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Doctor Who: Regeneration

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
BBC Worldwide
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
William Hartnell
Patrick Troughton
Jon Pertwee
Tom Baker
Peter Davison
Bottom Line: 
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This beautifully designed and packaged luxury six-disc DVD gift set, which incorporates a book-styled collectors’ album celebrating the many faces of DOCTOR WHO for the show’s 50th anniversary year, brings together all of the regeneration stories and is released just as the current incumbent, Matt Smith, announces he will be stepping down from the role during this year’s Christmas special. The box housing the set’s contents features a mock-up image of Smith’s eleventh Doctor, viewed from behind, arms outstretched, apparently in the throes of regeneration, although Smith’s departure was only announced some months after the set had already begun to crop up in BBC Worldwide’s DVD release schedules, and as a pre-order online, suggesting the design team were privy to advance information that, in the event, ended up being relayed to the rest of the world just a few weeks before the product was made available in the shops.

Since it aims to include all the existing regeneration stories for each Doctor, news of Smith’s departure does rather render this release almost instantly incomplete since, come December, it will be missing the latest chapter in the story of how the now accepted concept of regeneration gradually evolved over the course of the series’ 50 year history. Eight of the nine stories included in the box set have been released before, but here they appear sans the documentaries, featurettes and commentary tracks that now routinely accompany the story specific discs in the classic range, making this purely a commemorative item rather than a necessary purchase. The one ‘tempter’ that might persuade avid fans to part with their cash is the set’s inclusion of the previously unreleased-on-DVD first Doctor regeneration story “The Tenth Planet”, which here makes its restored debut alongside a specially animated version of the still-missing final episode in which the innovative process first took place. Fans should note, though, that a special edition DVD of this story is planned for release later in the year, which is when we’ll no doubt be covering it in much greater detail than will be the case in this review.

“The Tenth Planet” is also significant for being the introductory story for a foe that would develop into the show’s biggest recurring rival to the Daleks’ as the series’ top villain during the course of Patrick Troughton’s coming tenure -- and what a strange and somehow slightly wonky introduction this makes to the Cybermen, who, in this initial outing, look like odd, misshapen sock puppet versions of their later sinister selves, with trilling, yet weirdly polite (and thus slightly disturbing and silly all at the same time) electronic voices ... and human hands! For all its ground-breaking importance in the mythology surrounding DOCTOR WHO, “The Tenth Planet” struggles hard to hold viewer interest, and to be frank is something of a mess; but, for now, the main thing to concern us regarding this story is its treatment of the hand-over from William Hartnell to Troughton’s Doctor, and the moment when another piece of the puzzle regarding this alien being’s back story was slotted into place.

Although, in actuality, nothing much is explained about what exactly is going on during those crucial final moments of episode four: the process we now know as regeneration instead is used as a means of injecting more of the same sense of the uncanny into the series -- a quality which hadn’t been experienced to quite the same extent since the very first episode, three seasons previously. The TARDIS once again becomes a threatening, mysterious place and the Doctor a remote and inexplicable alien presence within it. During the course of the three years Hartnell had been playing the role, the Doctor had evolved from an unpredictable antihero, who often seemed to be working against his companions’ best interests in favour of his own obscure agenda, to a still often irascible but essentially avuncular old soul, who comes to engage more and more proactively in the affairs of whoever the TARDIS crew encounter during their adventures in space and time each week. However, the rapport between Hartnell’s Doctor and his latest travelling companions from the mid-sixties -- Able Seaman Ben Jackson (Michael Craze) and office secretary Polly Wright (Anneke Wills) -- always seemed a little strained and awkward to my mind; they appeared much more at home with Troughton’s mischievous, imp-like Doctor, although little remains in the archive from their time on the show (aside from the soundtrack CDs) to be able to judge definitively.

