The Daleks have the Doctor trapped, and so he and his allies set up a last-gasp strike back against their enemies, with no hope they’ll get out alive. Everybody has their place in the finale, but for the Doctor it means a big change is coming…
Everybody knew Christopher Eccleston was leaving Doctor Who by the time this episode came out, which is perhaps why they could afford to have the title they chose. Sure enough, at the end of the episode the Ninth Doctor regenerates into the Tenth, and David Tennant takes his first breath in the role. There’ll be plenty of time to talk about Ten later, though! This is all about Nine.
So who was the Ninth Doctor? He was cut short, which is the most tragic thing. Although the narrative was clearly designed to conclude the Ninth Doctor’s journey, what stands out is that he had so much more left in him which we’ll never get to see, and that inherent sadness is a vital part of what makes his story so powerful in hindsight. When you take the second half of this series, you can see him ramp up and then get stopped just before he’s really reached full-speed. His time in the TARDIS with Rose (and latterly with Jack) offer his happiest moments, and you can see his old traits starting to creep back in. The warrior is gone, and the Doctor is back.
You can see this in his story through the episode, which sees him turn back to a final option almost immediately. He doesn’t have a real plan here, which is partly because he’s still so scared of both the Daleks and what they turned him into during the Time War. He regresses towards his War Doctor persona and starts creating an ultimate weapon which he knows will destroy the Daleks and the Earth at the same time, which is exactly the option he thought he had to take when he ended the Time War, only with Gallifrey in place of Earth. His previous self was designed to deal with that choice, but the Ninth Doctor is different. He can’t do it.
I suppose in a sense that leaves him flailing a bit, and the Daleks know it. They mock him, once again leaving him to think that he’s not been good at being the hero – but being the hero in this case isn’t about designing a weapon, but about disarming one. When Rose returns to the ship, having absorbed magic time powers from inside the TARDIS, she dissolves all the Daleks and their ships, and her friend immediately realises that what she needs isn’t a warrior, but a Doctor. And in realising so, he reclaims himself fully, and sets the stage for his next regeneration.
I’d always argue that the Doctor specifically (although subconsciously) always chooses who they will become next, and what Nine chooses is somebody who can fit into the ideal role of the Doctor, his finest idea of himself. As he stands at the console for the last time, he’s completely at peace with everything, and actually happy. He’s the Doctor, he’s going to continue being the Doctor, and his time in this regeneration has been worth it. It feels like one of the core concerns he had was that he was just a placeholder, a stop on the journey back to becoming the Doctor rather than the War Doctor, but as he prepares to regenerate it’s heartwarming to see him accept and appreciate who he’s been, and to smile at his journey.
There’s a real abruptness between his rescue of Rose from her ‘Bad Wolf’ form and his regeneration, which I think is intentional. Much of the episode robs us of time with the Ninth Doctor, as Rose and Jack both go on more overtly heroic arcs. Rose does the whole Batman thing of rejecting her loved ones until they help her self-sabotage in the name of a greater good, whilst Jack (and Lynda, whose death signals that the Daleks aren’t playing around and gives some genuine threat to the episode) engage in a consciously exaggerated battle. Jack goes out like a hero would be expected to, but then he gets brought back to life and stranded on the ship as the Doctor leaves, unaware Jack is still there.
That’s an interesting choice, but it absolutely has to be Rose alone who gets to witness the Regeneration. For one thing, it’s a brutal shift for her, as the man she adores basically explodes and turns into someone completely foreign to her. For another, their relationship has been the important thread of the series as a whole. Getting to act as friend, guide and mentor to Rose was a hugely impactful role for the Doctor, who learned that he can go back to peaceful and nonviolent ways and still save the day in the face of unspeakable odds. That he gets to end his time with his best friend is apt, as one of his strongest traits has been how much he treasured friendship.
When he dies, he spends his entire time trying to reassure Rose that things will be fine, all the while trying to reconcile the same thing to himself. He’s calm and composed, but he was also expecting to get to spend a lot more time in his role, and at some point he’d have opened up more to Rose about Gallifrey, about the Time War, and about what a Time Lord really is. He’s rushed for time though, and has to bulletpoint regeneration for her as he’s actually starting to regenerate right in front of her. He tells jokes, he smiles, and he does everything a concerned friend would do in this crazy situation: he looks after her right until he regenerates, with a grin.
We now know that the War Doctor knew he’d saved Gallifrey when he regenerated, which means he made the choice to become the Ninth Doctor specifically because there was hope on the horizon. And during his time, the Ninth Doctor has a carefully set out path to follow, which plays out wonderfully across the first series. I hope we don’t see him again, much as he grows on you and becomes this lovely and terrific person as the series goes on. His time was cut short, and because of that the viewers will always miss him and wonder what could have been. The point, though, is that it doesn’t matter what could have been – because what we got was fantastic.
Doctor Who Series 1 Episode 13: The Parting of the Ways
Written by Russell T. Davies
Directed by Joe Ahearne