10 stories that show Doctor Who’s brilliant capacity for self-regeneration

10 stories that show Doctor Who’s brilliant capacity for self-regeneration

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD every day, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch these 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.

It’s a rare achievement for any pop-culture character to retain popularity and critical acclaim half a century after his debut. The list of such survivors is short but legendary: Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, Batman, Spock, Gandalf—and a mysterious, eccentric time traveler called the Doctor, who’s something of a combination of all those others. Then again, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that a thousand-year-old traveler through time and space knows a thing or two about longevity.

The British science-fiction series Doctor Who turns 50 this week, having survived a slightly shaky birth—its November 23, 1963 premiere was pre-empted by breaking news of the John F. Kennedy assassination—to become a cultural institution in England and, in America, a cult success that grew into one of the most successful sci-fi shows of the modern era. On-screen, its title character has defended humanity against wave after wave of alien invasions, evil schemes, and bizarre monsters. Off-screen, the show lasted more than a quarter-century in its original incarnation, weathering a number of shifts in its popular cachet, a dozen changes in lead actor and twice as many overhauls of its core creative team, a hiatus, and even a cancellation that kept the show off the air for 16 years (barring a painfully misguided attempt to relaunch it as an American series). It finally returned in 2005 with a modernized yet faithful version that seems destined to run for many more years. The show’s 50th-anniversary special, “The Day Of The Doctor,” airs November 23 and teams current star Matt Smith with his immediate predecessor, David Tennant. Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that despite all the changes the show has gone through over the years, the essential concept has remained unchanged. Doctor Who as it existed in 1963 is recognizably the same show as the one being produced in 2013.

Doctor Who was originally conceived as a family-oriented series that would strike a balance between educational and adventure stories, with the Doctor and his companions bouncing around through human history and visiting far-off planets—it was no coincidence that, besides his granddaughter Susan, the Doctor’s first two traveling companions were high-school science and history teachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright. Creator Sydney Newman was even openly dismissive of the science-fiction side of the series, declaring that under his watch there should never be any “bug-eyed monsters” or “tin robots.” But he was proven wrong almost immediately when the immense popularity of the series’ second story, “The Daleks,” catapulted it from merely a kids’ show to a full-fledged pop-culture craze, and eventually a British national institution.

Since then, Doctor Who has evolved many times, from education-minded science fantasy to the action-oriented “Bond on a TV budget” of the early 1970s to the grimly cynical quasi-cyberpunk of the 1980s and beyond. And with each update, it has shown a remarkable ability to change with the times without losing the sci-fi/action-adventure core concept that made it Doctor Who in the first place. 

It’s no accident that the Doctor himself also has this ability. A Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, his alien physiology allows him to recover from mortal wounds by completely renewing his body—“regeneration,” as it’s known. Doctor Who’s ability to rejuvenate itself is tied directly into this idea, and in fact, they both spring from the same event: the series’ first major crisis, in 1965, when original actor William Hartnell’s declining health left him too infirm to stay on in the role. Faced with a problem that could have imploded the show, producers came up with a radical and, especially in retrospect, brilliant solution: Since the Doctor isn’t human, there was no reason that he couldn’t collapse on the ground in a flash of light, and get up again as a completely different person, portrayed by a new actor. Up jumped the younger Patrick Troughton, and the rest was history. 

Regenerating the Doctor—replacing the actor, but not the character—meant that Doctor Who could always keep a fixed point around which the show could orbit no matter how much it might otherwise change. On other shows, losing the star might spell disaster, but on this one it’s become an essential strength. It lets the series evolve without changing into something unrecognizable, and remain the same without stagnating. The Doctor himself changes his personality along with his face, turning from curmudgeon to dandy to bohemian while retaining some combination of the eccentricity, arrogance, charm, and whimsicality that are among his central traits. And while some incoming actors have chosen to emulate their predecessors, such as the way Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith takes inspiration from Patrick Troughton’s Second, the nature of the concept encourages them to find their own fresh take on who the Doctor might be. Some regenerations were more successful than others, and indeed, poorly conceived changes in the 1980s led directly to the original series’ cancellation. But on the whole, Doctor Who has discovered a uniquely powerful way it can not only recover from the periodic loss of a lead actor, but also thrive on it.

Just as the Doctor cheats death through regeneration, Doctor Who owes its long survival in part to its capacity for self-renewal. There have been 11 Doctors—soon to be 12 when Peter Capaldi takes over the lead role later this year. But there have been at least half that many incarnations of the show itself, as it changed behind-the-scenes teams or shifted gears in response to the wider cultural zeitgeist or simply in pursuit of higher ratings. And that’s not even counting the non-TV versions, which include two feature films, the Big Finish audio-drama series, comic books and weekly comic strips, and four lines of novels, all of which are quasi-canonical at best. It’s no wonder there’s an identity crisis implied right in the title of the show. 

