Special Features

Doctor Who and the Fine Art of Regeneration

doctor who pic

It goes without saying that I love the BBC cultural institution that is Doctor Who. I went to London to see then-lead actor David Tennant acting with Patrick Stewart in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Hamlet. This night combined my love of Doctor WhoStar Trek, and Shakespeare into one perfect experience. I reached my program over the head of a small child to get it signed by both actors (which I did). The kid was British. He could come back another night. Beginning its original run in 1963 and ending in 1989, it presents the travels of an alien entity, a 700-900 (the show used to be rather vague about his age) Timelord from the planet Gallifrey, known as the Doctor. He travels through time and space in a spaceship, called a TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimensions in Space), shaped like a police phone box that is “bigger on the inside”. Since the main character is an alien, he is able to “regenerate” whenever he is fatally injured (or the actor get tired of playing him), turning into a completely different individual—same memories and basic sense of right and wrong but a different personality and appearance.

When the series was revived in 2005, I knew the basic premise of the series. The monsters and aliens that had been such a staple of the original were now created with digital assistance, as opposed to having to dig through garbage dumps in order to find the needed material to create whatever creature was required that week. The revival was brilliantly conceived, and the Doctor was fantastically played by Christopher Eccleston. I thought the series was so good; in fact, I decided my mom had to watch it. She loved Christopher Eccleston and thought the show was completely addictive. She watched it on DVD in marathon style. However, I have a rather sick sense of humor. I knew my mother was getting very attached to Christopher Eccleston, and I elected not to tell her that he would regenerate at the end of the first series. I decided not to explain to her that regeneration was even a possibility of which she had to be aware. No, I just watched her as she watched Eccleston’s final episode. The ending arrived, Christopher Eccleston became David Tennant, and the credits rolled.

My mom stared at the screen for a moment, stared back at me, and finally asked, “Where did he go?”

“Well,” I said in a fumbling manner, “he died and he regenerated. He’s gonna be played by David Tennant now. But Tennant’s really good.” (I’d already watched Tennant’s second season. My interest in the show was launched, because I’d seen him on the box and thought he was so good looking that I had to watch.)

I tried to explain to her the significance of regeneration to the world of Doctor Who, how the original actor to play the Doctor (William Hartnell) became too ill in 1966 to continue playing the role so the writers decided that regeneration was the best way for both the character and the show to continue. I told her how this concept had kept the show from ever becoming too familiar, as it was constantly reinventing the look and disposition of its central character. But, as far as she was concerned, an actor she had liked had caught fire, disappeared, and been replaced by someone who, according to her, “looked like a turtle.”

Puzzled David Tennant
David Tennant: Right. I’m sorry but I must but in. Your mom said what? That I “look like a turtle.” What? In what possibly way does that makes sense?
Juli: Hi, David. I know, I know. I was pretty confused by it, too.  Although good to know I can somehow summon you by simply suggesting you look like a turtle.

After my long and detailed explanation, all she could do was look at me and say, “But I liked him.”

I kind of understood her distress. Christopher Eccleston had been the main character, the Doctor on Doctor Who. It just did not compute that he was fair game – a potential casualty statistic on his own show. I had had a similar feeling when I was six years old and watched Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan. Even with the minimal knowledge of Star Trek  that my six year old brain held, I knew what was happening felt unexpected and inconceivable. Spock was a main character. He was not expendable to the story. I didn’t think in terms of plot or order as a child, but I knew main characters didn’t die. It just wasn’t done. The idea that he would survive until the end of the movie was a given. To see him die just seemed…wrong somehow. For someone unfamiliar with Doctor Who, seeing Christopher Eccleston “die” had to evoke a similar feeling.

I got her to stick with the program, and she ended up loving David Tennant. For three full seasons and a season four specials, he brought a wonderful sense of both fun and pathos to the Doctor. He was thinner than Eccleston with the wide, expressive eyes of an anime character and always seemed more vulnerable and emotionally devastated when he was unable to right the world in a way that satisfied him. He was who I ended up thinking of as “my” Doctor. So, when the time came that he decided to step down from the role and regenerate into Matt Smith, I had a certain bit of wariness towards him. Mom took her usual stance of “I’ll just never watch again.” But, we both gave him a chance, and he is brilliant. He’s younger and more alien than Tennant, but wonderfully quirky. You cannot help but like him. The show remains clever and frightening and wonderfully realized in every way, with the dialogue just as sharp. I know eventually Matt Smith will regenerate into someone else, and I know that I will probably greet this with the same level of wariness that I greeted Smith’s first appearance, but I’m really not all that worried. I’ll still always love Doctor Who and I look forward to whatever the show has in store for me.

Below, are all of the regeneration scenes of from Doctor Who. Please note, there is not one that goes from Doctor Eight into Doctor Nine, because that was never filmed.

What do you think?  Should I have given my mom some warning before showing her Eccleston’s regeneration into Tennant?  Do you have a funny story about the first time you saw a regeneration on Doctor Who, or even a death of a main character in any kind of film or show?  Let me know in the comments section.


  1. There’s one death I wish I could have seen and that’s Hurst from Deadwood. Imagine the possibilities of the old west.

    1. I’m with you there. Gerald McRaney’s performance as George Hearst in season 3 of Deadwood is such that you do wish to see him trampled to death by a horse stampede or something similarly awful. The show had their hands tied, though, by the confines of historical accuracy. The events of the third season of the show are from around 1877, and George Hearts did not die in real life until 1891. In fact, after leaving Deadwood the real George Hearts spent the final years of his life serving as a United States Senator from 1886 until his death. Of course, westerns have historically fudged the facts when its suits them. My favorite example is Young Guns 2, specifically that the Lou Diamond Philips and Kiefer Sutherland characters from real life had no involvement whatsoever in the events depicted in the film and lived long lives into the 1900s. Of course, in the film both characters die.

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