TV Best watch it first if I were you. Then join me below the line.
Fuck. Fuck. Fuckety fuck fuck and indeed fuck. There I was having a morning, fixing my printer, catching up on some internet reading then like the Twitter equivalent of the theme music from Jaws, the BBC's Twitter feed announced that within the hour, one of the prequel episodes to the fiftieth anniversary would be online. Oh well fine. They're usually quite jolly. Perhaps it'll be the usual thing of Matt and a companion, Clara, probably in the TARDIS having a conversation, or some extra curricular foreshadowing of the plot, wistful images of Gallifrey with a Pertweean voiceover about the Time War, teasing us. Time ticked over until twelve o'clock, the linked page at the iplayer open to which I'd return every few moments, refreshing to see if it had been uploaded. Then a couple of minutes after twelve I sidled over to my big TV, turned on the Ruku 3, selected the iPlayer, went to favourites, found Doctor Who and pressed play.
Now the noise I made when Paul's voice appeared didn't sound human and was audible enough for someone to come and check I was ok (luckily I'd paused by then knowing that because I knew the noise I made when Paul's voice appeared didn't sound human and was audible enough for someone to come and check I was ok). There he was, the rumours had been quite correct and we were about to see the final moments for the Eighth Doctor, my Doctor. Part of me didn't want to watch, because I've never really wanted to know, I've liked the idea of the Eighth Doctor's demise being a mystery, every new audio adventure reaching towards some unknown point. But it was a story which was going to be told eventually by someone and what better time than for the 50th anniversary, on something approaching television with Paul McGann himself playing it? Of course I bloody watched it.
I'm sorry, you'll have to bear with me. My hands are still shaking and the squee I've left all over everywhere is beginning to smell, twitter’s exploding and I frankly haven’t the words. But these six minutes and forty-eight seconds are the reason I’m a Doctor Who fan. It’s an act of love for all concerned (not least but including the costume department who recreated the costume exactly), a moment when the franchise flexes its mythology and gives something back to the fans, the really devoted fans who kept the thing together in the long years between 1996 and 2005 following this incarnation’s adventures and still do for reasons we’ll talk about in a minute. I thought I’d be having a quiet afternoon watching some more of NASA’s Apollo 11 footage (I’m working my way through this boxed set). Well, no.
Of course being an Eighth Doctor fan means that one half of my brain is trying to decide if this is indeed a fitting end to my favourite Doctor, another half is trying to enjoy this as an adventure and other is trying to parse information about the Eighth Doctor that we’re now seeing on screen for the first time in fifteen-odd years and the implications for the upcoming special. Which is indeed three halves I know but right now my brain is in such a jumble anyway it’s incapable of doing simple maths. What must this be like for the less hard core fans, the nuWhobies or people for whom this really is the first new eighth Doctor story they’ve come into contact with since 1996 or whenever they watched the TV movie. What about them?
Yeah, well frankly, what about them? If they couldn’t be bothered reading all the novels, audios and comics before seeing this then it’s their loss. But the rest of us. Oh my goodness, there he is, Paul McGann, being brilliant, perfectly judging his performance so that it carries elements of both the TV movie and the audio version indeed an obvious direct line from the audio version (later), not that I’ve heard Dark Eyes yet but I hear that it’s pretty dark (not that I want to know much more than that, spoiler etc). But it is fascinating seeing him, having inhabited this character with just his voice for so long having to deal with how the character moves, expresses and does so within his character’s stress patterns.
The other thing to notice is that Steven Moffat is finally writing the Eighth Doctor (after the Big Finish debarkle); this isn’t some generic Doctor figure, his dialogue sounds entirely in keeping with the audios, especially when he’s coaxing his suicidal would-be companion into the TARDIS “Yes, I’m a Time Lord but I’m one of the nice ones…” and when he’s joking about board games. Then, just as he’s about to sacrifice himself his final gesture is to remember his companions, finally making Charley, C’rizz, Lucie, Tamsin, Molly and other friends and companions about as canonical as they’ll ever be is just mouth gaping open, gigglesome fantastic. As is his final line, “Physician heal thyself” which brings him full circle to his emergence at the hospital.
Do we wish Eighth had “enjoyed” a more visually glorious end, as was nearly in the offering during The Flood? Possibly. Yet, to die because that would-be companion spurns his help, to be resurrected by the Sisterhood of Karn (by the way) and then choosing to become someone who isn’t the Doctor also, on the basis of The Ancestor Cell and Zagreus entirely in character. Plus look at Seventh, after everything he did, shot down by gunfire in Vancouver, sorry San Francisco. Or Sixth falling off an exercise bike while choking on carrot juice apparently. Is there any greater sacrifice than to become the thing he most despises, to give up his own name, in order to save the universe? Probably not. In those terms it’s not a bad, if talky, way to go.
