Doctor Who: The Regeneration Game

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After a busy week packed with reviews, I’m taking a short break from all that and offer instead this feature story about a vital aspect of the Doctor Who television series – specifically, the single inspired concept that has allowed the show to continue for 50 years and could easily see it extend for another 50 years, or indeed more…

line-upThe Doctor Who TV series has just celebrated its 50th birthday and 800th episode, something that the production team that launched it back in 1963 could never have believed for one minute was possible as they struggled to survive beyond the original 13-week run that the BBC had commissioned.What’s amazing is how much of the show’s essential DNA is in place even in those early days: the concept of the mysterious alien stranger and the time machine with its iconic police box exterior with its ‘bigger on the inside than on the outside’ properties are familiar to us now but were then genius inspirations of the highest order. And then at Christmas the Daleks arrived which propelled the show to extraordinary early heights of popularity.

The only remaining crucial item missing from the show’s bible by the end of 1963 was the concept of regeneration. That would come later. But when, exactly, did the process of regeneration actually become a core part – perhaps the most crucial part – of the show’s format in terms of its longevity? It sounds like an easy question. If you read the reference books then you’ll quickly come up with the answer of October 29, 1966 which is the day that a weary elderly Doctor returned to the Tardis after defeating the Cybermen for the first time, announced that “This old body of mine’s wearing a bit thin,” and promptly collapsed. In a blaze of camera overexposure his face suddenly changed from that of William Hartnell to Patrick Troughton, and the deed was done.

Or was it? If the answer to when regeneration became a part of the show’s core DNA had such an obvious and simple answer then it would hardly be worth writing a feature about, now would it? So I’m going to controversially contend for the duration that this wasn’t the real introduction of the concept as we understand it today, and that if anything the true date when regeneration was properly established as an enduring part of the show was December 30, 1972.

In order to make such an argument, the first step has to be to explain why that famous moment at the end of “The Tenth Planet” doesn’t count. Of course in hindsight it’s clear that this was the first regeneration we see the Doctor undergo, no argument there: but my point is that this wasn’t what we the audience thought was happening or what the production team had even intended to imply at the time.

In fact the show in 1966 left this huge development audaciously vague. The producers had simply needed to replace the ailing Hartnell whose worsening arteriosclerosis was causing escalating problems with filming; it’s also true that after three years they simply wanted to have a change and freshen the series up. But how to continue the show if you’re dropping the actor playing the character after whom the series is named?

Given that the eponymous character had been established as an alien in the first place, the team came up with the inspired idea that an elderly Doctor could ‘freshen himself up’, sort of like going on the world’s most effective health and beauty spa weekend – one that would allow him to pep himself up a bit and make him young and vigorous once more. There’s a strong impression in the episodes that follow “The Tenth Planet” that the Doctor hasn’t changed so much as simply been restored to the prime of his life, or perhaps to his optimal factory default settings. You’ll quickly see that there’s something of the child about Patrick Troughton’s initial portrayal, his clothes an infantilised version of his predecessor’s and also oversized so that they look as though they’re swaddling him. He’s a small child playing dress-up in his father’s too-big suit, but if you screw up your eyes a little and don’t look too closely it’s not hard to get the impression that if you give Troughton a few hundred years then he will age back into becoming Hartnell’s portrayal once more, both in appearance and character.

My contention therefore is that this is not regeneration so much as it is rejuvenation (interestingly, a term often used in Doctor Who literature to describe the process well into the 70s.) There’s no suggestion that it will happen again – the producers never thought that the show could possibly last so long that it would wear out someone of Troughton’s comparative youth and vitality, so why would they need to? It was a one-off thing to overcome a specific production problem that was now behind them. They figured that they had been lucky just to get away with it the once and that the audience had adjusted and taken to the New Doctor as quickly and as warmly as they did. They weren’t about to risk pushing their luck again like that in the future.

And that’s why I contend that the October 29, 1966 date for the concept of regeneration (as we know it) is a red herring. But wait, I hear the more avid fans among you cry: even if we accept that this first regeneration doesn’t count, what about the second? Why not June 21, 1969, the moment when Troughton’s face spun away for the last time into the blackness of infinity – or else the next episode on January 3, 1970 when the Tardis doors opened again and the lanky white-haired form of Jon Pertwee fell onto our screens? Surely this demonstrated that it was no one-off and was a part of the series format?

