Friday, November 15, 2013

Physician, Heal Thyself: An Overanalysis of "The Night of the Doctor"

"I'm not half human on any side."
Is it a burden to always be right about Doctor Who?  No, not really.

Okay, I wasn't the first to guess it.  And Paul McGann's Twitter slip-up made it kind of obvious.  But it was Moffat's careful wording about the casting that made it kind of obvious that he was trying to hint at something big.  But I was still so pleasantly surprised when I woke up this morning to find Paul McGann in the prequel, as a part of me still believed it was too good to be true:

In 1996, Philip Segal tried to relaunch Doctor Who with Doctor Who:  The Movie.  As I've explained before, the movie was a dumbed down disaster, but not an ounce of the blame belongs to McGann.  However, McGann was redeemed with the truly brilliant New Eighth Doctor Adventures from Big Finish Audio, that let us know how good a show Doctor Who would have been with McGann at the helm.

Today, Steven Moffat further proved that point, with this little surprise.  We were promised this minisode would come out this coming Saturday, but I guess they pushed it up a few days to put it out exactly on Paul McGann's birthday.  What a birthday present:  the release of the episode that does in 7 minutes what Segal failed to do in 90.

One of the biggest questions fans have had since the launch of the new series is:  How did the 8th Doctor regenerate?  We assumed, for a long time, that he regenerated from McGann into Eccleston, but now we know that to be false.  So now we finally get to see how 8 regenerated into True 9.  Will we somehow get to see how True 9 regenerated into 9, allowing us to know how every single regeneration happened?  Well, unless Eccleston's lying, he's not in the special.  Still, they managed to regenerate Colin Baker into Sylvester McCoy without the cooperation of Colin Baker, so I guess anything is possible.

The planet the Doctor lands on is the planet Karn.  Even I forgot about this freakin' planet that only appeared in the Fourth Doctor serial, "The Brain of Morbius."  Basically, it's a planet that's been colonized by the Time Lords.  That's more or less all you need to know.  I didn't realize this when I first watched the minisode.  Understanding that these women are Time Ladies makes the whole thing make a lot more sense.  The Sisterhood of Karn are the keepers of the Sacred Flame which produces the Elixir of Life, which can be used to give someone immortal life.  Hence why they could bring the Doctor back after his crash.  They are semi-autonomous from Gallifrey itself.  Hence why they not only have Time Lord technology, but they have also improved upon it.

When the Doctor drinks the elixir that the Sister has made for him, he rattles off a list of names of friends to say goodbye to:  Charlie, C'Rizz, Lucie, Tamsin, and Molly.  If you're wondering who all of these people are, they're the Eighth Doctor's companions.  But here's the awesome thing:  they're all companions from the audio adventures.  This is literally the first time that anyone on screen has acknowledged that the audio stories are, in fact, canon.  The BBC has stated publicly that they are, but nothing on screen has ever confirmed that until now.  Nobody has ever crossed the audio or the novels over into the TV show.

Also, the list specifically ignores the Eighth Doctor's one and only on-screen companion, Grace Holloway.  Considering how my recent trip to Denver Comic-Con taught me how Daphne Ashbrook, who played Grace Holloway, is a blatant fame whore, I'm quite glad they slighted her.  You can read more of my opinions on Ashbrook in my write-up about Denver Comic-Con.  Hell, Molly and Tamsin spent about as much time with the Doctor as Grace did, and Tamsin fucking betrayed him!

Are there flaws in this minisode?  Sure.  I thought that the Doctor's insistence on not getting involved in the Time War was overcome a bit too quickly.  In fact, the whole thing moved a bit fast.  It's a pretty significant story to be told in 7 minutes.  But you have to give Moffat credit, as there wasn't much else he could do.  He could never make a full length episode out of this.  Who would want to watch a 60 minute long 8th Doctor episode in 2013 other than the die hard fans?  And it's not really even a 60 minute idea.  Ideally, this is about a 15-20 minute story, but there's really no venue for Moffat to tell the story in that length.  He told it in the format he could get away with, and did as well as he could.

Also, Moffat wrote the 8th Doctor the way that Moffat writes the Doctor, not the way that the 8th Doctor has been written in the past.  The dialogue is very Moffat-y, and really feels like it belongs in Matt Smith's mouth--maybe Tom Baker's--but not Paul McGann's.  The line about going to the back of the ship because the front crashes first is the kind of funny, silly line you'd expect from the 11th Doctor.  And this particular exchange doesn't sound anything like what we've heard from the 8th Doctor in the movie or any of the audio adventures:

OHILA: No. We restored you to life, but it's a temporary measure. You have a little under 4 minutes. 

DOCTOR: 4 minutes? That's ages. What if I get bored or need a television, couple of books. Bring me knitting.

That kind of sarcasm isn't very 8-ish.  But I think it can be forgiven because it's so damn funny.

This episode also addresses something I've been wondering for a while:  can the Doctor age within a particular regeneration.  Presumably, the Doctor's first regeneration, the Hartnell Doctor, had to have spanned from his birth to the end of "The Tenth Planet."  That means his childhood and adolescence were all a part of that first regeneration.  So he must have aged significantly within that regeneration.  But can he continue to age and come to look older within a regeneration?  The 11th Doctor has been alive for about 300 years now, and he still looks 12 (although the make-up department looks like they're trying to age him up a little, but certainly not 300 years worth).  This minisode suggests it is possible, because 8 looks 17 years older than we last saw him (as that's how much older McGann really is).  But, more significantly, the ending shows a young John Hurt as True 9 that was actually taken from stock footage, which suggests that True 9 aged very significantly within his regeneration.

It also raises one question:  If True 9 aged that much within his regeneration, then how freakin' long was that regeneration?  We all know the Doctor lies about his age.  How old is he, really?

The question people haven't been asking since the new series came back but which they should have is this:  Why would a pacifist join a war?  Sure, the 6th Doctor had a pretty dark side, and the 3rd Doctor karate chopped people, but by and large, he is a peaceful man.  Why would he become a soldier?  Apparently, it's because he realized that both sides had become so equally evil that he had to put a stop to it once and for all.  He made a very reluctant choice, and came to regret it.  But did he?  It seems he regrets what the war did to him, but understands, reluctantly, that what he did in the war was necessary.

We just don't know, yet, what exactly he did.

Moffat has fallen in love with these little minisodes, going all the way back to "Time Crash."  In addition to the ones that are put out online, the DVD Boxsets are peppered with these little jewels.  Moffat seems to love writing short stories about the Doctor. Some of them, like "Time" and "Space" are incredibly clever.  Some of them, like the Pond Life series, tell us some really interesting information.  Some of them, like "The Battle of Demons Run:  Two Days Later" provided some information that should really have been put in a full-length episode for it to make sense.  And some of them, like "He Said, She Said" are so pointless that I feel bad for the animals who were killed to make the gelatin to make the film that these pointless little stories were shot on.

But "The Night of the Doctor" is the masterpiece of Moffat's minisode obsession.  Never before has a minisode provided such crucial information.  When looking back on the history of the series, "The Night of the Doctor" is going to need to be seen as equal in importance to any full length episode, because it shows us one of the regenerations, something that is fundamentally important to the history of the Doctor's life.  Furthermore, it's a very good regeneration episode, and it should always be seen as an important part of the series.  If "The Day of the Doctor" turns out to be a complete disappointment, then I'll just be able to watch "The Night of the Doctor" on repeat for 90 minutes and pretend that's the 50th Anniversary Special, and I'll be sufficiently mollified.

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