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Doctor Who: Regeneration

DocwhoregBBC DVD Box Set

Out Now
Review by: David Stonehouse

Doctor Who is 50 years old in November and, as you’d expect, there’s an awful lot of memorabilia already out or coming soon to cash in on all the excitement. It’s going to be wise to do a bit of research before you shell out your cash as there’s going to be a lot of tat about.

This BBC box is a bit lovely though. Someone had the excellent idea of bringing together all the regeneration stories and packaging them all up in a lovely presentation box. It’s a pretty clever move as it showcases all the Doctors, and, for the most part, the regeneration stories are some of the best adventures the series has to offer. In fact the concept of regeneration, originally just a cheeky gamble to see if a popular series could survive a change of lead when William Hartnell’s failing health caused him to step down, has proved to be one of the most magical elements of Who mythology. Having a hero who is prepared to die for others, and has done so many times, is part of the enduring appeal, and the fact that the Fall of the Eleventh is coming before the year is out makes this box even more appropriate.

So, what do you get for your money? It’s a chunky coffee table style book in a solid slipcase featuring a striking image of Matt Smith in mid-regeneration. Each page houses a DVD disc and gives details about one of the Doctors. The artwork is gorgeous and there is a character profile and some additional information about each actor’s tenure.

First up is William Hartnell and The Tenth Planet. This is the only way you can get this story at the moment as the full DVD release isn’t until the end of the year. It’s a great adventure, showcasing much of the First Doctor’s irascible charm, and introducing the Cybermen. Looking back it’s hard to imagine how stunned the 1966 audiences must have been to see Hartnell’s face change into Troughton’s. The final episode is mostly lost but fortunately the footage of the actual regeneration remains. The rest has been lovingly reconstructed in animation based on the production stills. It works really well and is an improvement on the work done on The Reign of Terror. The Ice Warriors and The Moonbase are both getting the same treatment which means we’ll finally be able to enjoy two more iconic stories for the first time since they were originally aired.

Patrick Troughton’s Doctor suffered the most from the BBC’s deletion of episodes, with two thirds of his stories missing or incomplete. As a result any Second Doctor adventures are a rare treat. Troughton’s performance was wonderful, a small and clownish figure at first sight, but with layers of complexity underneath. Troughton’s final adventure, The War Games, is overlong at ten episodes, but it has some great moments, and is of particular interest as it introduced us to the Time Lords for the first time. The Third Doctor hadn’t been cast when the story was made so, instead, when the Doctor is condemned to change again as part of his punishment for interference, we see a whirling mass of possible faces.

Pertwee’s Doctor was a real change of direction. Trapped on Earth the Third Doctor became a sort of action man, helping UNIT fight off alien threats. His foppish appearance and cutting comments hid a kindly and fatherly character. His final story, The Planet of the Spiders, isn’t one of his best, with its strange hippyish plot and self-indulgent action scenes, but it is fun and saw him off in style. His final moments see him stagger from the TARDIS, poisoned by radiation from Metebelis III, before transforming into Tom Baker’s legendary teeth and curls.

It was seven years before Tom Baker, possibly the most iconic Doctor of them all, passed the role on. Logopolis is a fittingly superb story. Season Eighteen saw the, now very old, Fourth Doctor lose his companions and become more tired and melancholy. Confronted once again by his rejuvenated arch-enemy, the Master, the Doctor saves the universe but falls from a radio telescope in the process. The Watcher, an echo of his future self, blends with his dying body and triggers the regeneration.

Tom Baker was a hard act to follow but, fortunately, his successor, Peter Davison, was an inspired piece of casting. His Doctor was vulnerable, gentle and kind, and, like Matt Smith, had a young face but old wise eyes. The Caves of Androzani is the best adventure here and widely considered one of the best Who stories ever made. Davison was never better and Robert Holmes’ script was beautifully crafted, combining a Phantom of the Opera style villain with the brutality of innocents caught up in conflict. When he and Peri are infected with spectrox toxaemia, and there is only enough antidote for one, the Fifth Doctor lays down his life for his friend without a moment’s hesitation.