Here are 10 stories—one from each Doctor—that show how the series changed its face and focus across the passing years. (We’re skipping the Eighth Doctor, played by Paul McGann, since he has only two official appearances in the TV series: the mediocre 1996 TV movie, and a short but terrific prequel to the upcoming 50th-anniversary special, “Night Of The Doctor,” that finally gives the character his regeneration scene.) 

First Doctor (William Hartnell), 1963-1966
The Romans” (season two, episodes 12-15): The first few years of the series saw their share of futuristic sci-fi—not least of which is “The Daleks,” the single most important serial in Doctor Who’s history thanks to its immediate success and the lasting popularity of its iconic title villains. But this one was unique among Doctor Who eras, because the show also split its time between aliens and tales set during Earth’s history, which allowed it a greater ability to genre-hop than in any other period. “The Romans” is one of the best of these, featuring the finest main cast of its era—Hartnell’s Doctor, Ian and Barbara, and the precocious teenager Vicki—as well as a terrific performance by Derek Francis as the pathetic yet dangerously insane Emperor Nero. Hartnell also enjoys what may be his best performance, showing the rascally, crafty First Doctor at his sprightliest and most surprising. It’s also worth noting that the show’s format for its first 26 seasons was closer to old-school Flash Gordon serials than what we expect from TV today: Each season was split into several multi-part stories that aired in half-hour installments once a week. Only after the 2005 revival did it move to the more standard format of hourlong episodes, each more or less complete.

And if you like that, try these:An Unearthly Child” (season one, episodes 1-4); “The Daleks” (season one, episodes 5-11); “The Aztecs” (season one, episodes 27-30); “The Time Meddler” (season two, episodes 36-39); “The War Machines” (season three, episodes 42-45).

Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton), 1966-1969
The Enemy Of The World” (season 5, episodes 18-24): The next era featured the essential abandonment of the historical stories and a much greater focus on monsters and alien invasions. Doctor Who would only rarely stray from this template in subsequent incarnations, but it was particularly strong here. But the series never completely lost its experimental streak, and many of the best shows of this period are the ones that aren’t easily categorized. Ideally, this would also be the time to highlight Troughton’s second encounter with the Doctor’s signature foes, “Evil Of The Daleks,” which shows how dark and manipulative the mercurial Second Doctor could be, and features a delightfully whimsical script by David Whitaker, the show’s first story editor and one of the most influential writers in its history. But, like many of the early episodes, most of “Evil” is missing from the BBC archives and presumed to be destroyed. But the newly rediscovered, Whitaker-penned “The Enemy Of The World” is nearly as good, featuring a gleefully creative spin on a James Bond-style spy adventure and a great dual performance by Troughton, who also plays the story’s conniving and ruthless title villain.

And if you like that, try these: “The War Games” (season six, episodes 35-44); “The Invasion” (season six, episodes 11-19); “The Mind Robber” (season six, episodes 6-10).

Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee), 1970-1974
Terror Of The Autons” (season eight, episodes 1-4): Percolating throughout Troughton’s final year, the massive reinvention brought in with Pertwee’s Third Doctor was the most radical change the show had yet seen—switching from black-and-white to color broadcasts, more sophisticated storylines and action sequences, and a new setting that grounded the Doctor (unwillingly) on Earth as part of a military team, UNIT, investigating paranormal events and alien infiltrations. “Terror Of The Autons,” which kicked off Pertwee’s second year, was written by the series’ best and longest-serving scriptwriter, the sly and cynical Robert Holmes. It introduced Three’s quintessential antagonist, the Master, played with panache by Roger Delgado—a black-clad, goateed Time Lord who delighted in spreading chaos, and whose evil schemes were motivated in part by his jealousy and sense of inferiority toward the Doctor. It also brought in Three’s quintessential companion, the daffy but endearing Jo Grant.

And if you like that, try these:Spearhead From Space” (season seven, episodes 1-4); “Inferno” (season 7, episodes 19-25); “The Curse Of Peladon” (season nine, episodes 5-8); “The Time Warrior” (season 11, episodes 1-4).

Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker), 1974-1981
The Brain Of Morbius” (season 13, episodes 17-20): It’s hard to boil down the bohemian Fourth Doctor era to a single story for several reasons. First, Tom Baker was the star for longer than anyone else—seven years—and in that run he had more than his share of great stories. But he also had more behind-the-scenes turnover than other Doctors, resulting in three very different sub-periods. Seasons 12 to 14, overseen by producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Holmes, specialized in atmospheric, even gothic-tinged sci-fi/horror. The next producer, Graham Williams, emphasized lighthearted comedy, particularly while Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy author Douglas Adams was his script editor. And Baker’s final season brought in John Nathan-Turner, who would produce the series until its 1989 cancellation, and new editor Christopher H. Bidmead, whose brief tenure emphasized more serious-minded and mystical science fiction in stories like “Warriors’ Gate.” Of these three, the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era was not only the best Fourth Doctor team but also the high point of the Classic series, reaching its defining moment in “Brain Of Morbius,” a tense and creepy takeoff on Frankenstein that paid loving homage to the lurid grotesqueries of Hammer and Universal horror movies.

