No, not a discussion of the upcoming departure of Matt Smith from the title role of Doctor Who and who may or may not replace him. Instead, this is the latest offering from the BBC marking the 50th anniversary of the show, and is a deluxe gift boxset containing a handsome coffee table tome about the series and its stars together with six DVDs comprising episodes featuring every one of the 11 actors to have played the role to date.
It does so by collecting together all the stories in which a Doctor regenerates, which is a nice thematic way of showcasing the series’ continuity and well as its longevity, as the concept of the Doctor’s ability to change into a new form is key to the show’s ongoing success. It also connects Matt Smith directly all the way back through Tom Baker to the very first Doctor, William Hartnell, who initially created the iconic role in November 1963.
It’s a beautifully designed product, using symbology from the language of Gallifrey (the Doctor’s home world) as a motif which is carried through to the discs themselves and on to the gorgeous on-screen menus as well. The book has some wonderful photography, treated to an epic black-and-white digital finish with some effective use of stylistic spot colour accents. It’s beautifully typeset and the text itself is well-written and interesting – although it contains nothing itself that will surprise hard core fans, of course.
So who would benefit from buying this boxset? It seems to me that the collection has only completist interest for full-blown Whovians who will find very little here that’s new to them. The text – a double page spread for each Doctor printed on thick art board, at the top of which are slots for the discs to slip into – covers familiar ground and all the episodes on the discs have been released previously – with one notable exception that we’ll get to in a moment. You could argue that having the adventures in one collected boxset in this way does allow for an interesting meditation on the evolution of the concept of regeneration as it’s been used in the show, but you could equally achieve this by getting out the individual stories that true fans will doubtless already have on their shelves, and lining them up to watch without further expense.
Instead it’s the newcomer to whom this boxset will appeal: the kind who has watched the show since it returned in 2005, is aware that there was an even longer history to it, but who has yet to find an ‘easy in’ to knowing which of the classic shows to dip into. This boxset provides that access point and gives a viewer-friendly tour through the show’s history at what is – if you don’t have the individual DVDs already – a very reasonable price.
What is actually on the discs? Here’s a quick look:
The Tenth Planet
This is the one serial that hasn’t been released on DVD before – its standalone release will be in November where it will get a full raft of extras, meaning that even if die hard fans get this boxset then they are likely to want to ‘double-dip’ with the proper thing in a few months anyway. Its big selling point is that for the 50th anniversary celebrations, the final episode – the one with the all-important regeneration sequence, formerly destroyed in the infamous BBC purge of its film archives – has been recreated in animated format and synced to an off-air audio recording of the transmission.
The reconstruction is well worth the effort: it’s the Cybermen’s first appearance and William Hartnell’s last, a true moment of Who history. Hartnell was not happy to be going but a new production team wanted to replace him with a younger man. He also wasn’t well and ducks out of the four-parter for a time, and at the end he just announces he’s tired, keels over and … changes. It wasn’t meant to be the big, epochal moment we now think of it as, and there’s a certain nervousness among all concerned that the audience will buy it. But they – we – did, and the rest truly is history.
The War Games
Most people will tell you that any Classic Who that goes longer than four episodes faces diminishing returns as it gets too padded out. Well, The War Games is the exception – a ten-episode story starring Patrick Troughton that thoroughly earns its full running time.
Halfway through the story the villain is identified as a Time Lord, the first time the name is used in Doctor Who. It’s done in passing and you don’t think there’s anything significant to it, but in the final phase of the story it’s revealed that this is actually the name for the Doctor’s own people. They have caught up with the maverick at last, and the conclusion features their judgement being handed down on the Doctor for failing to conform to their stuffy rules – and this includes a traumatic forced regeneration …
Planet of the Spiders
Jon Pertwee was my Doctor, and any serial featuring his dandy-ish incarnation is instantly a favourite of mine. I really love this story in particular, although others dislike the clearly fake spiders (they were terrifying enough to me as a seven year old at the time, I can tell you!) and the way one entire episode of the six is wasted on a James Bond-esque car and boat chase that goes absolutely nowhere.
But the final moments – the Doctor collapsed on the floor attended by Sarah Jane Smith and the Brigadier – comprise my own very first encounter with regeneration. Like Sarah Jane, I shed a tear; and I do even more watching it today, seeing three dearly departed friends of my childhood (Pertwee, Elisabeth Sladen, Nicholas Courtney) together again once more and forever.
After Tom Baker’s epic seven-year tenure in the role, the actor really was inseparable from the role and so the story that writes him out could feature nothing less than him giving his life to save the entire universe. It’s the first time the Doctor has a truly heroic ‘death’: Hartnell simply wore out, Troughton’s change was forced by the Time Lords, Pertwee’s was a karmic punishment for hubris (the producer of the serial, Barry Letts, was deeply into Buddhism teachings at the time.)
Even though Baker’s exit is heroic, the four-part serial as a whole is a strangely melancholic story with the Doctor being haunted by a white spectre who pressages his demise. This ‘Watcher’ was brought in by the production team in the belief that other than Hartnell’s ‘natural’ rejuvenation in 1966, the Doctor himself couldn’t just go around regenerating willy-nilly any time he felt like it (otherwise where would the jeopardy be in the future? they rightly wondered.) All the other regenerations had been assisted by Time Lords, and so the Watcher was utilised in a similar but somewhat contrived role here. It was the last time it was deemed necessary.
