They are part and parcel of keeping Doctor Who alive, both for the character and the programme. It's such a simple notion, but one that works perfectly. When William Hartnell was announced as leaving the show, well, why couldn't a man who travels in a police box change his face? The initial premise may have been cautiously accepted, but in a very short while, that excellent actor Patrick Troughton made the part all his own. The rest as they say is history.
So here then is a quick guide to all the final moments to date of each Doctor. It's time to play the Regeneration Game!
DOCTOR NUMBER ONE
Death by: Old Age
Which Story? The Tenth Planet
Where? The TARDIS
Notable Firsts: Obviously the first regeneration to take place, but it's also the first one to take place in the TARDIS. The strange behaviour of the TARDIS console suggests that it's pushing the regeneration process forward, you could argue.
Signposted? Not so much in the first three episodes – in the final part, something's evidently up with the Doctor, given that he's more frail and older than usual. He says “This old body of mine is wearing a bit thin” at one point, indicating that he knows that it's the end of the line.
Regeneration Rating: For shock value alone, this one scores highly. Up until now, viewers had got used to just one Doctor. The ending of The Tenth Planet then came along to rewrite the rule book – you can imagine 1966 audiences wondering what on Earth happened at the end. If social media had been around then, the likes of Twitter and Facebook would have gone into meltdown.
What could have been feasible is that the change was just a temporary trick. Back in those days, stories ended with cliffhangers – eg: the end of The Ark in which The Doctor becomes invisible led into the Celestial Toymaker's tricks. So the brand new face could just have been a similar sort of hook – in the end, The Power Of The Daleks came along to prove that Doctor Who had changed big time.
For its time, the first regeneration is also effectively achieved. It's a simple cross fade, but done with a flared out video effect (thanks to a dodgy vision mixing gizmo discovered by a lady called Shirley Coward). The build up is also strikingly doomy, with lots of close ups of Hartnell's anguished face and strange, ominous, bleepy noises from the TARDIS console. It's simply done, but still packs quite a wallop today.
DOCTOR NUMBER TWO
Death by: Forced execution in a giant Time Lord tumble dryer
Which story? The War Games
Where? In a strange, kaleidoscopic Time Lord void
Signposted? The conclusion of The War Games is signposted in Episode One, in which three men place the Doctor on trial. General Smythe, Major Barrington and Captain Ransom all find the Doctor guilty (the latter two are hypnotised by the evil Smythe and his dreaded pebble glasses). While he manages to literally dodge a bullet at the end of the first episode of The War Games, he's not so lucky a second time for the tale's cliffhanger when the same thing happens again at the hands of the Time Lords.
The irony is, while the Doctor is found guilty and sentenced to execution, in the last episode, the Time Lords sugar-coat their verdict by accepting the argument that he has a part to play in fighting the good fight throughout the galaxy – even though they effectively kill off his second persona.
Notable firsts: We never see Doctor Two turn into Doctor Three. It's also the first one in which the Doctor is left to regenerate all by himself (see also the 'deaths' of Doctors Seven and Ten). Also the first one to take place without the reassuring comfort of the TARDIS.
Regeneration Rating: The weirdest and the creepiest regeneration of the lot.
Two points to chalk up on the creep factor: One is that the death of Doctor Two is treated in comedic fashion. There's lots of funny face pulling and gurning from the Mighty Trout as multiple copies of his face spin around. He also protests in amusingly comedic fashion that the Time Lords cannot do this to him. It's a bit awkward, given that at the same time, his face is burning up and distorting – rather like one of those tumbleweed moments in which you tell an out-of-place joke in a serious moment.
The second creep factor of Doctor Two's demise is that it's a grim last image as he vainly paws at an empty gap where his head should be, while spiralling off into a dark void. Kids at the time must have been left a bit aghast, to say the least, at such a bleak ending. A memorable Doctor conclusion then, but one that's the strangest and most unsettling of them all.
DOCTOR NUMBER THREE
Death by: Radiation poisoning from the Great One's lair. All thanks to that wretched Metebelis crystal
Which story? Planet Of The Spiders
Where? Home, would you believe? In the Doctor's beloved UNIT laboratory, with only a manky chair cushion to make him feel a bit more comfortable.
