Here's the thing about people who rate the regenerations of our favorite Time Lord: they always seem to just talk about the final story of the Doctor that's on his way out. To me, the first story of the new Doctor constitutes as part of the regenerative process and should also be evaluated. There are notable exceptions, of course, like Time and the Rani or the 96 Telemovie where the regeneration takes place near the beginning of the tale. Or even Night of the Doctor where there is no story that immediately follows it. But, for the most part, a regeneration should be viewed as two stories. Or, if you really want to get technical, the Sixth Doctor doesn't seem to truly settle into his new incarnation til about halfway into Vengeance On Varos. But I won't go to that extreme, here!
Sixth to Seventh - Time and the Rani
People rip on Time and the Rani way more than it deserves. I mean, it still has alot of problems. But I'd take it over a lot of the other Great Stinkers of Who. Sylvester McCoy is great fun to watch and we see, right from the beginning, that he will be a master manipulator. The way he tricks the Rani into destroying her brainiac is a very clever twist.
Sadly, as far regeneration stories go, it's still the weakest. If you know the behind-the-scenes problems that were going on at the time, then you can excuse it a bit. But, ultimately, a weak regeneration story is a weak regeneration story. And you have to take it at face value. Time and the Rani is the worst example of a new actor taking on the role of the Doctor. And, as a swangsong for the Sixth Doctor, it's absolutely terrible.
The actual regeneration sequence makes no real sense. The Doctor falling off an exercise bike - what?! And the visuals are completely laughable. It was nice to have an easter egg in the dvd bonuses that CGIed Colin's face but I'm not sure why they just didn't do the fix up right in the actual episode. Sylvester McCoy in a bad Harpo Marx wig is not the way we should've seen Doctor Six off. But it's what we got. The fact that the ensuing story is, perhaps, the worst example of Bad Who Panto that we've ever seen really cements the fact that we have to admit that the sixth regeneration is a huge disappointment.
Worst regeneration story, yes. But not necessarily a horrible story, overall. It has its problems, but it still deserves a better ranking than it gets in Popular Fan Opinion.
Tenth to Tenth - Stolen Earth/Journey's End
I have tried really hard to like the season finale to Series Four. But there's just so much there that makes me cringe: the RTD companion love-fest that is the entire crux of Stolen Earth, yet another false prediction about a companion dieing, the Daleks being a completely over-used monster, the absolute absurdity of the TARDIS pulling Earth back to its proper place in the Universe ... the list of problems is quite endless. Julian Bleach saves the day a bit with a brilliant Davros portrayal. Otherwise, most of this story is pretty damned bad.
On top of it all, we have another regeneration that doesn't really make much sense. Since when has someone only ever been "nicked" by a full-powered Dalek blast and gone on to live for several more minutes? Any other time that a Dalek has shot to kill and hit its target - that person is dead in seconds. It's almost as silly as the exercise bike accident. The Doctor siphoning off the remaining regeneration energy so that he can keep his appearance the same seems equally ludicrous. It really makes the whole thing seem like a wasted regeneration. The fact that we will later learn that the Doctor is nearer to the end of his regeneration cycle than we realize makes the whole thing seem all the more pointless.
Yes, my jaw hit the floor when the Doctor goes into the regeneration at the end of Stolen Earth. But I knew, within seconds, that RTD would find some silly cop-out at the beginning of the next episode to keep the Tenth Doctor in place. And that's exactly what happened. Utterly disappointing. Only marginally better than what we got in Time and the Rani.
Third to Fourth - Planet of Spiders/Robot
I know this probably ranks higher on a lot of other peoples' lists. But, in my humble opinion, this one belongs near the bottom.
Jon Pertwee six-parters are, for the most part, poorly executed. Planet of Spiders is no exception to the rule. The plodding chase sequence is not the only problem. There are plenty of captures-and-escapes and other such frequently-used methods of padding on display all over the place. The long drawn-out sequence of the Doctor being rendered unconscious and needing to be revived when he first arrives on Metebilis 3 is a great example of this problem. Did we need all that extra runaround? No. Was the actual runaround all that really entertaining? Not in the slightest. If things had been trimmed to four episodes - this would've been such a stronger story. Instead, it just drags a whole lot in places.
Pertwee's final moments, at least, are very stirring as the Doctor faces his fears and moves on. And the whole business with K'anpo is quite brilliant too. But then we move on to Robot: a dreadfully mediocre story that barely has enough plot to fill four episodes. Like McCoy, Tom Baker does lift the story a bit by being so entertainingly erratic. But by the time we get to the homage (or, perhaps, "parody" might be a better word) of King Kong at the end of Episode Four we have to come clean and admit that Robot is just a really bad New Doctor story. I know it's not fair to judge Classic Who by its special effects, but this sequence is just so terrible that it's impossible not to lose all enjoyment of the adventure.
