[List] - Ranking The Regenerations Of Doctor Who



This Christmas, to close out the 50th anniversary year of Doctor Who, we're getting a regeneration. While it's always sad to see an incumbent Doctor leave, it's a rather fitting way to celebrate the show, by ending with the single plot device that has allowed the series to continue for half a century (and remember, we've already been spoiled this year by seeing two). But what better way to kick off the next 50 years of the programme than by starting off with a brand new Doctor, an older Doctor and perhaps a hearkening back to the more professor-type Doctors of old, as he begins his journey back home.

Death in fiction should be meaningful. It should have emotional impact on the characters. And Doctor Who is unique in that, since the main character can die multiple times, that emotional impact can be represented on himself, afterwards. It's also one of the rare opportunities that the show can feature real danger, where the threat of the Doctor's demise is very present. Which is why it's odd that, despite being the longest serving and self styled "greatest foe," the Daleks have never been directly responsible for a regeneration.

This is a subjective listing, but in the shadow of Matt Smith's impending regeneration, I will attempt to gauge the effectiveness of the previous 11 deaths of the Doctor. After the jump. Oh, and spoilers.

This list won't be chronological, but ranked in order of least effective to most effective (in my opinion), and examine both the method of the Doctor's demise and the reasoning behind it. Starting with the worst.

Sixth - Falling From A Lesser Height

Pretty much unanimously agreed to be the worst regeneration going, necessitated by ugly behind the scenes problems, and the fact that Colin Baker refused to return to do the hand off after being fired by the BBC. So, season 24 begins with the TARDIS being attacked, and the Doctor stumbling and bumping his head on the TARDIS console. This is the equivalent to having your character step into an open elevator shaft. It's quick, dirty, and pointless. There is no dramatic meaning behind it other than to get the business out of the way and move on. And considering the amount of wear and tear the Doctor has been put through over the years, it seems like the resiliency of Time Lords would be a bit heartier than a slight concussion. Lampshaded years later by the Tenth Doctor upon meeting what he believed to be a future incarnation of himself, hoping that he didn't trip on a brick.

Seventh - Wrong Place At The Wrong Time

At the recent Ottawa Pop Expo, Sylvester McCoy told the audience that, well aware of the unpleasantness that had transpired between Colin Baker and the BBC had robbed Baker of one of the great moments of playing the character, he promised himself that no matter what, he would film a regeneration sequence to conclude his time as the Doctor. And he got his chance in 1996 when they attempted to bring the series back. Sadly, he left the universe as he came into it: through a combination of bad luck and incompetence. Stepping out of his TARDIS into the middle of a gang shooting, a bullet clips him in the shoulder. While the wound is entirely survivable, the human doctors later cause sever cardiac arrest while doing unnecessary exploratory surgery for a heart arrhythmia. And because of the anaesthesia, his regeneration is retarded for several hours longer than it should have been, resulting in problems during recovery.

The Doctor getting shot is certainly the most physically violent way the Doctor has ever met his end, no doubt due to the influence of the Americans on the '96 film. And it's entirely avoidable if he had simply looked at the scanner before stepping outside. Or, listened to the ping of several bullets against the TARDIS doors before he exited the craft. As with his previous incarnation, there is no purpose to this death other than to move things along to the next guy as quickly as possible. At least McCoy got some set up before hand, and a few lines, before being shuffled off, but still falling well short of a proper goodbye.


War Doctor - War Weariness

The Doctor we never knew, invented from thin air and created from whole cloth, apparently a merciless rogue warrior, fighting at the heart of the Time War, on the front lines of the worst battles possible, and until recent revelations were made, a genocidal mass murderer x2. As the Day of the Doctor showed, he was redeemed in the end, after some help from himself, and despite his entire regeneration being soaked in blood and defined by terror, he came to an end in peace - "wearing a bit thin," by his own description. He has the honour of being one of only two Doctors to die of old age, but it felt very tacked on.

There wasn't anything leading to it, anything to suggest that he was nearing his end, any foreshadowing. Indeed, thanks to John Hurt's performance, he seemed very energetic. So it comes down to the fact that he is no longer necessary, the thing for which he was specifically created was over and he had no reason to continue. Which, thematically is very good. But the spontaneity of it just happening makes less sense in universe, unless it was a result of the somewhat mystical nature of his "birth," which we'll get to.