Signposted? As many fans have pointed out, the prelude to the story in which Mike Yates blunders into a musty spider's web pre-empts the Doctor walking into the spider's lair near the story's conclusion. In Part Six, we get to hear about how the Doctor's guru changed his face and came to reside in a monastery. K'anpo then takes on the form of Cho-Je, setting things up nicely for a similar change at the end.
Notable firsts: This is the first time that the change of Doctor is actually called Regeneration. It's the first time in which an outside humanoid influence helps to trigger the regeneration process after the Doctor expires before he can actually regenerate. It's also the first time in which time passes between the damage done to the Doctor and his final last breath (see The End Of Time and Twice Upon A Time, in which this notion is taken to extremes).
Regeneration Rating: For fans of the modern regenerations, the change from Jon Pertwee to Tom Baker will undoubtedly disappoint. There are no flashy fireworks, video effects or even over-egged orchestral scores. It's just a simple cross fade from Pertwee's face to Baker's (accompanied by a silly, comedic, wee-wee-wee musical jingle).
But I still say that this is missing the point. The death of Doctor Three is a stark, no-frills passing, and is one of the few times that the ending of the crusading Time Lord actually feels like a genuine bereavement.
Staggering out of the TARDIS, the Doctor's usually coiffed appearance is notably rumpled. His face is deathly pale. His voice is just a barely audible whisper. After he has uttered his last words, Sarah closes his unseeing eyes. It's a brave move to take, and makes for a suitably harrowing curtain call – especially contrasting with the karate chopping man of action. The later Pertwee years are also notable for cranking up the emotion a bit, and the Doctor's last faltering speech is no exception. If you don't have a lump in your throat and a tear in your eye by the time the Doctor's gasped “Where there's life, there's...”, you're probably Lupton.
DOCTOR NUMBER FOUR
Death by: A fall from a great big satellite dish
Which story? Logopolis
Where? The Pharos Project on Earth
Signposted? Right from the first part of Logopolis – namely the bit in which the Doctor sees a mysterious white figure looking at him on a freezing Winter's day across a busy motorway. From that point on, the Fourth Doctor knows that his card is marked – hence his increasingly haunted face and crabby temper. Or maybe that's down to having Adric around.
Notable firsts: It's the first time for a trip down memory lane. The Fourth Doctor literally sees his life flash by before his eyes, revisiting old foes and friends barking “Doctor!” at him. It's also the first and only time in which his future self (“He was the Doctor all the time!”) kick starts the regeneration process.
Regeneration Rating: So many things conspire to make the Fourth Doctor's moments a bit laughable. We have a still photo of the Master gurning in the background while the Doctor crawls to the plug on the gantry. We have a very obvious toy Doctor hanging by a thread. Tegan, Adric and Nyssa seem to be looking at three different things as the Doctor plummets to his doom. The Doctor lands on fake grass (perhaps it's the greater height that made the difference, when compared with Doctor Ten's fall into the Naismith mansion). After the Doctor has regenerated, Tegan looks suitably unenthused by this startling transformation that has taken place before her eyes.
Yet despite all these factors, it's hard not to be moved by the last moments of this legendary incarnation. The flashback clips take you on a brief tour of an awesome six and a half years which has produced both many memorable characters and companions. And the sight of the seemingly omnipotent Fourth Doctor battered, unmoving and finally defeated is another moving moment. In the end, quality will out.
DOCTOR NUMBER FIVE
Death by: Spectrox Toxaemia
Which story? The Caves Of Androzani
Where? In the TARDIS console room
Signposted? Heavily. The Caves Of Androzani is a notably doomy story that makes a virtue of signposting Doctor Five's death. Already in the first part, he's sentenced to execution under the red cloth. When he's whisked away to safety by Sharaz Jek, the Doctor doesn't have time to break out the champagne, given that that the nasty rash that he picked up after sweeping grim-looking cobwebby stuff from Peri's legs in Part One is now revealed as deadly. Over the course of the next two and a half episodes, the Doctor almost rips his own body to pieces just to accomplish the mission of rescuing a companion that he barely knows.
And of course, near the end of Part Three, the Doctor almost succumbs to regeneration, in that he sees the same pattern that heralds his final demise at the story's end. Because his mission isn't done, he resists the temptation to change – what a trooper!
