Happy Birthday Paul McGann: A Tribute to the Eighth Doctor

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The nineties were a liminal period for Doctor Who. The TV series had been cancelled in 1989, ending a twenty-six year run of stories that formed the bedrock of the show’s mythos. The heart of the Doctor Who shifted – from being something produced by the BBC to something over which fans had an unprecedented ownership; from a TV series to a series of novels, comics, fan videos, audio adventures… Doctor Who didn’t die in 1989, it exploded into a hundred facets. It’s up to fans to put those facets together in a way that suits them.

All of which means that the Eighth Doctor is, appropriately, a liminal Doctor. Unlike all the others, he appeared on TV only once – in a 1996 TV movie co-produced by the BBC and Fox TV in the States. And it’s odd viewing – the plot’s a mess, but it has production values that the original series would have killed for; it passes the baton from Sylvester McCoy to Paul McGann but never quite feels like it’s part of the same series. McGann’s the official Eighth Doctor, but his one TV adventure introduces stuff that everyone now feels free to ignore.

So let’s focus on what the TV Movie gets right – it cast Paul McGann. Of all the Doctors, with the possible exceptions of Smith and Tennant, McGann is the one who nails it from the start. Say what you want about the rest of the Movie, there are at least two scenes where McGann shows he can line up with the other Doctors.

The first is a scene where he’s describing Gallifrey, an alien planet with a beautiful sky, an image out of a fantasy novel, but then he stops…

…To announce that his shoes fit.

It’s the sort of moment Doctor Who does well – contrasting the extraordinary and mundane and finding the value in both. It’s a key aspect of the show – the universe is an amazing place, but so is an Earth full of shoes and chips if you look at it from the right perspective.

The other scene is a typical escape-from-the-cops moment. The TV Movie gets accused of being too ‘American’ at times, which always seems to be a strange criticism to me, but given the chance to take a gun and escape from the police, the Doctor somehow manages to escape by taking himself hostage. It’s a funny moment, shows the Doctor’s uniqueness and humanity and gives him a place in a world of cookie cutter action heroes.

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Ultimately, the TV Movie didn’t lead to an ongoing series as hoped. It would be easy to see it as a false start, but that’s not fair to McGann – he’s continued to play the role, and play it well, in Big Finish audio adventures, and the Eighth Doctor continued in books and comics. It gives us a Schrodinger’s Continuity explanation of how the dashing, enthusiastic, joyful Eighth Doctor became the broken, PTSD Ninth, a story that hasn’t been nailed down yet and probably never will. The Eighth Doctor is now an emblem for the sixteen years the Doctor Who wasn’t a regular BBC TV production – maybe it’s appropriate that Eighth Doctor spin-off media keep playing with the concepts of amnesia and alternate timelines and reinvention (check out Paul’s costume in both the pictures in this post – both are official. Or maybe ‘official’).

And so thank you Paul McGann; for creating a great Doctor straight off the bat, and for continuing to support the series as your take on the character continues to evolve. Because that’s what Doctor Who is all about.

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