Third - Spider Go Boom

The Third Doctor was Earth bound and surrounded by support for much of his tenure, so it made a certain sense that when his end did come, it would come on a distant world, alone. Desperate to save Sarah Jane from the influence of the Spider Queen, the Doctor overloads the psychic lattice, destroying his foe. And in the process, receives a lethal dose of radiation (a trend that will reoccur many times over his lives).

It is debatable if the Doctor knew what would happen, which if he did makes his actions both noble and selfless. If he didn't, then it was still noble and selfless, but in a rather mundane way, because the Doctor is always noble and selfless. And it makes his dying an unintended consequence rather than the price that must be paid to save his companion (another theme that will reoccur across his lives).

Ninth - Dammit Rose

If the new series has gone to great (some might say too great) lengths to explore, it's the effect that travelling with the Doctor has on the companions. In the old series, with exceptions, they tended just to be there. In the new series, there is a deeper integration of these characters into the Doctor's life. This is a dramatic improvement to be certain, as it opens the stories up from just being plot based to being character based. Unfortunately, it has also led to too many romantic subplots that prove only to be derisive. For the first regeneration of the new series, Russell T. Davies had Rose take the Doctor's usual role, in that it was he who was helpless and desperate, and she provided the deus ex which saved everyone, at the expense of her own life. And then promptly shifted things back as the Doctor absorbs the time vortex, and channels it back into the TARDIS.

It checks the boxes of both sacrifice for the sake of the companion, and radiation poisoning (which is essentially what happened, the raw "time energy" having started to break down his cells), but one can help but notice that it would have made for a much more effective companion death rather than the Doctor's (certainly better then the farewell Rose got a year later, which was neutered by the fact that Davies was seemingly unwilling to kill any companions). All the purpose and poignancy of the act is bled from it when the Doctor takes on the burden himself. And, in light of Neil Gaiman's later Doctor's Wife, the implication exists that if the Doctor had simply taken Rose into the TARDIS, the vortex would have been sucked from her anyway.

First - Wearing A Bit Thin

The War Doctor stole his line from his first incarnation, whose antics eventually caught up with him after successfully fending off the Cybermen. He was an old man in his youth, and during his early renegade years, he rarely slowed down, dropping into danger with wild abandon. As important as it was for the show to create the concept of "renewal" (as they called it back then), it was important thematically to show that the Doctor's adventures were taking a toll on him as well. That this crazy old man with his amazing box might be the smartest man in the room, but he wasn't untouchable. Equally important was the fact that it wasn't a thing that got him, but all of the things. The cumulative effect of doing what he wasn't meant to finally caught up with him.

Fourth - Falling From A Great Height

The Fourth Doctor is well regarded as one of the best, and certainly holds the longest tenure, so it made sense that he would go out in a big way. Thus, we have the first Doctor's regeneration that involves the potential destruction of the entire universe. With the Master intending to hold the universe to ransom, or to accelerate the rate of entropic decay, the doctor climes out onto the end of a radio dish, disconnects the cables permitting the Master from completing his plan, and then plummets to his doom.

What elevates all of that is, thanks to the never repeated notion of the Watcher, the Doctor knows exactly what his actions will lead to. He beings the story attempting to run his fate, something his future incarnations would take to eleven, but consciously aware that only his actions could save the universe, but that those actions would result in his own death makes the act utterly and entirely selfless. And it isn't undercut by the knowledge that he'll safely regenerate, because regeneration is essentially death for the current incarnation. No wonder this is the face he chooses to revisit later on down the road.

Tenth - He Shall Knock Four Times

David Tennant got a brilliantly devised death, which was imminently overshadowed by an incredibly manipulative, emotionally shallow and over-written walk down memory lane as the apparently dying Doctor revisited all this companions (an episode of the Sarah Jane adventures would elaborate that he visited all his previous companions) which strained the credibility and effectiveness of the moment. The old series had managed to convey this same idea with much more subtly and grace with the Fourth and Fifth Doctors.

