Every so often Doctor Who pulls off an instance of shock that leaves the viewer gasping like a floundering fish and barely managing to utter “What? What?! WHAT?!”. The Doctor’s first regeneration in The Tenth Planet; the Cybermen slamming into shot for the cliffhanger ending to part one of Earthshock; and the Doctor’s seemingly unannounced regeneration at the close of Journey’s End. All moments of unheralded surprise that befuddled, delighted and provoked national and global discussion in their wake. Now added to this list of joyful occurrences comes Paul McGann’s onscreen return as the Eighth Doctor in The Night of the Doctor.
I’m a Doctor. Probably not the one you were expecting.
There was absolutely no hint that the 7 minute minisode The Night of the Doctor would feature the Eighth Doctor. Paul McGann himself had consistently denied any involvement in the 50th anniversary television proceedings. So, he told a white lie. And who cares given just how much fun The Night of the Doctor provided to its online audience? It’d be no surprise if BBC iPlayer and social media websites, such as YouTube, clock up huge numbers of viewers for this 7 minute extravaganza.
As much as fans crave news on the adventures of the Doctor it’s a source of warm fuzziness when an event floors them with surprise amid a complete lack of spoilers. In this age of instant information sharing via social media it’s astonishing that the Doctor Who production team consistently maintain secrets of this magnitude. But they do and it comes down to everyone who works behind the scenes wanting to delight the fans as they themselves would want to be.
Watching again and again it’s amazing just how much was packed into The Night of the Doctor. Not only did we get the reintroduction of the Eighth Doctor (complete with new costume designed by Howard Burden) after 17 years offscreen, it nailed his sarcastic humour, compassion and warmth immediately. There was the aftermath of a space battle, a potential new companion in the form of Cass (Emma Campbell-Jones, who’d previously appeared as Doctor Kent in The Wedding of River Song), the return of the Sisterhood of Karn (first seen in The Brain of Morbius) under the guidance of Ohila (Clare Higgins, Hellraiser and The Golden Compass) and the Doctor’s controlled regeneration into John Hurt’s “War Doctor”, a warrior to end the Time War devoid of his predecessor’s peaceful morality. An entire 45 minute episode was crying out to exist.
Charley, C’rizz, Lucie, Tamsin, Molly: Friends, companions I’ve known, I salute you. Cass, I apologise.
Long held fan theories that the Eighth Doctor fought in the Time War, and sent the Time Lords and the Daleks into hell, were torn asunder by the revelation that this incarnation was a conscientious objector, refusing to bloody his soul in the insanity of the conflict. Paul McGann has a great interest in World War I, stemming from his role in Alan Bleasdale’s controversial 1986 TV drama The Monocled Mutineer, and carried on in various ways since, including currently being the face of Merseyside at War 1914-18. With the impression that the Last Great Time War was the temporal equivalent of that pointless and devastating conflict between loathed imperial powers, it’s entirely apt that this Doctor would rebel against his people and refuse to fight, preferring to help and heal where possible.
As far as onscreen adventures go Paul McGann had pretty much been the forgotten Doctor. A one night stand in San Francisco for the 1996 TV Movie and then consigned to the spin-off medium of books, comics and audios. It’s in the audios from Big Finish Productions that the Eighth Doctor forged his greatest adventures. From the R101 airship in Storm Warning, to battling the Daleks in Dark Eyes, and joining in the golden anniversary fun of The Light at the End, the Eighth Doctor has appeared in over 70 stories for Big Finish. And now, thanks to the onscreen mention of his audio companions Charley, C’rizz, Lucie, Tamsin and Molly, these adventures can now be considered official canon. A little present from Steven Moffat to those who helped keep the Doctor Who torch burning during the wilderness years of the late 1990s and early 21st century.
This most ambitious minisode to date was filmed on the final two days of production of The Day of the Doctor. Could it be that McGann’s Doctor might yet have a presence in the 50th anniversary special itself?
Physician, heal thyself…
The Night of the Doctor isn’t perfect. A hugely controversial element casts a vast shadow, namely Paul McGann regenerating into John Hurt and not Christopher Eccleston. The notion of a hidden incarnation lying between the Eighth and Ninth Doctors has been cemented. A theory gaining increasing credence is that John Hurt’s “War Doctor” has been created in order to compensate for Christopher Eccleston’s absence from The Day of the Doctor. With five living Doctors (Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann) from the classic era willing to be involved in any shape or form it seems insulting to create a “new” Doctor in favour of their inclusion.
The truth of the matter will be unveiled globally on 23 November 2013. In the meantime The Night of the Doctor may have provided a finite end to the Eighth Doctor’s life but it’s left viewers craving more onscreen adventures of this neglected incarnation.
One can understand why Russell T Davies went with a completely new Doctor in 2005 as opposed to retaining the Eighth Doctor from nine years earlier but there’s also been the feeling that not bringing back McGann was an error. Ironically at the end of his days The Night of the Doctor has proven that there’s life in the Eighth Doctor yet.
The continuing adventures of Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor prior to The Night of the Doctor are available at Big Finish. Dark Eyes 2, featuring old friends and old enemies, including the Daleks and the Master, will be released in February 2014. And there’s an opportunity to meet Paul McGann at Big Finish Day 4 on Saturday 18 January 2014.