Doctor Who's 13 regenerations ranked from worst to best

Morgan Jeffery
Photo credit: BBC

From Digital Spy

"Everything ends, and it's always sad. But everything begins again, too. And that's always happy."

The quote above from Doctor Who's 2016 Christmas special isn't strictly about regeneration – at least, not according to Steven Moffat – but it's a pretty perfect summary of how it feels to lose one Doctor and then meet a new one.

The concept of the Doctor being able to change his / her face, and his / her whole personality changing along with it, has been part of Doctor Who's own DNA since three years into the show's original run.

Each time, we approach the event with a strange mix of excitement and trepidation. Will we love the new Doctor? And will our incumbent Time Lord get a decent demise? Some regeneration scenes have, after all, been more impressive than others.

Here's all 13 Doctor Who switcheroos, ranked: from the absolute pits to the absolute pinnacle. (Note: we're not including any of the fake-out regenerations or non-Doctor ones – those moments in 'The Stolen Earth', 'The Lie of the Land', 'The Doctor's Daughter' and 'Let's Kill Hitler' don't count!)

13. 6th Doctor to 7th Doctor - 'Time and the Rani' (1987)

This one is, to put it politely, an absolute shambles.

With Colin Baker having been informed that his services were no longer required, you can understand why he turned his nose up at the BBC's consolation prize of returning to film his exit. What we get instead is Sylvester McCoy in a blonde wig – something the show does a less than stellar job of disguising.

What's worse is that, due to the sudden nature of Baker's departure, we're given zero context as to what caused this particular regeneration. 'Time and the Rani' opens instead with the Doctor and companion Mel (Bonnie Langford) unconscious on the floor of the TARDIS control room. Did he take a nasty tumble off his exercise bike?

Granted, Baker's absence posed a challenge, but surely we could've been served something better than this?

12. 3rd Doctor to 4th Doctor - 'Planet of the Spiders' (1974)

The third regeneration, and the first to actually be referred to as such – previously, the process was referred to as a renewal, or simply a change of appearance.

Jon Pertwee impresses as a dying Doctor, poisoned by a wave of deadly radiation, with able support from Elisabeth Sladen as a tearful Sarah-Jane and Nicholas Courtney as a weary Brigadier ("Well, here we go again!").

But visually, this is easily the least interesting regeneration, with a disappointingly dull cross-fade from Pertwee to Tom Baker that (quite literally) lacks the energy of other efforts.

11. War Doctor to 9th Doctor - 'The Day of the Doctor' (2013)

It's not entirely clear why John Hurt's rogue incarnation ups and vanishes. "Wearing a bit thin..." is the only explanation we get (a nod back to the first Doctor's own seemingly unprovoked change – more on that below).

But this brief scene has its charms: the delight in the War Doctor's face at the prospect of the impending change, now he's finally free of the shackles and emotional baggage of the Time War, and that subtle hint of Christopher Eccleston's features emerging from Hurt's own.

10. 11th Doctor to 12th Doctor - 'The Time of the Doctor' (2013)

With special effects having improved over the years, regenerations have inevitably become more visually spectacular. Or, to quote a blunt Steven Moffat, "Every time we regenerate him, he's blowing up more and more shit, isn't he?"

This evolution reached its ludicrous zenith with the 11th Doctor's exit, which veered into self-parody – the dying Time Lord, wildly wind-milling his arms, using his regeneration energy to wipe out a Dalek space fleet.

Matt Smith's departure is also – neccesarily but off-puttingly – complicated by the need to rewrite an old piece of Doctor Who mythology. Namely, a limit on the number of regenerations, with the Time Lords granting our hero a new batch.

That said, once all the noise and nonsense subsides, Smith's final scene back in the TARDIS is suitably heartbreaking, and having his successor spring into life with a brief, blinding flash comes as a wonderful contrast to the earlier showiness.

9. 8th Doctor to War Doctor - 'The Night of the Doctor' (2013)

This fan-pleasing short from Doctor Who's 50th anniversary year not only helped bridge a gap by explaining just what happened to the Doctor's eighth incarnation but it also proved again what a tragedy it was that Paul McGann never got to front a full series of telly Who.

He's exceptionally good in 'The Night of the Doctor' ("Bring me knitting!") and there's a bittersweet perfection to his once optimistic, lively Doctor surrendering to the ways of war.

This handover is of course limited by not being able to outright show us McGann becoming a young John Hurt, but a brief shot of the new Doctor examining his reflection (actually footage taken from Hurt's performance in the BBC's 1979 production of Crime and Punishment) is a nice touch.

8. 7th Doctor to 8th Doctor - Doctor Who: The TV movie (1996)

One of the best sequences from the eighth Doctor's debut – the unfairly maligned Doctor Who TV movie – is the fantastically evocative regeneration sequence.

This is the spookiest switchover the show has attempted, implicitly highlighting the more macabre undercurrents of 'coming back from the dead' by cutting back and forth from the birth of McGann's Time Lord to glimpses of a hospital orderly watching Frankenstein.

It works a treat and is only slightly marred by the sight of a gurning Sylvester McCoy.

