Doctor Who: the behind-the-scenes causes of regeneration

Over Doctor Who's long history, what prompted the decision to leave for those in the lead role?

All sorts of things have killed off the Doctor. In the last half century, Doctor Who‘s unique approach to recasting the lead character has seen him fettled by old age, as punishment, by radiation poisoning, falls big and small, dodgy operations and time itself. There are plenty of in-universe reasons for why the Doctor regenerates, and the outgoing Time Lord Peter Capaldi promises that his upcoming demise will be suitably timey-wimey, but what of the behind-the-scenes reasons that the Doctor has to go?

“While you’re enjoying it, leave,” said Capaldi, when asked why he was leaving Doctor Who on The Graham Norton Show back in April. Some had speculated that Capaldi, a lifelong fan of the series, might stick around in the job for years to come, and indeed, he was reportedly invited to stay on by Chris Chibnall, who will replace Steven Moffat as the executive producer and showrunner next year. But there are all sorts of reasons why actors don’t stick around and play the part forever.

“There is a logic to three years,” Moffat told SFX Magazine recently, on the subject of the average Doctor’s tenure and Capaldi’s impending departure. “And for an actor of Peter’s stature and brilliance, he’s cracked it now. He’s done it. […] And now he can go and do another one.”

In all cases, it’s a demanding role – from the serials of the 1960s to the 12-episode series we enjoy now, production on a series of Doctor Who is invariably a job that takes up nine months out of the year. All but one of the actors who have played the part on television so far have had to make the decision to quit the role at some point, but many of them have had different reasons for handing in their TARDIS keys.

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So, we’ve had a look back at the behind-the-scenes causes of regeneration for each of the previous Doctors, in their own words and those of various production teams, and how their final moments in the role were prepared.

William Hartnell

Final story: The Tenth Planet (1966)

In his own words: “I was so pleased to be offered Doctor Who. To me, kids are the greatest audience – and the greatest critics – in the world.”

The Doctor’s ability to regenerate was invented to solve a practical casting problem. William Hartnell’s contract expired in 1966, and his battle with arteriosclerosis, which affected his ability to learn his lines, coupled with creative differences with changing casts and production teams, prompted the BBC to replace him in the lead role. After rejecting a solution where the Doctor would have been magically recast in a confrontation with the Celestial Toymaker, the producers came up with the solution of regeneration as a biological process of renewal that members of the Doctor’s species would undertake “every 500 years”.

In later life, Hartnell wrote that he did not give up the part willingly and it’s a sad way to happen across an innovation that has kept the show going for so long. For those who haven’t seen it, his time on the series was dramatised brilliantly in the Mark Gatiss-penned An Adventure In Space & Time, in which his reluctance to leave the show makes for an especially poignant finale. Nevertheless, by most accounts, Hartnell felt warmly about his successor, saying “There’s only one man in England who can take over, and that’s Patrick Troughton.”

Patrick Troughton

Final story: The War Games (1969)

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In his own words: “Three years was long enough. I didn’t want to get typecast, and one had to get out while the going was good.”

The second actor to play the Doctor told producer Peter Bryant early on that he would do “three years, no longer”, a guideline that several of his successors have wound up following over time, whether by accident or design. Despite the forewarning, the circumstances of Troughton’s departure in 1969 were tricky, with a six episode serial and a four episode serial at the end of Season 6 both folding into a ten episode epic, called The War Games.

Just short of the later retcon that made regeneration a process that occurred when the Doctor was about to die, the serial introduces the Time Lords in its final episode, and has them punish him for his adventuring by pre-empting his next regeneration and exiling him to Earth. Episode Ten ends with Troughton still in the process of regenerating, leaving an open ending for when the Third Doctor was eventually cast.

Jon Pertwee

Final story: Planet Of The Spiders (1974)

In his own words: “The programme is changing, and I’m getting to the point where I think I’m not getting offered work because people think that I’m going to be Doctor Who for ever.”

Season 11 brought a lot of changes to Doctor Who. The Doctor was visiting alien planets again, after four seasons of Earthbound exploits; Katy Manning had left the show, to be replaced by Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith; and, tragically, Roger Delgado died in a car accident while the writers were cooking up a final showdown with his Master.

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All of these factors informed Pertwee’s decision to resign from the lead role, which in turn spurred producers Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks to exit at the end of the season as well. As a favour to Pertwee, the Third Doctor’s last hurrah, Planet Of The Spiders, fulfilled a wishlist of wacky vehicles that he hoped to fit into the series somehow, resulting in a glorious chase sequence in Part Two. It’s also the first story to coin the term ‘regeneration’.

Tom Baker

Final story: Logopolis (1981)

In his own words: “I’m sorry if I went on too long, but I couldn’t wrench myself away. When I offered my resignation, I was quite astounded by how swiftly it was accepted. Well, I can’t blame them. I can’t blame them.”

