The announcement of a new Doctor on Doctor Who is always cause for anticipation, especially when it comes with a new – or, in this case, old – showrunner. As Jodie Whittaker prepares to pass the sonic screwdriver over to Ncuti Gatwa, and Chris Chibnall gives back the reins of the show to Russell T. Davies, fans can’t help but wonder what other changes await them. What will the next Doctor be like? How much of the current lore will Davies incorporate to his new version of the show? Which of the Thirteenth Doctor’s friends and enemies will find their way into Fourteen’s life, and which of them will be left behind? Most pressingly, what will the upcoming regeneration look like?
No Time Lord regeneration is identical to another. There are the silent, brief ones, and then there are those that take as long and make as much noise as a prog-rock song. There are the luminous ones, in which the regeneration energy contained in the Time Lord’s body comes out in flashes of light from their hands and their head, and then there are those that are merely a face replaced with another. There are regenerations that require speeches, and others for which a simple, “I don’t want to go” is enough. There is no knowing which of these many styles Chibnall will choose for his and Whittaker’s swan song. But, while we wait, let’s take a look at all the Doctor’s regeneration scenes so far, ranked from the not-so-great to the truly unforgettable.
13. Sixth Doctor
Colin Baker’s departure from Doctor Who was tumultuous, to say the least. The Sixth Doctor was given the boot in-between seasons, which means that his regeneration came not at the end of his final serial, but at the beginning of Sylvester McCoy’s premiere episode, “Time and the Rani.” Understandably angry at the BBC execs, Baker refused to shoot his regeneration scene, leaving fans with a very awkward transition done with a couple of editing tricks and a cheap wig.
12. Fourth Doctor
Tom Baker’s regeneration into Peter Davison was a turning point to the show, introducing the concept of the Doctor seeing his friends and foes before his eyes before becoming a new person. Nevertheless, having the Doctor be possessed by a ghost-like manifestation of his next self is… well, it certainly is an idea that someone had. It’s a tacky goodbye for such a remarkable Doctor that deserved so much better.
11. Third Doctor
The Third Doctor’s (Jon Pertwee) demise was slow and painful. Having received a lethal dose of radiation at the end of “Planet of the Spiders,” he agonized alone in the Time Vortex for three Earth weeks before finding his way back to UNIT, extremely debilitated. In a touching scene, he says his goodbyes to Sarah Jane (Elisabeth Sladen) and, for a brief second, even the viewers are convinced that the Doctor is gone for good. But, then, in comes K’anpo Rimpoche, the Doctor’s former mentor-turned-Buddhist monk (Kevin Lindsay). Even though it’s sweet for the Doctor to have his regeneration kickstarted by an old friend, Rimpoche’s fairy godmother-like appearance feels odd. To add insult to injury, Pertwee’s transformation into Tom Baker is extremely lacking in style.
10. Twelfth Doctor
Steven Moffat likes his speeches, and he hit the jackpot with Matt Smith’s touching goodbye scene. Therefore, it’s no wonder that the showrunner would try to repeat his previous success when writing the final speech of his last Doctor. It didn’t go so well. Peter Capaldi is great, as usual, hitting all the notes at the precise time. The composition, however, is a bit exaggerated. The composer takes himself too seriously, the lyrics are trying a little too much, and the song goes on for a lot longer than it needed to. When Capaldi opens his arms to let out the regeneration energy, we are practically begging him to change already.
9. Eighth Doctor
Paul McGann’s dramatic vein is at full force in this minisode that served as a prequel for the 50th-anniversary special, “The Day of the Doctor.” His expressions translate the emotional journey the Eighth Doctor goes through as he accepts his fate during the Time War with perfection, and his delivery fits like a glove with the epic tone of the show during Moffat’s tenure. Even though McGann shares the scene with Clare Higgins as the High Priestess of the Sisterhood of Karn, it’s hard to take your eyes away from him. It’s the farewell McGann never got, and he makes every second count, stumbling just sightly at the end when his lines get a little too dramatic.
8. First Doctor
The very first regeneration is, at the same time, impossible and incredibly easy to find. The scene itself reaired recently, in the 2017 Christmas special “Twice Upon a Time”, and received an animated treatment by the BBC in 2013. The actual episode in which it takes place, on the other hand, was lost due to the BBC’s old junking policy. Only a few snippets of the last part of the “Tenth Planet” serial have survived. One of them is William Hartnell’s transformation into Patrick Troughton, prompted by nothing but old age. Achieved through editing tricks, the change is a bit underwhelming in comparison to the flashy regenerations of today. Still, it was a beautiful farewell to Hartnell, whose own body was starting to feel the weight of the years at the time.
