In the lead-up to Peter Capaldi’s exit, BBC iPlayer has made all regeneration stories in New Who available to watch. We figured now was a good time to review them. We start by talking about marvelous minisode The Night of the Doctor…
The sheer quantity of speculation around Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary meant rumours of Paul McGann’s return were quickly dismissed. So the Eighth Doctor’s reappearance on a cold November night in 2013 came as a surprise to everyone. The BBC even headed off an impending leak of the news by releasing the minisode two days early.
So clearly the BBC and Steven Moffat, who wrote this story, knew what a treat it would be for the fans. And knew the importance of preserving the surprise to the fans. It paid off. The Night of the Doctor was a perfect appetizer for the special to follow next weekend. An unambiguous sign that Moffat knew what he was doing and the best is yet to come.
McGann’s reintroduction is a great example of how efficient a screenwriter Moffat can be when he has restrictions. In this case, seven minutes total running time and a long list of things to do. For one, he has to reintroduce the Eighth Doctor as it couldn’t be assumed everyone would instantly recognise McGann. The script must also introduce Cass, establish her rapport with the Doctor and then believably kill her off. And that’s just the first three minutes.
Moffat mirrored that urgency by crafting a breathless opening sequence on a crashing spaceship. There’s no time for lengthy explanations. For both Cass and the audience, it’s enough to know that he’s the Doctor, here to save her, let’s go! Which makes her reaction to the TARDIS all the more nail-biting. Her revulsion at learning the Doctor is a Time Lord is perfectly illustrates of how the Time War affects the Doctor’s life. Despite his best efforts to ignore it, even meeting a new companion is tragically subverted by the war. It’s a very well written scene that blends character and plot seamlessly.
Sisterhood of Karn
If all that wasn’t enough, Moffat also had to reintroduce a one-off villain from classic Who. The script continues its trimmed, bare bones approach in this scene. We don’t need a detailed refresher on The Brain of Morbius. It’s enough to know this is a cult of immortals who manipulate regeneration. And the Doctor could really use a drink.
McGann and Clare Higgins as Ohila have superb chemistry together that elevates an already tense scene. Both actors must show a wide range of emotions in short time and the dialogue lets the shifts occur naturally. Meanwhile, some excellent direction and production design complements the script as Ohila and the Doctor verbally spar. Surrounded by their vivid iconography, you get a sense that the Doctor literally and figuratively can’t escape the Sisterhood or the Time War.
Some critics have argued, not unfairly, that the Doctor accepts his fate as the Warrior too quickly. It’s hard to ignore the fact that he goes from defiant to resigned in very short order. But I think McGann’s performance as a more battle-weary Eighth Doctor hints at the situation with Cass having precedent. He knew immediately why Cass was reacting that way and pleaded his innocence without prompting. So I think the story means to hint that this is the merely the final straw in a long history of Time War related failures by the Eighth Doctor. Making his turn to the dark side a sudden but inevitable outcome.
Steven Moffat has clearly been keeping up with the Eighth Doctor audios from Big Finish. And not just because some of the audio companions get name-dropped. From the first, you hear the characterisation that Big Finish has developed for this Doctor over the years. His flashes of deep rage fit with the more emotionally battered incarnation Big Finish has crafted. This is not the chummy Byronesque amnesiac we met in ‘96. This Doctor is quick to anger at those who fail to live up to his moral standards. So for him to yell bitterly when confronted with his own failure – his capitulation to the Time War – really works.
My one complaint is that the BBC were unable or unwilling to give McGann the costume designed for his more recent Big Finish audios. Especially since, by coincidence, it’s closer to the War Doctor’s getup than the costume he wears in Night. But at least Paul didn’t have to wear the wig.
Earlier this year, Big Finish reverse-engineered this minisode to develop stories set during this period of the Eighth Doctor’s life. Which was highly recommended in our review.
Exploring the origins of the War Doctor in an online minisode was a clever way for Steven Moffat to have it both ways. Opening the anniversary special this way would have either derailed the plot or have had to be trimmed to less than a flashback. Neither option would do it justice. Besides, for the casual viewer, knowing John Hurt is playing an earlier version of the Doctor is enough. But for the fans who want it explained, we have a neat little bonus. Though this is undermined a bit by the fact John Hurt clearly wasn’t involved in its production. It would’ve been nice to see McGann actually turn into Hurt rather than obfuscated stock footage. Regardless, the regeneration scene handles Hurt’s absence shrewdly and proves to be a really well-directed sequence.
As the missing piece bridging revived Doctor Who with its original series, this turned out to be everything fans wanted. It perfectly integrates callbacks without ever losing the pace or wasting dialogue. The Eighth Doctor’s characterisation respects his spin-off development but also brings new elements. Steven Moffat wrote a powerful script that delivers both a tragic end for one Doctor and a troubled birth for another. McGann calls upon seventeen years in the role for one of his finest performances. As a whirlwind primer for a bombastic 50th anniversary special, you couldn’t ask for more.