Actually there’s good reason to contend that this still doesn’t establish the idea of regeneration as a core element of the show. Granted, the production team was again in trouble with the need to replace its leading man: Troughton was tired and wanted to move on; and the show itself seemed just as exhausted, having overused its ‘base under siege’ format to the point of audience antipathy. Ratings were falling and there was a very good chance that the BBC would simply call it a day – seven years was a terrific run after all, no shame there. But instead they decided to give it one last throw of the dice, as long as the new production team also changed the format to drop the expensive ‘new alien planet every story’ format for one permanently set in more affordable Earthbound locations.

So what to do about the lead character? A new actor had been cast, but he was visibly older than Troughton so the ‘day trip to the super spa’ wasn’t going to work again – besides, Troughton’s Doctor was clearly still full of beans and hardly in need of rejuvenation. So how were they going to pull-off the recasting trick again? It wasn’t until it occurred to Steven Moffat in 2013 to try a story in which hundreds of years pass in a single episode to initiate another ‘natural’ rejuvenation. In fact it’s really here where we see that regeneration actually wasn’t part of the show’s DNA at this point, because otherwise the Doctor would simply meet a life-threatening situation during the course of his final adventure (a hail of bullets perhaps, or some radiation, or bumping his head…) and promptly change.

But no: in their pursuit of some new way of changing the lead actor, the writers of “The War Games” end up forced into the most ambitious extension to the Doctor Who format since 1963, by finally introducing the Doctor’s people and naming them as the Time Lords (although we still don’t get to find out their home planet’s name of Gallifrey until December 1973.) They have finally caught up with their troublesome renegade runaway and at the end of the story they not only exile him to Earth (thereby achieving the format makeover demanded by the BBC) but also, as something of an afterthought, decide to send him there with a new face that looks rather like that of popular light entertainment star Jon Pertwee.

Eh? Actually this doesn’t make a huge amount of sense. Why change the Doctor’s appearance at all? Almost the first thing he does upon arrival is meet up with old cohort Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and convince the man that he is in fact the same person he’d been when the two previously encountered each other in “The Web of Fear” and “The Invasion.” The Brigadier believes this in part because the Time Lords have left the Doctor’s memories broadly intact, and also because he’s in possession of the familiar police box. What, the Time Lords couldn’t throw in a makeover for the Tardis while mucking around with the Doctor’s appearance?

Not only is the Time Lords’ reasoning for changing the Doctor’s appearance nonsensical, imposing an unnecessary regeneration would also be a quite heinous punishment out of all proportion to the rest of the sentence they impose upon him (which is otherwise of the ‘nudge nudge, wink wink, you’ve been a bad boy but actually we’re quite admiring of what you’ve been up to’ ilk.) Considering later incarnations of the Doctor describe a regeneration as being tantamount to death (or at least the death of one’s personality) then forcing an unneeded regeneration on him in effect carries out a form of capital punishment, in essence making the Second Doctor pay with his life for the indiscretions of the the First. Heaven knows we later come to see just how completely whacked the Time Lord legal system is (see “The Deadly Assassin” and “The Trial of a Time Lord” for further evidence, m’lud) but this surely takes the biscuit.

Well, it does – but only with our current understanding of what regeneration is in the series today. In 1969 it was very different; the punishment was merely an annoying change in appearance, one that the Doctor regards more as the Time Lords taking a bit of a liberty rather imposing a serious penalty. It’s a camouflage if you will, not unlike Romana playing around with her outward form in “Destiny of the Daleks.” You could make a strong case for the fact that the transition from Troughton to Pertwee shouldn’t be counted as a proper regeneration at all but is instead just a standard cosmetic procedure available to be carried out by the Time Lord authorities: if Hartnell’s exit was a beauty spa then Troughton’s is a face lift, but in both cases neither has any far-reaching consequences for the series as a whole. After all, there would be no reason to have to explain this a third time – the show was on the brink of cancellation as it was, so this really was just to eke out an extra couple of years.

Except a funny thing happened: under the new leading man and with the new UNIT format, the show was reinvigorated and ratings soared. It would be over a decade before the show’s continuation was ever questioned again, and now for the first time there was the realisation that recasting the main role was going to be a recurring problem. They’d used up two different types of ‘get out of jail free’ cards but now needed something more reusable and flexible so that they didn’t have to reinvent the wheel with a new reason for the change every single time an actor wanted to move on.