What strikes home about the way Hartnell’s change is handled here is the creepy air of mystery and tension that is made to surround it. These days the modern series plays the regeneration card as a chance to get all dewy eyed and nostalgic for the departing incumbent’s ‘era’; there’s always a palpable feeling of sadness for what we’re losing, combined with expectation and hope, even excitement, for what is to come next. That was not how it was back in 1966 though: Hartnell’s Doctor mysteriously collapses at the end of episode two and then doesn’t appear at all in episode three, spending the whole thing unconscious on a bunk bed in an Antarctic satellite station as the Cyberman plot threatens to come to fruition and a wayward army General prepares to launch nuclear Armageddon in response. This development was actually the result of Hartnell suffering a sudden illness that forced a rewrite which takes him out of a good portion of the story, and results in a sense that the first Doctor just quietly slips away rather than bows out in a shining halo of glory. He rallies himself long enough to be up and about for the denouement of the story, but during the build- up to those final moments inside the TARDIS, there are no great speeches or lengthy goodbyes drenched in tear-jerking pathos (compare this low-key approach to Tennant’s endless final moment in “The End of Time”!). Instead, Polly and Ben simply look on tentatively, bemused and dimly aware that something is not quite right with the Doctor as he grows sullen and then ignores them, scurrying back to the TARDIS without supplying a word of explanation concerning what is about to happen to him. He even locks them out of the TARDIS at first (in the middle of an Antarctic blizzard!), only belatedly allowing his companions into the console room just as the unnamed and unexplained transformation gets underway. In this first instance, it is implied that the change has been instigated by the TARDIS in response to the Doctor’s body ‘wearing out’: strange electronic noises fill the console room, the lights dim, and the TARDIS engine noise accompanies the change in Hartnell’s features as the time rotor on the console rises and falls in harmony with the process. Something alien, unexplainable, mechanistic yet at the same time intimately organic, appears to be taking place -- but the arrival of the new Doctor is played as a cliff-hanger ending, emphasising continuity in the face of radical change; a radical change which Troughton seizes with his first episode, during which Polly and Ben struggle to come to terms with the idea that this clown-like person can possibly be the same man they knew before. Continuity with the past eventually establishes itself in the first of the second Doctor’s adventures when the Daleks are re-introduced, but this time in a context that seems as unfamiliar as the Doctor himself.


But when, three years later, Patrick Troughton himself decided to hang up his braces and baggy frock coat, and took his leave of the series at the end of the epic ten-part 1969 adventure “The War Games”, it really felt like something intrinsic to the show’s make up was now finally coming to an end. The fact that, in this story, we are at last -- after six years! – provided with some answers in relation to the Doctor’s origins, only seems to add to the sense of finality surrounding the final episode, in which the Doctor’s people, the Time Lords, at last catch up with this errant runaway and separate him from his companions Jamie and Zoe -- erasing all memory of their involvement with the Doctor and punishing him for his transgressions by consigning him, against his will, to exile on Earth with a new face.

As before with Hartnell’s change, no mention of the word regeneration is made, and the two processes could just as easily be considered to be unconnected. Certainly Troughton’s Doctor seems absolutely horrified by the thought of having a new face imposed upon him, despite the fact that essentially the same thing has happened to him before. This moment marked the end of the ‘60s black & white era; the apparent end of the format as it had existed since the show’s inception; and it was almost the end for the show too, for a time. When the new production team took over as Jon Pertwee was cast in the third Doctor role, the gulf between Pertwee’s first story and what had come before seemed wide enough to legitimately think of this as a brand new show. Initially shot on film and with a new dynamic, flamboyant ‘action hero’ portrayal of the lead character, who indulged in alien forms of martial arts, toyed with high-tech gizmos and enjoyed racing around in a succession of distinctive vehicles of various types during his mostly earth-based adventures as scientific adviser to UNIT, this was, at least initially, the series discovering how its renewal of the character could be used to alter the fundamental constituents of the show -- although producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrence Dicks soon began reintroducing off-Earth stories as Pertwee’s five year term went on.

