Doctor Who: In just six minutes, Paul McGann outacts three seasons of Matt Smith

Doctor Who: Paul McGann returns as the 8th Doctor

He’s not the Doctor we were expecting, but he’s the Doctor we got.

The BBC today released a mini-episode (but we’ll refer to it as a prequel) of Doctor Who in the lead-up to the 50th Anniversary episode Day Of The Doctor. We’ve been waiting on this as a teaser to the ultimate Matt Smith/David Tennant hookup on 23rd November, but Night Of The Doctor was so, so, so much more.

Beginning with a cold open on a spaceship in distress, the lone pilot calling for help, but he ship computer keeps insisting that she needs a doctor. Out in space, we can see a TARDIS hurtling behind the craft, and seconds later The Doctor is standing behind the girl. But it’s not that fez-wearing charlatan, or the Converse-loving predecessor. It’s not even the unpredictable Northern one in the leather jacket. It’s…it’s…the Eighth Doctor. Paul McGann. In the flesh.

I can’t begin to describe the sharp intake of breath upon seeing McGann and realising this was brand new footage. Likely you saw it too and experienced a divine tingle of excitement as the world of possibilities exploded in your imagination. I shudder at the geekiness of this paragraph at the same time as revel in it!

Of course, knowing what we know about the 50th Anniversary special, the rest of what follows is almost predictable. We’re in the Time War. And the girl who The Doctor is trying to save discovers that he’s a Time Lord, backing away from him in disgust. She refuses his help, preferring to allow her ship to crash land on the planet below. But the impact is fatal to them both. This is where McGann’s Doctor encounters the Sisterhood of Karn, who implore him to put an end to the Time War and offer to trigger his next regeneration.

In just six short minutes, McGann’s Doctor cycled through an incredible range of emotions – sarcastically chiding the Karn and mocking them, frantically trying to save Cass, gravely realising that in the midst of the Time War, a healer such as The Doctor is no longer needed. He chooses his next incarnation to be a warrior. The War Doctor.

If you’re a Whovian, those six minutes were probably the most sublime moments you’ve experienced in the last few years of Doctor Who. McGann appeared out of nowhere and instantly he was The Doctor. There was no question. No ‘who is this guy?’ He inhabited the role completely. Of course, he’s revered for his one-shot appearance in the 1996 TV movie, but he’s also appeared in stacks of Big Finish audio adventures over the years. His Who credentials are impeccable. And now he’s an indisputable part of canon.

Which brings me to Matt Smith. If you’ve read my writing on the Smith/Moffat years, you’ll already know I’m not a fan. After the intensity of Ecclestone and Tennant, Smith transformed The Doctor into a scatty, mad uncle. Fish fingers and custard was actually a grim warning that the tone of the show we loved was about to change beyond all recognition. Suddenly the 906 year old Time Lord lost all dignity and gravitas and became the TV equivalent of a clown at a 10 year old’s birthday party.

Side note: Here’s my obligatory “I don’t want to diss Matt Smith, I’m sure he’s a nice guy, but…” <- That was it.

Paradoxically, as the show’s production values and ability to draw in venerable acting talent increased, Smith and Moffat were busily scorching the emotional heart and soul of Doctor Who. The storylines suffered and Moffat often seemed more interested in giving the Tumblr fandom endless cute quotes rather than the quality storytelling he was once revered for.

The Night Of The Doctor was a timely reminder of what Moffat is capable of when he remains focused. The lines he fed McGann were phenomenal – introducing the concept of the raging Time War and its effects on the wider universe. Remember in Ecclestone’s one and only season, the sheer number of alien species displaced by the Time War? Night Of The Doctor drops us right in the middle of that. In fact Cass’s distrust of The Doctor when she realises he’s a Time Lord plays to everything we know about that race in the wake of the war – they essentially went crazy and were ready to implement their own final solution.

In fact, it’s arguable that Cass’s death was the singular event that prodded the reluctant Doctor into dealing with the Time War once and for all. He regenerates and we see a much younger version of John Hurt reflected back at us. This is inspired – giving us an incarnation of The Doctor that lasted for more than a handful of years. Long enough to physically age. We don’t often get that on this show.