7. 12th Doctor to 13th Doctor - 'Twice Upon a Time' (2017)

If there was one big takeaway from Peter Capaldi's time on Doctor Who, it's that, boy, can that man deliver a speech. That said, Steven Moffat arguably goes overboard with this Doctor's farewell address – you half expect Capaldi to pull out a piano and launch into song.

Still, there are some lovely sentiments to be found within this protracted send-off ("Love hard, run fast, be kind."), while "Doctor, I let you go," is the perfect last word for both Capaldi and exiting showrunner Moffat.

The arrival of the show's first female Doctor is also agreeably free of bad jokes or attempts at worthiness – instead, Jodie Whittaker's new incarnation gives her new guise a brief and simple seal of approval: "Oh brilliant!"

Related: Here's how Peter Capaldi's final Doctor Who speech was inspired by a young fan

6. 2nd Doctor to 3rd Doctor - 'The War Games' (1969)

One of the more unusual regenerations, and the only instance where the change is foisted upon our hero by an outside agent. As punishment for his meddling ways, the Time Lords exile the Doctor to Earth and force a face-swap.

Again, we don't see the shift from Patrick Troughton to his successor – Jon Pertwee wouldn't make his first appearance in Doctor Who until six months after Troughton's swansong. But the approach taken in this instance is incredibly effective, with a helpless Doctor spinning away into darkness, clasping at where his missing face should be. Brrrr.

5. 9th Doctor to 10th Doctor - 'The Parting of the Ways' (2005)

It's a great one, this, Doctor Who capping off its triumphant comeback run in 2005 by introducing modern audiences to the concept of the show's lead undergoing a face-and-personality-transplant.

Unlike his successors, Christopher Eccleston gets a sign-off that's poignant but not drawn-put or overwrought: "You were fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. And d'you know what? So was I."

This handover also introduces the explosive and eye-catching modern regeneration effect: the change accompanied by an eruption of golden light. A charming addition to this particular example is David Tennant's quiff springing from Eccleston's short-cropped noggin.

4. 1st Doctor to 2nd Doctor - 'The Tenth Planet' (1966)

A landmark in the show's history, the first regeneration is also one of the few moments from William Hartnell's final episode to still exist in the archives.

And thank goodness. Original, simple, classic, there's still something a bit magical about this first handover, as Hartnell's face disappears in a swell of blinding white light, to be replaced by Patrick Troughton's considerably younger mug.

(The power and effectiveness of this simple effect helps make up for the fact that it's never made entirely clear why the first Doctor regenerates. He's "wearing a bit thin" and there's passing mention made of some "outside influence" – but really, it's clear the writers had no clue why or how this "renewal" was happening and were just hoping audiences would swallow the change.)

3. 5th Doctor to 6th Doctor - 'The Caves of Androzani' (1984)

This one's often hailed as the greatest regeneration scene, and there's no question that the departing Doctor's side of things is fantastic.

From Peter Davison's grim "Is this death?" to the fifth Doctor's companions appearing one-by-one, urging him not to die, to the Master (Anthony Ainley) cheering on his foe's demise, to the surreal ripple effect that looks, this is as close as Doctor Who has ever come to portraying what regeneration must be like from the Doctor's own perspective.

A shame, then, that the whole thing's slightly undercut by an uber-camp Colin Baker staring straight down the lens moments later. "What's happened?" asks companion Peri (Nicola Bryant). "Change, m'dear!" he smarms. "And it seems not a moment too soon!"


2. 4th Doctor to 5th Doctor - 'Logopolis' (1981)

With Tom Baker ending his run as the show's longest-serving Doctor, his final story had to deliver something a bit special. Happily, the regeneration scene in 'Logopolis' is one of the show's best – in fact, it's very nearly the best.

The fourth Doctor's final moments are pervaded by a queasy sense of dread: hanging from a radio telescope tower and holding on for dear life, we get the first instance of the retiring Doctor being haunted by the faces of old friends, and old foes.

When he eventually does lose his grip and fall, accompanied by a powerful sting on the soundtrack, it's a powerful moment, even though you know it's coming. (Baker gets one of the all-time great final lines from a Doctor, too: "It's the end, but the moment has been prepared for.")

'Logopolis' had built to this Doctor's demise by having a mysterious figure, known as the Watcher, stalking the Time Lord throughout. Finally, it's revealed he's a manifestation of the Doctor's impending doom – he fuses with the fourth, kickstarting his change into the fifth.

This unique visual take, coupled with the haunting score, make this one of the most memorable and moving regenerations.

1. 10th Doctor to 11th Doctor - 'The End of Time - Part Two' (2010)

Yes, his final lap goes on more than a bit, but it's hard to begrudge David Tennant (and, for that matter, Russell T Davies) a little self-indulgence at the end of one of Doctor Who' most popular and successful periods in its 54-year history.

Tennant's final line arguably veers a little too far on the side of self-pitying – thank goodness they didn't go for the alternative take, where he's full-on blubbing – but the regeneration itself is unquestionably the show's best on a visual level.

Energy rips through the console room, almost obliterating the place, and the grand pillars surrounding the console come tumbling down…

If the measure of a great regeneration scene is how quickly and effectively it has you shift from mourning one Doctor to falling in love with another, then this is without doubt the best. Matt Smith's debut is so utterly charming that you've all but forgotten Tennant by the first "Geronimoooo!"

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