Sunday, December 1, 2013

"The Night of the Doctor"

A lost cutscene from the 90s Eighth Doctor videogame.
I don't normally bother to review short specials or mini-episodes any more because Moffat produces too many and most of them are inconsequential crap, but I'm making an exception in this case because "The Night of the Doctor" is an important part of the 50th Anniversary material - arguably the most important piece of Doctor Who produced in the anniversary year or indeed the most important to be made since the show returned. I wouldn't have been interested in this, expecting it to just be Smith or John Hurt, until the BBC released it early to avoid a leak and it became evident that it was something more important. In spite of this, we begin with some shitty CGI of a crashing spaceship. On board the frustrated pilot is trying to send a distress signal but the computer system is apparently screwing up and going into medical mode instead. She tells the computer "Stop talking about Doctors."
"I'm a Doctor, but probably not the one you've watched the most."
"I'm a Doctor," comes a voice as we cut to a familiar face, "but probably not the one you were expecting."
Holy shit. Paul McGann is back. In his second ever on-screen appearance and after a gap of seventeen excruciating years the last of the Classic Doctors has returned. I've voiced my approval of Paul McGann's Eighth Doctor elsewhere, describing him as the "holy grail" of Doctors. In the space of two lines he absolutely annihilates everyone who's come after him over the last eight years, much like the ghost of Billy Hartnell in the previous episode. Seeing him again feels like getting back something that was lost. Say what you like about the TV Movie, but P McG is as much the Doctor as any, moreso than some, and his all-too-brief appearance here cements that more than ever. His absolute refusal to overact, something which has been denied of any of the New Doctors, gives him a presence that the character has never had in the revived series. Seeing him again, I didn't know what to think.
"Yes, I'm the Doctor, but I'm one of the good ones!"
Aboard the spaceship, the Doctor welcomes the pilot aboard after seeing that she's a brave type, staying behind as everyone else was screaming. It's a very Moffat sort of thing, but we do get some decent dialogue, redeemed especially by Paul McGann's delivery: "the front crashes first. Think it through." At the TARDIS, however, Cass the pilot gets all pissy that the Doctor's a Time Lord, despite the fact that he's not involved in the currently-occurring Time War. I would have dearly loved for P McG to argue that he was only half Time Lord. We get some crap dialogue like "go back to your battlefield" and a desire to see the Doctor die because she thinks that all Time Lords are as bad as the Daleks. The Doctor refuses to leave her, so they both plummet to the surface of the planet below. Did the Doctor just sacrifice his life to try to prove a point to a racist?
Sacred fire, sacred flame, sacred cow.
Some old biddy in red peeks out of a cave, announcing that "The Doctor has returned to Karn." More fan service, then, this time referencing classic Tom Baker serial "The Brain of Morbius." It's classic Moffat bait-and-switchery, hoping that we'll disable our critical faculties if he feeds us enough Classic allusions. Not gonna happen. The Sisters resurrect McGann temporarily, and he gets to deliver a lame Moffat joke: "bring me knitting," one item too far in an otherwise humorous list. It's fortunately played as bitter and sarcastic by McGann, who gets as much dramatic mileage as possible out of Moffat's mediocre dialogue where a New Doctor would fail by being facetious and glib. Realising where he is, the Doctor accuses the Sisterhood of being the "keepers of the flame of utter boredom," a badly-mixed line which is hard to hear.
Upon seeing how many more autograph requests he's going to get now.
The main Sister offers to help P McG regenerate again, claiming that "Time Lord science is elevated here." Wasn't the exact opposite true in "The Brain of Morbius"? Weren't they backwards and superstitious, "quaint" in Tom's words, their longevity a product of mythologised accident rather than intentional success? The Doctor is offered a number of utterly redundant qualities: "Young or old, fat or thin, man or woman." What a choice. Apparently they want him to regenerate so that he can save the universe from the Time War, something the Eighth Doctor has been refusing to do. Before now it was always assumed that it was the Eighth Doctor who ended it all in the playroom of RTD's mind, but P McG tells us that "I help where I can; I will not fight." I quite like this idea. It's incidentally backed up by his new costume, designed by Red Dwarf's Howard Burden I believe. In P McG's own words "he looks like he's been around the block in it." This characterisation is actually a nice concession, possibly unintentional on Moffat's part, to the Classic depiction of the Doctor as a character who intervenes for the sake of good in situations he discovers, but doesn't deliberately travel the universe with the intention of enforcing his personal idea of justice or code of ethics wherever possible.
