Although anyone who really cares has no doubt already seen and analyzed in painstaking detail “The Night of the Doctor,” I’ll add my few cents.
This mini-episode, a prequel to the 50th anniversary episode of Doctor Who (cleverly entitled “The Day of the Doctor” - the link is to a trailer for the episode), which arrived a week earlier than planned, according to Paul McGann, because it was about to be leaked, provides a little more context for the 50th anniversary episode. More importantly, however, it provides a connection between the series’ past - particularly Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor - and the current incarnation of the series. It also incorporates the Big Finish audio stories into the Doctor Who canon in a dramatic way. As a fan of both McGann and the Big Finish stories, I was grateful for the mini-episode.
To recap: when we last saw Paul McGann on television as the Doctor, in the 1996 movie Doctor Who, he had regenerated from the Seventh Doctor and saved the world from yet another crazy plan by the Master. Along the way, he had a make-out session with Dr. Grace Holloway (Daphne Ashbrook), who turned down his offer to travel with him. Although the movie never developed into a back-door pilot for a new Who series, thanks largely to abysmal ratings in the U.S., and is generally panned because of its lousy plot, starting with the initial voice-over, in which the Doctor explains how he was on his way back to Gallifrey from Skaro - say, wasn’t the planet blown up in “Remembrance of the Daleks”?) with the remains of the Master (the Doctor seemed an unlikely emissary, as enemy of both the Daleks and the Master), whom the Daleks had put on trial and executed (trial? Daleks? Since when have they had a measured judicial system?). Nevertheless, many people, including me, thought McGann made a terrific Doctor, nailing the character from the beginning, and looking the part, wig and Wild Bill Hickok outfit not withstanding. It was a real shame we didn’t see more of him.
Big Finish, however, obliged the fans. In both the Main Range of stories, with companion Charlotte “Charley” Pollard (India Fisher), and in the Eighth Doctor Adventures, with companion Lucie Miller (Sheridan Smith), McGann took his Doctor on all manner of adventures.
When the television series resumed in 2005, it started with the Ninth Doctor in mid-adventure. The series never explained what happened to the Eighth. Obsessive fans like closure, and fans of Eight didn’t get it. Until now.
The new series had hints of the Last Great Time War, with the Doctor, especially the Ninth, clearly agonized over his role in ending the war, causing the destruction of both the Daleks and the Time Lords. It seems clear that “The Day of the Doctor” will take us to that moment, when John Hurt’s “War Doctor” makes the decision to use a terrible weapon to end the war. (As an aside, and we’ll see what happens in a few days, my guess is that he won’t destroy both races, and we’ll have undone all of the last seven seasons’ worth of history. Sigh. Sometimes I don’t like the way the series relies on a convenient “Reset” button, in which all is undone.)
Which brings us to “The Night of the Doctor.” I would insert a “spoiler” warning, but the one or two out there who (a) care and (b) haven’t seen the mini-episode already should have clicked on the link above and watched it. We see a spaceship in distress, about to crash on a planet, with one human left aboard. The Doctor arrives, offering to take the survivor, Cass, with him. Upon seeing the TARDIS, she realizes that he is a Time Lord and, so repulsed is she at the damage the Time Lords have done during the war, she refuses to go. He says he won’t go without her (the one false note in the episode), and the ship crashes and explodes. The planet turns out to be Karn, from “The Brain of Morbius,” and the Doctor once again meets the Sisterhood of Karn. One of the Sisters informs him that he is dead, that they have resurrected him briefly, and they can offer him a directed regeneration, so that he can choose what kind of man he will be. The Doctor says he doesn’t want to fight in the Time War, but the Sister points out that he no longer has that option. He tells her that he needs to be “a warrior.” The Sister, having anticipated that answer, has already prepared the appropriate elixir. He drinks it, calling out to his former companions, including Charley and Lucie, and the now-familiar regeneration process starts.
An amazing job done in six-and-a-half minutes. Thank you, Paul McGann, for coming back and playing the role on television for us one more time.