John Hurt as The Doctor - Doctor WhoAs Doctor Who heads into two episodes that Steven Moffat says will change the narrative of the show going forward, there’s both hope that he can reinvent The Doctor for the Peter Capaldi era, with more strength and darkness and gravitas – as well as a growing excitement for future crossover possibilities. With McGann in the mix, could Doctor Who throw in the occasional throwback episode, where Capaldi’s Doctor is involved in present events that have been heralded by McGann’s Doctor? How incredible would that be, to have two active Doctors to play off, doing Moffatesque wibbly wobbly things across time and space? Not to mention more from this War Doctor. Epic things could be ahead.

For the first time in ages, there’s a glimmer of hope on the horizon for Doctor Who.

by Gerard McGarry on November 14th, 2013

Gerard is the founder and editor of Unreality TV. He writes about TV dramas as well as reality TV talent shows and is obsessed by sci-fi and Doctor Who. Follow him on Twitter @gerrybot or Google+

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20 thoughts on “Doctor Who: In just six minutes, Paul McGann outacts three seasons of Matt Smith

  1. Craig Gustafson says:

    The Sisterhood of Karn – not Khan. They appeared in the Tom Baker episode “The Brain of Morbius”.

    1. Indeed Craig. In one post you’ve managed to write something more accurate than their entire story, and I mean that seriously.

      Hating on Matt Smith as part of a news story (and then getting details wrong about what they just watched) is about as classy as using plastic utensils at a state dinner.

      1. Yeah, the hating on a DOCTOR just about made this unreadable. I know everyone has their favorite, but all of them are equally THE DOCTOR.

  2. I’m not sure if I’d agree with all your views on Matt Smith, I enjoy him. But I am worried that Moffat has taken his eye off the ball recently. We’ve had a few questionable stories over the past couple of years and hopefully things will pick up with this special story.

    And yes – I’d happily pay double license fee to get a season or two with Paul McGann as The Doctor right now. He’s always been good he just never got a chance to shine!

  3. Why am I paying my tv license to pay for this load of rubbish?. It’s just not relevant or important in my life.Anyone can learn to act .These people are who are taken in by this load of nonsense must have nothing better to think about.

    1. Then disconnect your TV from any ability to receive a signal and stop paying the TV license. Just buy what you want on disc. Problem solved.

  4. David says:

    I would say Tennant ruined it by playing it as Austin Powers.

  5. Ugh. And the hate fest begins again. Each Doctor is different. Each actor has played the role differently. I’m tired of hearing “So and so ruined it” or “So and so is better than so and so”. It’s pitiful really. Ten is my Doctor. Nine was brilliant. I’m working my way through the Classic series now. I think Matt Smith plays the age of the Doctor better than anyone. In those moments when he lets his silly facade drop, the tiredness of a Time Lord who has seen so much bleeds through. And it’s amazing. I am looking forward to Peter Capaldi with excitement and an open mind.

    1. Darkness says:

      I agree with you Krista. I have enjoyed Matt’s portrayal. I see an old soul who is playing at acting young, but when the mask slips, you see the tiredness and pain underneath.
      That doesn’t stop me from loving Ten. I look forward to what Peter will bring to the role, though I am sad to see Matt leave.

  6. Paul in NJ says:

    Indeed. There are more than a few moments when the ‘silly facade’, as you excellently put it, is replaced by unsubtle intensity – even rage. And his ‘memories’ monologue ‘The Rings of Akhaten’ is a keeper, certainly.

  7. Tinfoil says:

    You couldn’t be more wrong about Moffat and Smith. I grew up watching the classic who, and tennant and t davies in my opinion had pathetic, boring and weak excuses for stories. It was as if a middle of the road university student hi jacked a well loved tv show and included an array of gay jokes, farting monsters, fat monsters, caricature’s of things we had seen in the past. Not to mention the predictable dialogue, i mean come on that whole 15 minute walk around saying goodbye to everyone by tennant was a mockery of what it means to regenerate.

    Moffat brought the show back to what it should be! interesting to watch. Im a huge fan of the classic series, i can even watch the occasional collin baker episode which pisses over anything that appeared in the t davies era.

