Last week, we shared with you the BBC minisode, Night of the Doctor. Today, we want to take a closer look into just what the significance of that short means to Classic Doctor and Nu Doctor Who fans.
With “lost” stories finally surfacing after decades, a 50th anniversary just around a corner, and anniversary specials for both TV and audio, Doctor Who fans old and new have had numerous reasons to celebrate this year. But at this point, nothing seems to have generated quite as much excitement as the surprising and welcome treat Steven Moffat and company had in store for us this past Tuesday. Premiering online as a prequel to November 23rd’s “The Day of the Doctor,” the BBC unveiled a 7-minute mini-sode entitled “The Night of the Doctor.” Fair warning for those of you who haven’t seen it, spoilers abound. But then again, if you’re a true Doctor Who fan and haven’t bothered to see it yet, I have little sympathy for you.
Wasting none of it’s short runtime, we’re immediately introduced to a young woman named Cass; the final passenger aboard a crashing gunship. As she tries desperately to send out a distress signal her on-board computer keeps prompting her describe her malady so that it can find her a physician. “I’m trying to send a distress signal,” Cass blurts out, “STOP talking about Doctors!” Unexpectedly, a voice behind her replies, “I’m a Doctor…but probably not the one you were expecting.”
That’s putting it mildly.
As the camera panned over you could almost hear the collective gasp of Doctor Who fans the world over as they beheld a sight they never truly believed they’d ever get to see: Paul McGann on screen again as the 8th Doctor. With the upcoming 50th anniversary as the perfect opportunity to make this happen, numerous fans remained hopeful and wished that something like this might happen. But as time continued to run out and denials persisted, we began to lose hope and feel that it was just not meant to be. We should have known better. We should have had faith.
Rule #1: The Moff lies. And to be fair, neither Moffat nor McGann really did lie. All they’ve ever really denied in any interviews thus far was that McGann would be appearing in the anniversary special. And he isn’t. A mini-sode prequel, however, is a totally different story.
I won’t go into a detailed review of the mini-sode itself (there are already numerous websites and podcasts that have already done so). Suffice to say that it was a perfectly executed seven minutes of fan bliss that may arguably be the most significant moment in Doctor Who history since the program’s return in 2005. And yet, as exciting and significant as it was to myself and so many other classic “Who” fans, it occurred to me that there were likely an equal number of “Nu-Who” fans who were watching and thinking “Who the hell is that?”
So for you uninformed Nu-Who fans out there whose knowledge of the show begins with Christopher Eccleston and ends with Matt Smith, I am here to perform a public service: I’m going to attempt to give some background to the characters that appear in The Night of the Doctor as well as trying to put into context the significance of this special and what it means to Who history. Let’s get to it…
1) Who the hell is Paul McGann?
Russell T. Davies’s regeneration (sorry) of Doctor Who in 2005 wasn’t the first attempt to bring the show back from dead. At the time of its cancellation in 1987, the show featured actor Sylvester McCoy as the 7th Doctor along with his companion Ace. When the show finally returned to the airwaves some eighteen years later, it featured Christopher Eccleston as the 9th Doctor. So where does that leave Doctor Number 8?
Back in 1996 the BBC, in conjunction with Universal Studios in America, co-produced a TV movie-of-the-week for the FOX network that would also act as a pilot for a proposed revival series for Doctor Who. Sylvester McCoy, returning as the 7th Doctor, is killed shortly into the films runtime and promptly regenerates into his 8th incarnation, played by actor Paul McGann. Aside from the 8th Doctor, McGann is also known for his role in the cult film Withnail & I (1987) as well as smaller roles in Alien 3 (1992), The Three Musketeers (1993) and Queen of the Damned (2002).
As fate would have it, the TV movie failed to garner sufficient ratings in the US to warrant a series and despite high ratings overseas, reaction in Britain was lukewarm as many felt it was too “Americanized.” Whatever the reasons, a new Doctor Who series wasn’t meant to be…at least at that time.
