In a BBC executives office in 1966, a group of writers gathered to discuss the future of Doctor Who. The health of its titular Doctor was declining, and the budding sci-fi show faced imminent doom without its lead. Amongst the chaos, a rather absurd idea was suggested – and regeneration was born. Now, 51 years and 13(ish) Doctors later, Peter Capaldi’s change looks to be just as memorable as the first, as half a century later, we welcome our first female Doctor to the TARDIS. To celebrate, we’re back for another round of ranking ‘The Best’ in Who; but who had the best regeneration scene?
12) Sixth → Seventh Doctor
Story: Time and the Rani (1987)
When the TARDIS comes under attack from the Rani, the Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker) is injured and abruptly regenerates into his seventh incarnation (Sylvester McCoy).
It’s little wonder that Doctor Who hit a slump in the late ’80s when you consider this slapdash regeneration scene. With Colin Baker’s contract abruptly terminated the previous year, he refused to return to film a regeneration scene, meaning that Sylvester McCoy was asked to wear a blonde curly wig to quickly portray the Sixth Doctor before making his own debut as Doctor no. 7. Cue dodgy special effects so you can plainly see its McCoy both pre and post regeneration, and lack of any sort of explanation to why the Doctor regenerated in the first place. A common fan theory suggests he merely hit his head on the TARDIS console, but that sounds more like an episode of EastEnders to me. Mind you, the lack of Colin Baker in the episode does eternalise the Sixth Doctor’s final words as those he speaks in ‘Trial of a Time Lord’ – “Carrot Juice”.
11) Second → Third Doctor
Story: The War Games (1969) / Spearhead from Space (1970)
The Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton) is forced to regenerate by the Time Lords after he breaks an ancient Gallifreyan rule. Exiled to Earth, he takes his third face (Jon Pertwee).
“You’re making me giddy!” You and us both, Patrick. Doctor Who’s final episode in black and white, ‘The War Games’, concludes with the Doctor exiled from time and space by angry Time Lords and forced to change this face. Though Troughton exercises his comedic muscles as he scoffs at the new bodies the Time Lords offer him, his eventual regeneration is definitely one of the oddest in the show’s history. Four of his faces spiral in a loop, representing him being thrown out of Gallifrey, and then the Doctor actually changes off-screen; eventually turning up in as Jon Pertwee (and in colour!) in ‘Spearhead in Space’.
10) Fourth → Fifth Doctor
Story: Logopolis (1981)
Racing the fiendish Master (Anthony Ainley) to the top of a radio mast, the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) slips and falls to the ground. The mysterious Watcher then envelops the injured Time Lord and is revealed as his next incarnation (Peter Davison).
While the Fourth Doctor’s fall from the radio mast is memorable, the resultant regeneration into his next incarnation still confuses fans today. Appearing throughout ‘Logopolis’ as a mysterious ghostly spectre tailing the TARDIS crew, the Watcher merges with the dying Time Lord as he lies on the ground and forms a chrysalis around him. Although Nyssa tells us that “he was the Doctor all the time”, it’s never quite explained why Peter Davison was walking around with a sheet over his head pretending to be a ghost. It’s really quite baffling trying to work out what the writers were going for here. However, it isn’t all bad. It introduced the recently revived idea of the Doctor remembering each of his companions before regeneration and Tom Baker’s ominous final line as the scarf-wearing incarnation of the Time Lord is truly iconic.
8) Third → Fourth Doctor
Story: Planet of the Spiders (1974)
Poisoned by a flood of radiation on Metebelis Three, the weakened Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) emerges from the TARDIS and collapses. After comforting the beloved Sarah-Jane (Elizabeth Sladen), the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) makes his debut.
“Well, here we go again.” Jon Pertwee’s final moments as the Doctor certainly pack a bigger emotional punch than both of his predecessors. Lying on the ground of the UNIT base, it’s the first time that the Doctor seems legitimately close to death. However, the inclusion of the strange Time Lord Cho-Je certainly undermines the gravity of the Third Doctor’s exit. He appears before Sarah Jane and the Brigadier to explain the concept of regeneration, notably marking the term’s first usage in Doctor Who. The effect used to transition from Pertwee to Baker isn’t up-to-par either, a quick fade far less visually impressive than the First Doctor’s bright glow and the Second Doctor’s absurd spinning. Nevertheless, with fabulous acting from both Jon Pertwee and Elisabeth Sladen, Sarah Jane certainly won’t have been the only one shedding a tear for the Time Lord.
8) Fifth → Sixth Doctor
Story: The Caves of Androzani (1981)
With both the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) and Peri (Nicola Bryant) poisoned with a deadly toxin, the Time Lord is forced to use the last remaining drops of the antidote to save his companion. Enter the overbearing Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker).
Peter Davison’s final moments as his cricket-loving incarnation of the Time Lord were certainly hard to place on this list. The disembodied heads of the Fifth Doctor’s companions are iconic, The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot even recreating the strange moment as a dream sequence. Both the entering and exiting Doctor have memorably poignant lines too, Davison touchingly calling for his late companion Adric and Baker infamously opening with the incredible “change my dear and not a moment too soon”. However, the regeneration effect itself is just plain weird. The screen slowly fades to some flashing purple lines before abruptly cutting back to the now-regenerated Sixth Doctor. It’s really a shame that the SFX team made such an odd call here, the Fifth Doctor’s regeneration certainly one of classic Who‘s more memorable moments.
7) Tenth → Eleventh Doctor
Story: The End of Time (2010)
The Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) makes the ultimate sacrifice to save Wilfred (Bernard Cribbins) from radiation poisoning. After a farewell trip to some old friends, he bids an emotional farewell, finally regenerating into Doctor no. 11 (Matt Smith).
This one undeniably tugs at all our heartstrings for nostalgia reasons, but Ten’s swansong isn’t without its flaws. His farewell trip packs an emotional punch and neatly ties up the stories of RTD’s era, while Tennant and Piper unite for one final stomper of a scene at the Powell Estate. It’s devastatingly ironic that the Doctor’s most charming incarnation faces death alone, the only time that his facade can fall down – revealing him for the lonely troubled individual he is. With hearts across the nation breaking, it’s a shame that Ten can’t find his strength in his last moments, with his all-too-emotional “I don’t want to go” basically becoming an in-joke of the Moffat era. The explosive regeneration makes no sense other than to provide an excellent opportunity for a TARDIS redesign. Saying that, Matt Smith’s opening moments as the Eleventh Doctor are brilliantly quirky and faithful to the new Doctor we’d grow to love.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for. We’ll be back shortly to rank the rest of the Doctor’s explosive regenerations ahead of Peter Capaldi’s exit on Christmas Day!