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If there’s one aspect of Doctor Who that most fans and casual viewers know all about it’s the Doctor’s ability to regenerate. His chameleon-like power to completely transform his body – and personality – is one of the cornerstones of the series, fuelling countless debates between the fans and providing script writers and novelists with a unique plot device.

Since his first regeneration in the 1966 story ‘The Tenth Planet’, the Doctor has racked up a total of nine transformations to date, establishing a tradition which has given Doctor Who an extraordinary television lifespan. Arguably the concept has evolved into a phenomenon in its own right, occupying its own special niche in the series’ labyrinthine history, and presenting the curious fan with an intriguing subject to explore. In fact, even the most basic analysis will inevitably retrace the footsteps of a legion of fans who have already given the matter serious thought. Misha Lauenstein’s recent article (see Issue 8 of the Canadian Doctor Who fan magazine ‘Whotopia’) is a choice example, demonstrating the fascination that the topic holds amongst followers of the series. Taking into account the extent of this fascination, where should any new observations be directed on the theme of the Time Lords’ gift?

Certainly one useful starting point is to outline some of the perspectives from which it might be scrutinised. The causes and effects behind each of the Doctor’s transformations provide ample opportunity for debating the whys and wherefores of regeneration. From a purely technical standpoint, regeneration might be the basis of a scientific debate on the nature of life extension (see Chapter 9 ‘To Live Forever: How Close Are We to Regeneration?’ in Michael White’s 2005 book A Teaspoon and an Open Mind: The Science of Doctor Who). Alternatively, from a marketing angle, its ability to prolong the longevity of a television series makes it an obvious focus for those interested in successful programme-making. Further still, the growing mythology of regeneration offers prime discussion material, nourished by a range of questions, some already answered (e.g. How did the Time Lords acquire this attribute? Does it have a limit?), some still open to conjecture (e.g. Can that limit be extended?).

The above perspectives are merely the tip of the iceberg, demonstrating the serious challenge posed by hitting upon a fresh approach to regeneration. This particular analysis will not claim to meet this challenge, although it will avoid the routes previously mentioned. To be specific, it is the style of the Doctor’s various bodily ‘makeovers’ which will occupy the remainder of this short examination, the result of which will be to try and shed some light on the manner in which the process has been portrayed on-screen, and how each version has influenced its successors.

The art of regeneration has changed over the years, sometimes subtly, sometimes spectacularly. From the “white out” effect of the Doctor’s début regeneration and the multiple faces of his second, to the clear, almost seamless transition of the third and the three-way metamorphosis of the fourth, each occasion has marked a clear stylistic shift, reflecting the thoughts and ideas of the incumbent production team as well as the limits of the special effects at their disposal.

Limited special effects were certainly not in evidence during the dramatic regeneration of the Ninth Doctor – a visual event built upon the latest twenty-first century television technology. However, it was a cruder, more primitive television magic which first portrayed regeneration: the Doctor, lying supine on the floor of the TARDIS’ console room, his features becoming increasingly indistinct in a blaze of white light until they vanished completely. The effect was then reversed, revealing the face of the Doctor’s second incarnation.

To have the lead character literally vanish before his audience’s eyes and be replaced by a complete stranger was an enormous leap in the imaginations of the programme makers. Such an event would never have had the same effect on radio, demonstrating what television does best – captivating the viewer with the spectacle of the visual. This ground-breaking event pushed the boundaries of television broadcasting to their limits, delivering a knock-out blow to those who would claim that a lead character is inescapably tied to the actor who first portrays him.

The second regeneration, shown at the climax of the 1969 epic ‘The War Games’, presented a number of important changes in the way the process was realised. Firstly, it began whilst the Doctor was conscious and standing; secondly, the camera shot showed an isolated image of the Doctor’s face which was then seen to multiply, each newly arrived image being overlaid and rotated about the others until it was no longer clear which was the original. Thirdly, the Doctor was seen to exhibit a number of muscular facial contortions, seemingly emphasising the massive biological upheaval occurring just beneath the surface. Finally, the whole effect was shrouded in shadow, leaving the arrival of the new Doctor tantalisingly out of visual reach.

Like its predecessor, the second transformation did not show the pre-change Doctor and post-change Doctor in the same camera shot. The archetype escaped this technical issue by obscuring the Doctor’s face in a white void before cutting to the next shot. The second avoided the problem altogether by choosing not to reveal the Doctor’s new appearance until the following story.

Observing the contrasting styles of the first two regenerations reveals how they appear so dissimilar and yet fundamentally the same. This crucial balance between fresh ideas and basic continuity has shaped the way regeneration has been expressed, furnishing it with a distinctive edge which has kept it free from symptoms of visual fatigue. This careful balancing act creates a “regeneration model” which lends future makers of the series a visual scaffolding to support and inform their own ideas.

By the time of the Doctor’s third regeneration in ‘Planet of the Spiders’, first broadcast in 1974, colour broadcasting had become part of the television landscape. This development meant that the Doctor’s first transformation in five years was the first to be transmitted in colour. Importantly, it was also the foremost example of the Doctor metamorphosing into his new body in a single camera shot, a clear sign of the advances made in the world of budget-production special effects.

