Well, that doesn't happen very often does it? A little bit of TV history that was kept a total secret, was full of surprises, referenced a classic show's history, sets up the 50th anniversary episode and ALL in 7 minutes. I came home last night to see my lovely twin advertising The Night of the Doctor on her Facebook page. As a semi-Whovian (I'm fairly obsessed by the current show and loved the Pertwee/Baker years of my childhood) I do get all fangirl when I see anything new and I'd been waiting for this minisode. But I wasn't really expecting much, so clicked on the link thinking it would be a couple of minutes of teaser for next week. Oh boy was I wrong.
At this point if you haven't seen it, I would urge you to look away now. Or at least look away until you have had a chance to watch here. And then come back with the biggest smile on your face and scroll down to read on.
It started in familiar territory, a space ship out of control, flown by a typical Nu-Who strong female, with the Tardis in quick pursuit. We are given a typical selction of silly Who jokes about needing a doctor, and then he arrives. Except, "it's not the one you were expecting", it is the legendary Paul McGann. Oh WOW. Steven Moffat & Paul McGann played a total blinder here. Every obsessed fan has been wanting to see this ever since the TV film of 1996, It's never happened. And given how McGann has been so vigorous with his denials, we didn't expect to see it happen. Yet there he was, instantly the Doctor, even though (unless you are a total Whovian and listen to the audios) most of us have barely seen him in the role. I didn't even get a quarter of the way through the TV movie, but even I was screeching with delight. What a way to start.
I still thought at this point we were going to have a bit of a light hearted romp, maybe a few other old doctors in the mix, particularly when McGann was wisecracking his way through the space ship, dragging what looked like a new companion, Cass, to the back. "Is the universe always like this?" she asks, "If you are lucky" he says, and we glow in the beginning of that new relationship. Except, in the cleverest twist of an always clever show, when they get to the back, and he tells her his TARDIS is bigger on the inside, instead of being amazed and delighted, she backs away. A complete subversion of the rules of Who, and beautifully played out. For we've come upon the Doctor in the middle of the Time War, a major part of both Classic and Nu-Who. A war that started with the 4th Doctor, when the once genial Time Lords asked him to finish the Daleks before they began.(The very wonderful Genesis of the Daleks). In a very famous speech, the Doctor struggled then with the idea of committing genocide then, and yet a key part of the Nu-Who backstory is that he committed an even worse genocide in the end, killing not only the Daleks and his own people.
But in this minisode, the Doctor is at a point in his story, years from that decision and as far away from the Time War as he can be, at odds to point out that he is not joining in. To Cass, this doesn't matter, he's a Time Lord, they're all evil, even the good ones. "At least I'm not a Dalek," he says, "These days, you can't tell the difference," she replies, before locking herself back in the ship, choosing death rather than to ally herself with his race. Again, a lovely reference to recent Who. The final episodes of the tenth doctor revealed just how bad the Time Lords had become and now we see someone demonstrating the truth of that in the starkest of ways.
We've seen the Doctor despair many times before, but this time, the horror of such a rejection literally fixes him to the spot. As a result he goes down with the ship, and they both die. That's right he dies, he doesn't regenerate he dies. This is no lighted jolly adventure at all. It's as dark as Who gets.
Fortunately. he lands on Karn, a planet he has been to before. Another great reference to classic Who(I did have to check and it's a fine Tom Baker story - The Brain of Morbius). Luckily the mystical Sisterhood of Karn remember him and have an elixir to revive him. We cheer for a moment, till we realise they have a very terrible purpose in mind and they give him four minutes to decide to help them. The Doctor has rejected his people and done what he can to help the Time War victims, but it is not enough. The Universe is being destroyed and only he can stop it. Presented with the inescapable fact, symbolised by Cass' dead body, that the Time Lords and Daleks are equally evil, the sisters tell him he must get involved. He must take an elixir, regenerate and join the battle. At first he rejects their position, but when he realises if he doesn't act now, everyone will die he reluctantly accepts. In doing so he has to stop being himself, as there is no need for doctors now. He agrees to drink the elixir, taking a potion for "Warrior" before saying sorry and farewell to his former companions (again a nice touch for uber-fans, as it makes the Big Finish audio books canon) resulting in a painful regeneration (with another corny Moffat joke, knowing who's coming next "Will it hurt?").
And then he emerges, taking Cass' soldier's belt, and declares himself "Doctor No More." Instead we see a glimpse of a young John Hurt. And since the incarnation of the War Doctor we met in the last episode was old and battle weary, we realise he is going to be fighting for a long time to come.
All in all, it is a tremendous piece of writing, acting, directing, beautifully produced (the sight of he spaceship crashing on Karn was wonderful, and shows how far the show has come from its early wobbly set days). A brilliant homage to the show past and present, revealing the heart-breaking end to the kind and caring 8th Doc and the painful beginning of the War Doc, and why his successors have kept it a secret. It stands both as a fine piece of screenplay and a wonderful homage to the fans, and a demonstration that when Steven Moffat is at the top of his game, there are very few people who can top him. Like his predecessor, Russell T Davies, Moffat gets a lot of unnecessary vitriol from the fans, but I have yet to find one criticism of this love letter to us all. So it's I leave you with Moffat's own words on the minisode "I should probably learn to have a little more faith in the fact that what gets me excited as a sad, old fan will get other people excited as well". It does Steven, it does. Thank you!!