A Question of Regeneration

I’m sure there was general disappointment when, on 7th September 1987, the Doctor returned in Time and the Rani. Only he wasn’t the Doctor. Or at least, he wasn’t the Doctor that fans were used to seeing.

Previous to actor Sylvester McCoy’s appointment as the famous Time Lord, Doctor Who had gone through another troubled period. Strikes and threats of cancellation hung over production, and there was an uncertainty about the show’s future. Colin Baker’s removal from the BBC’s flagship programme was considered necessary if it was to survive – although it was perfectly understandable when Baker, asked to make a brief appearance in Season 24’s opening story for the regeneration, declined. And so, with no other alternative, McCoy donned wig and Sixth Doctor costume. An effect was added, to mask the appearance of the new Doctor, transforming him gradually. It was an important moment that would be compared to past regenerations.

It didn’t really work.

As McCoy himself remarked in an interview:

“Colin’s hair was curly and blond and they gave me a wig, put a blond wig on me. I mean, I looked like Harpo Marx. It was just silly.”

But, to be fair, this isn’t the first time that Doctor Who has performed without a traditional regeneration sequence. And it certainly wouldn’t be the last!

1970 serial Spearhead From Space, Jon Pertwee’s debut adventure, gave us a Doctor without such a device. At the beginning of episode one, we see the TARDIS land, the door opens and an exhausted Doctor (Jon Pertwee) materializes before collapsing. Regeneration has obviously taken place – in between this story and its predecessor The War Games (1969). But unlike 1966 adventure The Tenth Planet, in which the First Doctor (William Hartnell) changes his appearance on screen, we never get to see the full transformation.

And in 2005, the year that everything changed, we were given a new Doctor; Christopher Eccleston’s arrival signalled a new era for the show, which had been off the air for far too long. Last seen in the 1996 television movie (actor Paul McGann then in the role), the famous space and time traveller had quite clearly experienced his worst nightmare: a Time War, the greatest conflict fought between Time Lords and Daleks.

The true horrific sequence of events are a mystery, but we do know that sometime after the war ended, the Doctor changed his appearance yet again – unseen to us. In Rose, the first regular new episode since 1989, the Ninth Doctor (Eccleston) comments on his appearance, an indication that he has not long since regenerated.

The Ninth Doctor, looking in the mirror at Rose Tyler’s flat:

“Ah! Could have been worse. Look at those ears!”

There is no question that we all love a good regeneration. The Doctor’s especially!

Doctor Who: Time and the RaniThankfully we have all moved on a little since those early special effects, and can now be secure in the knowledge that, if a similar situation occurred, the transformation from one Doctor to another would be far more satisfactory these days.

So no more blond (ginger?) or dark wig to scene-steal in future episodes. I mean, imagine if something had gone seriously wrong when they filmed Time and the Rani


Sylvester McCoy: Officer you must help. I’ve just lost my wig.

Police officer: Certainly, sir, we’ll comb the area.




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  1. 23skidoo says:

    I actually didn’t mind the makeshift regeneration with McCoy that much – they did the best they could under the circumstances, and it was just a close-up of the guy’s face all fritzed out with special effects. And it did give Time and the Rani – a poor story otherwise – a genuine shock to open for anyone who wasn’t aware Colin Baker had left. (This being pre-Internet there were no doubt many viewers, especially kids, left going “what – what – WHAT?”

    My biggest problem was the lack of any real explanation for why he regenerated. The novels have tried to fill the blanks, but really it was left open to speculation, and, really, the Sixth Doctor deserved a better exit than to essentially “trip over a brick” as the Tenth Doctor later put it.

    My least favorite regeneration remains that of Patrick Troughton. Yes, it is atmospheric, and yes if you think about it, it’s the most disturbing of all the regenerations since he’s basically being executed. But as presented it’s just Troughton mugging for the camera and for any casual viewers unfamiliar with the context, it can’t help but look silly. Also, as I understand the chronology of things, Jon Pertwee was signed to play the Doctor a full month before they filmed the regeneration, so there was no reason not to include him in some way.

    In some respects it is a shame that they decided to standardize regeneration in the new season, but on the other hand by doing so they did create something of a visual shorthand which has several times now (the first time being in Utopia) been used to great effect.

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