Yes, I’m reviewing a 7 minute direct-to-web episode of Doctor Who. Why? Because it’s PS4 launch day. There’s a statistically significant chance that that my target demographic is spending the day calling in sick to work before unboxing their new console. Rather than burn a review on something that required an investment of time on my part, I’m going to weigh-in on the return of Paul McGann.
First, a few matters of common sense/housekeeping. Telling somebody that Paul McGann reprises his role as the eighth doctor in Night of the Doctor is not a spoiler. Anybody who says otherwise is most likely an idiot, incapable of understanding the difference between spoiling the plot – Bruce Willis plays a ghost in The Sixth Sense – and reporting on the facts of a story – Bruce Wills has the lead role in The Sixth Sense. Similarly, saying that Paul McGann regenerates into John Hurt as Doctor 8.5, aka War Doctor, isn’t a spoiler. I suspect even casual fans would have figured out that if we are going to have John Hurt as The Doctor, then he is most likely going to appear in the chronology between McGann and Eccleston.
All that said, the takeaway from Night of the Doctor’s seven minutes is that Mr. McGann got a raw deal for his tenure in the TARDIS. This window into the eighth Doctor’s regeneration is much more of a testament to McGann’s outstanding acting abilities than anything else. He slips on the role of the Doctor as easily as you or I might put on a jacket before going out into the cold. In recent memory, his performance is comparable to Christopher Eccelston as the Doctor. McGann conveys so much of the Doctor’s emotional baggage without having to dive into the manic mood swings of Matt Smith’s Doctor or the emo exposition of David Tennant’s. However, one would do well to consider that the return of Eight is no mere act of fan service. Rather it s a very clever way of managing expectations for the series’ future.
Consider that McGann brought thirty years of acting experience to his reprisal of the Doctor. Matt Smith didn’t even have thirty years of life experience before getting tossed the keys to the TARDIS. Why is this relevant? Because it only took about three minutes for McGann to sell me on his performance as The Doctor. It took David Tennant a full season and Matt Smith two-and-a-half seasons before I fully bought into them as the Doctor. Go figure that an experienced actor can bring more gravitas to a role than a neophyte.
Next Saturday the world will witness a seventy-three year old John Hurt playing the Doctor. I suspect that Hurt, like McGann, will effortlessly make the character his own. Yet that’s not even the most interesting part of this story. In the span of a few weeks Steven Moffat will have taken the audience through two older actors playing the Doctor. By the time Smith gives way to Peter Capaldi as the twelfth Doctor, the audience will be acclimatized to older gentlemen playing the Doctor. Critical as I can be of Moffat’s tendency to exclaim “Aren’t I clever?” in Doctor Who’s writing, this is genuinely smart.
Night of the Doctor mobilizes classic-Who fan service as a tool to undermine the inevitable wave of complaints that come with a new Doctor e.g. Peter Capaldi is too old. Judging from the current amount of “squee” for Paul McGann, the Doctor getting aged up to a point where an actor with some actual experience can give the character depth beyond perpetual angst is a good thing. Nor should we forget John Hurt is now the oldest actor to portray the Doctor (William Hartnell was fifty-five when he started as the Doctor). Going from Hurt to Capaldi maintains the meta-illusion of casting progressively younger men to play the Doctor, while actually setting the series up for a level of sophistication, through Capaldi’s acting, absent during Smith’s tenure as the Doctor.
Oh yeah, I went there.
Drops mic. Walks off stage.