Something else also happened at this point in the early 70s: someone had the bright idea to do a story which brought back the two previous stars of the show for a one-off adventure with Pertwee, a four-parter eventually given the rather obvious title of “The Three Doctors.” Whereas up to this point it was possible to view the Doctor as the same man just made youthful or given a disguise, now we have proof on screen right before our eyes that actually there really are three of them, different people who can interact with one another. Moreover, they were very distinct men with diverse personalities that actually get on each other’s nerves. It was at this point – on December 30, 1972 when the first episode of “The Three Doctors” aired – that our perception of what was happening every time the role was recast fundamentally changed and we started to see each of the incarnations as standalone people and personalities and not after all merely a slightly cosmetically altered continuation.

“The Three Doctors” wasn’t (as many still believe) the tenth anniversary special for the show, but instead preceded the birthday by 11 months. However it nonetheless had a fundamental impact on the ensuing celebrations: now that even young fans had seen Hartnell and Troughton in the show, the anniversary could properly celebrate the fact that other actors had played the part before Pertwee. The official souvenir edition of the Radio Times in 1973 had an episode guide that went all the way back to Totters Lane in 1963, and the Target novelisations of old stories came on stream each of them prefaced by a short explanation of which body the Doctor was dressed in for that particular outing, under the heading “The Changing Face of Doctor Who”.

By the end of 1973, one thing was clear to the viewers: the Doctor could change his appearance and entire personality when it was necessary. It was at this point that regeneration had become a fundamental part of the show’s concept; for the first time we now actually expect it to happen in the future. When Jon Pertwee announced he was standing down in 1974 there was no panic about the show coming to an end, only the immediate question about who would take over. The eventual casting of Tom Baker even made the national news.

If I haven’t convinced you that December 30, 1972 was the moment when regeneration properly became a part of the show, then I’ll submit June 8, 1974 as a fallback bid – because this is the first time we see a regeneration in the full sense of the way that the show now uses it. There’s no health spa, no face lift excuses: in “Planet of the Spiders” the Doctor dies, fatally poisoned by radiation on Metebelis 3 while facing down an evil giant queen spider. Notably the Doctor has no real expectation of surviving the encounter: he has given his life in the certain belief that this will be the end of him. While fans might be expecting the regeneration, the Doctor himself doesn’t appear to be.

That’s because producer Barry Letts and script editor Terence Dicks had quickly spotted the crucial flaw in having a hero who can endlessly renew himself, especially if you allow it in a situation of mortal crisis. If the Doctor can defy death by regenerating, then where does that leave any cliffhanger jeopardy? Why should we care if the Doctor is facing danger when the end titles crash in, knowing he can just change again? And can the Doctor ever be truly heroic ever again if everytime he supposedly risks his life he does so knowing that he can pull off his ‘with one bound he was fine again’ trick achieved at the cost of just a momentarily inconvenient change of face?

Letts and Dicks came up with a safeguard to the regeneration process: the Doctor’s regeneration could only be triggered by an outside agent from his own kind. In the case of “Planet of the Spiders” it’s the timely appearance of the abbot K’anpo – revealed as another earthbound Time Lord – that is essential to the trick and enables Pertwee to cheat death just this once and morph into Baker. However that reservation about allowing the Doctor a free hand with regenerations persisted and still applied in March 1981 when it was Baker’s time to move on. Letts was back with the show as an executive producer and probably laid down the law about the rules of regeneration, requiring “Logopolis” writer Christopher H Bidmead to add the mysterious character of The Watcher to the proceedings. That white spectral figure turns out to have been a forward projection of the Doctor himself all along (Letts had paved the way for this in “Planet of the Spiders” in which K’anpo also employed a forward projection of his next self in the form of the monk Cho-Je.) The Watcher was waiting for the moment when he would have to step in and trigger the next change from Baker to Peter Davison. It’s a lovely, poetic and spiritual way of approaching the issue of regeneration – just as you’d expect from Letts, given his passionate interest in Buddhism from which the finally newly established lore of Time Lord regeneration borrows heavily.

Sadly, the premise of the Watcher proved rather confusing to viewers in 1981 and so when Davison’s turn to exit the role came just three years later, producer John Nathan-Turner – no longer overseen by Letts – decided that such faffing about was unnecessary. To be sure, there is still some suspense in “The Caves of Androzani” when the Doctor gives up the antidote to the poison he’s been subjected to just to save the life of his companion, seemingly uncertain whether he himself will survive – “I might regenerate … I don’t know… Feels different this time…” – which seems peculiar to us now when we expect him to regenerate as a standard response to a life-threatening injury. In this case, it was likely written that way in order to explain just why his next incarnation proved to be so erratic, with Colin Baker nearly throttling the companion that his predecessor had just ‘died’ to save.