Spiders is weak. Robot is terrible. And that's why I consider this the third-worst of the Doctor's regenerations. Even though the rest of fandom probably ranks it much higher.
Tenth to Eleventh - The End of Time (Parts 1 and 2)/The Eleventh Hour
You'll hear me say this frequently: The End of Time does everything that Logopolis intentionally avoids. It's over-sentimental and weak on plot. It relies purely on us being sad that Tennant is leaving rather than really trying to tell a good story. Wilf being the person who "knocks four times" is about the only redeeming quality to the whole mess.
Fortunately, The Eleventh Hour lifts things up considerably and makes this particular transition of actors far better. I immediately liked Smith way more than Tennant and most of The Eleventh Hour is immensely enjoyable. It does drag ever-so-slightly near the beginning. Perhaps the Doctor trying out his new mouth could've been cut right out. Removing a few other minutes elsewhere in the story so that we could have a standard running time rather than a full hour would've made this episode perfect. But, otherwise, this is a great New Doctor story that saves Tenth to Eleventh from being even lower than Time and the Rani. I love it when Doctor Eleven orders the Atraxi back just to tell them off. I punch the air every time he proclaims: "I'm the Doctor. Basically, run."
Still not sure why the Console Room needs to blow up, though. Aside from the fact that the production team wanted to build a new one, of course!
Seventh to Eighth - The 96 Telemovie
It's always a tricky thing when the Doctor regenerates near the beginning of a story and the previous Doctor doesn't get a proper send-off, but this particular tale almost manages to pull it off.
It's nice that we still get some plot with the Seventh Doctor on display before he must say goodbye. If, for no other reason than the fact that Paul McGann would've looked even more ridiculous in a Sylvester McCoy wig! I will also say that this is, easily, the best of all the regeneration sequences that were ever shot. The crackling lightning effects interspersed with scenes from Frankenstein were just so wonderfully stylistic.
The plot that gets built around this all, of course, is a bit disappointing in places. Particularly since we're not entirely sure how it is that the Eye of Harmony saves the day in the way that it does. A bit more exposition would've been nice. While Paul McGann's one-and-only full episode suffered harsh criticism when it first premiered, opinion on it seems to have mellowed over the years. We seem to have realized that it could've been the beginning of a really special series where, maybe, the balance between British and American influences could've actually worked quite well.
I'd even be willing to admit that Eric Roberts was actually a pretty good Master!
First to Second - The Tenth Planet/Power of the Daleks
And so we begin to explore what I like to call "mid-range regenerations". Regeneration Tales that are strong but not necessarily outstanding. Solid, but not necessarily spectacular.
First to Second is a great example of this. The Tenth Planet, overall, is a pretty decent William Hartnell adventure. Better than most of his stories, in fact. But it is hardly in the range of epic send-offs that most Doctors get at the end of their eras. It's not as bad as some people say, though. I know lots of fans seem unhappy that Hartnell takes the third episode off but I like that he did. It showed just how weak the incarnation was getting. And I think that the whole: "just do nothing and let Mondas blow up" solution is a nice way for things to end. But a lot of fans would've liked the First Doctor to have had a stronger hand in the resolution of the conflict since he was about to bow out.
It's tougher, of course, to judge Power of the Daleks since the entire story has been lost. From what has been pieced together through audio and telesnaps and novelisations - it looks like it was a pretty strong story. Throughton, perhaps, goes a bit too much for the comedy in some places. But Daleks pretending to cooperate with humans until they get their way was a great premise. The fact that they recognize the new Doctor also helps solidify this incarnation's credibility.
Again, a good mid-ranger.
War Doctor to Ninth - Day of the Doctor/Rose
Day of the Doctor is a wonderful story. It's also a great anniversary tale. The War Doctor regenerating near the end does seem a bit unnecessary, though. Perhaps even a tad pedantic. Moff is just trying to make sure we get to see all of the Doctor's regenerations.
In some ways, though, I do appreciate that he's being such a completist and it is a nice sentimental moment. The War Doctor doesn't seem to have quite forgotten, yet, that he's actually a pretty good guy. So he dies happy. And I do love that his final line is more a joke than something dramatic.
We must assume Rose follows almost immediately afterwards as Doctor Nine seems to be noticing his face in the mirror for the first time. There are some inconsistencies between the two stories that will never get explained, of course. The biggest one being why the Doctor finally loses "the circle things" between the two episodes! But the two stories do actually gel nicely even though they were shot years from each other. And Rose accomplishes what The 96 Telemovie failed at. It introduces a new Doctor beautifully and re-introduces us to the Doctor Who mythos, in general, in an absolutely splendiforous manner.
