I’m sure there was general disappointment when, on 7th September 1987, the Doctor returned in Time and the Rani. Only he wasn’t the Doctor. Or at least, he wasn’t the Doctor that fans were used to seeing.
Previous to actor Sylvester McCoy’s appointment as the famous Time Lord, Doctor Who had gone through another troubled period. Strikes and threats of cancellation hung over production, and there was an uncertainty about the show’s future. Colin Baker’s removal from the BBC’s flagship programme was considered necessary if it was to survive – although it was perfectly understandable when Baker, asked to make a brief appearance in Season 24’s opening story for the regeneration, declined. And so, with no other alternative, McCoy donned wig and Sixth Doctor costume. An effect was added, to mask the appearance of the new Doctor, transforming him gradually. It was an important moment that would be compared to past regenerations.
It didn’t really work.
As McCoy himself remarked in an interview:
“Colin’s hair was curly and blond and they gave me a wig, put a blond wig on me. I mean, I looked like Harpo Marx. It was just silly.”
But, to be fair, this isn’t the first time that Doctor Who has performed without a traditional regeneration sequence. And it certainly wouldn’t be the last!
1970 serial Spearhead From Space, Jon Pertwee’s debut adventure, gave us a Doctor without such a device. At the beginning of episode one, we see the TARDIS land, the door opens and an exhausted Doctor (Jon Pertwee) materializes before collapsing. Regeneration has obviously taken place – in between this story and its predecessor The War Games (1969). But unlike 1966 adventure The Tenth Planet, in which the First Doctor (William Hartnell) changes his appearance on screen, we never get to see the full transformation.
And in 2005, the year that everything changed, we were given a new Doctor; Christopher Eccleston’s arrival signalled a new era for the show, which had been off the air for far too long. Last seen in the 1996 television movie (actor Paul McGann then in the role), the famous space and time traveller had quite clearly experienced his worst nightmare: a Time War, the greatest conflict fought between Time Lords and Daleks.
The true horrific sequence of events are a mystery, but we do know that sometime after the war ended, the Doctor changed his appearance yet again – unseen to us. In Rose, the first regular new episode since 1989, the Ninth Doctor (Eccleston) comments on his appearance, an indication that he has not long since regenerated.
The Ninth Doctor, looking in the mirror at Rose Tyler’s flat:
“Ah! Could have been worse. Look at those ears!”
There is no question that we all love a good regeneration. The Doctor’s especially!
Thankfully we have all moved on a little since those early special effects, and can now be secure in the knowledge that, if a similar situation occurred, the transformation from one Doctor to another would be far more satisfactory these days.
So no more blond (ginger?) or dark wig to scene-steal in future episodes. I mean, imagine if something had gone seriously wrong when they filmed Time and the Rani…
Sylvester McCoy: Officer you must help. I’ve just lost my wig.
Police officer: Certainly, sir, we’ll comb the area.