In common with the original regeneration the Doctor was unconscious at its outset; like its forerunners there was no ‘mid-way’ image of the Doctor changing. However, the arrival of the Doctor’s fourth incarnation did involve limited make-up alterations in the shape of some serious hairstyling. This cosmetic change was an attempt to give the unruly curls of the newly regenerated Doctor some resemblance to the more sculptured mane of his predecessor.

The fourth example of regeneration, witnessed in the concluding episode of the 1981 classic ‘Logopolis’, saw a number of breaks with tradition. The first and perhaps most obvious reworking was the introduction of a visual retrospective shortly before the regeneration commenced. This sequence was split into two parts: the first showed some of the Doctor’s various enemies, the last of whom, namely the Black Guardian, was seen to explicitly threaten the Doctor’s demise – highly appropriate given the context; the second portrayed the companions who travelled with the Doctor’s fourth incarnation, each of whom calls the Doctor’s name, ultimately linking his final mental reflection with the real calls of the three companions who are physically present. This series of remembrances gave the viewer a very personal glimpse into the private mental world of the Doctor, demonstrating the manner in which the memories of a particular Doctor’s life are flashed before his eyes. His final line (“It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for.”) gilded the moment with a sense of destiny, highlighting the Doctor’s awareness of his imminent change.

The second alteration was the presence of a third party in the regeneration process. This new ingredient was an ambiguous character known as the Watcher, who was ultimately discovered to be a projection of the Doctor’s future self. The use of an additional personality enabled the special effects department to deliver a multi-layered transformation containing several distinct stages. Firstly, the Doctor (in traditional supine position) was seen to raise his arm towards the ghostly Watcher, consciously beckoning his future towards himself. The Watcher then merged with the Doctor, a close-up of the Doctor’s face revealing it slowly morphing into that of the Watcher, who in turn was replaced in stages by a heavily made-up new Doctor, resembling a transitional phase between the Watcher and the Doctor’s soon to be fifth persona. Finally, the new Doctor appeared and immediately proceeded to sit up, looking with fresh eyes upon the world around him.

New television technologies and a retrospective prelude gave the sequence a polished and original look. The various phases of the regeneration helped to illustrate the bodily changes taking place, whilst simultaneously showing off the advances made by the special effects gurus. Interestingly, the decision to have the Doctor sit up within moments of his regeneration was an unusual move, reinforcing the physical presence of this new, vital Doctor.

The only clear links with previous regeneration models were the Doctor’s supine position and his conscious state at the start. Beyond these two points the fourth instance was very much a trendsetter, establishing new methods in the art of regeneration and presenting future examples with a rich store of innovations to draw upon.

‘'The Caves of Androzani’, originally transmitted in 1984, played witness to the Doctor’s fifth regeneration. Perhaps in tribute to the original the change took place in the confines of the TARDIS’ console room, the Doctor once more adopting the oft-used supine position. His remark (“Is this death?”) shortly before regenerating conferred a chilling feel to the sequence, forcing the viewer to recognise the small death necessary for the Doctor to save himself. Like its precursor, the fifth regeneration came complete with a visual retrospective of the fifth Doctor’s companions, only this time each companion made a personal observation of the Time Lord and the importance of his survival. The fact that the Doctor’s final word (“Adric”) poignantly referred to a dead companion emphasised his preoccupation with mortality and his decision, conscious or otherwise, to activate his only means of survival.

Strikingly it was the Doctor’s arch rival, the Master, who became his final mental “visitor”, leaving in his wake a potent after image. The Master’s brutal, gloating visage, which repeatedly demanded that the Doctor must die, delivered a tangible sense of tension to the sequence. This image was then magnified until it eventually filled the screen, blocking out the Doctor’s companions and their echoing voices. Then, in the final seconds, patches of energy appeared around the Doctor’s face as it began to glow, until his features were obscured in a whirl of energy.

In contrast to previous occasions the first appearance of the Doctor’s sixth persona was coupled with the camera shot being rapidly driven back to enable the new Doctor to sit bolt upright, commanding the scene with intimidating power. This modification was augmented by a further initiative, in that his newly regenerated self then spoke directly to the camera before the scene closed.

The fifth regeneration demonstrated a marked improvement in special effects; the dreamlike images of the Doctor’s companions, rotating about his dying body whilst their voices overlapped and reverberated around each other, were manifested in a visually authentic manner. There was also the added effect of an aura around the Doctor’s body, later giving the impression of energy streaming out of him in his final moments.

The sixth example of regeneration was heavily affected by dint of the fact that Colin Baker, the actor who played the Sixth Doctor, was not involved in any part of the filming. As a result the causes of this regeneration were kept deliberately vague, an understandable decision and one which left the viewer to speculate over the reasons behind it.

