The 3 Regenerations That Made Doctor Who a Sci-Fi Smash
A very abridged history of the beautifully bizarre British show.
In 1996, Matthew Jacobs went from writing The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles for George Lucas to rebooting Doctor Who for America. But neither his take on Indy nor his version of the Time Lord are the ones you immediately think of when either character comes up. In Jacobs’ defense, that was kind of the point.
“I didn’t write for a specific Doctor,” Jacobs tells Inverse. “I was sort of writing my own voice for the Doctor.”
In 1996, Doctor Who had been off the air in both America and the U.K. for seven years after Sylvester McCoy’s 7th Doctor ended the regular run of the series with “Survival” in 1989. Rebooting Who for American TV was a gamble — a gamble that didn’t immediately pay off. As chronicled in the new documentary Doctor Who Am I?, a huge majority of fans still regard it with scorn.
“I think fans didn't want The Doctor to become pedestrian,” Eliza Roberts, who played Miranda in the movie, told RadioTimes for an oral history. “They wanted to feel he was immortal and invulnerable, then suddenly, it's a romantic drama, and then he gets heartbroken.”
“There was really no limit to the number of Doctors — or the sex of the Doctors or the race of the Doctors.”
And yet, modern Doctor Who probably couldn’t exist without this moment, which retooled the show’s tradition of recasting its protagonist every now and then, known as “regeneration.” In fact, in addition to the 1996 regeneration from Sylvester McCoy to Paul McGann, there are, perhaps, only two others as pivotal to the survival of the longest-running sci-fi series of all time (and that’s out of 13 over nearly 60 years). Not necessarily better or more interesting, but in the long history of regeneration, there are basically three big resets that were essential to making sure the series lasted for a very, very long time: 1966, 1996, and 2010.
Don’t believe us? Here’s why, in a very abbreviated history of Doctor Who regeneration.
1966: The First Regeneration
To unlock the secrets of Doctor Who’s regeneration, you have to go all the way back to 1963 and the very first Doctor, William Hartnell. Without this first changeover from Hartnell to his successor, Patrick Troughton, there’s no way the series could have lasted for as long as it did. But, in the beginning, regeneration was not born out of a brilliant bit of sci-fi worldbuilding, but instead, out of real-world necessities.
Hartnell lasted four seasons (or “series,” as they’re called in the U.K.) across three years from 1963 to 1966. Throughout that time, the people we would now call “showrunners” changed many times. And none of them, including series co-creator Verity Lambert, said Hartnell was easy to work with. Like, at all.
“He could be a cantankerous old sod, there’s no question about it,” Lambert told Dreamwatch in 2004. “He had a brain tumor, which is what he died from, and I think it’s quite possible that it was starting to affect him then.”
After Lambert left in 1965, she was replaced by John Wiles and Donald Tosh. Wiles had a very poor working relationship with Hartnell, but unlike Lambert, he was unable to sort out their differences over a pint at the pub. Wiles wanted to terminate Hartnell’s contract, which nearly led to an earlier regeneration than the one we got.
In March 1966, Hartnell went on vacation, and so, the Doctor was made “invisible” for most of the four-part serial “The Celestial Toymaker.” It was Wiles' intention that once the Doctor’s invisibility was resolved, he would appear as a new person. This idea was shut down by BBC boss Gerald Savory, which led to Hartnell staying on Doctor Who a bit longer but caused Wiles and Tosh to quit. They were replaced by Innes Lloyd and Gerry Davis for Hartnell’s final season, also in 1966.
“The Celestial Toymaker” aired its four parts from April 2 to April 23, 1966. You can’t see it in its entirety today (like many early Who episodes, recordings were not saved by the BBC). But in some alternate universe, this was the first “regeneration” — six months before it actually happened in October 1966.
In the final installment of the 1st Doctor, “The Tenth Planet,” the Doctor says his body is “wearing a bit thin.” In real life, Hartnell, who was 58, suffered from arteriosclerosis and was having a hard time remembering his lines — a problem that had existed from the start. His health became the public reason for his leaving, but when the production team informed him that he was, indeed, getting fired, Hartnell gave Who canon a parting gift: He specifically suggested who should replace him — Patrick Troughton — and amazingly, everyone listened. Troughton was hired.
And so, in “The Tenth Planet,” the 1st Doctor “changed” from Willam Hartnell to Patrick Troughton. Both Doctors (Hartnell and Troughton) were present on set for the moment. In what was then cutting-edge technology, the 1st Doctor collapsed and his face faded into the 2nd Doctor. This optical effect was created at the last minute. Originally, a piece of fabric was going to go over the Doctor’s face, only to reveal a new face when it was pulled back. But the visual morphing from one Doctor to the next became a defining feature of the show — with some refinements over the decades.
(The term “regeneration” wouldn’t be coined until Jon Pertwee’s transition from the 3rd Doctor into the 4th, Tom Baker, in the 1974 episode “Planet of the Spiders.” It was then that Doctor Who began its transition from British oddity into a sci-fi classic.)