Notable firsts: See above. The Doctor nearly regenerates, but doesn't. The new Doctor also gets the chance to speak for the first time in a regeneration story. Specially shot floating head cameos also make their only I Claudius-influenced appearance as the Fifth Doctor slowly fades.
Regeneration Rating: Spectacular. Director Graeme Harper and his oft-quoted Day In The Life influence makes the ending of the Fifth Doctor a vividly memorable one.
The sequence is achieved incredibly well, staring with a neat bookend to Logopolis' Davison arrival thanks to the clever tracking shot into the motionless Doctor (achieved with a miniature camera crane and mic), before superimposing the companion heads and greater layers of strange video effects. It's ironic that the final person he sees and hears is the man who he supposedly killed only in the last adventure – as Terrance Dicks says in the novelisation, the Master has “the last laugh”. The dizzying visuals and noise all erupt into one final rush of Quantel, and then the final Day In The Life piano chord is represented by the brand new Doctor, who's being arrogant and caustic already.
DOCTOR NUMBER SIX
Death by: A tumble from an exercise bike/radiation beams
Which story? Time And The Rani/The Brink Of Death (Big Finish audio)
Where? In the TARDIS control room
Signposted? No. Off-screen politics all conspired to result in the unceremonious sacking of Colin Baker. Naturally, Baker refused to film a planned final swansong, and so it was left to Pip and Jane Baker to cobble together a story that killed off the Sixth Doctor before the opening titles had even rolled.
Notable firsts: A different actor represents the outgoing incarnation. It's also questionable as to why Mel seems unharmed by the violent buffeting but the Doctor's badly affected. Presumably, he took an awkward fall and bashed his head fatally in the process.
But if we're going by the events of a Big Finish audio adventure, then in fact, the Sixth Doctor is affected by Time Lord-unfriendly radiation beams in the area of Lakertya, which is what does for this incarnation.
Regeneration Rating: From the sublime to the ridiculous. It's actually amazing that we do get a regeneration scene, given the behind-the-scenes shenanigans at the time. If you squint your eyes, you may also kid yourself that Colin Baker did actually come back for a nanosecond, since the blurry video effects do look quite convincing.
The original plan to kill Doctor Six off would have seen him take the place of Beyus, sacrificing himself while standing guard over a booby-trapped talking brain. Now that would have been a far better wrap-up to the short era of the Sixth Doctor. Alas, it wasn't to be, but at least he got a definitive reason and exit in the Big Finish audio adventure, The Brink Of Death nearly 30 years later.
DOCTOR NUMBER SEVEN
Death by: Clumsy Ms Grace confusing human and Time Lord physiognomy
Which story? The TV Movie
Where? In a dark mortuary
Signposted? No. Like Time And The Rani, the TV Movie launches slap bang into the action – the only difference being that Sylvester McCoy agreed to come back and film his final scenes.
Notable firsts: The script does cleverly trick you into wondering what the cause of death is. It's not the many gunshots as you might think, but the work of a doctor who evidently doesn't know a lot about Time Lord physiology. It's the first time that a Doctor shows acute agony at the moment of expiry. It's also the first time that we see the Doctor's skeleton, which flickers in and out of life during this twisty, gurning regeneration process.
Regeneration Rating: After the disaster of Time And The Rani comes the disaster of the TV Movie.
But at least the regeneration sequence is quite good. It's a clever trick to juxtapose a morgue attendant enjoying the 1931 film of Frankenstein with the changeover of Doctors. It's well shot too, as the camera closes in on a morphing Doctor – the flickering shots of skeleton are quite gruesome, and the whole process is fluidly achieved. Too bad about all the Sylvester gurning though.
DOCTOR NUMBER EIGHT
Death by: Spaceship crash
Which story? The Night Of The Doctor
Where? Karn of all places.
Signposted? In the media, yes, as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations was an announcement that Paul McGann's Doctor would finally get some kind of closure.
Notable firsts: The Doctor gets to choose what sort of incarnation he will get next, asking the Sisterhood of Karn for the choice of a warrior as a means of standing his ground in the Time War. In the real world, it's the only regeneration tale not to be broadcast on BBC1, only transmitting on BBC Red Button, BBC iPlayer and YouTube.
