No one really expect this. Since 2005, when Christopher Eccleston appeared in Rose, it was the one question every Doctor Who fan wanted answer. When and why did the Eighth Doctor regenerate? The obvious conclusion, based on visual evidence in that first story, was shortly before the Nu Series, at the end of the Time War. But then earlier this year we saw the end of series seven and discovered a previously unknown incarnation of the Doctor, the one who fought in the Time War, and it was John Hurt! This threw us all into a tiz, trying to work out how he fitted in the grand scheme of things; was he the older version of the Eighth Doctor, was he the Ninth Doctor (thus making Eccleston the Tenth, and Tennant the Eleventh and so on)? We were all hoping that the anniversary special would answer this, and despite McGann’s insistence to the contrary, I for one was certain he’d appear somehow. But not like this!
I, like so many, clicked that YouTube link to see this minisode (as they’re now called) and watched as the TARDIS rushed through space to help a ship about to crash. And like all the others, my mouth at first fell open, and then broke into a wide smile when a voice said ‘I’m a Doctor, just probably not the one you expected’ and the shot cut to Paul McGann standing there with a cheeky grin on his stubbly face.
For the first time Steven Moffat (whose reign as producer has not always inspired me with confidence) was God. He delivered, in seven minutes, the best piece of Doctor Who he had ever written and produced. Finally all our questions were answered. This was the Eighth Doctor who had lived a long time past the TV Movie of 1996, who had endured much pain and loss, who had lived through the Big Finish audios (yes, for the first time since Nu Who began, the Big Finish Eighth Doctor adventures were given their place in TV canon when the Doctor names all his Big Finish companions – a lovely touch, and a most unexpected one [and one that creates more work for me, when I come to to revising my Companions book]), and was now battered and bruised by the Time War, which he refused to become a part of. At last we knew, it was not the Eighth Doctor who fought in the Time War, and it was not he who regenerated into the Eccleston Doctor shortly before Rose.
After years of playing the Doctor on audio, McGann stepped effortlessly back into the role, in an outfit that was the perfect evolution from that which he wore in the TV Movie. I had always liked the ‘dark eyes’ look Big Finish took to using, leather jacket and satchel included, and it always seemed a nice link between the old and new, but the outfit McGann sported in The Night of the Doctor changed that view for me. And his scenes on Karn were superb. Oh yes, Karn. Another surprising touch. A return to the location of the 1976 story The Brain of Morbius and the Sisterhood of Karn, a race of immortal beings who elevate Time Lord science. For four minutes the Doctor was actually dead, unless he chose to take the offer given him by the Sisterhood, regeneration or final death. It was a sad but noble performance as the Eighth Doctor chose to end his life and become the warrior needed to fight the Time War.
There is really so much in these seven minutes to love. None of it was expected, but all of it so gratefully appreciated. It finally gave us that link between the ‘original’ series and the ‘new’, proving once and for all that they are but one series. And it was the moment I fell back in love with Doctor Who. Suddenly my fears of the anniversary special faded, somehow I just knew that Moffat was going to do a damn good job, and I held to my belief that we would see all the old Doctors in one form or another, and we’d see Peter Capaldi turn up (it was too much of an opportunity to pass up, in my view, a fact I told many people over and over again).
Andy Frankham-Allen is the author of Companions: Fifty Years of Doctor Who Assistants