It’s likely that there will never be a longer-serving Doctor in the TV series than Tom Baker, who stayed in the role for seven years. Towards the end of his run, incoming producer John Nathan-Turner made a number of changes that Baker didn’t agree with, and as a result of his creative differences with the production team over how the part should be written and played, he decided to hang up his scarf.

The influx of new characters was an issue for him too, as the Fourth Doctor gained three new companions in his last season, who were inherited by Peter Davison’s incarnation. Since then, Baker has admitted that he was becoming proprietorial over the series in the later years of his tenure. A few years afterwards, he declined to return for the 20th anniversary special The Five Doctors, but made up with Nathan-Turner in the following years.

Peter Davison

Final story: The Caves Of Androzani (1984)

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In his own words: “I hummed and hawed for a long time. I had set myself three years, not knowing how I would feel at the end of those three years. […] If I’d been offered Doctor Who when I was, say, fifty, then I would have gone on for many, many years.”

Davison was the first actor to take the part who had watched the show as a child, and his portrayal was informed by his own Doctors – Hartnell and Troughton. As an actor, he particularly looked up to Troughton, who he worked with on the 20th anniversary special The Five Doctors, and reaffirmed his commitment to moving on after three years in the part.

Unlike most actors who have played the part, Davison’s last story, The Caves Of Androzani, was also his very best, and in interviews since, he has often spoken about wishing he’d done a fourth year. In 2013 he wrote, directed and starred as a version of himself in the alternative 50th anniversary special The Five-ish Doctors Revisited, a hilarious Curb Your Enthusiasm-esque escapade in which he and two of his successors are actually quite desperate to get back into Doctor Who.

Colin Baker

Final story: The Ultimate Foe (1986)

In his own words: “The edict was passed down at the end of my final season that I should be replaced, and John Nathan-Turner rang me up and said the programme was coming back, but that Michael Grade wanted a new Doctor.”

Colin Baker has joked that he got the role by shooting his predecessor when he played Commander Maxil in Arc Of Infinity, and as the Sixth Doctor, he saw the show through the most turbulent period of its original 26 year run. This included an 18 month hiatus following his first season as the Sixth Doctor, and ended after his rather meta second season, The Trial Of A Time Lord.

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Ahead of that season, Baker told the press that he intended to stay for up to seven years, as his namesake had done, but the BBC’s management wanted to ‘refresh’ the show and unceremoniously let him go when his contract expired. Famously, he refused to return for only a perfunctory regeneration scene at the start of the following season, and Sylvester McCoy wound up donning a blond wig for the ‘before’ shot.

Sylvester McCoy

Final story: Doctor Who (1996)

In his own words: “When the new Doctor Who came up […] and they asked if I’d do the hand-over, I thought ‘Yes, I would’, because I’d always agreed from the very beginning that that’s what I’d do.”

By the end of the 1980s, the show was starting to pick up again with the all-timer pairing of McCoy the Seventh Doctor and Sophie Aldred as Ace, but when the BBC announced a longer ‘hiatus’ after the end of Season 27, McCoy was still technically the current Doctor. He remained so until the 1996 TV movie, in which he was invited back to regenerate.

The size of McCoy’s role fluctuated during the scripting phase, but as is, he’s in a pretty sizeable chunk of the film and given the way his era started, it’s nice that there was a more amiable transition this time around. However, McCoy said in the first ever episode of Doctor Who Confidential in 2005 that, in retrospect, he believes the story should have been entirely dedicated to establishing McGann, rather than starting with the incumbent.

Paul McGann

Final story: The Night Of The Doctor (2013)

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In his own words: “I don’t want to be remembered as the George Lazenby of Doctor Who.”

The extended pilot that was the TV movie didn’t succeed with American audiences and there was no full series, which unfortunately meant that for a long time, the Eighth Doctor’s total screentime amounted to a little more than an hour. In trying to re-establish the series for a 21st century audience, executive producer Russell T. Davies understandably didn’t extend the same opportunity to McGann in 2005 as Fox did for McCoy.

Happily, like McCoy before him, the open-ended nature of the TV movie meant that he was still the ‘current’ Doctor for a while and the Eighth Doctor was developed further in spin-off media, particularly in the official audio spin-offs by Big Finish, starting in 2000. He may be the only Doctor who hasn’t had to officially quit playing the role, although he did film a regeneration in the surprise 50th anniversary minisode The Night Of The Doctor, finally handing over the role to John Hurt’s mayfly incarnation.

Christopher Eccleston

Final story: The Parting Of The Ways (2005)

In his own words: “The most important thing about Doctor Who isn’t that I left, but that I did it. […] I’m very proud of what we did with it.”

The Monday after Rose heralded Doctor Who‘s triumphant return to BBC One in 2005, the newspapers were full of the news that Christopher Eccleston would regenerate at the end of his first series. Going off an inaccurate statement from the BBC press office, these reports erroneously implied that he feared being typecast, but Eccleston, who is notoriously private, has gradually elaborated upon his reasons for departing over time.