Regeneration Rating: At least we get final closure on Paul McGann's Lazenby Doctor, and the man himself gives a final strong performance. As such, the regeneration serves as a prologue for clumsily shoehorning in an extra Doctor (did the 50th anniversary special really need to go back to the events of the Time War?), and thus mucking up the regeneration order seen so far on TV. It's a reasonable mini-episode, although as recent times have proved, the inclusion of the Sisterhood of Karn indicates that the show is relying a little too much on its own mythology again, as opposed to coming up with brand new characters, planets and ideas.
Death by: His body wearing a bit thin after a turbulent Time War.
Which story? The Day Of The Doctor
Where? The TARDIS
Signposted? Yes, since John Hurt only got one shot on TV as the War Doctor in a one-off appearance for the 50th anniversary tale.
Notable firsts: The first time we get to see a glimmering of the Ninth Doctor's first few moments.
Regeneration Rating: Well, John Hurt's brilliant, at least. The shoehorning of the War Doctor, however, was a last resort after Christopher Eccleston was said to have declined taking part in the 50th anniversary special. Mind you, if I'd have been him, I would have done the same thing, given that The Day Of The Doctor isn't really much cop.
As for the regeneration, there's never any indication that the War Doctor is on his last legs. He simply bounds back into his TARDIS and basically says: “Oh, I'm regenerating”. For completists though, as with the 8th Doctor's last moments, at least the gap's filled with how the 9th Doctor came to be.
DOCTOR NUMBER NINE
Death by: Absorbing the Time Vortex after snogging Rose
Which story? Bad Wolf/Parting Of The Ways
Where? In the TARDIS
Signposted? Interestingly not, although the Bad Wolf stuff has been slotted in at various points throughout Eccleston's lone season.
Notable firsts: The introduction of what seems a now standard regeneration effect – beams of volcanic light spewing forth from the Doctor's body. It's also the first time that he stands up. And it's also the first time that he explains to the companion what's about to happen (and also the viewers at home!).
Regeneration Rating: A hark back to the Hartnell regeneration in that it's a simply achieved but very effective sequence. It's sudden, out of the blue, but it also manages to be quite an emotional send-off while being an upbeat salute to the Ninth Doctor's short tenure. The Doctor's self-deprecating claim that “I'm not going to see you again – not like this, not with this daft old face” is quite sad, but at the same time, he's celebrating his short life with Rose by claiming that they were both “Fantastic!”
A great regeneration that caps off a great story.
DOCTOR NUMBER TEN
Death by: Bad Wilf causing those four knocks in a radiation-critical booth
Which story? The End Of Time
Where? In the TARDIS
Signposted? Gosh, yes. Not only in this story, but in both the previous two adventures. At the end of Planet Of The Dead, the Doctor was greatly shocked that four knocks would mean the end of his song. In The Waters Of Mars, he's confronted by a solitary Ood, just like in the final moments of The End Of Time. Meanwhile, in his swansong, the Tenth Doctor is failing miserably to come to terms with the prospect of having to give up another incarnation. Like The Caves Of Androzani, he's confronted by lots of red herring death sources: The Master. The revolver. Falling through a glass window. But not what it actually was... Damn that radioactive phone kiosk.
Notable firsts: The first story in which fatal damage is done to the Doctor quite a while before the story ends, probably about 15 minutes at a guess. Between that point and his ultimate death, he manages to pay silent farewell visits to all his past companions. It's the first time that he makes a real meal of regenerating. He's on the verge of tears as he succumbs to the process of change, with the angry regeneration energy spilling out into the TARDIS and causing fires to rage throughout.
Regeneration Rating: Hoo boy, no other regeneration quite polarises the fans like this one. On the one hand, you could argue that it's over-egged to the point of one of Oswin Oswald's soufflés. The Doctor's goodbye scenes go on for a long time, and work to varying degrees. The final background score (as the Doctor staggers back to the TARDIS and takes off) is too pompous, intrusive and loud for my liking. Some have argued that the Doctor wails like a petulant child before regenerating.
But then on the other, you could argue that it's a bold, dramatic end to the Tenth Doctor. The scenes of Sarah, Verity Newman and Wilf blubbing pack an emotional punch, while it's a brave move to see such a broken, upset Doctor not wanting to go. David Tennant acts these last few scenes perfectly, and overall, it's a typically explosive, memorable end to an explosive and memorable era.
