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“I’m a Doctor. But probably not the one you were expecting.” With those words, Paul McGann wowed Doctor Who fans back in 2013, when he returned to the TARDIS for a one-off special.
The Night of the Doctor, a short film, was recorded especially to mark the series’ 50th anniversary – and proved an essential link between Old Who, Nu Who and Future Who. Not bad going for an eight-minute glimpse of what might have been.
McGann, of course, gave us our first modern Doctor in 1996, in a TV film that was designed to relaunch the show for a new audience. Half-American, half-British, it was essentially an expensive pilot, one that never quite stuck the landing, as The Doctor battled with The Master (Eric Roberts) in San Francisco, aided by Dr. Grace Holloway (Daphne Ashbrook). It paved the way for a number of modern elements of Doctor Who, particularly its skewing towards romantic comedy as well as science fiction, and, by including Sylvester McCoy as the outgoing Seventh Doctor, was never fully written out of Doctor Who canon. Indeed, McGann made such an impression in a 90-minute outing that he went on to continue portraying the Doctor in over 70 audio dramas.
McGann’s Doctor was a wonderfully romantic figure, in the noble, heroic sense of the word, with his curly hair, classical architecture inside his TARDIS and a Baroque costume that was a Wild Bill Hickock outfit taken from another hospital patient’s fancy dress collection. And in only eight minutes, McGann once again made a similar impression on-screen, with The Night of the Doctor reintroducing him in a disheveled day coat – more weary gun-slinger than Victorian dandy.
The minisode, which was penned by Steven Moffat, effortlessly captures the spirit of McGann’s doctor. He tries to save Cass, a woman piloting a doomed spaceship. But upon discovering he’s a Time Lord, she refuses his help – a move that plays right into McGann’s tragic, pained conscience, but also establishes the story as being in the middle of the great Time War between the Time Lords and the Daleks.
It’s the Sisterhood of Karn (seen in 1975’s Brain of Morbius) who help the Doctor to regenerate, giving him an elixir that will save his life, but force him to change form – and McGann’s doctor, crushed by the knowledge that he can’t help people anymore, opts for a warrior instead of a Doctor. “Physician, heal thyself…” he whispers, as he drinks, cementing his character as the swooning balance between a man who quotes the Bible and a man who jokes about board games and knitting.
It’s a sobering move, one that sees the Doctor’s turn towards darkness become an intentional choice – thus linking his identity irrevocably to The War Doctor, played by John Hurt in the 50th anniversary special. A psuedo-unofficial regeneration that then led to Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor, it was a clever solution to Eccleston’s lack of participation in the 50th anniversary special, but also a huge force in developing the Doctor’s character, adding years (visibly) to him, before he become a younger man once again, running from the War that he actively participated in.
Even now, re-watching the minisode carries all the fun, weight and intrigue of a full-scale adventure – a Night of the Doctor that still makes you wish McGann had one day more in the role.
The Night of the Doctor is available on BBC iPlayer until 15th January 2018.
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