Ninth to Tenth - Bad Wolf/Parting of the Ways/The Christmas Invasion
Bad Wolf/Parting of the Ways is, perhaps, one of the best send-offs we've seen for a Doctor. Which was an important thing to accomplish since this would be the first regeneration in the New Series. We needed to be in awe of the whole thing and Bad Wolf/Parting of the Ways accomplishes that magnificiently. It's an especially impressive story since it seems to complete a redemption arc that began in a story we wouldn't see til some six seasons later (how's that for Timey Whimey?!). But it also wraps up several more character arcs that we've been seeing throughout all of Series One. There's a stellar performance from Chris Eccleston and Billie Piper (my eyes still water every time the Doctor's holographic message appears) and the Daleks are truly at their most menacing as they amass for their attack on Sattelite Five. Some great stuff, really.
But the whole regeneration loses some points as we move on to The Christmas Invasion. A tale that is still stronger than a lot of Christmas episodes (particularly RTD-era Christmas eps), but not all that strong as a New Doctor story. Tennant is left napping for, perhaps, ten to twelve minutes longer than he should be. We just don't see enough of him to truly cement his presence in the story. Doctor Ten does stand pretty strong once he is strutting about the Sycorax ship, babbling like a fool. But it takes just a bit too long for all that to happen. A killer Christmas tree is also just a bit difficult to swallow. Being able to destroy the Christmas tree with one blast of a sonic screwdriver is even sillier. Is there a "Destroy Killer Christmas Tree" setting on it? Christmas Invasion marks the beginning of many bad choices that we will see riddling the second season of New Who. Bad choices that take the very excellent Series One finale and turn the whole Ninth to Tenth transition into a mid-ranger rather than something truly fantastic.
Yes, I used "fantastic" on purpose.
Second to Third - The War Games/Spearhead from Space
Yes, The War Games takes a monumental ten episodes to tell. But, believe it or not, there aren't too many places where it genuinely lags. In fact, the padding that is put into it is, oftentimes, quite compelling (ie: the stuff with David Throughton in it). The last episode is truly monumental, too. When you consider that it took six years before we finally learnt the Doctor's origins, one has to marvel at just how unique of a show Doctor Who is. Yes, The War Games is still longer than it should be - but it carries enough gravitaes to get you to forgive a lot of the extended running time.
Spearhead from Space is also a pretty fun romp that takes some interestingly creepy turns in certain places. Pertwee seems very Troughtonesque in his performance. Which is a very strange sight. This will fade away very quickly as Doctor Who and the Silurians steps in. And he'll be very Third Doctorish from that point, onwards. But Spearhead being such an oddity makes it quite enjoyable. Particularly with the whole thing being shot on film.
Eleventh to Twelfth - Time of the Doctor/Deep Breath
And now we hit the upper stratus of "mid range regenerations". Eleventh turning into Twelfth is told through two very solid tales. Time of the Doctor suffers only from the fact that we have spent three seasons anticipating the answers that it's going to give us. And nothing can quite live up to the expectations that have been heaped onto it. But it is still a very beautiful story that shows off the main character's core values magnificiently. The Doctor doesn't, necessarilly, expect to defeat all the evil in the Universe - but he will fight it to the bitter end. Every life saved counts as a victory. Even if he can't truly win the final war.
Matt Smith also does a wonderful job of aging himself up. We just love him more and more as he becomes that feeble old man that still won't give up. And, all the questions that have been building up throughout his era do, for the most part, get satisfactorily answered.
Deep Breath allows us a fun little romp before the darkness of Doctor Twelve's character really starts to set in. It is, perhaps, pitching itself just a bit too hard to be a movie rather than an episode. But that's its only real flaw. Otherwise, a great New Doctor story. Particularly the chilling ending where we must wonder if the Cyborg jumped or if the Doctor killed him. Great way to get us just a bit scared of what this new incarnation is truly like. In a lot of ways, it's Twin Dilemna done right.
Eighth to War Doctor - Night of the Doctor
Admittedly, part of what makes this regeneration so exciting is the fact that it was so eagerly anticipated.
As smart as it was to have New Who begin with Doctor Nine already in place, there wasn't an Old School Fan out there who didn't feel sorry for poor 'ole Paul McGann. He did an excellent job during the brief time that he held the role and everyone felt he deserved a proper regeneration sequence. In many ways, it almost ate away at us that he didn't get one.
But then, Moff delivers us the ultimate Fiftieth anniversary present. Not only does Night of the Doctor give us what we've been dieing to see - but it helps pave the way for what is to come in Day of the Doctor. So it's not just an anniversary gift - it has relevance.
What makes Night of the Doctor most impressive is that it packs more punch in eight minutes than most regeneration stories accomplish in several hours. It's also great that the webisode goes so much against the grain of the regeneration formulae. Most of the time, the Doctor accomplishes some great triumph just before his current incarnation passes. He saves the Universe. Or, at least, a planet or two. But Doctor Eight is actually failing, here. He must become something he's never wanted to be and participate in an event he has no wish to be a part of. It's very dark and absolutely riveting.