Whatever was intended, the deed was done and the modern regeneration was now firmly in place: anytime the Doctor was dying in the future, it would simply automatically trigger a regeneration, no further explanation required. It is finally and unequivocally part of the show’s basic format from this point on. Whether it’s a nasty bang to the head, being caught in a hail of bullets in a San Francisco alleyway, absorbing the contents of the time vortex, being exterminated by a Dalek or getting another lethal dose of radiation (once is fair enough – but to go the same way again is surely just being careless!) we know that regeneration will save the day. And in many ways, what it all proves is that Letts and Dicks were right in their concerns about how it ends up giving the Doctor an unacceptably unlimited universal ‘get out of jail free’ card that undermines the jeopardy.

Different producers and writers have attempted different ways to address this. Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes devised the idea of a limit of 12 regenerations – enough not to be a clear and immediate danger to the longevity of the series, but sufficient that the Doctor couldn’t just go around squandering his lives when he felt like it; at the same time it established that even for a Time Lord there is an ultimate death awaiting them. Many years later, Russell T Davies produced an emotional ending for the Tenth Doctor in which it was clear that regeneration is an unpleasant process, every cell being rewritten and unpleasantly akin to the death of one’s entire personality. Steven Moffat came up with a more melancholic approach, the Doctor expressing a sadness at moving on and no longer being the person that he once was, but without the overly funereal sense of death making things too grim. (Moffat also proposed the idea that a Time Lord who is further fatally wounded while still undergoing a regeneration is then emphatically dead, although subsequent revelations to the events of “The Impossible Astronaut” may leave that suggestion open to being just ‘a clever lie.’)

And of course Moffat, being the fanboi that he is, was also keenly aware that after 50 years, that arbitrary 12 regeneration limit of Hinchliffe and Holmes was now looming. What to do about that? To simply throw away a piece of important canon was not an option, especially given that its importance in making every regeneration carry a long-term cost to the character. That meant Moffat had to find a way out of it, and he even fast-forwarded to the point of crisis (by adding a previously unknown incarnation of the character) so that he got a chance to take care of it himself rather than leave it in other hands. Rather sweetly his answer was old school, borrowing from the plot of 20th anniversary special “The Five Doctors” in which it was established that the Time Lords had the capability to bestow a whole new cycle of regenerations at their discretion. All Moffat had to do first is revive the Time Lords from extinction in “The Day of the Doctor” and come up with a situation in “The Time of the Doctor” in which they’d be able and willing to oblige. Simple!

So now new incumbent Peter Capaldi is the first in a new line of 13 Doctors. Unfortunately that gets us back to the problem of how to sustain jeopardy if the Doctor can just regenerate his way out of a crisis every time. There needs to be more uncertainty and a concern over whether or not the Doctor will survive the next deadly threat or else his heroics are essentially empty and without consequence to him. Regeneration is firmly in the show’s DNA and rightly lauded for the show’s success and longevity, but it can also be an Achilles Heel if not handled properly.

(Since you’re not asking, I think Moffat missed a trick with how he tackled the end of the Doctor’s first cycle of lives: instead of going through the torturous process of reviving the Time Lords in a ‘they’re in a parallel universe just out of sight’ fashion, he could have played on their absence to pose the question of whether the limit on the number of regenerations was something that the Time Lords artificially maintained, and what might happen without them around to enforce the rules. Does the cap on the number of regenerations still apply? Is it still 12, or 13, or – or perhaps the Doctor goes into every situation not knowing whether this is his last stand, whether he will regenerate again or die because there’s no longer any Time Lords around to keep the process available to him?)

But there’s surely no question that we’re a world away from where we were on October 29, 1966 when William Hartnell laid down for a bit of a nap and woke up a new man. There was no sense of a concept of ‘regeneration’ at the end of “The Tenth Planet” let alone the one we have today, and there was no more a sense of it when the Time Lords decided on a quick makeover job on the Doctor at the end of “The War Games”. And yet by the climax of “Planet of the Spiders” the concept was finally there in place, fully formed in a way so clear it was a virtual template for Russell T Davies to use when he and David Tennant bade farewell to the show in 2010 in “The End of Time”.

Something quintessential happened between those two handovers in 1969 and 1974 that made our sense of regeneration central to the Doctor Who format. And that’s how I summarise and conclude my case for the first episode of “The Three Doctors” on December 30, 1972 as being the true date for the start of the regeneration game.

Anyone with me? Anyone? Bueller … ?

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