There was always the sense that Pertwee’s tenure had started out as the BBC’s budget priced Glam Rock version of a glossy ITC action adventure series; but come the actor’s final curtain call in “The Planet of the Spiders” his imminent change of face was this time given a mystical, spiritual dimension as well; and, significantly, this is also the first point in the show’s history in which the word regeneration is actually used to describe what happens to the third Doctor during his final moments on screen. The need for this change comes about because of the role the Doctor’s alleged thirst for knowledge has played in corrupting him, and needs to be instigated with the help of his former Time Lord tutor/monk mentor from Gallifrey, giving the process the air of it being a cleansing or purification ritual. Something that appears to have a similar gravity surrounding it occurs in “Logopolis”, when Tom Baker’s fourth Doctor ends his seven year run with help from a mysterious figure called ‘the watcher’, who turns out to be a sort of intermediate, between-incarnations ‘guide’ from the Doctor’s future who leads the Time Lord towards his own final moments, and therefore brings an intimation of destiny and fate to the concept, as well as the idea of the regeneration being a necessary sacrifice. Both Pertwee’s and Baker’s regenerations add a funeral air to their respective Doctor’s departures, their manner being akin to a death and echoing the act of dying, the appearance of their replacements being seen as a rebirth. Each one takes place with the ailing, recumbent Doctor surrounded by his closest companions in a sort of ‘death bed’ enactment scene.

Although by this point, nearly twenty-years into the shows history, regeneration was now an accepted rubric under which to think about the Doctor’s ability to change his appearance and personality many times, there was still no one overarching framework for its on-screen portrayal. Each change had taken place for different reasons, via differing processes and in quite different circumstances, with the concept being merely a retrospectively introduced umbrella term used to tie together several quite individual procedures for effecting the change. With Peter Davison’s regeneration in “The Caves of Androzani” Robert Holmes brought the concept a step closer to that which applies today in the present series where it has become an intrinsic part of Time Lord physiology: a survival aid that kicks in during periods of disruption to the body that might prove fatal to non-Time Lords. Even here it is suggested that the poison ravaging the fifth Doctor’s frame, as a result of the Spectrox toxaemia he’s contracted, might have altered the regeneration process in some way (‘it feels different this time,’ whispers Davison’s Doctor as the transformation begins) resulting in Colin Baker’s sixth seeming even more unstable at first than usual, a lasting legacy of which is preserved in his technicolour mismatch of a costume.

From this point on behind-the-scenes travails play as big a part in how the regeneration process gets handled on screen as any intentional artistic invention. Colin Baker’s forced departure from the role ensured his instant regeneration at the start of “Time and the Rani” became the most trouble free yet, as episode one begins with Sylvester McCoy standing in for his predecessor in a curly blonde wig, the Doctor having been bounced into an impromptu regeneration after suffering a fall in the TARDIS console room caused by the turbulence created by the Rani’s tractor beam. McCoy’s Doctor took some time to settle into his true persona, only gradually finding his role as strategizing cosmic manipulator. The series had only recently re-gained its footing and found a tempo and style of storytelling in keeping with the show’s heritage and the comic book influences of its current script editor Andrew Cartmel when the BBC cancelled the show, leaving McCoy as seventh Doctor in residence until the failed attempt to re-launch the series in 1996, with the American produced TV movie starring Paul McGann as the eight Doctor.

Here the regeneration process becomes merely one more unnecessary attempt to shoehorn as many back references to the BBC series as possible into a film that entirely fails to work either as a re-versioned franchise (whose makers were hoping to hook in a whole new audience in the US) or as a bigger budgeted continuation of former glories. A lot of time is wasted introducing McCoy’s Doctor to a new audience, most of whom would not have been aware of the show’s thirty year history as a bastion of British TV. But then having him machine-gunned full of lead by gang members in a New York back alley as soon as he steps out of the TARDIS doors seems weirdly disrespectful to the spirit of the classic series and particularly so towards the notion developed during McCoy’s tenure that McCoy’s Doctor was always several steps ahead of the game and working to a cosmic plan, the details of which only he was ever party to. The regeneration process here looks as though it adheres to the template now set firmly in place since Peter Davison’s hand-on to Colin Baker, although it’s given a Gothic flavoured, Cronenbergian body horror twist coupled with Christian iconography, as McGann’s Byronic Doctor emerges wrapped in the shroud that masked the contorted facial morphing that could be glimpsed beneath his morgue sheet amid flashes of lightening, during what looks to be, in this particular instance, an agonising biological process.