The saga of the 8th Doctor would continue, albeit in the form of novels released through Virgin Publishing and BBC Books as well the ongoing comic strip in Doctor Who Magazine. But despite the character’s continued existence in print, it looked like Paul McGann’s tenure as the 8th Doctor would only comprise one 90 minute TV movie.
That all changed in 1999 when a small company called Big Finish Productions secured a license from the BBC to produce new Doctor Who audio dramas. Gaining the participation of past Doctors Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy, Big Finish was able to offer Who fans brand new adventures of classic Doctors. At least in audio form.
About a year into the run, Big Finish was able to make their most significant contribution to the Doctor Who mythos to date when they secured Paul McGann’s participation in a series of dramas featuring the 8th Doctor. The audio adventures of McGann’s 8th Doctor continue to this day and help fill in a missing gap in the Doctor’s history that has (until now) remained untouched by the television series. Unlike Doctors 5-7, McGann’s 8th Doctor had no restrictions in terms of where his story could go. Without the constraints of needing to fit their stories in between existing TV adventures, Big Finish and McGann had free rein to develop the character as they saw fit. This allowed his Doctor to grow and change as his adventures went on, even to the point of making a significant change to his established costume (if only for the cover art of the recent Dark Eyes box set).
Now, with The Night of the Doctor, McGann has finally been allowed to bring his interpretation of the Doctor full circle and give him closure by allowing him the regeneration scene that he’d been denied up until now. All of this aside, McGann also gives a magnificent performance. Having continued to play the character consistently since 2000 for Big Finish, McGann’s 8th Doctor comes back to the screen fully developed and the actor doesn’t waste a single moment of his one chance to play the part again on-screen. He nails it; plain and simple. The only negative I can find is that he leaves you wanting more. But then I suppose that’s also the best compliment I could ever give him.
2) Great, now tell me who the hell the Sisters of Karn are…
The Sisterhood is female society dedicated to protecting The Sacred Flame. The Sacred Flame, in turn, is used to distill The Elixir of Life. As explained in The Brain of Morbius and now shown in The Night of the Doctor, the elixir can help aid a Time Lord who is having difficulty regenerating. The Sisterhood is based on the planet Karn, which was originally a colony of the old Gallifreyan Empire.1
Much like the 8th Doctor, the Sisterhood of Karn had only made one televised appearance prior to The Night of the Doctor, way back in 1976’s The Brain of Morbius. In another nice link, the Sisterhood’s only other dramatized appearances were in two 8th Doctor audio adventures for Big Finish: The Sisters of the Flame and The Vengeance of Morbius.
3) So is John Hurt Doctor 8.5 or 9? If he’s really 9, then what happens to the numbering?
Ever since John Hurt was introduced as “The Doctor” at the end of The Name of the Doctor fans have been speculating what this may mean to the numbering of previous and current Doctors. The Night of the Doctor may have actually put this issue to rest for good.
A significant thing to keep in mind when addressing the numbering issue is that “The Doctor” is not his name. At least, not his real name. It’s a title; a name that he chose for himself when he went on the run from his people. This has already been firmly established in previous episodes and is reiterated by McGann during the minisode. At the same time, McGann also states, very clearly:
“I don’t suppose there’s any need for a Doctor anymore. Make me a warrior now.”
Realizing the kinds of actions that will be required of him, he has decided to leave the title of “Doctor” behind. Which means that despite how he may be credited, John Hurt is not “The Doctor.” Just to clarify, Paul McGann, Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith, and John Hurt are all the same man, but Hurt is not The Doctor. He’s the incarnation of himself that was unworthy of the name Doctor because of the actions he’d have to (and did) do. He’s the one who cast off the name and went to war. When the war was over and he finally regenerated, he became a man of peace again and once more took up the title of Doctor. So by that account, Christopher Eccleston is the 9th “Doctor,” the next incarnation of the man to use the title SINCE Paul McGann. John Hurt is something else entirely. I know that all sounds probably just as confusing and whether or not it makes any sense is completely up to you, but that’s what I’ve interpreted from what i saw in the minisode. Wibbly Wobbly, Timey Wimey.
