Doctor Who: a celebration of Paul McGann

Andrew looks back at the eighth incarnation of the Doctor, this time played by Paul McGann in a rather luxuriant curly wig…

I have heard it said that anything in life can be improved by the liberal application of Paul McGann. As statements go, it’s obviously not a hundred per cent accurate, but there’s some truth in there.

The problem with celebrating Paul McGann’s Doctor is that, for most people, he only appears in the TV Movie, and he’s not even in that for the first half hour. The TVM, by the by, is a slightly odd beast. Essentially, it’s a series finale trying to do the job of a pilot episode. Imagine, if you will, that The End Of Time Part Two was broadcast instead of Rose. Can you imagine how that would go down? The questions that would ensue? When did The Master gain that power? Who are all these people? Is Doctor Who always like this?

Fortunately, despite turning everyone into Chandler Bing out of Friends, the TVM gives us a new Doctor to enjoy. This helps a lot, especially when McGann’s Doctor is so exuberant, dashing and approachable. The Doctor is having fun again; he has no Machiavellian schemes to embark upon. Certainly, the Eighth Doctor’s character is drawn as a marked contrast to his predecessor, and his stories initially moved away from the early 90s trend towards dark and gritty.

This is possibly exemplified by the first Eighth Doctor novel, The Dying Days, a tremendous romp of a story culminating in an astonishing action sequence. Plus, the Brigadier’s in it. The last time we saw the Eighth Doctor in a book, he was jumping into the unknown. That’s just the kind of guy he is: heroic, fond of jumping off stuff, and completely unhindered by budgets.

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The TVM did not do well enough in America for it to become a series, and so again fandom took up the slack. Three continuities were established during this time: Big Finish Audios, BBC Books and Doctor Who Magazine’s comic strip series had a lot of a free reign to expand on the character.

The Eighth Doctor strips remain the high point of Doctor Who comics for many, foreshadowing the 2005 TV series in terms of arcs and characterisation, and standing up as great comics in their own right. They do, at times, rely on the reader having seen the TVM, but at that time, everyone reading Doctor Who Magazine had, and so it wasn’t an issue. Compared with the BBC Books Eighth Doctor Adventures, however, they were accessible.

The Eighth Doctor Adventures embarked on long arcs, and by virtue of being prose stories, these were longer and harder to follow than a monthly comic strip. However, like the New Adventures books before them, these novels varied in style, content and quality, ranging from the astonishingly good to the mind-parchingly tedious. Unlike the New Adventures, there was a fresh chance for more variance of styles, marking a distinction to the so-called Cartmel Masterplan, before again succumbing to darker tendencies.

Just so you know, though: if ever anyone wishes to read a good, hard sci-fi Doctor Who novel, then Fear Itself by Nick Wallace is one of the finest anyone could wish for, complete with a joyous, action-packed finale and yet more jumping off stuff.

These mediums are both well and good additions to the range, but they’re based on speculation as to how the Eighth Doctor would have turned out. Where Big Finish’s audioplays have an advantage is that they feature the real McCoy, Paul McGann. In 2001, he threw himself into the role, starting afresh and playing the character with zeal. Much like Colin Baker’s early stories, the enthusiasm with which McGann plays the Doctor is infectious.

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After a brief lull, a new format and companion re-energised the actor, who is still playing the character as a breathless optimist, but now more universe weary and sardonic. This perfectly complimented Sheridan Smith as Lucie Miller, forming one of the best Doctor and companion double acts in the show’s history.

As well as refreshing the character compared to the Seventh Doctor, the Eighth also features possibly the most absolute of any Doctor’s morality. In Deimos and The Resurrection Of Mars, two conflicting moral codes are explored, with the Eighth Doctor refusing to do any direct harm to anyone himself, even if it means others are put at risk. The dialogue directly compares this with the Seventh Doctor.

McGann’s earnest and hopeful take on the character suits this role, while his generally hopeful outlook makes it all the more shocking and effective when he does get angry. The darker tones of this Doctor are from his own fears of relapsing into his previous incarnation’s behaviour, or from guilt based on his rigorous moral code.

The Eighth Doctor had been accused of being merely a boil-in-the-bag Doctor, a collection of vague eccentricities taken from previous incarnations, although his Big Finish work has rectified this somewhat. There’s a logical chain of characterisation that flows from the Seventh Doctor through to the Eleventh. He bridges the new series and the old excellently, as a reaction against the Seventh Doctor and as proof that the Doctor can be romantic, emotional and indeed, sexual.

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In the books, comic and audioplays, he’s given family ties, love interests and attachments, some of which are playful (in one comic he wakes up in bed with Grace Holloway clad only in boxer shorts emblazoned with question marks), and some of which are deeply moving (his daughter in Father Time and his eventual fate in Neverland). Despite the furore over the kissing scene in the TVM at the time, such an event allowed the show to get away with an episode such as The Girl In The Fireplace.

He’s quite human at times, almost childlike in his vigour and his morality, but he’s also very old. The initial characterisation of the Fifth Doctor reminds me of Eight, an old man in a young man’s body zipping around with gusto and warmth, but less tetchy. Here, the character drives the darker moments though, and the character’s fallibility lies in his ethics and fears. It’s a lot more rounded than the Fifth Doctor was ever allowed to be.

With the fiftieth anniversary coming up, fandom is understandably clamouring for the return to television of Paul McGann in the role, older, and with his own hair. Big Finish may provide a fix for fans, but for the general public, his Doctor is largely unknown. Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy may have something to prove to them (for the public are fools – fools I say), but McGann’s Doctor is still a blank slate to many, even if the actor is familiar to the public through his voiceover and TV guest appearances.

I know the licensing for this might be nightmarish, but as there are so many great Big Finish stories and comic strips out there to adapt, is an animated series really out of the question? That way the wig wouldn’t be a problem at all if they chose to animate him looking as he did in the TVM.

As long as he’s jumping off stuff, I don’t really mind.

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