This post is entirely Verity‘s fault.
The First Doctor
The First Doctor dies, essentially, of old age. In the story – it’s missing, but the novelization and an animated version are available – he grows increasingly weary, leaving the bulk of the action to Ben and Polly. Finally, when the enemy has been vanquished and it looks like everything’s going to be okay after all, he collapses to the ground and fades away.
The visual effects are of course of their era, but still fairly effective. One can imagine Ben and Polly’s horror. Nothing like it had ever been seen before. It’s a sad but fitting end for the man who made everything possible.
The Second Doctor
For his sins against Time Lord disinterest, the Second Doctor is sentenced to both execution AND exile. Even the worst criminals usually get one or the other, but the Time Lords are a particularly unlikeable brand of autocrat. Here we get our first hint that the person undergoing regeneration may have some say in the matter. The visuals are odd, and the Doctor’s ultimate fate remains unknown until Jon Pertwee falls out of the TARDIS in ‘Spearhead from Space.’
The Third Doctor
Finally, a proper battle death. Having gone back to face his fear among the spiders, the Doctor returns to die in the arms of his dearest friends. Though he fails to comfort Sarah Jane, his associate K’anpo appears to explain things to her and the ever-unflappable Brigadier. The visuals work decently. We don’t get to see the Doctor receive his fatal blow, but his death scene is lovely, touching, and appropriately dramatic for the Third Doctor.
The Fourth Doctor
This one is a bit odd, in that it introduces a mummy-like intermediate stage which follows the Doctor around foreshadowing things for the entire story. The death itself feels anticlimactic: Captain Kirk’s fans know the pain of watching their hero die gracelessly in a fall. The Doctor’s companions manage to be both louder and less convincing in their grief than Sarah Jane.
The Fifth Doctor
I haven’t seen this one yet. The Doctor dies heroically to save his friend, giving her the last of the antidote to the poison killing them both. I understand fans found it particularly wrenching. Still, it’s a good way for a hero to go.
The Sixth Doctor
I haven’t seen this one yet either. It’s an odd one, given the Colin Baker kerfuffle, and the anticlimactic nature of Six’s demise. I’m hearing rumors of a retcon in Paul Cornell’s ‘Love and Death’ – I’ve requested the book from the library, and we’ll see if that gives fandom’s least favorite Doctor a more worthy ending.
The Seventh Doctor
Another anticlimax – if you can call an opening event a climax of any kind. The Doctor steps from his TARDIS and is instantly caught up in a gang shooting. He then dies on the operating table, in the hands of a surgeon unprepared for alien physiology. Given the things the Doctor has survived, this seems particularly disgraceful. However, as the Verities point out, it’s a great beginning for a companion: Grace kills the Doctor, and then becomes his friend.
The visuals in this one are unique, which is good because they are also creepy and weird. The Doctor’s face, instead of fading, twists and morphs uncomfortably into its new form. I imagine the effects people thought it more realistic – as if there could be anything realistic about a man changing his DNA all in one go.
The Eighth Doctor
For many years the Eighth Doctor went without a regeneration scene. Then, in ‘Night of the Doctor,’ he is killed in a spaceship crash, refusing to abandon the person he has decided to save – whatever her feelings on the matter. Brought briefly to life by the Sisterhood of Karn, he is offered a choice in his new form.
This is the first/third to use the new explosive regeneration effect – first in character chronology, third in actual chronology. It’s quite a beautiful effect, and the off-camera aspect both lends mystery and allows the use of a very old picture of John Hurt as the War Doctor.
The War Doctor
This Doctor has lived a long time, and survived an epic and catastrophic war. Age and battle damage weigh heavily upon him. At the end of the 50th Anniversary special, he flies off in his TARDIS and quietly begins his regeneration.
Here, Moffat honored Christopher Eccleston’s preference not to appear in the episode. All we see of the new Doctor’s face is a subtle lightening of the eyes. Fans have of course taken it further, adding the rest of Nine’s face to the shot in an assortment of videos easily found on youtube.
The Ninth Doctor
My first and still my favorite. The Doctor’s gentle explanation to Rose eases the anguish of losing him so soon. The visual effect is beautiful, stunning and terrifying at once, and the new Doctor’s first words restore some of the humor and joy that make travels in the TARDIS so worthwhile.
Once again, the Doctor sacrifices himself for his companion, knowing that he will go on. This death allows him to put some of the weight of the Time War behind him, to begin anew, with a friend he cares for deeply by his side. Sorry as I was to see him go, this transition is worthy of its Doctor.
The Tenth Doctor
Ah, Ten: the melodrama Doctor. He rails against his death, then in the next moment accepts it, only to postpone and postpone while he visits old friends and says his goodbyes. The drama and emotion are at their height, music swelling, as the Doctor and his TARDIS go down together in flames.
It’s a wonderful dramatic moment, if you love Ten and the RTD era as much as Tennant and Davies clearly did. Plenty of other fans were left cold. Even some who loved Ten were ready to see him go – and Matt Smith’s first appearance, complete with jaunty music, sets a refreshing tone.
The Eleventh Doctor
Unfortunately, the Eleventh Doctor’s end manages to be both melodramatic and anti-climactic. Like the first Doctor, he is aged and battle-weary; however, he neither fades peacefully away nor goes out in a blaze of glory. Instead, he explodes violently, reappears as his youthful self, and then like the flip of a switch he is suddenly someone else.
Whether you were tired of him or not, Matt Smith deserved better.
It’s important for a hero to have a good death. The point of stories like the Doctor’s is that there is always hope, always meaning, always something good that comes out of the bad. If a Doctor can say goodbye on an optimistic note, his fans can go away happy – and return for the next season.
So far he’s managed it more often than not.