Doctor Who’s Biggest Missed Opportunity: A Surprise Regeneration
Guest contributor James Hill wonders if it would be better and possible to keep regenerations a secret.
Last year, a guest writer contributed a two-part article which ranked the top ten “missed magic moments” in Doctor Who. I tried predicting what the top five entries would be and figured I had #1 nailed down. But, once I reached the end of his list I was surprised to find that my predicted #1 hadn’t cracked the list at all…but hey, that gave me an excuse to write this.
Since its revival in 2005, Doctor Who has seen three full, lead-actor-change regenerations: Christopher Eccleston to David Tennant in 2005’s “The Parting of the Ways”, David Tennant to Matt Smith in 2010’s “The End of Time: Part Two”, and Matt Smith to Peter Capaldi in 2013’s “The Time of the Doctor”. In all three cases – though the first was rather different from the next two – news of said regeneration was released, on purpose, months in advance, which built up a huge amount of anticipation but lost an aspect that I feel carries as much value: the element of surprise.
As I touched upon earlier, circumstances surrounding Eccleston’s departure were completely different, and I’m mostly focusing on the other two transitions. Eccleston’s exit was announced only four days after his first episode aired and exact details are still hazy, so I’m willing to give the series a pass in that case. For all we know, Davies planned to surprise everyone at the end of Series 1 and the BBC ruined it by leaking the announcement earlier.
But was it really necessary to know of Tennant and Smith’s exit months (and in Tennant’s case over a year) beforehand? I’d argue this was especially pertinent for Smith’s; the 50th anniversary and subsequent Christmas special would’ve already garnered a fair deal of attention for the show, regeneration or not.
When I’ve talked about this idea before, there are a few main issues people have usually brought up. Firstly, they have claimed it would be impossible to keep a secret that big for however long it was between the new Doctor’s casting and the episode’s airdate. Secondly, they have asserted it would be disrespectful to the incumbent Doctor. Next, they express skepticism the BBC would be willing to give up their new Doctor marketing blitz. And finally, they wonder what the in-story reasoning would be for such an act. I’ll address each of those points below and tell you why a surprise Doctor could be a fantastic idea.
Ok, so the Internet is not very good at keeping secrets. Social media, camera phones, and the quick-draw nature of sites like Twitter and Vine make a quick leak all too likely. However, one man seems to have figured things out a bit, and he’s my precedent-setter: J.J. Abrams. I’m not here to start a debate about Abrams work; instead, I solely bring him up to mention his penchant for almost absurd levels of secrecy. Spoilers are below for Star Trek Into Darkness, so if you haven’t seen it yet, skip down a paragraph.
The Star Trek fanbase is nearly as old and rabid as Doctor Who’s, and speculation was rampant regarding who the villain of Into Darkness, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, would be. Many people guessed, correctly, that Cumberbatch would be playing Khan, but numerous other possibilities arose, and to Abrams’ – and everyone else involved in the film’s – credit, official news didn’t leak, to my knowledge, until the film’s Australian premiere, the first actual screening of the movie.
I’m not saying Moffat and the BBC would be able to stamp out all fan or media speculation if a prominent actor/actress (especially an actress) was suddenly invited on set and rumored to be playing a major role. I’m just saying that there’s no reason such role has to be confirmed until the episode airs. Doctor Who already has a strong history of huge guest stars and anyone brought into the studio could easily be waved off. Will some people still read between the lines? Of course. Will something leak? Probably. But for the majority of fans, those reports will be nothing more than rumors, if anything, preserving the surprise of the moment.
There seems to be a perception among some that unless the current Doctor gets a “goodbye tour” of sorts he won’t be getting the respect he deserves, or the fans won’t be able to take it. I’m certainly not proposing that this should come a few episodes into a new Doctor’s run, or even at the end of their first season.
But after a few seasons, any Doctor will have had numerous great moments and memorable times with companions and enemies. They will have seen big finales, Christmas celebrations, cameo appearances and, decent odds, at least one anniversary/special of some sort. The fans will have had so many chances to see that Doctor at their best and their final episode would be no different. Give them a mid-season two-parter or an epic finale. Treat the episode like any regeneration episode is treated but – preferably at the end of part one – have the Doctor, in his usually valiant way, become injured and regenerate. Imagine the reactions, whether you know the new actor or not. Imagine learning of the new Doctor’s identity in his debut episode.
I’d advocate for this to happen at the end of the first half of a mid-season two-parter because the shock factor and emotional impact would be through the roof, with another episode coming immediately. The whole point of this is to break the rules and even we weren’t notified, a regeneration in the last five minutes of the season finale would certainly fall within the normal standard. This also addresses the marketing point; sure, the BBC wouldn’t be able to rile up the masses over new Doctor betting, announcement and debate or old-Doctor reminiscing, but all of that could still happen, just after the regeneration has occurred…and this time fans wouldn’t have to wait so long to see the new Doctor again.
The cast, crew and writers could even maintain radio silence for a week to keep everyone guessing even further. Fans would be convinced this was a more convoluted version of “The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End”, where an apparent regeneration was overridden within minutes. And then, by the time part two ends and the new Doctor has saved the day yet again, it will have sunk in: a new era has begun. Just imagine the interview the next day, or even that night, with the current showrunner and the episode’s two Doctors all together, discussing the stunning surprise and hinting at the future.
One small note: I wouldn’t personally wish for this to be the manner in which a female Doctor is brought in, unless it happens so far down the line that she wouldn’t be the first female Doctor. I do hope that, sooner rather than later, we will see a female Doctor – and a minority one – but that’s for another article. However, changing a Doctor without an announcement would already be controversial, and the last thing the show would need is to anger even some of the people who might have supported the decision by making it feel like the rug was completely pulled out from under them. If people need time to “get ready” for a female or Black Doctor, so be it. That’s a small price to pay.
Finally, people will ask why something like that would be necessary, claiming it would be nothing more than a “publicity stunt”. To that I say…yes! That’s exactly what it would be! But, frankly, that’s what every regeneration’s build-up is: a long publicity stunt. Peter Capaldi was announced during a worldwide simulcast months before his first official, full appearance. The last two Doctors have regenerated on major holidays. All of the specials, Doctor revisited documentaries, interviews…they’re all publicity stunts!
Look, I wouldn’t want this to become the new normal. Building up to a Doctor’s departure and arrival has been a very effective tradition during the run of New Who. And as I said earlier, this should be a few seasons into a Doctor’s run, so it feels like they’ve gotten their due. But, as usual, I think things are best when they’re shaken up a bit, and this could work wonders in that regard.
Make it seem like, say, the Master wins. Have him and maybe even the Doctor’s companions think the Doctor is dead, only to find out that he regenerated after all. Use this to explore new avenues and adjust the tone. What happens when change comes sooner than you expect? All three previous New Who Doctors finished their task and fulfilled their destiny before regenerating. What if, this time, the Doctor fails and the new one has to pick up the pieces?
Ultimately, my main point is this: there’s no reason this idea of a long-announced, long-known, “event” regeneration has to be set in stone. After all, the most memorable storms are often the ones we never see coming…