DOCTOR NUMBER ELEVEN
Death by: Old age
Which story? The Time Of The Doctor
Where? In the TARDIS. Sensing the pattern, hmmmm?
Signposted? Yup, especially with all the doomy Trenzalore stuff, the location where the Doctor is said to finally meet his maker. The Doctor also handily discusses his regeneration limit with Clara halfway through the story.
Notable firsts: The kick start of a brand new regeneration cycle, thanks to Moffat conveniently including the 10th Doctor's aborted Stolen Earth/Journey's End regeneration as canon. Following on from the regenerative power healing his previous incarnation's cuts and scrapes, it can completely reset the 11th Doctor back to his younger self before the change kicks in.
Regeneration Rating: While The Time Of The Doctor is a duff last showing for the 11th Doctor, at least the regeneration scene is lovely. It's as if Moffat wrote Matt Smith's farewell first and then grudgingly remembered that he had to construct a story around it (while also tying up the many loose ends of this era). That said, I do like the bitter irony in the youngest looking of the Doctors meeting his doom as a result of extreme old age.
But for five minutes, the story attains a degree of greatness. It's notably low-key compared to the explosive end of Tennant's Doctor, but it still packs an emotional wallop as Matt Smith looks back with fondness over his time. The behind-the-scenes footage of the read through saw the man himself have a blub at the table at this point, and it's little wonder. The dialogue is emotional without being too schmaltzy, and there are enough nods to his era such as the eaten fish fingers and custard, and the hallucination of little Amelia Pond running around the TARDIS.
The two elements guaranteed to bring a tear to your eye this time around are Karen Gillan's grown up Amy bidding a final goodnight to her “Raggedy Man” and the final symbolic slow-mo drop of the bow tie to the floor. Jenna Coleman also does a fine job of acting out Clara's grief at the prospect of losing her fella.
And then, BAM! With what looks like a regenerative sneeze (or fart: take your pick), Capaldi's Doctor suddenly replaces Smith's in a flash. Just so's you don't get too maudlin at losing another Doctor.
DOCTOR NUMBER TWELVE
Death by: Cyberman electricity and laser beams and a big old explosion
Which story? Twice Upon A Time (although the Doctor suffers the pain in The Doctor Falls)
Where? In the TARDIS
Signposted? For sure, considering that we know that in his final story, Capaldi's Doctor is on the verge of regeneration. Yet still manages to have one final adventure. How's that for self control?
Notable firsts: The first time that a Doctor changes into a woman. Also the first story that doesn't feature the trigger for the regeneration (unless you count World Enough And Time, The Doctor Falls and Twice Upon A Time as a loosely connected three-part story).
Regeneration Rating: Back in his second adventure, the 12th Doctor asked Clara if she thought that he was a good man. Following those volatile early days of crabby temper, dislike of overly smiley people and abandonment of his companion to decide the fate of an egg planet, this incarnation gradually learnt the meaning of being a good man to the point where he genuinely believed that his old nemesis, the Master could make a difference in his fight against the Cybermen.
From a non-hugging grump to a Doctor who struck up a close rapport with his friends Clara, Bill and Nardole, the 12th incarnation has had quite the journey, and everything that he's learnt, he passes it on to his next incarnation in one of those grand speeches that Capaldi does so well.
The regeneration is far more explosive than the one that the 12th was born into, most likely as a result of holding back the fiery effects for so long. It's a neat bookend to the Capaldi cameo in The Day Of The Doctor in that the first and last we see of this incarnation is a close-up of those expressive eyes. Another echo of the past is to the 12th Doctor's travelling companion in Twice Upon A Time, his very first self. Both incarnations' rings drop to the floor as a very final way of saying that this guy is no more.
Capaldi will be much missed by this Doctor Who fan. Combining steel, wry humour and a perfect sense of dramatic timing, he made his Doctor a class act all the way, and his regeneration gives him the chance to say goodbye with dignity and a hankering for a tin of pears.
If you enjoyed this article, then why not take a look at my 3 value for money Doctor Who ebook guides which span the eras of the 3rd and 4th Doctors?
JON PERTWEE ERA
TOM BAKER ERA VOL 1
TOM BAKER ERA VOL 2