The BBC tonight confirmed the news that Whovians have long been expecting, and fearing: Matt Smith has quit the show.
Smith will appear in November's 50th anniversary special and a Christmas episode in December, but will no longer play the Doctor when the sci-fi smash returns to BBC1 and BBC America in 2014.
The Doctor will regenerate in the Christmas special, which is expected to be filmed in the summer. Currently Smith is in Detroit shooting How to Catch a Monster, the first feature film directed by Ryan Gosling.
Series 8 of Doctor Who is expected to go into production this autumn.
Although fans had expected Smith to leave the show sooner rather than later, the timing of the announcement is still a shock: as recently as mid-May, Smith had strongly hinted that he would stick around for the 2014 series at least.
Smith issued a statement as follows:
"Doctor Who has been the most brilliant experience for me as an actor and a bloke, and that largely is down to the cast, crew and fans of the show. I'm incredibly grateful to all the cast and crew who work tirelessly every day to realise all the elements of the show and deliver Doctor Who to the audience. Many of them have become good friends and I'm incredibly proud of what we have achieved over the last four years.
“Having Steven Moffat as showrunner write such varied, funny, mind-bending and brilliant scripts has been one of the greatest and most rewarding challenges of my career. It's been a privilege and a treat to work with Steven, he's a good friend and will continue to shape a brilliant world for the Doctor.
“The fans of Doctor Who around the world are unlike any other: they dress up, shout louder, know more about the history of the show (and speculate more about the future of the show) in a way that I've never seen before. Your dedication is truly remarkable. Thank you so very much for supporting my incarnation of the Time Lord, number Eleven – who, I might add, is not done yet: I'm back for the 50th anniversary and the Christmas special!
“It's been an honour to play this part, to follow the legacy of brilliant actors, and helm the TARDIS for a spell with 'the ginger, the nose and the impossible one'. But when ya gotta go, ya gotta go and Trenzalore calls. Thank you guys. Matt."
When he was unveiled as David Tennant's successor in January 2009, Smith was 26, the youngest ever actor to play the lead role in Doctor Who.
He made his debut as the Doctor in the April 2010 series 5 opener The Eleventh Hour, which was also the first episode under new showrunner Steven Moffat. Smith, who has appeared in 42 broadcast episodes of Doctor Who to date, became the first actor in the show's history to be nominated for a best actor Bafta in 2011. He won a National Television Award in 2012.
Steven Moffat also issued a statement, as follows:
"Every day, on every episode, in every set of rushes, Matt Smith surprised me: the way he'd turn a line, or spin on his heels, or make something funny, or out of nowhere make me cry, I just never knew what was coming next. The Doctor can be clown and hero, often at the same time, and Matt rose to both challenges magnificently. And even better than that, given the pressures of this extraordinary show, he is one of the nicest and hardest-working people I have ever had the privilege of knowing. Whatever we threw at him - sometimes literally - his behaviour was always worthy of the Doctor.
“But great actors always know when it's time for the curtain call, so this Christmas prepare for your hearts to break, as we say goodbye to number Eleven. Thank you Matt - bow ties were never cooler.
“Of course, this isn't the end of the story, because now the search begins. Somewhere out there right now - all unknowing, just going about their business - is someone who's about to become the Doctor. A life is going to change, and Doctor Who will be born all over again! After 50 years, that's still so exciting!”
The Doctor Who 50th anniversary special will air on BBC1 on Saturday 23 November.