Not a bad opening to the adventure either. There’s Emma Campbell-Jones returning to the franchise after playing Doctor Kent in The Wedding of River Song (thanks wikia), pitching her would be-companion performance just right in the few minutes we have with her before the trashed reputation of the Doctor’s people forces her to make the decision to sacrifice herself to take him down, the Time Lords apparently now about as popular as the Daleks. We’ll talk some more about that in coming paragraphs, but this is just such a love letter to the Eighth Doctor era (about the only disappointment is the lack of David Arnold's music) that we’re entirely convinced, however momentarily that a space pilot called Cass would run away from him. Unless she's one of the Sisterhood pretending to be in trouble to draw him into Karn. Ooh.
The look of the piece is interesting. The director, John Hayes, who's new to the franchise and who I can't find reference to online other than for a John Hayes Fisher who usually directs documentaries, has somehow managed to come up with a look which isn’t quite like either of the nuWho eras. It’s difficult to tell due to the lack of daylight anywhere (because how would you film any of this outdoors without producing spoilers) but it seems to be deliberately doing that thing which is often said of the TV movie, bridging the gap between the classic series and the revival, especially in relation to the ship crashing on Karn. In some ways, it’s even more visually striking than either, breaking the usual Saturday night rule of bathing the sets in colour or light or both and heightening the blacks. In some shots, all we can see are face. It’s like watching There Will Be Blood.
Oh and the Sisterhood of Karn as a we live and breath and do again thanks to the flame. No casting continuity, by the way, by Clare Higgins is another perfect choice and feels like she might have been one of the background sister in The Brain of Morbius. Notice how her character Ohila mentions the Doctor’s has help in their past, which is presumably a reference to not just Morbius but the McGann two part from later (it’s all here fact fans). Again, if you’d told me even a year ago that the Sisterhood of Karn would be making an appearance in anything nuWho related I’d have grinned and wondered if you’d been at the vapour. Now it seems the entire production team has.
All of which demonstrates that we are indeed working towards nuWho finally revealing it’s great secret, what happened in the Time War. Up until John Hurt wandered in, we all I think, assumed that the war was fought by the Eighth or Ninth Doctor somehow, and it’s certainly what Russell T Davies had in mind, though he kept it completely ambiguous with on the one hand suggesting to DWM that they put the regeneration in the comic but on the other offering the ears scene in Rose suggesting the Doctor had only recently regenerated. Now we can infer that the ears scene is potentially perfectly reasonable, but it’s because the Hurt Doctor or as the credits for this have it, the War Doctor.
Which is good news. The idea of the Eighth Doctor going into war in quite the way implied never did quite sit right with me, despite Zagreus or The Ancestor Cell and all the business with the Grandfather Paradox, and sure enough here he is once again apparently on the run from his people helping others when he can like some intergalactic member of Doctors Without Borders, literally a Doctor without a border, trying to keep his version of what a Time Lord is together, even when his own people are acting like they do in The End of Time. He has the scars, the tiredness, and its noticeable he’s ditched his Dark Eyes attire. I can’t wait to hear Dark Eyes now and hear how this fits in with that, if at all.
I now imagine a scene where he sets his leather jacket to one side and nostalgically slips back into his old waistcoat, drops his fob watch back into place and smiles, either hoping that it helps him return to the kind of person he used to be or at least is symbolic of what he isn't, embracing the whimsy again and mean it for what will the final time before the Eleventh Doctor (assuming he still is the Eleventh Doctor). Even so, even with this front, as the universe falls about around him, this won't be the first time that the simple knowledge of who he is makes him a pariah. The one thing he had in his favour, the mysteries of his existence, the magic of the TARDIS, a threat and hindrance.
Because that’s where we are now. For all the introduction of John Hurt (who looks very young in that reflection), the Eighth Doctor now has an ending and like every other past Doctor, any new stories are filling in gaps, telling us about the moments which led up to him following Cass’s ship. There’s still some mystery. We don’t know yet how the Time War started, how the Time Lords turned into the kind of figures people would rather kill themselves to destroy rather than travel in their TARDIS and we don’t know if we ever will. Perhaps if Big Finish gain the nuWho license now that AudioGo has gone, they’ll get the chance. Or perhaps it’s best that we never find out. Mysteries are good.