Dr. Michael Robinson ~ UL Communication Studies Professor
When it became clear to the producers of Doctor Who that their star actor was too physically ill to continue playing the role, they embarked on a creative plan to save their popular show. Reasoning that the Doctor was not actually a human, the producers decided that their main character could fall into a kind of emergency restorative state and then emerge with an entirely different physical appearance and some personality differences. And so, after a challenging battle against the Cybermen at the end of part four of “The Tenth Planet (1966),” actor William Hartnell gave the role over to Patrick Troughton.
The process, eventually called “regeneration,” became a regular feature that allowed Doctor Who to survive from 1963 until today. The various incarnations of the Doctor are typically numbered in an ordinal fashion (there have been some unnumbered Doctors too). Hartnell was the First Doctor. The current Doctor, portrayed by Jodie Whittaker, is the Thirteenth Doctor, although not for much longer. Airing on Sunday night on BBC America, “The Power of the Doctor” will bring her time to an end.
Within the narrative of the show itself, regeneration stories are often sources of heightened drama. The Doctor leads an extraordinarily dangerous life battling against evil throughout time and space. The story that often takes a particular challenge, forcing the Doctor to endure great physical harm and/or make considerable sacrifices to save the day. The Thirteenth Doctor had an amazing run. The first female incarnation of the character in the show’s history, this Doctor brought a lot of energy and enthusiasm back to the series. She also demonstrated a powerful commitment to her traveling companions, which she calls “her Fam” (short for family). There is also some unresolved romantic tension between this Doctor and her traveling companion, Yaz. Normally I am not much for romance subplots, but I really buy into it on this show. I really do not want to see heartbreak here, but I do not know how it can be avoided.
Outside the narrative, the process of regeneration is always fascinating to me. Regenerations are not surprises. The hunt for a new actor to play the Doctor is an involved and much hyped affair, involving fan speculation, producer teases, and even pub wagering before the big announcement. We have known since May 8th that Ncuti Gatwa will become the Fourteenth Doctor. Gatwa will be the first person of color in the role as well as the fourth Scottish actor to play the part (so President Morrison-Shetlar, I hope you will be watching!).
What is so exciting about these moments for me though is that beyond the identity of the actor, the fans have no idea what the new Doctor will be like. Something very old is about to become new again, but the exact details elude us. The time the details are being kept particularly close to the vest. Producer Russell T. Davies, who in 2005 brought the show into the modern era of television, is coming back to the series he loves but he is not telling us much.
All we know right now is that there will be three specials in 2023 (which will also mark the 60th anniversary year of the program). We know that David Tennant and Catherine Tate will be returning in one of those stories as the very popular Tenth Doctor and Donna Noble. We know that Neil Patrick Harris will be a villain in that story. It is such a wonderful mystery and I cannot wait to see what happens next!