I think that last week’s announcement that Matt Smith will be departing from Doctor Who at the end of the year must have caught a fair number of people by surprise, me included. Up until that point, it seemed a pretty sure bet that Smith would be playing the Eleventh Doctor for at least another full season. The news that he would only be around for two more stories – the 50th Anniversary special and the 2013 Christmas story – before regenerating, was actually quite disappointing for me.
Okay, admittedly, four years ago, when David Tennant announced that he was leaving Doctor Who, I also felt let down. I honestly thought that no one could possibly fill the shoes of the actor who had given the best portrayal of the Doctor since Tom Baker. And, y’know, Matt Smith’s first year on the series almost confirmed my fears. It was a wildly uneven set of episodes. But by the time 2011 rolled around, it was clear that both Smith and showrunner Steven Moffat had found their feet. Since that time, I’ve really been thrilled by the Eleventh Doctor’s adventures, so much so that, once again, I find myself asking that very same question: why can’t he stay around for just a little bit longer?
Thinking about Smith’s departure has got me reminiscing about the whole regeneration thing in Doctor Who. It is a truly brilliant concept, one conceived way back in 1966 by script editor Gerry Davis and producer Innes Lloyd as a means to replace the ailing William Hartnell. The Doctor’s ability to renew himself in such a drastic manner has enabled the series to last an amazing half century, with a number of truly talented actors playing the main role.
Of course, it has been a long time since anyone in the viewing public has been surprised by a change-over in actors, as the BBC publicity machine inevitably announces each forthcoming recasting with much fanfare. I expect that, in Britain at least, the first and last time anyone might have actually been surprised by the Doctor changing was when “The Tenth Planet” was broadcast in October 1966, and Hartnell transformed into Patrick Troughton in the closing seconds of the final episode.
It was a different story here in the States, at least for a while. In the early 1980s, before the Internet, news about Doctor Who was much more difficult to come by. Heck, when I first began watching the series on my local PBS station in 1983, as far as I knew Tom Baker was the one and only actor to have ever played the role of the Doctor. After catching a handful of his episodes here and there, I finally figured out what channel & time the series was airing, and began following it each weekday night at 6:00 PM on WLIW Channel 21, beginning with “The Horns of Nimon” episode four. Yeah, not an auspicious start, I know, but when you’re seven years old you can be a lot less critical of these things.
I quickly became a fan of the series, watching the entirety of what I now know was Season Eighteen. And, after several weeks, there came a very odd four part story titled “Logopolis” which ended with the Doctor plunging hundreds of feet off a space telescope where, sprawled on the ground, surrounded by his friends, he somehow transformed into a young blonde-haired man. And at that point I had absolutely no idea what the hell was going on!
That next night, sitting through episode one of “Castrovalva,” I was very unsettled. As the altered Doctor seemed to be losing his mind, I kept wondering why they had gotten rid of the guy with the curly hair. And, once this blond-haired fellow began unraveling the Doctor’s trademark scarf, yep, I was utterly horrified! Nevertheless, I stuck it out, and three nights later, by the end of episode four, I was thinking to myself, “Maybe this new guy will work out after all.”
It must have been a few weeks later that I finally started to understand that this was something that had happened on the show before. I was at the local Waldenbooks, where I discovered that there was an entire line of Doctor Who novels adapted from episodes of the television series. And on a lot of the covers were individuals other than Tom Baker. I realized there must have been other versions of the Doctor before him. This was soon after confirmed for me when “Earthshock” aired on WLIW. In episode two the Cybermen viewed archival footage of their past encounters with the Doctor, and we saw not just Baker, but also Hartnell and Troughton.
Inevitably I did become a big fan of the Fifth Doctor, Peter Davison. Looking back on it, as David Tennant would say a number of years later, he was my Doctor. So, eventually, “The Caves of Androzani” episode four aired on PBS, and the Fifth Doctor, seemingly dying, announced “I might regenerate. I don’t know. Feels different this time.” And, once again, my jaw dropped. Oh, no, I thought, now Peter Davison was leaving the show! Darn it! Next thing you know, the Doctor has become this very brash fellow who, with a smirk, in response to a confused Peri’s question about what has just happened, informs her “Change, my dear, and it seems not a moment too soon.”
And, as an aside, yes, once I was able to view Colin Baker’s episodes, I ended up becoming a fan of his Doctor, as well. As I have said before, he gave such an underrated performance on the show. Nowadays, it’s a real joy listening to the Big Finish audio plays where he reprises the Sixth Doctor.
But, getting back to my original point, this was the very last time I was surprised by the Doctor regenerating. I think that, unless you live in a cave without an Internet connection, it’s just impossible not to know ahead of time that so-and-so is leaving the series. This means that, even though Matt Smith’s departure will not be airing for another six months, we know he is on his way out.
Of course, we still do not know who has been cast as the Twelfth Doctor… at least not yet. I’m sure the news will be announced any day now. Just as I’m also sure that I’ll do my usual shtick of bemoaning that the new guy isn’t as good as Matt Smith was, at least until I see him in a few episodes, at which point I’ll probably become a huge fan. And so it goes!