7. Fifth Doctor
The stakes are high for the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) during his regeneration as even he can’t tell for sure whether he will make it out alive. The scene is a direct improvement from the previous regeneration, with former companions appearing through the power of montage to remind the Doctor that he must live – a nice touch considering that the Doctor has just sacrificed himself to save his current companion, Peri (Nicola Bryant). When the Master takes over the screen, screaming that the Doctor must die, the scene reaches its thematic peak, for what is a Time Lord’s regeneration but a middle path between life and death? Keeping the physical transformation off-screen was a smart choice, way better than repeating Pertwee’s disappointing replacement or Tom Baker’s awkward possession.
6. Tenth Doctor
“The End of Time” is a preposterously over-the-top Doctor Who story. It has its subtle emotional moments, sure, but, overall, it is as kitsch as Doctor Who can get. And David Tennant’s final regeneration scene sums it all up perfectly. Preceded by a sweet series of goodbyes to the characters of the Russell T. Davies era, the Tenth Doctor’s final moment in the TARDIS is a great example of how, sometimes, less is more. Tennant’s emotionally charged, “I don’t want to go” stands in sharp contrast to Capaldi’s bloated monologue. Alas, things soon go off the rails, with the TARDIS catching fire and spiraling out of control as Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor tries to figure out if he’s a girl. Way to kill the mood…
5. War Doctor
Created specifically to get the Doctor through one of the darkest moments of the show’s history, the War Doctor (John Hurt) is a somber character. This sense of gravitas is precisely what makes his more light-hearted last moments in the 50th anniversary special so delightful to watch. After all, the Doctor deserved some respite from all the pain the Time War caused him. Hurt’s line about “wearing a bit thin” before the regeneration starts is a direct reference to Hartnell, indicating that both Doctors reached the end of their natural lives – a privilege for a man that fought in such a hideous war. It’s just a pity that they couldn’t bring Christopher Eccleston back for the episode.
4. Second Doctor
For those that have grown used to the Doctor’s complaints about not being a ginger and not liking the color of his kidneys, seeing Patrick Troughton demand to choose what he will look like can seem a little odd. Still, despite the consistency issues it brings to Doctor Who’s lore, the second regeneration at the end of “The War Games” is a treat for old and new fans alike. Troughton is at his best desperately arguing with the Time Lords to avoid his punishment, and the regeneration’s trippy visuals are just as entertaining as the debate that precedes them.
3. Seventh Doctor
Okay, maybe the 1996 Doctor Who TV movie isn’t exactly the art of film at its finest, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its moments. Sylvester McCoy’s regeneration into Paul McGann, for instance, is a more than worthy addition to the Doctor Who canon. The pacing and the editing render the scene exciting, funny, and just slightly spooky. Having the Doctor’s features change one by one, in what looks to be a very uncomfortable process, is an interesting take on the concept of regeneration, and the lightning bolts add some pizzazz to the transformation, even if they’re not as grandiose as the current rays of light. The scene ends with a perfect conclusion that sets the tone for a way better movie than Doctor Who actually was.
2. Ninth Doctor
The Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) describes the regeneration process to Rose (Billie Piper) as the Time Lords’ way of cheating death. This might be true, but Nine’s unique goodbye sounds uncannily like a deathbed speech. There’s so much nostalgia and regret in Eccleston’s performance that it can be hard to convince ourselves that the Doctor isn’t dying for real, and Murray Gold’s incomparable score gives the scene the final touch it needs to bring viewers to tears. Nine’s regeneration also features the Doctor’s first goodbye speech directed at the audience, with Rose serving as a surrogate. Having preceded such Doctor Who powerhouses as David Tennant and Matt Smith, Eccleston’s run as the Doctor is often overlooked, but his final moments are a great reminder that he was, indeed, fantastic.
1. Eleventh Doctor
Despite marking a high point for Doctor Who as a pop culture phenomenon, Matt Smith’s run as the Doctor is far from being a consensus among fans. While some love the Eleventh Doctor to no end, others are annoyed by the character’s overenthusiastic and silly personality. Still, there’s no denying that Smith’s final speech was heartbreakingly beautiful. His remarks about change are just as painful as they are inspirational, and Amy’s (Karen Gillan) sudden appearance in the TARDIS – first as a child, then as a grown woman – helps drive home the message that, just like Time Lords, humans regenerate all the time. The role of the audience surrogate is played by Clara (Jenna Coleman), but the fact that she isn’t the one the Doctor is addressing is made clear by Smith looking straight at the camera as he says “I’ll never forget when the Doctor was me.” The restraint of his transformation into Capaldi helps the scene retain its emotional strength, giving viewers time to mull over Smith’s words and allow them to sink in.
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