The saddest thing here is the omission of Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor. The page dedicated to him is very generous, and rightly so, because his short-lived incarnation was full of energy and imagination. The Sixth Doctor was never understated, but his brash and abrasive exterior concealed a deeply moral character and Revelation of the Daleks remains one of the finest adventures of any Doctor. Unfortunately, due to the shoddy way he was treated by the BBC powers that be, Colin Baker’s Doctor was never given a proper regeneration story and so all we get of him is a few seconds of him sitting up in Davison’s cricket outfit. What we do get is Time and the Rani, which does feature the regeneration in its opening moments, but laughably, it’s only Sylvester McCoy in a wig. Time and the Rani really isn’t a very good story and having it follow The Caves of Androzani only helps to highlight its many failings. Sylvester McCoy later developed a very complex, manipulative and alien interpretation of the Seventh Doctor, but there is no evidence of it here. Instead he bumbles about in slapstic mode, disoriented and, apparently, so confused that he can mistake Kate O’Mara for Bonnie Langford.

McCoy is much better served in the TV Movie. The Seventh Doctor gets enough screen time to count as a proper farewell before he is caught up in a gangland shooting and declared dead. He then regenerates in a morgue becoming Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor. This is the only screen appearance of McGann’s Doctor and it’s wonderful. He’s manic and confused after the regeneration, but every inch the Doctor from the word go. It’s a wistful look at what might have been if the planned new series had been picked up and carried through. Fortunately, this one brief appearance was enough to secure the Eigth Doctor a place in fans’ hearts and McGann has gone on to reprise the role in many Big Finish audio adventures. Anyone curious for more would to well to get themself a copy of the outstanding The Chimes of Midnight.

When Doctor Who finally returned it was with a new Doctor, the Ninth (possibly), played by Christopher Ecclestone. No details have been given so far about what caused the Eighth to regenerate although it seems likely to be something to do with the much mentioned Great Time War. With the feature-length anniversary special on the way and John Hurt’s mysterious ‘extra’ Doctor revealed at the end of The Name of the Doctor there’s a good chance that we might finally get some of the gaps filled in.

Ecclestone’s Doctor was an unexpected choice when the show returned. Russell T Davies opted for a shell-shocked, damaged Doctor. He was unpredictable, manic, cowardly and cruel, but as the season unfolded he found his purpose again through his friendship with Rose. Ecclestone’s year was a mixed bag in terms of quality but the final two-parter, Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways proved what new Who could achieve. The story balances the huge – a giant Dalek fleet, with the small and personal – the love of Rose and her restored Doctor – perfectly, to create a genuinely heart-breaking finale. Both are prepared to sacrifice themselves for the other, and of course it is the Doctor who pays the price to save the friend who helped him find himself again.

And so to the last adventure. David Tennant is the only actor who has managed to equal the universal appeal of Tom Baker’s incarnation. Intense, alien, witty, serious, emotional and joyful, the Tenth Doctor was always magnificent, even when the material he was given wasn’t that great. Fortunately, his final episodes are among his best, and really give Tennant the actor the chance to show what he can do. One quiet character scene between Tennant and Bernard Cribbins in the second episode is one of the finest pieces of acting in the show’s entire fifty year run

The Master returns but, inevitably, he isn’t the real enemy, just a cog in the wheel of the Time Lords’ attempt to escape the timelock hell they were left in after the Great Time War. In the classic series the Time Lords had always been a shady, morally ambiguous race and their destructive return only emphasises the Doctor’s loneliness and isolation. In the end, of course, after all the epic struggle, the Tenth Doctor’s demise comes down to his compassion for a scared old man, trapped in a box, who knocks four times. And, if the extended farewell seems a bit self indulgent, you can forgive the actor and producer for wanting to say goodbye properly. Tennant and Davies were fans as kids and their passion and enthusiasm for the show has guaranteed Doctor Who a life far beyond its fiftieth birthday.

Matt Smith, who hasn’t regenerated yet, only features in his ‘Geronimo!’ cameo when the TARDIS, damaged by the violence of the Tenth Doctor’s delayed regeneration spirals out of control towards a quiet garden and a meeting with the little girl who waited.

Doctor Who: Regeneration is a fantastic, beautifully presented, package. The only real niggle is that the DVDs come without the extras you’d get on the separate releases, which is a bit of a shame, but given the 1100+ minutes combined running time of the stories it’s hard to complain too much.

This is a souvenir for genuine fans who want something solid to celebrate 50 years of Doctor Who, and, at about £40 for 9 complete adventures presented in style, it’s pretty good value as well.

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