[pullquote align=right]These seven minutes not only cement the Eighth Doctor in the canon, they also tell us more about the Time War than Russell T Davies ever did.[/pullquote] Having spent three days wondering if the sight of Paul McGann as the Doctor, in moving pictures that weren’t recorded in early 1996 was real or the result of food poisoning, the time has come to review The Night of the Doctor.
The minisode – currently running on the BBC Red Button service and BBC iPlayer – is a mere 7 minutes long. McGann’s on-screen appearances as the Eighth Doctor are nothing if not short… oh, and loaded with quality.
McGann has long since been one of my favourite actors, since long before he was cast in Philip Segal’s brave-but-challenged attempt to get Doctor Who on air in the USA. His presence in that supposed failure (despite collecting 9.08 million viewers in the UK) single-handedly breathed new life into the show’s novels, Doctor Who Magazine‘s comic strip and features and later the Big Finish range.
The TV Movie may be widely dismissed as a failure, but it succeeded in billowing the embers of a sleeping television phenomenon long enough for Russell T Davies to take it by the scruff of the neck and bring it back in 2005.
In the intervening years the McGann Doctor became so much more than a Byron-esque wanderer, veering from paradox to destroyer of Gallifrey in the novels (long before Rose) a wily opponent avenging the death of Ace in the Doctor Who Magazine comic strip (one of the run’s greatest moments) and pitted against increasingly powerful Daleks time and again in the Big Finish audios – with eventually catastrophic consequences.
All the time there has been this question, this nagging doubt, in the back of our minds: why didn’t Russell T Davies stick with Paul McGann? Couldn’t McGann return some day? Surely the BBC could create a Time War spin-off with McGann as the Doctor?
Well, the answer to the first question is obvious – RTD wanted his own Doctor, detached from the baggage that resulted in the show being left on the shelf for over five years before the BBC started looking at it again. The answers to the other questions are less clear – but at least the Eighth Doctor has finally, at last, stepped onto our screens in The Night of the Doctor.
Who know how long this Doctor has lived? We know from the dialogue that he is aware of the Time War but has so far avoided getting involved. It’s also apparent – thanks to a single line from Steven Moffat – that the Eighth Doctor presented here is the one who has had adventures in the Big Finish range. One simple dedication to his former companions validates the Eighth Doctor Adventures on audio (although it perhaps dismisses those of the BBC novels and DWM comic strips) and suddenly this man becomes so much more than a night in San Francisco.
Paul McGann is back – and it’s about time.
From the moment of his initial dialogue (“I’m a Doctor, but probably not the one you were expecting”) the minisode is a constant journey. We learn what people of the universe think of the Time War; we revisit Karn, and the Sisterhood, first seen in The Brain of Morbius in 1976; we get cutting sarcasm so perfectly delivered by Paul McGann… let’s be honest, we get one of the most significant episodes of Doctor Who since 1989. These seven minutes not only cement the Eighth Doctor in the canon (such as it is), they also tell us more about the Time War than Russell T Davies ever did (Rose and The Unquiet Dead aside).
Seven minutes is criminally short, of course. While the in-joke leading up to the Eighth Doctor’s regeneration (“Will it hurt?”) is wonderful, and the execution and subsequent revealing of the I, Claudius era John Hurt inspecting his War Doctor features memorable, the minisode perhaps fails in its main task in bringing the Eighth Doctor’s era to a close.
It’s left us all wanting more…