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