And if you like that, try these: “Genesis Of The Daleks” (season 12, episodes 11-16); “The Seeds Of Doom” (season 13, episodes 21-26); “The Talons Of Weng-Chiang” (season 14, episodes 21-26); “City Of Death” (season 17, episodes 5-9); “Warriors’ Gate” (season 18, episodes 17-20).

Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison), 1982-1984
The Caves Of Androzani” (season 21, episodes 17-20): After the high-wattage personality of Tom Baker’s Doctor, the show needed to bring things down a notch. Although Davison’s Fifth Doctor was physically the youngest and strongest so far, he was also surprisingly vulnerable—a decent and kind man often overwhelmed by the darkness he found himself confronting. Victories were hard-won and sometimes not won at all, and during his tenure, this Doctor suffered the death of one companion, the secret betrayal of two others, and more than his share of pain and trauma. The Holmes-written “Caves Of Androzani” takes advantage of its position as Davison’s final appearance to really ratchet up the pressure, putting the Doctor and companion Peri in the middle of a nasty civil war on an alien mining planet that’s far more dangerous than they can handle. Davison makes the most of the material, turning in his best performance as the Doctor desperately tries not to win but merely to survive—if not for himself, at least for his friend. And given it’s his last story, there’s a built-in tragedy: He fails, and dies, and arises as a new man.

And if you like that, try these:Kinda” (season 19, 9-12); “Earthshock” (season 19, 19-22).

Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker), 1984-1986
Vengeance On Varos” (season 22, episodes 3-4): On paper, the approach of Fifth and Sixth Doctor script editor Eric Saward could have been one of the show’s defining successes, because despite his weak grasp of good storytelling, he had a genuine sense of the post-punk cutting edge of early-’80s sci-fi. While Saward matched properties like Brazil and 2000 AD in cynical tone, and even anticipated the militaristic sci-fi of Aliens and Predator in “Earthshock,” he never approached them in quality. The deliberately obnoxious and incompetent Sixth Doctor, dressed in a hideously garish multicolored suit, was only the most obviously jarring element of Saward’s run, which aimed for satire and usually wound up with brutal, depressing stories instead. Though the term “best” can’t really be used here, “Vengeance On Varos” is at least the least worst of the period, showcasing Saward’s intentions better than anything except “Caves Of Androzani.” A dark, punk-inflected satire of corporate and political corruption—and of TV violence as a vicious way of keeping the proles complacent—“Varos” is a great idea sunk by incompetent and tasteless execution—which is, sadly enough, the Sixth Doctor era in a nutshell.

And if you like that, try this:Revelation Of The Daleks” (season 22, episodes 13-14).

Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy), 1987-1989
Remembrance Of The Daleks” (season 25, episodes 1-4): Though the inexperience of Seventh Doctor-era script editor Andrew Cartmel often resulted in stories that were far too complicated and opaque for their own good, he also brought the show a sense of optimism and exuberance that it sorely needed. He also put a new focus on the relationship between the Doctor and his companion and protégé Ace, which would prove to be a lasting influence on the post-2005 revived series and Cartmel’s greatest legacy. (The cancellation that happened on Cartmel’s watch was much less his fault than a legacy of the weak years before he came on board.) McCoy’s Seventh Doctor was, like Troughton’s Second, seemingly harmless and even frivolous, but hid a streak of manipulative, calculating ruthlessness that didn’t hesitate to put his own friends in harm’s way to accomplish his goals. The 25th-anniversary story, “Remembrance Of The Daleks,” returns to the site of the series’ very first episode, as the Doctor’s greatest enemies find a way to strike at him when he’s least expecting it. (Or when he seems to least expect it.) Like many Cartmel efforts, the level of detail in “Remembrance Of The Daleks” rewards a second or third viewing, celebrating the show’s past while showing there was more going on, with the Doctor and with the series itself, than first met the eye.

And if you like that, try these:The Curse Of Fenric” (season 26, episodes 8-11); “The Greatest Show In The Galaxy” (season 25, episodes 11-14); “Ghost Light” (season 26, episodes 5-7).

Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston), 2005
“The Empty Child”/”The Doctor Dances” (series one, episodes 9-10): When Doctor Who relaunched in 2005, showrunner Russell T. Davies had a significant challenge ahead of him: re-establishing a series that had come to be seen (with some justice) as tacky, shopworn nonsense, thanks to the missteps of the 1980s and the failure of the 1996 American TV movie. His solution was to take a darker, more serious tone (while still allowing for such goofy touches as a hostile, sentient garbage can), and it proved to be the right one. In contrast to the flamboyant costumes of previous Doctors, Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth dressed somberly in dark clothing and a black leather jacket, and was haunted by the emotional trauma of the devastating war he’d just escaped, during which he’d killed off not only the Daleks but his own people, the Time Lords. Never shown on screen, the so-called “Time War” was all the more powerful for being mysterious, though the 50th-anniversary special, “The Day Of The Doctor,” promises to finally reveal what happened. The two-part story “The Empty Child”/”The Doctor Dances” is one of the finest of Eccleston’s brief, single-season tenure—delivering a memorably creepy monster in the zombie-like, gas-masked Empty Children, but also dealing with the Ninth Doctor’s postwar trauma and survivor’s guilt, and, more cheekily, hinting at his rarely discussed sexuality. It also introduced the star of future spinoff Torchwood, the confidently bisexual con man Captain Jack Harkness, and established future showrunner Steven Moffat as one of the series’ leading writers.

And if you like that, try these: “Dalek” (series 1, episode 6); “Father’s Day” (series 1, episode 8).

Tenth Doctor (David Tennant), 2005-2010
“The Stolen Earth”/”Journey’s End” (series four, episodes 12-13): By the time David Tennant stepped into the Doctor’s shoes, the renewed show had gotten past its first-year jitters and established itself as a hit, so it was little wonder that both the Doctor and showrunner Davies began to display increasing confidence, even cockiness, in doing things their way. For the Tenth Doctor, that exuberance sometimes curdled into arrogance and even hubris. For Davies, it meant putting the companion, not the Doctor, at the emotional center of most stories, and making the emotional stakes of each successive season grow higher and more intense, both on an intimate, emotional level and a grander cosmic scale. And though Moffat-written episodes like “Blink” and “The Girl In The Fireplace” were more highly acclaimed, the real spirit of the Davies/Tenth Doctor era can best be found in those arc-finishing episodes. The two-part finale of David Tennant’s third series, “The Stolen Earth”/”Journey’s End,” is a particularly rich showcase of Davies’ best and worst habits. On the good side, he gave Tennant and co-star Catherine Tate plenty of opportunity for the comic banter and scenery-chewing that made their duo work. On the bad, he overstuffed the cast with guest appearances not only from every previous Davies-era companion but both the Torchwood and Sarah Jane Adventures spin-offs, and indulged his maudlin side with a heartbreaking, Flowers For Algernon-esque send-off for Tate’s character, Donna Noble. 

And if you like that, try these: “Blink” (series three, episode 10); “The Girl In The Fireplace” (series two, episode 4).

Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith), 2010-2013
The Doctor’s Wife” (series six, episode four): After writing the lion’s share of the revived series’ most acclaimed episodes, Steven Moffat took the reins at the same time that Matt Smith put on the Eleventh’s fez and bow tie. So far, he’s presided over a less bombastic and generally better-written Doctor Who than his predecessor, if too often concerned with mysterious secrets and clever plot-structure tricks at the expense of telling a complete and coherent story. He also made the smart move of bringing in novelist and Sandman creator Neil Gaiman to write a few scripts, including the stellar episode “The Doctor’s Wife.” Titled with a sardonic nose-thumbing toward the Eleventh Doctor’s complicated courtship with Alex Kingston’s River Song, Gaiman’s story deals instead with a threat to the only truly long-lasting relationship that the 900-year-old Time Lord has ever had: the one with his time machine, the TARDIS—which was established as sentient way back in 1963 but has been a largely silent presence in the show ever since, despite being the only truly unchanging element of the series. A longtime Doctor Who fan himself, Gaiman’s penchant for whimsy and knowledge of series lore helped him pull off the potentially disastrous trick of bringing the TARDIS fully, if temporarily, to life as a walking, talking person just as loopy as the man she affectionately calls “my thief.” Though as she points out, she stole him as well—a ship that wants to see the universe can’t get far without a pilot, after all.

And if you like that, try these:The Eleventh Hour” (series five, episode one); “The Pandorica Opens”/”The Big Bang” (series five, episodes 12-13); “Cold War” (series seven, episode nine).

Availability: The entirety of the 2005-2013 series is available on DVD and streaming on Netflix. Most of the original 26 seasons (and the 1996 TV movie) are similarly available, though a significant number of episodes from the first six seasons are missing. But unexpected rediscoveries still happen, including a cache of nine episodes that had been missing for 45 years found in Nigeria earlier this year.

Up next: TV Club 10 is taking the rest of the year off, but look for its return January 2, when Will Harris tells you 10 episodes that will help you get to the bottom of NCIS.