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Doctor Who: Night of the Doctor (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Night of the Doctor originally aired in 2013.

I’m a Doctor. But probably not the one you’re expecting.

– isn’t that the truth?

Paul McGann. The “sort of” Doctor; the version of the character that is highly contested by fan and casual viewer alike. With only a single televised story to his credit, produced and filmed in America, McGann was always a controversial part of Doctor Who lore. Before his face appeared in a notebook in Human Nature, there was even debate about whether or not the movie “counted” in the grand pantheon of Doctor Who.

Ironically, McGann’s Doctor has gone on to have one of the most prolific lives of any Doctor. He has appeared in Big Finish audios, webcasts and even a series of audio plays broadcast on BBC radio. McGann has had an impressive volume of output, even without counting the tie-in novels and comics featuring his character, made without his input. The state of limbo in which the character seemed to hover seemed monumentally unfair, a quirk of fate that was the result of powers far beyond those of McGann himself.

So The Night of the Doctor is a pleasant surprise, conferring the ultimate legitimacy upon Paul McGann’s interpretation of the character, effectively confirming the Eighth Doctor as the version who held the flame for the classic series, and whose regeneration marks a turning point for the show.

He really eights himself...

He really eights himself…

To be fair, the Davies era was quite fair towards McGann. On top of his appearance in the “Journal of Impossible Things, he appeared in flashback in The Next Doctor, cementing the character as a vital part of the show’s continuity. At the same time, the character’s place within the mythos of the revived series always felt a little odd. The Eighth Doctor was a romantic and a pacifist, a character willing to take himself hostage in order to get out of a tough situation.

This was quite hard to reconcile with the character’s role in events that unfolded directly before Rose. The implication of the Davies era had always been that the Eighth Doctor had been the version of the character who ended the Time War, with Clayton Hickman even claiming that Davies had authorised a comic showing that regeneration from McGann’s Eighth Doctor into Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor in The Flood.

Talkin' bout regeneration...

Talkin’ bout regeneration…

The Night of the Doctor moves with astonishing efficiency. In under seven minutes, Moffat is able to re-introduce us to an old version of the character, play off the familiar companion recruitment tropes (“Welcome aboard” — “aboard what?” –“I’ll show you” — “I wanted to see the universe, is it always like this?” — “if you’re lucky”) and then brutally subverting them. The use of Karn from The Brain of Morbius is perhaps a little bit too in-jokey, but we can forgive the show this on its fiftieth anniversary.

Moffat’s decision to create a new “War Doctor” is an interesting idea, playing with the core concepts of the series, but also allowing McGann’s Doctor a bit more character and definition. The Night of the Doctor clocks in at under seven minutes, but if very efficiently establishes (or re-establishes) McGann’s character. He’s presented as a genuine pacifist, who refuses to pick up a weapon and who dies because he refuses to abandon a woman who won’t accept his help.

Sisters are doin' it for themselves...

Sisters are doin’ it for themselves…

“I help where I can,” the Eighth Doctor insists. “I will not fight.” Earlier and later incarnations of the Doctor have been pretty willing to commit genocide to protect the planet, with moments of actual pacifism relatively rare for the character. Like the Ninth Doctor’s refusal to commit genocide in The Parting of the Ways, Moffat is willing to leave the audience to reach their own conclusions on the Doctor’s moral authority. His inaction is costing lives, but it’s an honest philosophical stance.

There’s a clear sense of the Doctor’s own damaged self-image here. This isn’t a well-adjusted character, and it’s not a version of the Doctor who is happy with the situation. His decision to remain with Cass is explicitly suicidal. When the Sisters of Karn confirm that the process will be painful, the Doctor remarks, “Good.” As he presses the chalice to his lips, he suggests, “Physician, heal thyself.” It’s a surprisingly nuanced portrayal for a short episode with only a few sets and actors.

Doesn't it just burn...

Doesn’t it just burn…

To be fair, Moffat is playing offer several things here. Most obviously, the characterisation of the Eighth Doctor owes a conscious debt to Moffat’s interpretation of the Fifth Doctor:

We know him to be a sort of academic aristocrat who one day, on a simple moral imperative, erupts from the cloisters and roars through time and space on a mission to end all evil in the universe, unarmed and, if possible, politely.

Davison’s Doctor is beautifully unaware that he is a hero — he simply responds as he feels he must when confronted with evil and injustice, and does so with a very ‘human’ sense of fluster and outrage. In one of the comparatively few perfect decisions in Doctor Who, Davison is allowed to finally expire saving, not the entire universe, but just one life. This isn’t to show, as has been suggested, that he’s any less capable or powerful than the other Doctors —just that, for him, saving one life is as great an imperative as saving a galaxy. This, then, is the Doctor as I believe he ought to be — someone who would brave a supernova to rescue a kitten from a tree.