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His most recent statement, on Radio 4’s Loose Ends in 2015 – “Myself and three individuals at the very top of the pyramid clashed, so off I went.” True to form, he magnanimously declined to go into further detail without these individuals present to tell their side of the story. In the end, the inclusion of a regeneration so early in the revived series has probably consolidated its success, and Eccleston has always been outspoken about how proud of his work on the series, which gave him a rare opportunity to act in a family-friendly context.

David Tennant

Final story: The End Of Time Part 2 (2010)

In his own words: “I love this part, and I love this show so much, that if I don’t take a deep breath and move on now, I never will.”

Tennant went on to be one of the most popular of the new series’ Doctors, and there was dismay when he announced his departure live on ITV in late 2008, while accepting a National Television Award for his work on the series. Like his Doctor (and future father-in-law) Peter Davison before him, he quit after three series and left on a high – the Tenth Doctor’s final episode was seen by ten million viewers on New Year’s Day 2010, in the midst of a marketing push that saw Doctor Who dominate everything from panel shows to idents on BBC One.

He left at the same time as Davies, but like Capaldi, he was invited back for one more series by then-incoming showrunner Moffat. Originally, The Eleventh Hour would have opened with young Amelia Pond meeting a dying Tenth Doctor, and he would ultimately have regenerated in the finale of Series 5, but upon hearing about this idea and having what Davies described as “a wobble”, Tennant eventually decided that he would rather watch Moffat’s first series than be in it.

Matt Smith

Final story: The Time Of The Doctor (2013)

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In his own words: “It’s been an honour to play this part, to follow the legacy of brilliant actors, and helm the Tardis for a spell with ‘the ginger, the nose and the impossible one’. But when ya gotta go, ya gotta go and Trenzalore calls.”

After taking the series to new heights of publicity around the world, particularly in America, the news of Smith’s departure was leaked shortly after his third series was broadcast, but before the intended surprise regeneration that would unfold across the 50th anniversary special and a final Christmas special. Moffat’s broad idea for the Eleventh Doctor was for him to constantly be dealing with the fallout of a battle that wouldn’t happen until the end of his life. This arc didn’t number his days in the role, but it did leave a lot of exposition to his very last episode.

The showrunner has recently admitted that before he decided to stay on to usher in the next Doctor, he tried to persuade Smith to stay on for a fourth series with him. Furthermore, speaking at New York Comic Con in 2016, Smith said that leaving when he did was one of his great regrets. It’s interesting to think about what might have been, if the resolution of 11’s arc in The Time Of The Doctor had unfolded over a whole series instead. But nowadays, death isn’t the end for the character or the actor…

Conclusion: Doctors at large

“It’s a bit like being the President. You’re always the Doctor.”

So said David Tennant, trying to explain the complicated casting history of Doctor Who to David Letterman on The Late Show in 2014. It’s a good analogy. In the same way as former US Presidents retain the title ‘Mr. President’ after they leave office, Tennant et al are as likely to have someone in the street or at a convention call them ‘Doctor’ long after they last played the role on telly.

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And even after their era is officially finished, the timey-wimey nature of the series gives them ample opportunity to pop back in every once in a while. 11 out of the 14 actors who have played the Doctor to date have re-appeared in later multi-Doctor stories – The Three Doctors, (1973) The Five Doctors, (1983) The Two Doctors (1986) the Children In Need specials Dimensions In Time (1993) and Time Crash, (2007) and most recently, The Day Of The Doctor.

But it’s with the emergence of Big Finish as the official producer of audio spin-off adventures that the phenomenon of Doctors at large have really come into play. Pre-2005 Doctors Davison, Colin Baker, McCoy and McGann have been on the roster for a while, expanding upon their performances and earlier continuities. The character of the Sixth Doctor has come in for a particularly positive reappraisal in the audio range.

In recent years, the company has also secured a licence for characters and story elements from the new series, which allowed them to reunite Tennant and Catherine Tate as the Tenth Doctor and Donna Noble for a boxset of new adventures. The late great John Hurt, who only ever played the part on TV once, in 2013, technically never quit the role, and kept playing the Doctor in audio plays right up until he passed away earlier this year. We’d be surprised if Capaldi, the super-fan, doesn’t wind up doing at least a couple of audio stories at some point too, after he’s had a break from the TARDIS.

Even long-time holdout Tom Baker – who confessed he felt he’d played the role for one series too long first time around and hadn’t seen a script he liked since – has returned both on screen, as a potential future incarnation of the Doctor who curates London’s National Gallery, and in audios, joining the company’s roster of leading men in 2011.

“I never did give it up – because people wouldn’t let me give it up!” the once and future Doctor told Digital Spy. “I’d been waiting for a part like Doctor Who all my life and since I finished, it’s never gone away – I’m still playing it for Big Finish. And I’m still happy!”

Barring retirement from their roles, we can reasonably assume that the TARDIS doors are still open to Capaldi and his fellow Doctors at any time.

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Quotes taken from The Doctor – His Lives And Times by James Goss and Steve Tribe, available from BBC Books.