With the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who just two days away, here’s a few words about a new online/red button minisode that’s been doing the rounds for the last week or so.
It’s a wonderful high-quality eight-and-a-half minute self-contained story that is nonetheless essential viewing before Saturday’s feature-length birthday special. As with so many Steven Moffat-penned stories it starts in mid-action with a spaceship in the process of catastrophically crashing onto the barren planet below. A mysterious stranger in an incongruous blue police box arrives to save the sole remaining crew member, but it doesn’t go as well as he’d been hoping. And come to that, it’s not the person you were expecting to show up even knowing that Saturday’s story features not one but three Doctors (Matt Smith, David Tennant and John Hurt.)
Unfortunately a week into the release, the official BBC page for viewing the minisode makes it impossible to view the clip without getting a massive spoiler image before you even start, which is a shame because one of the genuine highlights of my viewing year has been the sense of utter shock I got at the totally unexpected reveal as it cut to the new arrival as he said “… but maybe not the Doctor you were expecting” – which indeed I hadn’t, and the wonderful surprise nearly sent me tumbling from my chair. If you haven’t seen it yet, go to the page with your eyes closed and have someone click the ‘Play’ button for you if you can. And do it now, without delay.
Right. Are you back? From here on I’ll assume that you’ve seen it and will include spoilers, so this is your final warning and chance to turn back.
Considering he’s been spending months telling everyone that he’s absolutely, categorically not involved in the 50th anniversary special (which is technically correct in the circumstances, I suppose) it was a shock and a genuine delight to see that the star of this minisode was none other than the Eighth Doctor himself, Paul McGann. He had only one TV outing in a standalone UK/US coproduction TV movie in 1996 and not been seen since, although he’s had a prolific run in the series of officially-licensed Doctor Who audio aventures produced by Big Finish. Not only did we get to see him here, we also find out about his demise and subsequent regeneration never before addressed (presumably this was the answer to the “there’s something you’ve all missed” teaser that Moffat’s been spreading in recent weeks.) Everyone had been assuming he turned into the Ninth Doctor Christopher Eccleston in time for the 2005 reboot, but that’s not the case: the face staring at us at the very end is a young John Hurt instead.
This alone makes the minisode an absolute must-watch for any fans ahead of Saturday’s big show, as does the fact that it contains key bridging and set-up information about the Time War and the Doctor’s part in it that will be crucial to what’s coming up, which is why I was so insistent that you get on and watch it as soon as possible. For the bigger fan, there’s even more to delight in including the reappearance of Sisterhood of Karn from the 1970s classic serial Brain of Morbius (and yes, sad geek that I am I was sure that’s who they were the minute they came into shot.) And for the serious transcendent metafan, there was a single line of dialogue given to this Doctor in which he thanks his line-up of past companions. That’s truly extraordinary since it seems to once and for all ‘canonise’ all of the Big Finish audio adventures, at least those of the Eighth Doctor.
As a consequence, instead of being the ‘one-off’ Doctor that few remember and even hard-core fans tend to airbrush from the series’ continuity, McGann instantly becomes one of the longest-lasting and most durable incumbents in the part. Since he arrived in 1996 and didn’t regenerate till 2013, in one sense he’s been an unbeaten 17 years in the part, and by a quick tally of the number of adventures he’s up to a whopping 64 now we recompile all the audio stories in – which incidentally includes my all-time favourite Big Finish drama The Chimes of Midnight. For anyone who really felt for the way that McGann has tended to be brushed aside in the Whovian annals this is such a wonderful, unexpected and glorious redemption that it’s hard to stop the heart from singing and the feet from dancing.
The truth is, however, that the 1996 TV movie wasn’t terribly good – but looking back at it now it nonetheless contains many of the seeds of what would eventually become part of the wildly popular 2005 reboot. The opening credit sequence for example is very familiar; the orchestrated (rather than electronic) version of the theme, reviled at the time, is much closer to the 21st century version than anything the classic series offered. And McGann’s Doctor shocked fans by kissing a companion, something that none of the other Doctors would ever do, obviously. Except Eccleston with Rose, that is; and Tennant with Rose, too. And Matt Smith with pretty much every female co-star who passes by … Okay, so you have to admit that McGann’s Doctor was a trend-setter there, too. Let’s just not mention the half-human guff and assume that was just the Master messing with our heads.
It’s long past time that the TV Movie was reevaluated and welcomed back into the fold, and that the breach in the long continuity of the show was healed and made whole again – and this was a lovely way of doing it. It’s so wonderful that on this evidence alone I rescind any and all of the grumbling criticisms I’ve made of Moffat this past year. Truly, if the BBC had made only this as a 10-minute anniversary story, I’d still say that it was wildly more than I had ever hoped for from this weekend; and the only problem is that the actual feature-length episode on Saturday now has a helluva lot to live up to.
One thing that did strike me about the Paul McGann, however: he really wasn’t right for the part in 1996. That’s mainly because at the time he was just a jobbing actor cast by a production team that didn’t really understand the series and saddled him with a crude cardboard cutout portrayal conforming to the tropes of character as they misunderstood them. McGann himself had little say and his tenure only lasted for that one TV instalment. We’d always wondered what he would be able to do with the part if he’d been given a proper run, and the audio adventures gave us some sense of that – but it’s no substitute to actually getting to see it with your own eyes. And the fact of the matter is that 17 years on from his maiden appearance, McGann is actually infinitely better for the role now than he ever was back then – making it either a truly prescient piece of casting by that TV movie production team after all, or else that some undefinable magic simply happens when an actor is brushed with the hand of Who. I think it’s reasonable to say that certainly Paul McGann could never have known that when he accepted the brief one-off gig in 1996 that it would remain with him for as long as it has and burst into life all over again in 2013, even to the point of getting his very own Radio Times commemorative cover. What other role has ever done all that for any actor?
And what would we give now to have a full-blown new series of the Eighth Doctor on TV, starring Paul McGann, who on this short-but-superb evidence is as good an incarnation of the Doctor as there has ever been? Maybe the next time they need to do a Doctor-lite episode during the next full season starring Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor, they can opt to do a flashback to a past adventure with McGann every now and then?
That would be completely fantastic, as one of the Eighth Doctor’s successors might well have said.
The minisode will be one of the extras on the DVD/Blu-ray release of the 50th anniversary special released on December 2. The Day of the Doctor airs on BBC1 on Saturday, November 23, 2013.