The Eighth Doctor seen here fits that characterisation wonderfully, right down to the decision to die to save a single life. The fact that he fails in even that just compounds the tragedy of it all.

Crash and burn...

Crash and burn…

However, the Eighth Doctor here is also grounded in the character’s role in the history of the franchise. The Eighth Doctor was, after all, the last great hope of Doctor Who. In the nineties, it was this version of the character who would resurrect the show and push it back into the mainstream. It didn’t work. Things fell apart. If the Time War is a metaphor for the trauma of the show’s cancellation, then the Eighth Doctor is a tragic figure caught in events so much bigger than himself.

The Doctor’s fatalism and his morbid outlook seem to reflect the state of the show after The TV Movie. As he considers his options and seeks to reinvent himself, the Doctor muses, “I don’t suppose there’s any need for a Doctor any more.” While that thought is ridiculous today, it was a logical enough conclusion to reach ten years ago, during those rough and lonely wilderness years for the franchise.

Sparks will fly...

Sparks will fly…

After all, The Night of the Doctor is set at a point in time where even the iconic TARDIS has become so tainted that nobody would want anything to do with it. The Doctor’s routine doesn’t work. He’s lost his audience. He’s useless and obsolete, in a universe that seems to be fading out of existence. The Eighth Doctor was the last chance to revive a franchise that had been dying since the mid-eighties, and The Night of the Doctor is about the turning point.

So much of The Night of the Doctor is consciously self-referential, from McGann’s opening lines to the warning that he has “a little under four minutes” roughly four minutes before the end of the clip. The Time War is a way of externalising the trauma of the show’s cancellation; it explains why Gallifrey is gone, why the Daleks are reinvented, why the narrative rules have changed. It makes sense to examine the Eighth Doctor trapped within that turmoil.

I Hurt myself today...

I Hurt myself today…

It’s worth stressing that the failure of The TV Movie was not McGann’s fault. McGann himself is quite wonderful, as he demonstrates here. (And as he demonstrated there.) He just had the misfortune to be handed a poisoned chalice, which is appropriate enough given what we see of his regeneration here. The Night of the Doctor is very much sympathetic towards McGann’s interpretation of the character, and even seeks to confer legitimacy upon the character’s adventures. In another nod to Davison, the character ends his existence reflecting on all is companions.

It’s a rare moment where the expanded universe is acknowledged in an overt and confident manner. Then again, given that the Eighth Doctor exists so much in the expanded universe, it’s very hard to acknowledge him without making reference to the tie-in material. Still, it’s a nice demonstration of Moffat’s expansionist view of Doctor Who. Victory of the Daleks brought the Daleks from the 1960’s films into continuity. The Power of Three introduced us to Kate Stewart from the direct-to-video films released while the show was off the air. Even Richard E. Grant got to take part in the show’s fiftieth anniversary celebrations.

Drinking it down...

Drinking it down…

And the Eighth Doctor gets to go out in a blaze of glory. The Night of the Doctor not only legitimises him in the context of the revived series, but it also offers his story arc closure. He dies in agony, hating himself; but anybody watching The Night of the Doctor knows that his sacrifice is not in vain. Moffat allows the character poise and dignity, making an impossible choice, but assuring the audience that it must have been the right one. After all, we’re still watching Doctor Who.

A lot of Moffat’s big themes play out here. In particular, there’s a lot of debate over the nature of the Doctor’s name. When he explains that he will not kill, the Sisters of Karn mock him. “Because you are the good man, as you call yourself?” He replies, “I call myself the Doctor.” The Sisters retort, “It’s the same thing in your mind.” He concedes, “I like to think so.” While it can’t help but evoke the exchange between the Master and the Doctor in Davies’ The Sound of Drums, it also plays into Moffat’s big ideas concerning the Doctor.

Did somebody call for a Doctor?

Did somebody call for a Doctor?

The second episode of Moffat’s tenure as executive producer, The Beast Below, featured the notion that the Doctor would lose the right to himself that in some circumstances. A Good Man Goes to War suggests that the Doctor gave us the word, and that his actions shape its very meaning. The Name of the Doctor concedes that there have been times when the Doctor himself has failed to live up to the name he has taken – that it’s something he must constant earn and strive towards.

The Night of the Doctor is a lovely little taste of things to come, and a nice celebration of the past.

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