The failure of the TV movie to capture an interested contemporary audience left the series looking like a spent force, of interest only to the small but dedicated band of followers who consumed the Virgin New Adventures series of novels and/or listened to the Big Finish audio range. When Russell T Davies re-launched the show in 2005 as a BBC Wales concern he learned from the TV movie’s mistakes and completely ignored the regeneration mythology, apart from one little dialogue reference in the first episode, after Christopher Ecclestone’s ninth Doctor catches sight of his reflection in Jackie Tyler’s living room mirror, implying his regeneration had been a recent occurrence even though we never saw McGann’s exit. Ecclestone’s stripped down, back-to-basics approach to characterising the new Doctor allowed the series to breathe freely again, no longer weighted down and over burdened by its history and therefore able to re-introduce its core themes in a context that made them seem new and magical once more for a new audience. Ecclestone’s regeneration in “The Parting of the Ways” at the end of the successful first series, borrowed heavily from Davison’s in that the Doctor ‘dies’ in the act of rescuing his companion Rose from death, this time  after she absorbs the energy of the time vortex.

Although it adheres to the notion that the process is part of Time Lord biology (‘Time Lords have this little trick … a sort of way of cheating death.’), Ecclestone plays his final moments -- in keeping with the air of forced chirpiness which had always been part of the ninth Doctor’s persona, developed as a way of coping with the survivor guilt he feels in response to the tragedy of outlasting his race in the aftermath of the Time War -- with a wistful yet upbeat and reassuring front, masking his evident regret that he won’t be seeing Rose ever again ‘at least not like this.’ In this case, the Doctor’s regeneration is used as a means of re-focusing attention on Rose and her place as companion, and the Doctor’s final words offer a reassuring coda to their relationship: ‘before I go, I just want to tell you … you were fantastic! And you know what? So was I!’

Perhaps because the next four years saw David Tennant slowly but surely establish the BBC Wales series as the new bedrock of the BBC’s Saturday evening schedules, when he finally decided to leave the show -- a decision that came at the same moment Russell T. Davies stepped down from the show runner role -- along with most of the remaining members of the team who had been there for the 2005 re-launch, Davies couldn’t resist turning the regeneration event into a bitter-sweet spectacle celebrating the entire Davies era, where every past companion or friendly acquaintance since 2005 gets a visit from Tennant’s painfully slow-dying Doctor. This time the process plays out like the final moments of a patient with a terminal disease, going through the full range of emotions from anger, sorrow, fear and finally acceptance as he looks back upon the life he’s lived and the people he’s shared it with. Arguably, this lengthy sequence tips over into sentimentality bordering on extreme mawkishness, Tennant’s Doctor seemingly taking forever to succumb to the inevitable and finally departing with a regretful, somewhat self-pitying ‘ I don’t want to go!’

And so now we await Matt Smith to take his place in this cycle of change and endless rebirth. We can only speculate on how current show runner Steven Moffat will choose to handle this momentous event. Already we’ve seen indications that, this time out, the regeneration is not going to be as straightforward a process as it has come to seem in the past, with a new secret incarnation played by John Hurt having already been unveiled as a prelude to the forthcoming 50th anniversary special in November, when David Tennant makes a (presumably) brief comeback too. Moffat’s penchant for highly involved and complex time travel-based plotting is surely going to work its way into the process somehow, maybe resulting in a new way of looking at the regeneration trope which has more of a connection to its earlier usage in the 1960s and 70s than has been common of late. For now, this set makes for an expensive but extremely handsome and well-designed reminder of this long-running series’ capacity for self-renewal, and its acceptance of change as a condition of its lasting ability to endure.


Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing But the Night

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