Assuming we can only take what happens on the TV screen as canon, the Eighth Doctor is defined as much by his absence as his presence. He only appears once, in the 1996 Doctor Who TV movie, the script of which takes a few liberties with Whovian reality. After this, when the Doctor is next seen, he’s a very different man, and there has been a Time War which has destroyed all of his people. At some point during this conflict, he has regenerated, possibly more than once, and this handsome and dapper gentleman in his Victorian frock coat has long gone.
So what can we learn about the Doctor as a person from this brief glimpse? Well, the Eighth is the Doctor that started to drop the “madman in a box” schtick and reveal his more (for want of a better word) human side. He even claimed to be half human on his mother’s side, but that might’ve just been a joke, or a lie (or a reference to Spock from Star Trek). In any case, while his previous selves would have (respectively) puffed, larked, lofted, boomed, grinned, glared or clowned their way out being soppy, the Eighth is a Doctor that is prepared to loosen up a bit, to get romantically involved.
Now, you can presume that this is partly because he is so beautiful, he’s the first Doctor that his companions simply could not keep their hands off (and you’d have a point), but actually it’s to do with his character. Of his previous seven selves, none would drop their guard long enough to allow anyone – from old friends like Sarah Jane Smith to new acquaintances – approach him as an equal. There was always that teacher/pupil thing happening.
By contrast, the Eighth Doctor had met a new companion (a doctor, no less) and kissed her before their adventure was properly up and running, and he taught her how to fix the TARDIS too. He goes to her place, she goes to his, it’s just like dating!
And speaking of homes, the Eighth Doctor’s TARDIS is different too. Rather than go with the bright lights, flashing bulbs and submarine surfaces of the past, his is decked out like the suburban laboratory of a Victorian inventor. This could be because the Seventh Doctor likes to wallow in that particular period, but it doesn’t suit him half as well as it does the Eighth. He’s a man of stripped wood flooring, of varnish and leather, of devices from a time before digital technology. And you can’t call his TARDIS steampunk, because it’s simply too sumptuous for that. The Eleventh Doctor’s first TARDIS is all bits and pieces, this is a bespoke creation, made to measure using old techniques,, less steampunk, more steamadultorientedrock.
So visually, he’s a classicist straight out of HG Wells, with a far less cluttered approach to his own personality than those of his Second, Fourth or Seventh incarnations, and with none of the hauteur of his First, Third or Sixth. He’s simply a more straightforward character, closest in spirit to the Fifth Doctor. And this has proven to be really useful in bridging the long gap between Doctor Who’s two eras, as his welcoming nature dovetails fairly neatly with what is to come.
It’s possible to picture the Eighth Doctor being drawn into the Time War, almost as a true believer. He’d be gentlemanly about it, offering his services to his people, to end the Dalek menace that threatened all of reality. And afterwards, the Ninth Doctor comes out a more embittered man, who has simply seen too much and carries a universe of guilt on his shoulders. Whether there was another Doctor somewhere in the midst of all that horror remains to be seen, but it’s worth considering the arrival of the Eighth Doctor, with his optimism and energy, as a fresh start that sets up the big story arc to come.
And if you want more on the Eighth Doctor, Doctor Who: The Doctors Revisited – The Eighth Doctor is on BBC AMERICA on Sunday August 31 at 8/7c.