The Caves of Androzani
I rather liked Peter Davison’s Doctor; a young, fallible, very human hero totally in contrast with Tom Baker’s overbearing larger-than-life omnipotent figure. Similarly, Davison’s exit from the role was also the polar opposite to his immediate predecessor’s. While Baker could conclude with nothing less than saving the galaxy, Davison’s final act came in fighting to save the life of one young girl he’d barely met, in the middle of nowhere in a battle over nothing of cosmic significance.
This time there’s no external stimulus required for the regeneration; it just happens, presented as being achieved more through the force of the Doctor’s own will. There’s another difference at the end, too, when the new Doctor (Colin Baker) wastes no time in sitting up and saying his first words – “Change, my dear. And not a moment too soon” – where before we would have had to wait an entire six-month between-season break for our introduction to the new incarnation.
Time and the Rani
It’s just as well Baker gets a word in at the end of that one, because he never got a regeneration story of his own. Fired by the BBC and unwilling to come back to film a handover scene, we’re left instead with this terribly humdrum first adventure starring Sylvester McCoy which just happens to be topped by a dreadful bridging sequence in which a Doctor-esque figure (McCoy in a curly blond wig and wearing Baker’s infamously garish costume) bumps his head on the TARDIS console and spontaneously regenerates. Regeneration has gone from being something miraculous to the Time Lord equivalent of a sticky plaster.
It’s definitely a low point of the box-set. Set DVD control to ‘skip.’
Fortunately McCoy had a better exit of it: in many ways he was never better in the role than he was in the first 15 minutes of this 1996 TV movie, a return for the character after six years off air after cancellation (or rather, a lack of renewal) by the BBC in 1989. The intervening time had improved McCoy’s acting skills immensely and it’s genuinely sad to see him go and be replaced by Paul McGann.
McGann is actually very good in the role, it’s just a shame that the rest of the movie around him is so terribly malformed by its transatlantic co-production origins. Most fans like to forget this whole 90 minutes even exists and most treat it as non-canonical, but McGann has gone on to be one of the best and longest-running Doctors in the Big Finish audio adventures. It’s a shame he didn’t get to play the role fully and properly on screen as well. Some of us still hope he’ll get his chance!
Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways
And now we’re into the 21st century revival. A major TV and film star before taking the part, Christopher Eccleston brought new artistic credibility to the series by agreeing to take on the role. Unfortunately, almost the minute the first episode of the show aired the news broke that he was exiting the part at the end of the first season. Whether he hadn’t found it to his liking or whether a one-year stint was always the plan is still not clearly known.
Eccleston’s Doctor had been haunted by his part in the Time War, a conflict with the Daleks that had wiped out the Time Lords; his regeneration, then, is a catharsis and a rebirth of that tortured soul, making it the most clearly emotionally fulfilling regeneration of the show to date. The scene where his hologram image looks at companion Rose and says: “You were fantastic. And you know what? So was I” is one of those seminal shiver-down-the-back, punch-the-air, tear-in-the-eye moments.
The End of Time (Parts 1 and 2)
David Tennant was the first Doctor to really finally eclipse Tom Baker’s popularity in the role; even now, four years after he left the show, he’s still the runaway favourite actor in the part according to a recent YouGov poll. And so his departure from the series – which coincided with the exit of Russell T Davies as the showrunner as well – had to be on the same level of epic as Baker’s.
There’s also an element of Pertwee’s exit here: by this stage the tenth Doctor had got a bit above himself, taking to referring to himself in the third person as the all-powerful ‘Time Lord Victorious’ rather than seeing himself as the tragic last survivor of his kind. The story punishes him severely for such hubris, but also gives him redemption in the end with a farewell tour of all the friends and companions who had been part of his story over the last five years. It’s very self-indulgent – almost to Lord of the Rings levels – but at the same time it’s very well done and effective. By the time Tennant bows out with “I don’t want to go,” it’s hard to hear him over our own sniffles.
And next …?
Matt Smith appears only at the very end of The End of Time; when this boxset was commissioned, his own decision to move on wasn’t yet known and so there is no full 11th Doctor story in this set, which is a shame as it will instantly feel dated once he moves on in a few months. On the other hand, you could argue that with all the interest in who will be Smith’s successor, this boxset could hardly have had better timing.
Who will take over? There’s lots of talk about it being a female Doctor or one from an ethnic minority (or indeed both) although the aforementioned poll suggests that viewers really want Doctor much in the vein of the 11 who have taken the part to date. We shall see, probably in August or September.
Whoever it is, one day there will be another Regeneration boxset release in which they will duly take their place. The story of the Doctor goes on, no matter whose face is on the cover: it’s the genius of the show, and while this particular piece of merchandising might not be a ‘must-have’ it still does a very worthwhile job in celebrating that televisual miracle and in making it accessible for newcomers to share in alongside us old-timers.