Payment in full: tokens for the BBC Wales cafeteria.
The Sister isn't having any of it. "You are a part of this, Doctor." Is he? Says who? Confronted by Cass' death, refusing to accept help from a Time Lord, the Doctor apparently decides that it's time to start knocking some heads in, to stop being the Doctor, the 'good man.' "Warrior," he mutters, the first clunky line that not even P McG can half-redeem. "Make me a warrior now." Apparently they were expecting this and a special potion has been whipped up specifically for this purpose. A bit awkwardly, P McG screams at the Sisters to get out, and we get another naff exchange: "Will it hurt?" "Yes." "Good." The angst is pretty artificial. The Doctor gives a nice shout out to his Big Finish companions and drinks his hemlock with a parting quote: "Physician, heal thyself."  Profound or pretentious? I think it's a little of both.
Bottoms up.
The Doctor promptly regenerates into a stock photograph of a young John Hurt and the episode ends: "Doctor no more." How apposite. Having just seen the demise of the last Classic Doctor it could not be more true. The TV Movie may be a poorly-plotted mess featuring the Doctor breaking with convention by kissing a woman for the first time on screen and claiming inexplicably to be half-human, but Paul McGann was always the best part of it and despite these things the Eighth Doctor has always had more in common with his twentieth century, Classic Series counterparts than any of the New Doctors ever have. Paul McGann's performance, honed over ten years of doing regular Big Finish, feels just right. The worst thing about this episode, besides the iffy dialogue and bad plot, is the fact that it's too short. Paul McGann obviously knows what he's doing, and we aren't given enough of him doing it. Unless he was busy or something it utterly baffles me that this perfectly good Doctor with limited screentime is reprised in this online-only mini-episode while a completely made up incarnation gets to star in the Anniversary Special proper. Sure, Paul McGann's not the 'name' that John Hurt is, but 1) he's very good as the Doctor, 2) the Eighth Doctor would have fitted in perfectly well, and 3) I'm sure many fans like myself would enjoy more screen time with him.
"WHO? IS? THIS???"
Paul McGann himself acknowledges that fans "always want more" and maybe it's greedy of me to expect more than this, but I really think it's disappointing for him to be brought back in such a perfunctory way. Moffat claimed that he couldn't see the Eighth Doctor being the button-pushing war-ender of the New Who backstory, but isn't that what character development is for? The fact that this was released as an online mini-episode rather than appended to the Anniversary Special proper also shows that there's a certain level of embarrassment about the project, the episode being released in a 'safe' way to avoid scaring off the 'straights', despite the fact that without seeing this a 'straight' is going to have no idea who John Hurt's character is meant to be. Worse still, it's frustrating to see this Doctor brought back only to be killed off for a New Who storyline that's had the writers painted into a corner for years when it comes to characterising the Doctor. It's like being given a present you've really wanted for ages, but the only person giving it to you says "After seven minutes I take it back."
"Thanks for coming in, Paul. Now bugger off,
don't want Matt and David to see you."
On the one hand, "The Night of the Doctor" is the validation that Eighth Doctor enthusiasts like myself have been craving for a long time. On the other, it could easily be construed as an overly short, half-arsed piece of compromise that doesn't give full due to an underutilised, underrated Doctor and actor. Unlike some of his fellow former Doctors, Paul McGann seems to get work pretty regularly,  and evidently he's reasonably content fleshing out his incarnation of the Doctor in the Big Finish audios. Nonetheless, I almost find bringing back McGann just to regenerate into Moffat's made up War Doctor to be an utter piss-take, because it makes it abundantly clear that in actual fact McGann himself should be in the 50th Anniversary Special: he's got the fans, he's got the chops, and as he's friends with the other Classic Doctors (especially Sylv and Colin, I believe) he could have been the one representing the Classics. The success of this mini-episode proves that just because the TV Movie has a bad reputation doesn't mean the Eighth Doctor isn't well-loved. In the end, I don't really know what to think about "The Night of the Doctor." Maybe I should be grateful to Moffat for reprising the character at all, but why would you do it in such a limited way? It's a calculated move, I fear, related to the Anniversary Special proper being as bums-on-seats as possible. If anything, I think this should have been shown as a prologue to the Special itself. It's great to see the Eighth Doctor return, but it could have been so much more.

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