    That comment aside Mcganns appearance was incredible.

  8. Darkness says:

    I’m sorry, but to me, this article came across as an excuse to bash Matt Smith, and to Fangirl over Paul McGann,
    I would however, enjoy seeing “lost episodes” or specials with Paul McGann,

  9. Craig says:

    Whats this drivel about Matt Smith, the shows quality has vastly improved since he became the Doctor, non of the cringing moments that embarrass you thinking “somebody from America is thinking this is the best we can do” like the Slithreen, 10 Prancing about being casandra, Fear Her, and endless council estate episodes

  10. Matt says:

    I disagree with you, I liked the previous 3 doctors, Ecclestone seemed to make it more serious and then Tennant had serious and funny and Matt Smith had lots of funny which is kind of what Doctor who is about. You talk about there always being a glimmer of hope yet the way they are taking it all hope seems to be lost. Matt Smith should have easily stayed on for another season because McGann just doesn’t have that spark and Capaldi lost the spark long ago.

    1. “… Matt Smith had lots of funny which is kind of what Doctor who is about.”

      I disagree. That’s what the MATT SMITH DOCTOR is all about. That’s what he brings to the role, and I think he’s wonderful for it. That said, the Paul McGann Doctor was all about brooding, cleverness and a kind of darkly romantic hero. McGann’s Doctor was never meant to be funny, as he was a product of the Anne Rice “Interview with the Vampire” era both on TV and in the audio plays. He’s the “Byronesque” Doctor, and while there are some funny moments mixed in, it’s a very different tone than the current run.

      The Doctor isn’t any one thing. He’s an archetype, perhaps, being very clever man who ran away from his home to adventure and right wrongs. That’s really all that defines him in any concrete sense. He’s what the story, the writers and the era needs him to be.

      My point is that changing the actor also changes the character, the tone and the series. Doctor Who isn’t a comedy, it’s an adventure. Sure, there are usually some comedy elements — the Pat Troughton Doctor was a know-it-all “space hobo,” and the Sylvester McCoy Doctor was a manipulator who pretended to be a clown — but would anyone call Jon Pertwee, Peter Davison or even William Hartnell’s runs “comedic”? Those various different interpretations of the same character is what Doctor Who is about.

      For the record, I would love to see more of McGann’s 8th Doctor. The Big Finish series really does some great things with the character, and McGann has spent more time as the “official” Doctor than anyone else. He’s a damn good actor — seriously, check out his mainstream work — and has a great take on who the Doctor is.

  11. Jason Luckhardt says:

    I want to see a McGann miniseries about the time war, leading up to the night of the doctor, then another miniseries with Hurt going from the night of the doctor to the day of the doctor.

  12. Tabitha says:

    By the way it’s “Eccleston” not “Ecclestone.”

  13. Don Allen says:

    A) Spellcheck your Doctor Who references, it’s embarrassing that you’re writing this and can’t even get the name of Eccelston spelled correctly. B) We get it, you don’t like Matt Smith. Guess what? No one cares. This article should have been about the triumphant return of McGann, not you’re irrational hatred of Smith, who is a damn fine actor. Apparently you missed all the times that Smith dropped the facade of being young and showed the damage underneath from all of his 1000+ years. He’s leaving, you don’t ever have to watch him as the Doctor again. Move on chump.

  14. Jay Schufman says:

    A well written article! Good job! I didn’t hate Matt Smith as The Doctor, but the Pond arc just went on, and on, and on… and I was beginning to doubt whether or not Moffat had lost it! You are so on point! Seeing McGann as The Doctor was an epiphany! Moffat is a great writer, and I wish he’d give up the show-running grandstanding and get back to being a Hugo Award winning writer!!! Thanks for the article; you validated feelings I’ve had about Doctor Who over the last 3 years!

  15. Gavin Wilson says:

    Don’t agree with your criticism of Moffat and Smith at all. I think Matt is a great Doctor and Moffat is fantastic at running long story arcs. I’ll be sorry to see Matt go but am sure Peter Capaldi will be fabulous.

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