4) Does this actually resolve the issue of the 12 Regeneration Limit?
Oddly enough, I think it does. Once again this is all conjecture on my part and could very easily be contradicted sometime in the future. But as of right now, from where I sit, I feel that the events of The Night of the Doctor have finally given us an answer to the ongoing question of the Regeneration limit.
Despite being a great concept, the specifics of a Time Lord’s regeneration have never really been revealed during any incarnation of the show. To this day we still don’t know for sure if it is a natural part of their biochemistry or an artificial process developed along with their other technology.
Back in the days of Classic Who, the writers accidentally painted themselves into a corner when they established that a Time Lord had 13 lives in total. If this were to hold true, then upcoming 12th Doctor Peter Capaldi would only have one regeneration left. But it’s also been established during Classic Who that the Time Lords are capable of granting additional regenerations if they so chose, as when they offered a new regeneration cycle to The Master in The Five Doctors and also apparently during the Time War as explained in Utopia.
So this would indicate that no matter the origin of the regeneration process, the Time Lords at least had some kind of control over it. If that’s the case, the answer to the 12 limit may have already been addressed by the Time Lord’s destruction. If they no longer exist to impose the restriction, then the Doctor could, theoretically, regenerate indefinitely.
Setting that aside, the events portrayed in The Night of the Doctor may have also given a more tangible explanation. As clearly seen in the mini-sode, the Doctor dies when the gunship he’s aboard crashes onto the surface of Karn. The suddenness of the event doesn’t allow time for the regeneration process to start. So for all intents and purposes, the Doctor is actually truly dead. The Sisters of Karn are able to temporarily restore him to life for just under four minutes and give him the option of using their elixir to trigger his regeneration process so that he can live again.
Considering that the Doctor had already died and artificial means were used to start his regeneration, he may now have been given a new regeneration cycle. Also keep in mind this line from Ohila, the lead Sister:
“Time Lord science is elevated here. On Karn, the change doesn’t have to be random.”
The implication that the Sister’s Elixir is capable of specifying the regeneration could easily explain a renewed regeneration cycle.
In any case, it’s been obvious that with the show being as popular as it currently is, there’s no way the BBC were going to seriously consider cancelling the show after his 13th incarnation just to adhere to an old rule. We’ve all known this for a while and were just waiting to see how they were going to work around it. Now we may finally have.
5) Are the Big Finish 8th Doctor Adventures Now Officially Canon?
Damn right they are.
“Charley, C’rizz, Lucie, Tamsin, Molly… Friends, companions I’ve known, I salute you.”
As the 8th Doctor drinks a toast to his former friends and companions, Steven Moffat legitimized an entire era of Doctor Who history. By acknowledging the existence of characters like Charley Pollard and Lucie Miller, Big Finish’s entire run of 8th Doctor Audio adventures can now be considered a part of official Doctor Who canon. So to those who have only just been introduced to number eight through this mini-sode, I highly recommend checking out bigfinish.com to have the gaps filled in for you. It’s an even better time to do so since Big Finish (in honor of the 50th Anniversary) have repriced the first 50 releases in their main Doctor Who range, making the first 11 8th Doctor stories available for only $2.99 a piece for download. Aside from this, I can highly recommend the following 8th Doctor Adventures:
BF16 – Storm Warning (1st BF 8th Dr Appearance)
BF29 – The Chimes of Midnight
BF33 – Neverland
BF72 – Terror Firma
BF103 – The Girl Who Never Was
BF153 – The Silver Turk
8th Doctor Aventures:
1.1 and 1.2 – Blood of the Daleks Parts 1 & 2
2.7 – Sisters of the Flame
2.8 – The Vengeance of Morbius
4.10 – To The Death
Dark Eyes (Boxed Set)
And there you have it. For those not versed in Classic Who, I hope I’ve managed to shed some light on to the aspects of The Night of the Doctor that may have confused you. Now join me in collectively counting down the few remaining hours until Night becomes Day. And who knows…maybe Moffat has one more surprise up his sleeve that will make this anniversary just a bit more (dare I say it?) fantastic!