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Doctor Who: Born Again (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Born Again originally aired in 2005.

Can you change back?

Do you want me to?



Can you?


– Rose and Doctor

Davies revived Doctor Who devoted considerable time to reintroducing the core concepts of the series. Unlike The TV Movie, Davies saw no need to over-complicate Rose by featuring the regeneration from the previous Doctor to the current lead. The Ninth Doctor was introduced as-is to an entire generation of new viewers. Only a quick examination of his features in Rose seemed to hint that he was getting used to his new face.

The prospect of “regeneration” hadn’t been flagged too heavily by the time The Parting of the Ways aired. This makes sense. For one thing, there’s a sense that Eccleston’s departure was not something that the production team had accounted for – which makes it even stranger that the whole first season seems to be building towards his redemption in death. For another thing, it’s very hard to drop “by the way, I change into somebody else when I die” casually into conversation.

So the regeneration at the end of The Parting of the Ways was kind of a big deal, and a huge moment for the series. After all, the classic Doctor Who had enjoyed more than three seasons with its lead character before having to swap him out – Hartnell being the last member of the original ensemble to depart. And, given the rules of television narratives in 2005, there was no way that the show’s first regeneration wasn’t going to be a pretty significant event.

Somebody needs a Doctor...

Somebody needs a Doctor…

Born Again has a variety of names. It aired as part of Children in Need in 2005, which felt strangely appropriate. Given the history of Doctor Who as a show that created a lot of fond childhood nostalgia, it’s a logical fit. Indeed, given Davies’ attempts to anchor Doctor Who as an institution on British television, partnering up with Children in Need is quite logical. On a slightly more cynical level, it was a nice way of reminding audiences that Doctor Who would be returning shortly for a Christmas Special.

More than that, though, Doctor Who has a long history with Children in Need. Most obviously, The Five Doctors didn’t actually air on the show’s twentieth anniversary. It aired as part of Children in Need two days later. After the show went off the air, the BBC managed to reunite the living Doctors to appear in a crossover with EastEnders for Children in Need, titled Dimensions in Time. The pull of the event was so significant that even Tom Baker came back to take part.

Burning bright...

Burning bright…

So Davies’ Doctor Who was always going to do something for Children in Need. The obvious solution would be to air a clip from the Christmas Special itself – something of a sneak peek of events yet to come. This isn’t a bad approach. The following year, Davies teased The Runaway Bride with four minutes of footage. This year, with The Night of the Doctor probably a little too heavy for Children in Need, the show aired a quick clip from The Day of the Doctor.

Still, there are lots of reasons to do something a bit extra. And Born Again manages to feel like a significant little minisode, without encroaching too heavily on The Parting of the Ways or The Christmas Invasion. It teases David Tennant’s Doctor, without giving too much away. It proves Tennant is up for the role, without quite committing to what that role will be. It answers some questions about regeneration that couldn’t comfortably be fit into the climax of The Parting of the Ways and are probably a bit too technical for Christmas evening viewing.

Flying off the rails...

Flying off the rails…

More than that, though, it provides a nice look at the sort of questions that must arise in the wake of regeneration. Due to the realities of television in the sixties through to the eighties, companions tended to take regeneration in their stride. The only time the show ever really questioned the legitimacy of the incoming Doctor occurred back in Power of the Daleks. Even then, there was a sense that the companions weren’t quite freaking out as much as they should at the revelation that the Doctor can change his face.

Even Peri managed to take it in her stride, despite the fact that the Sixth Doctor’s regeneration was presented as particularly traumatic. She accepts that it’s her job to protect him, even as he’s sexist and violent towards her. She misses his predecessor, but she doesn’t seem actively freaked out until he tries to strangle her. And, even then, she’s strangely understanding – which adds a lot to the creepy domestic abuse subtext of The Twin Dilemma.

The perfect Ten?

The perfect Ten?

This approach simply wasn’t going to fly in the twenty-first century, and so Born Again is a full six minutes devoted to Rose freaking out. It’s understandable. The man she decided to run away with has suddenly changed his face and his personality. Even with everything she’s seen, she still can’t quite contextualise it. “I saw him sort of explode, and then you replaced him, like a… a teleport or a transmat or a body swap or something,” she struggles. “Oh, my God, are you a Slitheen?”