Paul McGann's time as the Doctor may have been short, but what he does with the role during that brief stint is truly amazing. We've finally gotten the regeneration scene, now let's see a series or two of adventures.
"Physician - heal thyself!" is also a great final line!
Fifth to Sixth - Caves of Androzani/The Twin Dilemna
Caves of Androzani does the same beautiful trick that Night of the Doctor accomplishes. No great triumph for Doctor Five, here, either. Just a man having a really awful day who is trying to save his friend from a grisly fate. It's a great storyline that is punctuated all the more by some very compelling direction. The cliffhanger at the end of Episode Three is one of the greatest moments in the whole history of the show.
But does Caves deserve such a high ranking among the Great Classics? Well, it's still an amazing story, yes. But I feel that the ending unravels a bit. We get the "Supporting Cast Slaughterfest" that has become the hallmark of fourth episodes in Seasons 21 and 22. A cheap way to resolve a plot, as far as I'm concerned. With the exception of Warriors of the Deep (where the whole point was to kill everyone so that it illustrates the horrors of war), whenever this device is used - I always feel the urge to utter: "There should've been another way."
But I'm harping on the negatives too much, here. Caves of Androzani is still sheer brilliance and earns this regeneration the place it has in the rankings.
Having knocked the chip off of Androzani's shoulder, let me also build up Twin Dilemna a bit. By no stretch of the imagination should this be considered the worst Doctor Who story ever (are we really trying to say Creature from the Pit is better than this?!). Colin Baker's first outing is far more solid than Fandom likes to think. Like Robot and Time and the Rani, alot hinges on the performance of the lead. Unlike those two other tales, however, Colin uses more than just silly antics to make himself entertaining. His Doctor is disturbing and wildly unpredictable. Strangling Peri in Part One is one of the most controversial moments in the history of the whole show. And I applaud the production team for taking that sort of risk. It was also awesome to see such a harsh contrast in characterization between the two incarnations. It's great fun as Doctor Six grumbles about the "sweetness" of his previous personae.
While we can't give Twin Dilemna the status of being a Classic, it's far more solid than most will let on. Its faults lie more in lack of budget than anything else. A lot of the story looks pretty bad because the money for sets and costumes was spent ages ago and there was nothing left by the end of the season. Making the Doctor an anti-hero who doesn't get along so well with a companion who first knew him in a previous incarnation were some bold choices. Personally, I think they actually paid off and took the show in some interesting new directions.
I love this particular regeneration. It nearly wins top ranking. But there is one that is just a little bit better...
Fourth to Fifth - Logopolis/Castrovalva
The most perfect of regeneration stories. There is beauty and sadness and hope running through all eight of these episodes. The dialogue is poetic. The visuals are lyrical. The acting and direction is second-to-none. Seriously, this is how every regeneration should be portrayed.
Logopolis is a fitting farewell to Tom Baker. While he's far from being my favourite Doctor, I can't deny his legacy. He put in seven years and was immensely popular. He needed a proper send-off. Logopolis accomplishes that with great dignity and scope. The incidental music in this story is some of the best that's ever been created. The "funeral atmosphere" that everyone goes on about gets conveyed the most clearly through that music. Even after endless viewings, certain sequences still give me chills because of the haunting melodies that play in the background as they elapse.
Tom's performance in his last story is also crucial to the tone of this tale. Some complain about how restrained he seems throughout Season 18 but, after the travesty that was Season 17, it was exactly what his performance needed. This rings particularly true as we reach the end of his era. We needed him sombre rather than taking the piss out of things the way he had been for the last little while. His acting is pitch-perfect as he lay on the grass below the Pharos Project. And the use of the Watcher throughout the entire story becomes breath-taking as he finally merges with the Doctor at the end.
But it doesn't end there. As we flow into Peter Davison's debut, we see that Castrovalva is an equally-strong story (good writing from Christopher H. Bidmead is definitely a key ingredient, here). Davison's stumbling about in TARDIS corridors pretending to be different incarnations and confusing the names of companions is a delight to watch every time. He is the first actor to also be a fan of the series and you can see the love he's putting into it.
As things move on to the planet Castrovalva, we must marvel at the delicacy of the whole society that exists there. Hunters who don't really hunt well. Gossipy women and frivolous men. And a dark and sinister librarian who we're all certain must be the Master in disguise. Oops. He isn't. In fact, he's the hero of the day. And he even goes out on an awesome line.
There is little within these two remarkable adventures that I can complain about. The passing of the baton from one lead actor to the other is done with such care that it really is a shining example to any other production team looking to accomplish such a task. This truly is the benchmark, guys. It doesn't get any better...