Green Velvet Jackets & Silver Cravats: The Paul McGann Doctor
Over the next twelve months, the team will be writing an article about each incarnation of The Doctor. The purpose of these articles is to take each actor who has played the role, dissect their tenure and explore their take on the character. First up then is the Doctor with the least amount of screen time but who more than made up for that in over 70 original books and numerous audio adventures. I am, of course, referring to The Eighth Doctor, as portrayed by Paul McGann.
The Eighth Doctor gets a lot of stick from some Whovians (almost as much as the Sixth and Seventh Doctors, but they will be talked about in other articles). There are those who scream “He’s not canon!” or “He shouldn’t be kissin’ the women!” and even, in some rare cases, “Why, oh why, does he look like Jesus?!” I have only one thing to say to those people among the fandom – GET OVER IT. He’s canon, Rusty T Davies made sure twice and the Grand Moff at least three times.
The Eighth Doctor’s era began in what was a turbulent time for Doctor Who. The show had been off the air for 6 years, but the idea of a TV movie brought new hope to a generation of fans, only for the Americans to decline picking up a new series based on its quality. And, honestly, thank god; having read the “Bible” for the proposed series, I’m almost certain that Fox would have axed it. So the BBC once again shelved Doctor Who, awaiting a future time when they could bring it back. And all that the fans had gotten was one lousy adventure with the best Doctor we never got to see.
Yes, you read that right; Paul McGann was the best Doctor we never had. And here’s why. Paul McGann is the ultimate bridge between Classic Who and New Who. He embodied all that we thought of as being The Doctor; in his dress style (which I like to
rip off pay homage to), in his manner and his mannerisms. This Doctor was not only “British” in his own way, but also had a touch of the other Doctors about him. Hints of the youth of the Fifth Doctor, the mad edge of the Fourth, the Gizmo James Bond nature of the Third Doctor, subtle elements of the First, Second, Sixth and Seventh Doctors, and yet was also clearly his own person too. The little way he would repeat words, his glee and enthusiasm for Humans that is typified in his comment to Grace of “I love humans; always seeing patterns in things that aren’t there.” Some who know me know that I frequently quote that line…especially in History lessons.
Although it would be understandable for us to feel robbed that we only had this one TV episode, in the end we got something better. With the BBC regaining the publishing rights to the tie-in books, they were able to produce a brand new series of stories featuring the Eighth Doctor (Time War? The books did it many years before RTD did). The writing was very much in the same feel as the New Adventures line (having said this, most of the NA writers would also write the BBC books) and was much more adult in its tone. It gave us a Doctor that we could imagine without too many preconceived ideas, unlike other Doctors whose identities had been very much set in stone on TV before the books focused on them. The Missing Adventures line didn’t start until the early 1990’s and the comic book series took some liberties, so I tend not to see them as canon (take that Grant Morrison and smoke it; I still haven’t forgiven you for killing Jamie).
The books did suffer a little from tying themselves up in their own canon. As much as the Time War in the books was a great idea, unless you had read certain stories (and providing that you could get what Lawrence Miles was hinting at too) you could easily become lost unless you knew what had happened previously, especially after the war when the amnesia story arc kicked in, quickly followed by the Sabbath/Matrix in Head arcs. This may have proved a hindrance to the newer fans, some of which may not have understood the references to the older New Adventure titles and even some of the older fans probably struggled. Nevertheless, they mattered as the Eighth Doctor lived on via these books, giving fans the chance to feel that McGann truly got a shot at being The Doctor.
But it wouldn’t end with the books. In 2001, the fans were finally rewarded with a full series of Eighth Doctor adventures starring McGann himself. It wasn’t on TV, but in an audio book format from Big Finish Productions who had gained the rights to write and produce stories for Doctor‘s 5, 6 and 7 the previous year. The series featured new stories, new companions, the return of old enemies and one serious advantage over the books; it wasn’t bogged down in canon. While it stuck to the ideas that had been set in the TV series and borrowed some ideas from the books, you didn’t need an extensive knowledge of those to know what was happening. There were still underlying story arcs throughout the series but they weren’t as convoluted as perhaps the books had become. It was a new Doctor in the familiar format of the old show, just minus the wobbly sets and bad effects. All the visual work could now be done by your own imagination. Ultimately, the stories from Big Finish would help to ground the Eighth Doctor’s era.
The book line finally came to an end in 2004 with the announcement that Doctor Who would return to TV but the audio adventures continue to this day (as I write, it is over 10 years since Big Finish produced their first Eighth Doctor story). The longevity of the Eighth Doctor has prevailed, with a space of unknown time between the start of his incarnation and the end of it, creating the possibility for endless adventures with him. And while the current series states The Doctor is over 900 years old, we also know that The Doctor has never been too precious when it comes to remembering his exact age.
One TV Episode gave Whovians something they had never had with The Doctor before or since; a Doctor they could shape as they saw fit (remember that the books and audios are written by the fans). Though it had been done to an extent with the Seventh Doctor, the show’s writers were sticking to the Cartmel TV plan and that shaped where The Doctor was headed towards the end of the series. The Eighth Doctor never had that issue as he was a newborn Doctor. His defining adventures would be created by the fans, allowing them to take him in whatever directions they wanted. He remains the only Doctor that the fans really had the chance to take control of story wise and that is something we will probably never see again.
Since I wrote this article a couple of years ago, we have had not only the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, but the first on screen appearance of the Eighth Doctor since 1996 in the Steven Moffat penned mini-episode “The Night Of The Doctor”. This episode is our first look at the Eighth Doctor in 17 years and brings his era to a close as we finally see Paul McGann regenerate; not into Christopher Eccleston as we had always assumed, but John Hurt as The Doctor who would fight in the Time War. This event not only gave us something new in the addition of a new Doctor to separate the classic series from the new series (and the headache that came afterwards with the numbering, regenerations and the familiar “Oh, he’s not The Doctor!” bitchiness), but also a major fangasm as the Eighth Doctor names the companions he travelled with in the Big Finish audios, cementing their place in Doctor Who canon once and for all. It also showed us how the Eighth Doctor’s life had been touched by tragedy; the list of companions he names are not those who chose to leave him like they had in the past, but those who were taken away from him.
His final moments are interwoven with sadness. The Eighth Doctor has become a broken man who is tired of what’s happening in the Time War, now being told of the horrors still to come if he does not act. But while his final moments were tragic, it still gave us something we had all been craving – more of McGann’s Doctor. I had originally concluded this article by saying that, since the days of the books and the audio’s, the Eighth Doctor had been the Doctor most shaped by the fans and therefore, in some ways, The Doctor we would be closest to. With his final adventure now told, we’ve been given closure on his tale. And yet, even now, fans around the world (myself included) are hopeful that this final adventure will prove to be the start of something new for the Eighth Doctor. Even with the screen time we’ve had, the numerous books and the continuing audio adventures, he still proves to be The Doctor we most want to revisit. Perhaps we will one day see the Eighth Doctor team up with the Twelfth Doctor for an episode or two, or maybe some internet-exclusive mini-episodes like we have had on the BBCi site. Or maybe we could get something even more amazing. Only time, as they say, will tell.
Written and edited by Alexander James Wilkinson