One week later, the 2nd Doctor’s first adventure, “Power of the Daleks,” arrived on Nov. 5. The new Doctor lands on the planet Vulcan (no connection to Star Trek) and sports a decidedly different personality.
“Having established that the Doctors could change, that they could transmogrify into a different aspect of this particular character, then there was really no limit to the number of Doctors or the sex of the Doctors or the race of the Doctors,” Patrick Troughton told the BBC in 1986.
The transition from Hartnell to Troughton was the first essential moment in ensuring that Doctor Who would survive. The Doctor was not only recast, but he also behaved differently than before, and that difference was part of the story. Just after the 2nd Doctor regains consciousness, companion Ben Jackson (Michael Craze) puts it perfectly: “It’s not only his face that’s changed — he doesn’t even act like him!”
1996: Paul McGann’s 8th Doctor
From 1970 to 1989, Doctor Who enjoyed the vast majority of what is considered its most classic eras:
- Jon Pertwee’s 3rd Doctor.
- Tom Baker’s 4th Doctor.
- Peter Davison’s 5th Doctor.
- Colin Baker’s 6th Doctor.
- Sylvester McCoy’s 7th Doctor.
Each of these regenerations is interesting, but of all those eras, only Tom Baker’s Doctor made a massive dent on American TV. After a few unsuccessful attempts to bring Who across the pond, everything changed after Star Wars. According to Starlog writer Ellen M. Mortimer, writing in June 1979, “Time Life Television saw it fit to give the legendary Time Lord a second chance and imported 98 half-hour episodes of the serial for U.S. syndication [in 1978].” All of these were Tom Baker episodes, meaning the concept of “regeneration” for an American audience basically didn’t exist. That is, until 1996.
“So we had an American star. That meant we could cast a British Doctor.”
Before there was a Doctor Who TV movie in 1996, there was almost an American-funded reboot of Doctor Who on TV. Following a failed attempt to create an animated series with Nelvana — the same studio behind the animated shows Droids and Ewoks — the idea was to do a live-action TV series for American television. The U.K. version of Doctor Who ended in 1989, with Sylvester McCoy’s final episode, “Survival.” But the landscape for sci-fi TV in 1996 was much different than it had been in 1989. There was a boom of sci-fi on American TV in the ‘90s, from The X-Files to Babylon 5, seaQuest, and, of course, the Star Trek spinoffs Voyager and Deep Space Nine. Why not a new Doctor Who, too?
According to the film’s writer, Matthew Jacobs, before Paul McGann was cast in the 1996 movie, he had “already auditioned for the series version that was going to be done out of Amblin.” Bringing Who to America was the brainchild of producer Philip Segal, who had developed seaQuest with Amblin for television, and would later have a very successful career producing reality shows like IceRoad Truckers. But the idea for a TV series fell apart and became a TV movie instead.
“At that point, I always thought it would be Paul [McGann],” Jacobs tells Inverse. “We finally struck a deal whereby we got Eric Roberts to play the Master. So we had an American star. That meant we could cast a British Doctor.”
The 1996 movie features Sylvester McCoy’s regeneration into Paul McGann’s Doctor, in a grotesque almost Frankenstein-like moment in a hospital. It may not be everyone’s most beloved regeneration scene — and it’s certainly not even close to being the best — but this regeneration was hugely important. This was the bridge between the Doctor Who of the past and the Doctor Who of the present. The movie’s greatest innovation, that the Doctor would temporarily lose his memory, has been toyed with in the newer post-2005 shows ever since. Paul McGann’s Doctor also steals his clothes from a hospital, which is exactly what Matt Smith does in 2010’s first 11th Doctor episode “The Eleventh Hour.”
“The quest for identity is a fairly common story device,” Jacobs says. “It enables people to understand the character for the first time.”
This remained true throughout the newer versions of the series. When David Tennant’s 10th Doctor debuted in 2005’s “The Christmas Invasion,” he’s asked “Who are you?” and retorts, “I don’t know!” This is the same question that Paul McGann’s 8th Doctor bellows in the 1996 movie. “Who am I???”
“The quest for identity is a fairly common story device.”
Paul McGann’s Doctor didn’t appear onscreen again until the 2013 mini-episode “The Night of the Doctor,” and again, more recently, in 2022’s “The Power of the Doctor.” But, in terms of the actual number of years, he has canonically been the Doctor for the longest. From 1996 to 2005 — when Christopher Eccleston’s 9th Doctor debuted in “Rose” — McGann voiced the Doctor in several Big Finish audio dramas, and the tie-novels in this period focused mainly on the 8th Doctor. And so, at nine years, McGann holds the record for having been the Doctor the longest, even though he’s been on screen the least.
The fact that fans today are clamoring for a Paul McGann miniseries is deeply “validating” to Matthew Jacobs, but it also proves how crucial the 1996 movie was. It didn’t successfully take Doctor Who to global acclaim. But it came very close and set the stage for the next most important regeneration: Matt Smith.
