Paul McGann is a big fat liar mouth—and I love him for it. For months, he, along with the other classic Doctors, have been denying any involvement in the Doctor Who fiftieth anniversary celebrations, and I believed them. I fell for it hook, line, and sinker, even cautioning my fellow fans not to get their hopes up about seeing the classic Doctors right here on this very site. The truth is, clearly I was wrong, and my jaw dropped when the Eighth Doctor appeared on the screen. I genuinely didn’t see that coming.
The shock value, of course, lies in the fact that the Eighth Doctor gets his first on-screen appearance since the 1996 television movie. In that story, we saw how this Doctor was born; The Night of the Doctor is where the Eighth Doctor’s story ends. There’s a very poetic symmetry to that that is fitting for this Doctor and his adventures, which have spanned books, comics, short stories, and audios.
The story itself is not necessarily anything to write home about, but it gives us a rare glimpse into the Last Great Time War at its height: the universe is on the brink of destruction as a result of the war between the Time Lords and the Daleks. The Doctor, true to his name, doesn’t want any part of it, pledging to “help where [he] can.” By this point in the war, however, the Time Lords’ reputation is as bad as the Daleks’, and this realization on the part of Cass, the companion who never was, causes the hesitation that leads directly to the Eighth Doctor’s apparent death when the ship crashes.
The second act is vastly more important, obviously, and Steven Moffat has returned us to one of the few places in the Doctor Who universe that can save the Doctor: Karn, a former Gallifreyan colony, and reintroduces the Sisterhood of Karn, a clan of witches that protect the Sacred Flame and the Elixir of Life. It’s the Elixir that saves the Doctor and destroys him. It’s here that the story is weaker, the transition of the Eighth Doctor’s almost always optimistic outlook to one of acceptance that he must become a warrior seems unrealistic in its swiftness.
Having said that, of course, there’s always more to the story, and the Doctor invokes the names of his former companions: Charley Pollard, C’rizz, Lucie Miller, Tamsin Drew, and Molly O’Sullivan. The fact is, this Doctor has lost so much and suffered so terribly that it may have been inevitable that he would eventually succumb to the heavy burden weighing on his hearts, and give into the darkness. Being unable to save Cass was the final push that allowed him to abandon his old way of life, and become a warrior. The Eighth Doctor’s final words: “Physician, heal thyself,” his regeneration begins, and then—
The Doctor is gone. In his place is someone else whom we know very little about: the War Doctor, a contradiction in terms if there ever was one. Moffat has taken everything we knew—or assumed we knew—and thrown it out. This may not sit well with some fans, but it’s not Moffat’s job to always make the fans happy. His job is to create compelling stories in the world of Doctor Who, and that’s exactly what he’s done.
But he’s done something else, too; he’s given us hardcore fans an amazing, extraordinary gift—and I’m not just talking about bringing back Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor. Moffat has essentially canonized almost all of the extended Doctor Who universe, or at the very least, the Big Finish audios. I’ll save my logic on that point for another post, but for the moment, I couldn’t be happier. When he salutes his (audio) companions as he faced death, my jaw dropped a second time: its true that Big Finish audios have inspired TV stories, this is the first time those adventures have officially been acknowledged on screen, so congratulations, Big Finish—you definitely deserve it!
Where do we go from here? There’s another prequel mini-episode coming up, The Last Day, and then The Day of the Doctor. I have some half-baked theories about what we may see that I will share later, but for now, its clear that the narrative has already changed significantly, and the shape of things to come may be very surprising.
What did you think of The Night of the Doctor? I want to hear from you—let me know in the comments!
Daniel is the owner and Managing Editor of Time and The – !. He's been a fan of Doctor Who since watching Tom Baker regenerate into Peter Davison on his local PBS station as a kid. He launched Time and The – ! in 2011 after having the bright (?) idea to watch every Doctor Who story from the beginning and blog about it. (Yeah, he's way behind.)