But the actual act of regenerating was beautiful and heartbreaking.Like the Fourth, we was aware of his impending death, though not of the when or the where or the why. So, as he enters into battle with the Master and the time Lords, he's aware that he goes almost certainly to his doom, so when he comes out unscathed and victorious, it's a powerful moment. That precedes to rip your heart out Temple of Doom style when the cause of his death is revealed. And that he steps up and sacrifices himself without a moments hesitation speaks to the size of this incarnation's, and the Doctor in general, hearts. And again, companion and radiation.

Second - Defiant To The End

Throughout the run of the First and Second Doctors hints were given as to his origins. Other renegade members of his race were glimpsed, which made it seem like renegades were much more common among his people. But it wasn't until the end of the Second Doctor's time that the Time Lords were finally revealed, and the reasons for the Doctor's constant flight were revealed. Not only were the Time Lords egotistical megalomaniacs who insisted on imposing their will over the entirety of time, but in doing so they resisted tampering with time at all, driving them into isolation. The Doctor's willingness - or, insistence - on interacting with lesser beings, on using his knowledge of time and space to help others, and occasionally change the course of events made him a criminal, and they finally caught him.

The show would try to use the the premise of the Time Lords trying the Doctor years later, over the course of an entire season, to disastrous results. Here, the Time Lords are at their most menacing, their most cold, and their most(ly) effective. While the events of the multi-Doctor episodes would later reveal an even harsher punishment for the Second Doctor, a forced slavery as their agent throughout history, the implications here, that he would be effectively executed, and as we would find out with the emergence of Pertwee, have his knowledge of the TARDIS stripped from his mind and sent into exile, paints a far more villainous role for the Time Lords than anything we'd later encounter. And that the Doctor, with no hope for escape, never saw his fortitude waver, would become a defining trait of his from then on.

Eighth - Falling From A Greater Height


Eight ranks so high on the list for two reasons. First, he dies completely unnecessarily. There is no reason that he couldn't have jumped in the TARDIS and been protected from the impact of the ship crashing on Karn. But he refuses to leave behind and helpless a woman that he has just met, who outright hates him and everything she thinks he stands for, because he loves everyone. McGann never had the chance to explore this side of his Doctor on screen, but has done so to great effect in the Big Finish audio plays, which inform all of his actions in his final scenes. Eight simply won't let someone die alone.

The second reason is, he doesn't survive the crash. Regeneration is able to repair damage done to the body, so long as the body is able to survive long enough for the regenerative process to start working. Sudden, instantaneous death is incurable, which is what you generally get when you crash a space ship into the side of a planet.So, that Eight was willing to sacrifice himself for a stranger, and did utterly and completely, speaks to his commitment to innocents. Happily, the sisterhood gives him a second chance, and once again Eight makes a hard choice. Die forever, or become the sort of person that he has resisted - the sort of person that might put a man on trial and execute him - in order to save lives. Eight does one better in becoming the War Doctor, by choosing to not fight for either side, but on behalf of all those who can't fight and protect themselves. The one and only time he's had a choice in his regeneration, and he chooses to protect as many people as he can, even if it means turning into the biggest monster imaginable.


Fifth - Not A Moment Too Soon

With the exception of Eight, and the minor exceptions of Four and Ten, regenerations take the Doctor by surprise. No one expects to die, obviously. But despite the lack of notice, the Doctor was always comforted in some way by the fact that he would return in a new form (the only time this isn't played up is the first time, to retain the surprise). So even in his most selfless moments, he knew that in some way, he'd continue.

Which is why the Fifth's actions stand above the rest.After he and his companion (whom he just met) are poisoned, he learns of a cure that only he is capable of retrieving. He suppresses his regeneration in order to retrieve said cure, only for an accident to limit the available dose to one. Without debate, he gives it to his companion so that she can live, knowing full well that the poison may have progressed to the point where his regeneration will be ineffective. He willingly accepts the possibility that he will finally and properly die for the sake of his friend. And it's that level of selflessness that elevates the Fifth Doctor's departure to the top of the regeneration list, and makes it the one for all others to aspire to (or, in the case of Ten, be inspired by), and try to top.

Will Eleven leave with as much purpose and effect, or will he trip and stumble to the bottom of the pile? Only Christmas will tell.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.

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