‘Doctor Who’: Making Sense of ‘The Night of the Doctor’

The Night of the Doctor Title Card

Well. When it was announced that the upcoming 50th anniversary Doctor Who special would be preceded by an online “minisode,” few fans could have expected that the prequel would hold quite so much significance to the overarching mythology of the show’s past. With so much happening in the episode’s seven-minute running time—frankly, it feels like a story that could quite happily have been told over the course of a full-length episode—we thought some of you might appreciate a run-down of some of the elements you might have missed, or that newer fans might not recognize.

Warning: for obvious reasons, this post is spoiler heavy, so do not read any further until you’ve watched the prequel! Look, here it is again, so you really have no excuse not to watch before reading on:

“But probably not the one you were expecting…”

The Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) (Photo: BBC)

So, then. Just in case you don’t know, the Doctor featured in the minisode isn’t Matt Smith, or David Tennant, or even John Hurt. It’s Paul McGann, who played the role of the Eighth Doctor in the BBC/Fox co-produced TV movie back in 1996. Although only appearing on television once before, the Eighth Doctor has become firmly entrenched in Doctor Who lore in the 17 years since, courtesy of his appearances in more than 70 officially-licensed audio plays for production company Big Finish, along with a similar number of BBC Books adventures and a long-running Doctor Who Magazine comic strip.

“The Night of the Doctor,” however, is the first time Eight has been seen in person since 1996—and finally, the question that has plagued fans since the series returned in 2005, of how McGann’s incarnation met his end, has been answered. What’s more, the actor is finally getting to play the role without the incredibly uncomfortable wig he wore back in the TV movie—and in a costume that is a smart re-imagining of his former green frock coat, brown waistcoat and cravat look.

“Go back to your battlefield!”

Paul McGann in 'The Night of the Doctor'

The Time Lords—with certain honorable exceptions—have never exactly been presented as the friendliest of races, right from the moment they were introduced in “The War Games” in 1969 and summarily forced a regeneration upon the Second Doctor as a punishment for his wanderings. In 2009′s “The End of Time,” meanwhile, their higher council were shown to have developed a particularly ruthless and aggressive streak while in the throes of the epic Time War with the Daleks.

This, however, is the first time we’ve seen their actions in the Time War inspire genuine fear in people other than the Doctor – and that we’ve seen him actually tainted by association with them. The idea that a potential companion would rather die than join the Doctor in the TARDIS is a shocking moment for those of us who are used to seeing him and his ship as a safe haven, and a brilliantly clever twist by writer Steven Moffat.

“Keepers of the flame of utter boredom”

Clare Higgins in 'The Night of the Doctor'

Okay, first off—sorry to disappoint, but it’s “Karn”, not “KHAAAAAAN!” The planet upon which the Doctor fatally crash lands is a former colony of Gallifrey, and is home to the Sisterhood of Karn. This mysterious order were introduced in the classic Fourth Doctor serial “The Brain of Morbius,” and guard the Elixir of Life, a liquid that—among other properties—grants extended life and heals injuries. While it has a history of being used by Time Lords going through difficult or painful regenerations, this is the first time we’ve learned that it can actually be used to trigger and control the regenerative process.

It’s worth remembering at this point that, thanks to the retrospective introduction of John Hurt’s Doctor, when Peter Capaldi takes over the role next year he will be the last of the Doctor’s thirteen (initially) available bodies. (Have we seen the last of the Sisterhood and the Elixir?)

“Friends, companions I’ve known, I salute you”

Paul McGann in 'The Night of the Doctor'

The Eighth Doctor only had one on-screen companion—San Franciscan surgeon Grace Holloway—and even she didn’t actually end up traveling with him. In assorted spin-off media, however, he’s had countless companions over the years – and in a surprising and unprecedented move, “The Night of the Doctor” sees fit to make several of them “canonical” in relation to the TV series.

Specifically, the Doctor recalls all five of his regular companions from the aforementioned Big Finish stories: Charley Pollard, C’rizz, Lucie Miller, Tamsin Drew and Molly O’Sullivan. His paying tribute to them before his regeneration is a particularly poignant moment, as only Charley and Molly actually survived traveling with him. The various companions featured in the novels and comic strips, however, don’t get a look-in, leaving their canonicity uncertain.

“The change doesn’t have to be random”

The Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) regenerates

The idea that Time Lords are capable of choosing their next form is unusual, but it’s not without precedent: at the beginning of 1979′s “Destiny of the Daleks”, the Fourth Doctor’s companion Romana “tried on” several bodies, before settling on the form of Princess Astra—a character previously played by new actress Lalla Ward. What is new, however, is the revelation that it’s something the Doctor has ever chosen to do—it’s never even been clear before whether he was capable of it. Perhaps this is a one-time only deal, thanks to the Elixir —but it still flies in the face of a lot of what we thought we knew about his lives.

After the lengthy debate about whether the Twelfth Doctor should be played by a female actress, meanwhile, it would appear that the line “Man or woman” is confirmation that, at least as far as Steven Moffat is concerned, the possibility should not be ruled out for the future.

“Doctor no more”

John Hurt in 'The Night of the Doctor'

And so, we finally know what to call John Hurt’s character: The War Doctor. The fact that he doesn’t identify as “the Doctor”—because he’s no longer a healer, instead choosing to serve this regeneration as a warrior in the Time War—means that although everybody from Christopher Eccleston‘s Doctor onwards is one regeneration later than we thought, Matt Smith is still the “Eleventh Doctor,” and so on. It’s nice to have that cleared up now, so that “The Day of the Doctor” doesn’t need to spend too much time dealing with it.

Obviously we’ll find out a lot more about Hurt’s Doctor in the special itself, but perhaps the most notable—and surprising—revelation is that after his regeneration, he’s in a younger body. This raises the question of just how long the Time War actually went on, and just how old the Doctor actually is. We already know that the Eleventh Doctor lived for over 200 years without visibly aging by more than a handful—so if the War Doctor was able to age so much, he must have been around for significantly longer than that, right? And yet if he was, how does this fit in with the Ninth Doctor’s stated age of 900? Is he simply not including the years spent as the War Doctor?

Perhaps we’ll find out the answer to this, along with the many other questions the prequel throws up, on November 23…

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