-in-3-easy-steps. And they’ve recently ranked every story in order or greatness according to them although I’ll admit a couple of their ‘worst’ are favourites of mine for sentimental reasons: http://io9.com/every-single-doctor-who-story-ranked-from-best-to-wors-1468104049.

      The strength of the series is that it’s been going so long that if you don’t like a particular story/ doctor/ companion/ monster, there’s so many others to choose and they’re all brilliantly the same but utterly different simultaneously! Just jump in and explore!

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      • Thanks so much for the comments and the links. They will undoubtedly help as I move forward. Is this new box set a good introduction to the series? Or is it like the X-Files Mythology sets—great for fans but a poor way to begin?

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