Unlike the usual build-up to a regeneration, typically occurring over several episodes, the sixth took place in the first moments of the 1987 adventure ‘Time and the Rani’. The practical problem of not having the pre-regeneration Doctor available for filming was circumvented by opening the scene with the Doctor lying unconscious and prone on the floor of the TARDIS’ console room, his face carefully concealed. When his body was then turned over it revealed his regeneration already in full swing, his face awash with video trickery, shifting and reforming until it eventually disclosed the features of the new Doctor.

This change relied almost entirely on the wizardry of post-production special effects, signalling how far the process had come since the days of white-out effects, facial make-up and two shot changeovers. The one element which didn’t appear on the post-production effects schedule was the use of a wig. This cosmetic addition was worn by Sylvestor McCoy (the actor who played the Doctor’s seventh incarnation), during the early stages of the regeneration to give the impression that it was Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor who was first seen during the opening moments of the scene.

In 1996 ‘Doctor Who – The Movie’ chose to portray the Doctor’s seventh regeneration whilst he was, for all intents and purposes, lying dead in the freezer section of a hospital morgue – a visual move which glaringly reflected the mortal aspect underpinning the necessity of regeneration, as well as standing in sharp contrast to the TARDIS’ console room setting which had been used on the two previous occasions. The facial contortions last seen during the Doctor’s second regeneration were re-introduced, along with the first instance of electrical energy being seen blasting around his changing body. In a further departure with earlier versions the newly regenerated Doctor exhibited amazing strength in freeing himself from the morgue cubicle, creating a dynamic entrance to say the least.

Crucially the whole sequence was juxtaposed with a morgue attendant watching a scene from the 1931 film ‘Frankenstein’ in which the so-called monster is brought to life through the use of high voltage electricity. This comparison between rebirths was a nice touch, giving the process a thoughtful, considered appearance which asked important questions of how regeneration can be portrayed.

The Doctor’s eighth regeneration was never televised and is likely to remain in that unrealised state. This means that fans of Doctor Who have only their imaginations with which to consider how it happened, leaving acres of room for debate over its style and execution.

The most recent regeneration was delivered in dramatic fashion during the closing scene of the 2005 finale ‘The Parting of the Ways’. Its historical references were clearly signposted: set within the TARDIS’ console room and, as in the case of the second regeneration, it began whilst the Doctor was conscious and standing. Moreover, in an action reminiscent of the fifth example the newly regenerated Doctor spoke before the end of the scene. However, that is about as far as it goes in terms of forging links with the past, quite possibly making it the most inventive regeneration since the concept was first portrayed.

The initial stages of the process were signalled by showing patches of energy running just beneath the skin of the Doctor's left hand, an inspired move which for the first time showed a part of his body regenerating other than his face. Almost revolutionary by earlier standards was the manner in which the viewer was then verbally guided through the final build-up by the Doctor himself, his muddled explanation of his impending change only adding to his young companion’s bewilderment. Suddenly, and without warning, his body was racked by a violent, fiery convulsion before a brief pause in which the Doctor was able to say goodbye, fully aware that it was the last time he would speak with that voice.

Moments later the Doctor was caught in a fireball of regenerative energy, his head thrown back and his arms outstretched, flames of energy pouring out of him. All the while he remained standing, transfixed by the process. In seconds the change was completed, revealing a brand new face to match a brand new incarnation. Yet the novelty did not finish there. Instead, even the new Doctor’s début line had a touch of the original about it as he observed speaking with his new teeth for the first time – a seemingly obvious point when considering how a new body would be initially experienced, and yet one which had not been raised before.

Aside from the visual fireworks and tight direction, the ninth regeneration represented such a spectacular break with it predecessors that it just might have given the diehard fans and newly arrived devotees the opportunity to appreciate the art of regeneration as though it were being presented for the first time. Crucially, the use of dialogue was both unexpected and powerful, revealing the Doctor’s thoughts and fears on the process at a time when he no longer had any real control over it. His final remarks were touching, and gave the viewer the chance to bid farewell to one of the Doctor’s incarnations in a way that had never happened before.

The portrayal of the Doctor’s regenerations has mirrored the movements and changes which have taken place in Doctor Who over the course of its long history. These visually stunning events have led the curious fan and the casual viewer through the technologies and artistic ideas of a given moment; some have been formulaic, others have created a style all of their own, yet all have walked that fine line between the old and new, a delicate equilibrium which requires shrewd judgement and a keen eye.

It is said that style comes second to substance, but perhaps in the case of regeneration the two stand shoulder to shoulder. The Doctor’s numerous bodily makeovers have been stylistic worlds within worlds, each and everyone presenting new advances in television trickery and artistic thinking. Writers and technicians, artists and innovators have all helped to craft a vehicle of change which has become synonymous of the enduring popularity of Doctor Who. Creating new life is precisely what regeneration is all about, and whether it is demonstrated through pioneering special effects or revolutionary ideas, the art and style of this unique concept are unlikely to go out of fashion.

© Copyright Jez Strickley & Doctor Who Online, 2006.
 Page Last Updated: 29/1/2009

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Written by:
Jez Strickley



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