Hot on the heels of Matt Smith’s decision to bid farewell to the TARDIS comes this handsome six-disc DVD boxset of all the Doctors’ previous regeneration stories. You may already be aware of the fact that the episodes themselves are a mixed bag, but how do they play out when they’re grouped together?
First of all, it’s important to note that there are no bonus features included on these discs, although there’s a brief but lovely book that gives some background to the Doctors and the episodes included. However, there is a special treat attached to the first story: The Tenth Planet includes the long lost fourth episode in animated form, allowing us to see how William Hartnell ended his time as the First Doctor.
The Doctor, Ben and Polly arrive at a military satellite base at the South Pole, only to discover that they are not the only visitors. The Cybermen have arrived and they are here to claim the planet as their own. The Tenth Planet has admittedly dated in places. It’s the first appearance of the Cybermen and although they’re not particularly formidable to look at (white balaclavas?), they’re an unnerving precursor to what they would become and the story is strong enough to make it a rather gripping tale. The Doctor’s farewell is also really quite moving, especially as there was no precedent for it.
The next time the Doctor regenerated was in the epic The War Games, which has Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor, Jamie and Zoe being chased from one battlefield to another before the Time Lords finally intervene and decide that the Doctor has spent long enough in his current form. At ten episodes The War Games does feel rather stretched but Troughton is on superb form. There’s a real melancholy to the way in which Jamie and Zoe are returned to where he found them, with no memory of where they’ve been and the things they’ve seen. And then there’s The Doctor desperately playing for time, dismissing various options for new bodies before finally having one forced upon him.
Unlike Troughton, Jon Pertwee’s Doctor doesn’t seem to have the capacity to panic, but in Planet of the Spiders he plays the growing realisation that something will be demanded of him beautifully. It’s a superficially very daft story (giant spiders travelling to earth via a private meditation community) but it’s wonderfully played by Pertwee and Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane, not to mention some marvellous deadpan from Nicholas Courntey’s Brigadier. We remember Pertwee for being brash, stylish, and for his mastery of Venusian karate (and there’s a lot of that here), but there are plenty of moments of quiet reflection for The Doctor as he realises that he is responsible and that he has to pay the price. Dodgy spiders aside, Planet of the Spiders is great fun.
Which cannot be said of Logopolis. There’s some cathartic pleasure to be carved out of Tom Baker snapping at Matthew Waterhouse but it’s a muddled, painfully dry story about a sabotaged city of satellites that culminates in a deeply unsatisfying finale. Baker was clearly ready to go by this point and he only really livens up when sparring with Anthony Ainley’s Master. Even then the plot is too mired in its attempts to make maths and satellite dishes exciting, not to mention a deathly sense of portentousness, to find any real emotion. As Baker passes the baton surrounded by Adric, Tegan and Nyssa, the feeling that these weren’t the characters to say goodbye to the Fourth Doctor is hammered home by those brief images of Sarah Jane, Leela and Romana.
Things pick up again, however, in the excellent The Caves of Androzani. It’s interesting that what is probably Peter Davison’s strongest story is also his last. Some odd stylistic touches aside (Shakespearean soliloquies?), Androzani is a gripping little thriller as two rival factions engage in underground guerilla warfare for life-prolonging substance Spectrox. The Fifth Doctor and Peri find themselves caught between corrupt politician Morgus and disfigured terrorist Sharaz Jek. Robert Holmes’ script has a great ticking clock element right from the start, not to mention androids, rogue gunrunners, and the idea that the only cure comes from milking a giant bat. Davison makes the most of his final performance and finds moments of gallows humour and melancholy before regenerating into the lively form of Colin Baker.
And that’s all we see of Baker, as he doesn’t appear in his regeneration episode at all. Instead, Sylvester McCoy briefly donned a wig before appearing as the Seventh Doctor in Time and the Rani. The story has a reputation as one of the worst Doctor Who stories ever created and time has not been kind to it. With the production team reportedly scrambling to just get something made, it’s a muddled, drawn-out story that is divided between McCoy’s “Who am I?” ramblings and mixed metaphors, dodgy make-up and lots of running about in a quarry. McCoy’s time as the Doctor is often underrated but Time and the Rani is not.
Speaking of underrated, McCoy’s regeneration in Doctor Who: The Movie has to be one of the most dramatic. Gunned down outside the TARDIS, the Seventh Doctor regenerates into the dashing form of Paul McGann (with a slightly ropey wig) for a cheesy but fun bit of canon-stretching. The Doctor must stop The Master from opening The Eye of Harmony, but it’s the lighter moments betweent the newly regenerated Time Lord and beautiful surgeon Grace that really charm. It’s obviously trying to appeal to a wider audience with gun fights, car chases and Eric Roberts, but the continuity provided by McCoy’s appearance and McGann’s superb performance makes The Movie deeply loveable despite its flaws.
The final disc in the set brings us to the new Who era, with ‘Bad Wolf’ and ‘The Parting of the Ways’ bringing Christopher Eccleston’s brief incumbency to a close. It’s interesting to look back at close of the first series of Russell T. Davies’ revival now. There are moments that sadly date it, specifically the robots based on Brit TV celebrities, but the two parter is a lot sharper than some of the finales that followed. It’s scary in places, it displays the Doctor’s capacity for both rage and regret, and it trusts the actors to carry the emtional burden without dragging anything out. Eccleston’s brief speech at the end is a wonderful cap to a series that restored the Doctor to his proper place in our living rooms: “You were fantastic. And you know what? So was I!”
By contrast, ‘The End of Time’ seems utterly unwilling to let David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor go. Acting as the farewell not just to Tennant but to Davies’ reign as showrunner, ‘The End of Time’ drops in on what feels like every character from the show’s revival, making the final twenty minutes feel like a slow-moving funereal procession. The story itself is still good fun, if utterly bonkers, as John Simm’s Master reappears as a ravenous hoodie and finds a way to replicate himself into the bodies of every single person on Earth. Throw in Bernard Cribbins in a hat with antlers and Timothy Dalton literally spitting righteous indignation and ‘The End of Time’ is the Doctor Who equivalent of a delicious but bloat-inducing Christmas dinner.
So, should you buy the Regeneration box-set? The lack of extra features means that anyone who already owns copies of the episodes should probably give think twice, especially with the procession of excellent special editions. But despite some clunkers there is a lot of good stuff here and some lovely farewells to tremendous performances.