Davies’ character-orientated approach to Doctor Who was always going to make this a big issue, and it really should. After all, this is a logical thread extending from the whole “listed as missing” train of thought in Aliens of London. Just because Doctor Who is a science-fiction show doesn’t mean that the characters should feel unreal. Rose’s shock is a very rational reaction to what has happened to the Doctor.

David Tennant explodes on tot he scene...

David Tennant explodes on tot he scene…

And Davies is quite candid here. Rose doesn’t accept the Tenth Doctor; she’s probably speaking for a significant portion of the audience. The whole relationship is thrown into doubt; everything changes, nothing is constant. “Do you want to leave?” the Doctor asks. “Do you want me to leave?” Rose replies.  “No!” he answers, reflexively. “But… your choice… if you want to go home…” This is a much more intimate and personal response to regeneration than we’ve ever really seen before.

It’s worth returning to the Sixth Doctor’s regeneration here, because there’s a very interesting parallel to be made. Davies spent a considerable amount of time in his first year on the show attempting to rehabilitate various aspects of eighties Doctor Who. Bad Wolf was a conscious shout-out to Vengeance on Varos. The Daleks’ plan in The Parting of the Ways recalls Davros’ schemes in Revelation of the Daleks. Davies’ Long Game was based on a script he submitted to Andrew Cartmel.

What's up, Doc?

What’s up, Doc?

Even the prickly Ninth Doctor felt like a much more skilful attempt at a “dark Doctor” than anything the Colin Baker era actually accomplished – a version of the character who was arrogant and confrontational and moody and prone to emotional outbursts. So it’s no surprise that Davies should do the whole “unstable regeneration” bit again here, with much more technical skill. After all, very few of the individual ideas in The Twin Dilemma were intrinsically terrible; it was just the decision to do them all together – and terribly – that doomed the story.

Like Colin Baker’s Doctor, Born Again suggests that the process didn’t go as smoothly as intended. The Tenth Doctor is manic and emotionally unstable from the outset. He is incredibly tender and mindful of his companion one minute, only to be reckless and aggressive the next. As with Colin Baker, the Doctor’s instability is demonstrated by the fact he can’t seem to remember how to fly the TARDIS. “Haven’t moved this one in years!” he yells as the TARDIS hurdles out of control. “Ah, don’t be so dull — let’s have a bit of fun! Let’s rip through that vortex!”

A Dark Doctor?

A Dark Doctor?

(There’s even a brief flash of that creepy abusive relationship creeping back in. When Rose wants to go back to pick up Jack, who would be a pillar of stability under the circumstances, the Doctor flat-out refuses in the most dismissive manner possible. “Gah, he’s busy! He’s got plenty to do rebuilding the Earth!” Though Utopia provides an explanation for why Jack was left behind, Born Again plays it as a decidedly creepy move on the part of the Doctor – cutting Rose off from somebody who could help her through this. He does, however, eventually manage to take her home.)

Aside from providing a nice little lacuna where Davies can unpack a lot of the questions raised about regeneration and how the revival will approach it, Born Again also serves a pretty effective plot function. It explains how Rose can come to accept the Tenth Doctor as a replacement for the Ninth. After all, The Christmas Invasion is a story about Rose having to step into the narrative gap left by the Doctor for most of the episode, and working on the assumption that the Doctor will recover enough to be able to become the Doctor again at one point.

In six minutes, Born Again manages to manoeuvre the characters into that position, having Rose both weirded out by this new Doctor and also accepting that – on some base level – it is the same man. It’s very efficient storytelling, and it’s easy to see why Doctor Who has come to appreciate and enjoy these little minisodes. The Moffat era, in particular, is fond of shortened adventures and interludes between existing episodes, cramming necessary emotional beats into the surplus material.

(Of course, there’s a very reasonable argument that a lot of these emotional beats should be included in the series proper, and air as part of the show as broadcast. On the other hand, it’s a nice acknowledgement of how Doctor Who is adapting to the modern television landscape, the world of the DVD box set where little bits of extra material can be preserved and maintained for fans to enjoy. After all, the fifth season box set offers the viewer the option of integrating Moffat’s additional scenes into the binge-viewing of the episodes.)

Born Again is a startlingly efficient piece of business, and proof of just how expansive Davies’ version of Doctor Who was – a show so large that it was beginning to spill out of the constraints of the show’s broadcast slot.

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