In this age of social media and a near constant barrage of information, it’s exceedingly rare to be genuinely surprised by pop culture these days. Especially when it’s your job to cover such things, I can’t remember the last time a show or movie caught me completely by surprise. I shared that all-too-rare experience with Doctor Who fans around the world last week when I loaded up The Night of the Doctor, the special mini-episode prequel that would set the stage for this week’s 50th anniversary special, The Day of the Doctor. In the days since, the show’s executive producer Steven Moffat has addressed the minisode’s big stunner, and its implications for the show’s mythology.
WARNING: SPOILERS IF YOU STILL HAVEN’T SEEN THE NIGHT OF THE DOCTOR!
The Night of the Doctor, of course, featured the much-wished-for and delightful return of Paul McGann in the role of the Eighth Doctor, which he originated in Fox’s 1996 Doctor Who TV movie. By the time Night is done, the Doctor has willfully regenerated, but not into Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor. Instead he regenerates into a young John Hurt as “the War Doctor.” This is not the crusading hero out to save the day, but rather a warrior tasked with one goal: end the war between the Time Lords and Daleks while there’s still a universe standing. As Moffat explains, this finally addresses the speculations that Hurt’s “secret Doctor” might force all the subsequence Doctors — Eccleston, Tennant, Smith, and Capaldi — to be renumbered.
I’ve been really, really quite careful about the numbering of the Doctors. He’s very specific, the John Hurt Doctor, that he doesn’t take the name of the Doctor. He doesn’t call himself that. He’s the same Time Lord, the same being as the Doctors either side of him, but he’s the one who says, ‘I’m not the Doctor.’ So the Eleventh Doctor is still the Eleventh Doctor, the Tenth Doctor is still the Tenth…
Of course, just calling yourself a different name wouldn’t necessarily change the Time Lord rules limiting the number of regenerations you get. However, much was made of the fact that this willful, forced regeneration seemed to be a wholly different thing than the usual, “Oh dear, I have sustained a fatal wound and must now be recast” business. At the very least it gives Moffat and company some narrative wiggle room, at least until Capaldi decides its time to leave and they have to change the rules for the next bloke (or lady, even).
So that’s one Big Question answered before we even get to Day of the Doctor, a wholly unexpected turn of events given how much we’ve all been speculating about Hurt’s role since the final moments of the seventh-season finale last May. I’m sure they’ll have to do a bit of dialogue that addresses it for the viewers who haven’t seen Night, but still it was a definite shocker to see such a big development covered in an online minisode. Even more exciting was the simple fact that Moffat managed to pull one over on us and surprise us with McGann. In an interview with the BBC, Moffat reveals that the decision to bring in McGann came after they’d already come up with the idea of Hurt’s mystery Doctor:
I was thinking, what else can we do for our anniversary year… I thought… Why don’t we get Paul McGann in and regenerate him into John Hurt? I’d like to see that! I’d love to see that! And we had this possibility that we could do it as a surprise, so we got in touch with Paul who was dead keen and I’m delighted to say he was so happy to join in with the idea of keeping it secret. He was childishly excited about it!
Night was actually shot during the last two days of filming on Day of the Doctor. And yes, that means it’s been a done deal for months now, so kudos for nobody spilling the beans in all that time. It makes you wonder what other surprises might be waiting for us this coming Saturday night. Could the other former Doctors be involved after all?
Moffat also addresses the decision to create a “War Doctor” incarnation of everybody’s favorite Time Lord, a character who will take on a role we had all previously assumed was filled by McGann’s Eighth Doctor and/or Eccleston’s Ninth: actually fighting in the legendary Time War. Hurt’s War Doctor is a very different beast than any of the Doctors we’ve seen before, so much so that his later incarnations have done their best to forget about him. That narrative necessity combined with the chance to give fans and McGann the gift of getting another short adventure with the Eighth Doctor, even if only a short one:
The Eighth Doctor is perhaps the first of the sexy, romantic Doctors. I don’t mean he’s the first sexy Doctor — he’s not. But he’s the first one who kisses a lady, for example. He’s obviously dashing, terribly handsome and quite romantic. I always found it hard to imagine him fighting in the Time War. I’d always imagined the ‘Time War Doctor’ would be more grizzled, somehow, you know?
Paul only played the Doctor onscreen once before, in the TV Movie. He gives a wonderful performance in it. It’s a terrifically exuberant performance and it anticipates the later performances, particularly of Matt and David. He’s a dashing, romantic, very funny and very affecting Doctor! Of course, Paul is not only known for the telemovie but for all his wonderful audio adventures. I’m always telling the Doctors and companions, as they come through the show, that they’ll never be quite done with it — Big Finish is expecting them.
The Day of the Doctor premieres this Saturday night on BBC America at 8/7c, but there’s plenty more fun to be had before then. BBCA is pretty much Doctor Who stem to stern this week, with marathons of the modern Doctors’ episodes and tons of specials, not to mention the TV movie An Adventure in Space and Time, which explores the creation of the show and which premieres Friday night.