The 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who is on Saturday, when a new episode will be simulcast around the world. There’s something about the fact that everybody is going to be watching it at the same time that just delights me. I feel like TARDIS technology definitely has to be involved. Anway, “Day of the Doctor” promises to unite Matt Smith’s Doctor with David Tennant’s Doctor and explain just why John Hurt was running around inside Matt Smith’s head in the Season Seven finale. I’m super-geeked about the whole thing. And luckily, the BBC have provided a little something to tide us over for the week – a special prelude short, “Night of the Doctor”.
The short was released without much fanfare – a single Tweet about an hour before it went up. And when it hit, well, “I’m the Doctor, but probably not the one you were expecting.”
That’s right, Paul McGann – the Eighth Doctor who only appeared in the FOX/BBC 1996 TV movie. You know, the one where the Doctor claimed to be half human on his mother’s side because he’s basically the same as Spock. I’m going to be honest with you – the movie is not very good. Eric Roberts becomes the Master when a snake crawls into his mouth, it’s just very weird and tries to hard to be cool. Well, the mid-90s FOX TV-movie version of cool, at any rate. But Paul McGann was quite good in it. If he were to reprise the role for some lost adventures, I’d be down for it.
We’ve got the Doctor trying to save a woman on a crashing ship, but she’d rather die than travel with a Time Lord. We’re in the throes of the Time War right now, which is something we’ve never seen. We’ve only heard the modern Doctors allude to it. What we know is that a war between the Time Lords and the Daleks threatened all of creation, and the Doctor killed them all. Or, more accurately, trapped them in a single moment for eternity. There are obviously loopholes because the Daleks show up pretty frequently, but the first few appearances were justified with a Time Vortex, and then Davros showed up and just started making new Daleks so then they stopped explaining where Daleks came from every time they appeared.
Point is, the Time War doesn’t seem to have been a war between good and evil – Cass, the woman on the ship, pointedly says there’s no difference between Time Lord and Daleks. She locks the Doctor in a chamber to keep him away from her, and note that it’s a deadlock seal. In the Eccleston/Tennant days, the Doctor couldn’t use the sonic screwdriver on a deadlock, but it hasn’t come up in a couple of years. Notably, the Doctor doesn’t bail when it’s clear he has no chance of saving Cass – he goes down with the ship.
The ship crashes into Karn, which is a planet from the Tom Baker run. Specifically, “The Brain of Morbius”. It’s known for playing havoc with Who continuity – there’s a bit with a machine that shows all of the Doctor’s incarnations including eight that were either before William Hartnell or after Tom Baker. Since then, it’s been set in stone that Hartnell’s Doctor was his first incarnation and those eight jabronis didn’t turn out to be future version of our Doctor. (If the BBC wants to cause some serious nerd rage, they should re-edit “Morbius” on DVD to add Matt Smith to the montage.) So Karn, and the Sisterhood thereof, have a key place in Who history.
The Doctor is said to be dead, and the Sisterhood resurrects him, but only for a few minutes. (Nice touch – when the woman tells McCann that he has less then four minutes to live, there are three minutes and fifty-nine second left in the video.) I take this to mean that he’s seriously injured and they manage to get him up and conscious for a few minutes before regeneration kicks in. And then we get some interesting tidbits. The Doctor is more of a conscientious objector in the Time War. He’s going out and saving people but not taking part in the fighting. The Sisterhood convinces him that he has to take an active role and end the War on his own. To that end, they have various elixirs that can guide his regeneration. “Fast or slow. Young or old.” The Doctor chooses to become a warrior, saying there’s no need for a Doctor anymore. That’s what Matt Smith’s Doctor said – “I said he was me. I never said he was the Doctor.”
After a shout-out to his companions from the radio dramas (those still happen in England), the Doctor drinks the appropriate elixir and regenerates. We don’t see the full process, which seemed odd at first. There’s a good reason, though. We only see the John Hurt Doctor in a reflection, and he looks younger than the Hurt we saw in “The Name of the Doctor” or the promos for “Day of the Doctor”. A couple of places online have sourced the image to 2002’s Crime and Punishment, which opens up the possibility that the Time War was a long, drawn-out affair. That seems appropriate.
Now, it’s long been clear that Eccleston’s Doctor didn’t fight in the Time War. He’s the one who, when offered the chance to wipe out the Daleks at the cost of Earth, chose not to. He’s the Doctor who danced for joy when nobody died. I went into watching the series with the preconception that Eccleston was more of a vengeful, angel of death type. I think that’s because the first Who episode I ever saw was “Dalek”, in which he is exactly that. But in context, that behavior was supposed to be an aberration – Rose had never seen the Doctor act like that before. Eccleston’s Doctor doesn’t have the righteous fury of David Tennant, even though Tennant seems like a nicer guy. But Eccleston’s incarnation wouldn’t have punished the Family of Blood or even really been able to back up the “You’ve killed somebody I like, and that is not a safe place to be” threat. Tennant wasn’t violent, but his enemies were left worse off than Eccleston’s. So clearly, that Doctor wasn’t a battle-hardened veteran of the War. (Also evidenced by him being surprised by his reflection in “Rose”.)
Until the Hurt Doctor was introduced, I assumed McGann fought the Time War, but after seeing his movie, that also seemed unlikely. But, you know, he doesn’t have a lot of screen time. You’re more or less free to assign him personality characteristics since we only knew him for about eighty minutes. Now we know – McGann’s Doctor dodged the draft and John Hurt (“The War Doctor”, per the credits.) was the one who finished it. And now it’s clear that he’s not a regeneration that went wrong or who had to make choices that he regretted. He was created to make those decisions. McGann chose to become the person who would end the Time War. And he’s a proper regeneration, which wasn’t immediately clear from “The Name of the Doctor”.
Which leaves the question of what brings at least three Doctors together for “Day of the Doctor”. Also, we really have to deal with the fact that the War Doctor is actually the Ninth Doctor, which makes Matt Smith the Twelfth Doctor and Peter Capaldi is the Thirteenth (and final) Doctor. I still think that last bit will be the main story of Season Eight, but for now, we have Tennant, Smith, Rose, Clara, and the War Doctor coming together for… something. The Time War hadn’t come up in a while, until it started becoming an issue again at the end of Season Seven. Given that the existence of the War Doctor is a reminder that we’re wrong to assume anything that we didn’t actually see (like the idea that McGann regenerated into Eccleston), a lot of the conclusions that we’ve come to about the Time War could be called into question. We’ll find out Saturday at 1:50 EST.