|“Man, this is the second-worst episode of Doctor Who I’ve been in.”|
It was, of course, one of the highlights of the Fiftieth Anniversary. A tremendously sentimental and cool moment for fans, a fantastic way of officially revealing what the Hurt Doctor was, and a lovely gift to Paul McGann, who will pretty much never have the TV Movie be someone’s introduction to his Doctor again. And we have a full set of regenerations now, if you care about that sort of thing. Just about the only thing it isn’t, really, is a satisfying ending to the Eighth Doctor Era.
It tries, and that is a real part of its charm. I mean, one is pretty much sure Moffat included the litany of Big Finish companions as an acknowledgment of the Eighth Doctor Era – you know, that messy, historical thing that actually happened. The one with a giant bone thing in the sky, and he’s traveling with a fish, and there’s that girl from Jonathan Creek. Lego. They’re all made out of fucking Lego. Moffat probably even knew what would actually happen, which was that Big Finish fans immediately declared victory over the EDA fans, while the EDA fans sulkily pointed out that technically all this really disproved was the Vampire Science gap theory if those were the companions that first came to mind.
But the fact that this even happened; that there were still, in 2013, people whose first reaction to this was to make a new move in a fifteen-year-old fandom spat or to somehow make it about Lawrence Miles, speaks volumes. And not even bad volumes. Honestly, the greatest tragedy for anyone who lived through the Eighth Doctor Era would have been if all the blood and pixels spilt had been in the name of a faith so fragile that it could be broke upon a seven minute YouTube video. We listened to Zagreus. We pretended to take Scream of the Shalka seriously. We even read Mad Dogs and Englishmen in public. Heal that, Sisterhood.
Actually, I think my favorite part was when anti-Moffat fans seized on the retcons this made to the Eighth Doctor era as evidence of Moffat’s malfeasance while openly admitting that they hadn’t read the books or listened to the audios. Not out of any sort of “fake geek” sentiment, but simply because I find the idea of blindly entering the Eighth Doctor era factionalizations just to find another front in the Moffat wars to be the most sublimely perfect execution of the Eighth Doctor Era ever.
All of which is to say that the symbolic fate EIghth Doctor Era is a sublimely ridiculous thing to hang on an eight minute YouTube video. Even one that is, as this one is, intelligently and slyly constructed. The first half works by taking what is by this point a staple scene of the new series – the seduction of the new companion (and both Davies and Moffat always write it as a seduction) – and then twisting it into something altogether different as the usual “bigger on the inside” line becomes a source of utter horror and revulsion for Cass.
This solves two problems. First, it offers a sufficiently large reason for the Doctor to die in only three minutes, avoiding the problem McCoy had in McGann’s other story. Companion seduction gone wrong has the exact heft needed to justify killing the Doctor. Relatedly, it gives McGann something to do that doesn’t actually require any characterization.
It’s not, of course, that McGann’s Doctor hasn’t been characterized. Indeed, the problem is in most regards the opposite – he’s been characterized far too many times, and the setup of “Night of the Doctor” requires an entire new setting: his Doctor is not quite the last of his kind, but he’s seemingly the last one outside the War. Necessarily, much has happened since the endpoint of any of the Eighth Doctor lines, though one assumes, as Big Finish increasingly deploys their new series licensing, they’ll claim the prize and tediously collapse possibility into something altogether more drab.
Which almost sounds like a criticism of Big Finish, and it is, I suppose, but it’s a carefully chosen one. I’m sure Big Finish will do a basically competent job when they inevitably get around to the “outbreak of the Time War/McGann’s last days” box set. I’m also pretty sure I won’t find it satisfying; ultimately, I rather like the Eighth Doctor the rest of the world got. You know; the sane people for whom this was the first bit of McGann they’d ever actually seen save maybe for the clips in The Doctors Revisited. Or who hadn’t seen any McGann except for the TV Movie, and that more than fifteen years ago. Big Finish is and always will be a Wilderness Years company. I’m a child of the Wilderness Years and have my preferences and views within it, but the truth is, I suspect the people for who Doctor Who was actually cancelled and gone have more fun. Certainly I think my own personal Doctor Who fandom benefitted from what was basically a nine-year break over the McGann era.
So Moffat wisely contrives to give McGann, in effect, an entirely new status quo so that he can just do whatever he wants with the role. And let’s be honest, it’s not like McGann is putting in an extensively developed performance here. This was banged together with relative haste, even if it is the crown jewel of the minisode-heavy Smith era. McGann is not quite doing first-impression readings here, but this isn’t an extensively worked through and developed performance either. He’s drawing on Big Finish experience, and he’s a damn good actor, but he’s being boosted massively by the fact that Moffat had the sense to give him dialogue that makes a lot of the decisions for him.
This is especially evident in the second half, on Karn. This section is, in effect, a three minute crescendo – a straight ramp up to McGann’s regeneration and, in turn, to Day of the Doctor. (And consider how precise a bit of PR this is – the first official acknowledgment of the nature of the Hurt Doctor and exactly how he fits into continuity, but also essentially a redo of the ending of Name of the Doctor to refresh everyone’s memory.) Again, it largely carries itself – the dilemma the Doctor is facing is more a philosophical one than one of character. All “make me a warrior now” has to mean is “make me something other than what I am.”
Here things start to fray a bit; a companion narrative gone wrong is sufficient to justify a regeneration; justifying the abandonment of the title “Doctor” is a taller ask, and one that leans almost entirely on the mythic heft of the Time War to get the job done. Which is to say that the Eighth Doctor ends by just sort of getting caught in a jumble of someone else’s continuity. It’s tempting to call it the perfect ending for him.
And perhaps that’s the thing. More than anything, the Eighth Doctor Era needed to end unsatisfyingly, with all the arguments still in place and allowed to blabber on into eternity. Because there is no Eighth Doctor Era. It never happened. There was just an absence – a character whose only defining trait is that he was played by Paul McGann, who spent virtually the entirety of the era not playing him.
Because in a real and, I would argue, profound sense the Eighth Doctor is notable for consisting of a pair of regeneration scenes and very little else that is particularly recognizable as Doctor Who in the sense of being the television show periodically produced by the BBC, i.e. what we overwhelmingly mean as talking about Doctor Who. The TV Movie and “Night of the Doctor” are both, in many senses simply not episodes of Doctor Who in the way that Warrior’s Gate or The Vampires of Venice are. And indeed, inasmuch as one of those senses is typographically, not even in the way that Scherzo or Vampire Science are.
Paul McGann clearly counts, and yet literally no part of his tenure does. Indeed, he’s so defined by absence that in the end, we discover he was secretly John Hurt the whole time.