Talking ’bout regeneration

❉ 50 years to the day since Doctor Who’s first regeneration, we look at how Kit Pedler helped make television history.

Fifty years ago today, seven and a half million ‘Doctor Who’ viewers watched The Tenth Planet Episode 4. Most would have been mystified by the end of the story. The Doctor, alone in his TARDIS, struggling to keep on his feet. Switches and controls are moving on their own. Lights flashing, a harsh sound replaces the usual warm hum of the engines. When he finally lets inside his companions, the Doctor collapses. We go in for a big close of his face, which whites out. When the pictures returns to normal, that is no longer William Hartnell on the floor.

Where did the idea for the change-over come from? What made it a life preserving procedure, later called regeneration in 1974, for the Doctor, which has allowed the programme to survive for over fifty years?

Some viewers may have recalled brief newspaper articles announcing Hartnell’s departure, and the casting of a younger, tougher Doctor in the shape of Patrick Troughton. It is now accepted that whenever an actor leaves the title role, something magical is going to happen and we will get someone new. Back in 1966, it was a risky gamble to recast the title role but reassuring that the BBC wanted the series to continue, at least for another couple of years.

There had been talk of replacing William Hartnell with a much easier actor to work with since the previous autumn. He had a bad working relationship with his second producer, John Wiles, who would eventually leave the programme because he received no support from his head of department, Gerald Savory. Viktors Ritelis, production assistant on The Daleks Master Plan remembered how the team fantasised an episode where the TARDIS crash landed, and emerging from the smoke and flames was the Doctor with a new face. Donald Tosh, the current script editor, had found an ideal story in which to change actors in the middle of a fantasy story, when Hartnell’s contract expired. As soon as Savory was replaced by Shaun Sutton in the spring of 1966, there was now no barrier to such a radical change, and with Drama Group Sydney Newman’s blessing, new producer, Innes Lloyd began the gentle process of persuading Hartnell to relinquish the role voluntarily.

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The problem was how to explain the change of appearance dramatically? It has been established that the TARDIS could camouflage its appearance wherever it went, could the Doctor do something similar? Was it a natural process that happens overnight, or over a period of time like a caterpillar metamorphosing into a butterfly? Should the Doctor step into a machine and change? Story editor Gerry Davis thought in terms of Jekyll and Hyde but the answer came from the man who was writing what would be the first story to be made in the next production block, and Hartnell’s last four episodes, should he agree to leave quietly. Enter science fiction advisor Dr. C.M.H. Pedler, anatomist, biologist and researcher.

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Kit Pedler (Photo: Radio Times)

During the rewriting of The Tenth Planet, Kit Pedler collapsed at a dinner party and was rushed into hospital. He had suffered from stomach problems for most of his adult life, but this was worse. He was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disorder which required an operation to remove his lower gut, a relatively new and controversial procedure. During the operation, Pedler technically died twice after haemorrhaging. To make matters worse, during recuperation he developed an agonising general peritonitis, which he later described resulted in the worst night of his life. Davis visited him in hospital to discuss future rewrites which he would perform himself, and no doubt, they discussed how to change one Doctor into another…

Kit returned to his day job by the end of August and would later look back on his recent hospital experience as life-changing. Kit attended the rehearsals and recordings of The Tenth Planet and invited William Hartnell to his house in 119 Park Lane in Clapham. Hartnell may have noticed how the Doctor was more an observer and commentator in the scripts, and wasn’t really involved until the final episode.

You could argue that as far as he was concerned, the Doctor was watching history unfold in Antarctica in 1986. All they had to do was wait for it to be over and try not to get trampled underfoot. Hartnell didn’t have to learn too many lines. He was ill, but no one knew it at the time, least of all the actor, which explained his behaviour at times of stress. Hartnell fell ill on the third week of production and was written out from the whole episode. At the beginning of Episode 4 he tells a friend: “This old body of mine is wearing a bit thin.” Kit could empathise with that.

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Gerry Davis rewrote the ending of The Tenth Planet, removing the traditional wrap up scenes where the Doctor and friends say goodbye to the startled survivors of the tracking station, and go back to the TARDIS. Instead, the Doctor declares it is far from all over and heads back to the TARDIS, looking at one point as if he was going to leave behind his friends. Davis wrote a sequence that did not need to be seen, whatever happens to the Doctor happens underneath his cloak. But director Derek Martinus, and his vision mixer Shirley Coward both knew they could pull off an actual transformation. The result is simply magic.

The old and tired Doctor has rejuvenated, but what we see is not a young Hartnell, but a completely new body. There was no explanation offered to the viewer one week later. The Doctor would declare that life depends on change and renewal and he had been renewed, something the man who studied the behaviour of biological cells would agree. In his draft scripts for The Power of the Daleks, David Whitaker originally characterised the new Doctor as acerbic, energetic, strong, tough, and sarcastic. A young Hartnell, in fact. Patrick Troughton took one look at the script and said he wasn’t going to learn that every week for the foreseeable future. The result was a week’s delay in production for a rewrite to work out a completely different characterisation. Even his appearance was being decided at the last minute.

One mystery does emerge from the change-over. Ben and Polly enter the TARDIS in The Tenth Planet watch the change-over in their polar coats. Next week, they’ve gone! Even the Doctor’s clothes have changed except he is wearing a cloak and the blue ring but his jacket has disappeared. It was hoped nobody would notice. There was no replay from the final moments of The Tenth Planet, just a different angle of the new Doctor on the floor and more picture distortion.

Meanwhile, Kit Pedler was thinking ahead to his next script for the series, which would run along similar lines to The Tenth Planet, but some of it would be set in a space age medical ward, where doctors are replaced by unfeeling machines. He would push the series further into more frightening territory. Allegedly, Hartnell did not approve of the direction Lloyd, Davis and Pedler had wanted to take, preferring magic and mystery to horror and monsters. Troughton had no such qualms. Pedler wasn’t allowed to write a vampire story, so he would do the next best thing and turn the Cybermen into them. After all, they were the undead. The future looked very dark indeed.

Out there on Vulcan, the Daleks were waiting for him…

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