2010: Matt Smith Takes Doctor Who To Its Highest Point
Thirteen years ago, I had five minutes to figure out why I already loved Matt Smith more than David Tennant.
At an advanced screening of The Eleventh Hour on April 14, 2010, at the Village East Cinema in New York City, I hastily asked Smith how it felt to be taking over the role from David Tennant. As Russell T. Davies wrote in his memoir in 2010, “[Matt Smith] is even more handsome in real life.” This fact makes Smith ultra-disarming, but he did admit there was a certain amount of fear of taking over the role. “It’s kinda scary,” he told me in 2010. “I’m really trying not to think about it at the moment.” Smith was visibly less nervous than I was, but I could see he was telling the truth. The month prior, he’d told the Guardian, “There aren't many jobs that change the fabric of your life in the same way.”
The thing is, Matt Smith’s regeneration as the 11th Doctor at the end of David Tennant’s last 10th Doctor episode, “The End of Time Part 2,” is the culmination of the most important regeneration. Although David Tennant might be regarded as the most popular of the modern Doctors, and Russell T. Davies is correctly credited with bringing the franchise back to life in 2005, the franchise did not truly become a global phenomenon until 2010 and Matt Smith’s 11th Doctor.
Before 2010, some Tennant-centric Doctor Who repeats were on the SyFy Channel in America, but mostly in time slots that were impossible to figure out. Streaming wasn’t really a thing in the Tennant era, so if you were a U.S. fan and you were getting into Who pre-2010, it was kind of like being a huge fan of an underground indie rock band. Fans traded pirated copies of the episodes, or anxiously awaited new DVDs in the mail, back when that was the purpose of Netflix.
But then, in early 2010, BBC America became the new home of Doctor Who in the U.S. When “The Eleventh Hour” hit, Matt Smith’s Doctor was on the side of New York City buses, and suddenly, bars across America were hosting Doctor Who viewing parties. Tennant may be the most visible face of Doctor Who in the 21st century, but in terms of international crossover popularity, it was only when he regenerated into Smith that the show truly blew up.
The numbers here simply don’t lie. Matt Smith’s first episode set a record for BBC America with 1.2 million U.S. viewers in 2010. (This number was 10 million in the U.K. in 2010, the highest of any debut episode for a newly regenerated Doctor, ever.) And at the end of his run, the December 2013 episode “The Time of the Doctor” became the highest-watched BBC America broadcast with 2.47 million U.S. viewers tuning in live.
Interest has slowly tapered off since then. Peter Capaldi’s first season as the 12th Doctor averaged roughly 2 million viewers per episode in 2014. But by 2022, the viewership of Jodie Whittaker’s final season as the 13th Doctor averaged less than a million per episode on BBC America.
The transition between Tennant and Smith was also the moment when the show changed showrunners. Steven Moffat took over for Russell T. Davies and went on to run the series for six seasons (two seasons longer than Davies). During this time, Moffat also co-created Sherlock with Who collaborator Mark Gatiss. Benedict Cumberbatch became a huge star, as did Matt Smith and his Doctor Who companion Karen Gillan. More than any other era of Doctor Who, the Moffat/Smith era not only led to mainstream recognition of the series but made being in Doctor Who something that could translate into blockbuster stardom. Without Doctor Who, Matt Smith wouldn’t be in House of the Dragon, and Karen Gillan wouldn’t be an Avenger.
The 2010-2013 moment for Who was one of the most visible moments for the fandom, too. Comic-Cons were inundated with bowties, and the series celebrated its 50th Anniversary with the mega-popular special “The Day of the Doctor.” The show has certainly produced some of its best episodes after that moment, specifically a few standouts from the Peter Capaldi and Jodie Whittaker eras. But one thing is undeniable: David Tennant’s regeneration into Matt Smith led to the show going supernova, and it simply hasn’t been as popular since.
The Next Doctor Who
From 2023 to 2024, Who fans will have at least two versions of the Doctor: David Tennant's retro 14th Doctor and Ncuti Gatwa’s 15th. By the time Gatwa is in his second season, in 2025, it will be 20 years since Doctor Who was reborn under the stewardship of Davies. Now, Davies is back, managing the production for both the Tennant return and the new era of Gatwa.
Clearly, the future of Who will keep changing things while staying the same, too.
The return of Davies and Tennant comes with one crucial difference: The new specials and the next new season in 2024 will air on Disney+ globally, the biggest platform the series has ever had by far.
Later this year, Ncuti Gatwa will become the second person of color to play the Doctor, following Jo Martin’s “Fugitive Doctor” from the Jodie Whittaker era. But, because Gatwa will be in the role for the foreseeable future, the fact that the Doctor is no longer an old white guy feels important.
As Gatwa put it, “The Doctor can regenerate into anything. The possibilities are endless, and the fact that that notion is going out to lots of people… I think it's just really beautiful.”