Paul McGann turned 60 recently. I had to pinch myself when I heard the news. He’s always been a good-looking rooster to be sure and, if I’d been asked how old he was the day before I heard that, I would have genuinely said, “Erm… somewhere in his early 50s… maybe?” Some quick mental arithmetic would remind me, of course, that the ill-fated Doctor Who television movie was 23 years ago itself this past year. Blimey.
I duly tossed the news onto my podcast’s Facebook group and one of the replies was from Australian TV production veteran, Rob McKnight. Although Rob puts a lot of himself online, primarily through the TV Blackbox and McKnight Tonight podcasts and accompanying website, what most would never know about Rob is that he and I were in the same local Doctor Who club back in the mid-late 80s and very early 90s.
I had said Happy Birthday “… to a Doctor who made audio his own but should have been given a better go on TV. Appearing in the 50th would have been a start!” And just like the old days where we’d talk Doctor Who, over a glass of cordial Rob replied with his own thoughts:
All of which gave me pause that although I’ve said this sort of thing on social media before, and no doubt have mentioned it during hundreds and hundreds of hours of podcasting, I’ve never really sat down and properly hashed this out. So what better time to say this than right now?
Since as far back as the Eighth Doctor Adventures novels from the BBC, I regarded the 8th Doctor as really interesting. Sure, he’d only had one outing on television, however, that was paying dividends in the way that a group of talented writers could now flesh out his character and tell a bunch of stories about him. This lovely, Byronic, decent man in his velvet jacket. He was like everything the Doctor ever should have been on TV, but wasn’t. For me, it was like the previous Virgin New Adventures but with a Doctor who looked like a leading man, was eminently likable and was even more of a blank canvas to learn about.
This was years before Paul McGann would put his hesitation about more Doctor Who work and fandom in general to one side (he was once genuinely stand-offish), and begin work with Big Finish. But when he did so, I noted that the audio adventures portrayed the 8th Doctor in a very sympathetic way to the novels. The 8th Doctor is a lovely man. In so many ways he echoed “my Doctor” – the 5th – so it was probably little wonder that I quite liked him in non-televisual media from the start.
If we skip forward some more years to the dawn of Nu-Who on television, it seemed abundantly clear to me that two things had happened to the Doctor. In Rose, he sees himself in a mirror and critiques his appearance, notably his ears. This is short-hand for fandom that he’s recently regenerated. We then learnt that the Eccleston 9th Doctor was essentially suffering a galactic form of PTSD, having just fought in the Time War. Good gravy, I thought to myself on the spot, that means the McGann Doctor – the nicest man in the world – fought in a war.
I could scarcely imagine it – but in a good way. The drama of such a nice man being forced to do horrible things and make terrible choices seemed like the highest of drama to me. In a similar way to watching Star Wars when I was young and tying to imagine the Clone Wars when all we knew was that something called “the Clone Wars” had once happened, I would let my imagination run away on the McGann Doctor fighting the Time War. It was heady stuff. I hoped the series would address it further.
So you can imagine my utter surprise and disappointment when, for the 50th anniversary special, the series shoehorned in a War Doctor character and, adding insult to injury, produced a short film to pre-empt the anniversary special showing that the 8th Doctor was indeed around for the Time War, but wasn’t the Doctor that really took the fight to the Daleks, nor was he the Doctor that regenerated into Chris Eccleston. I stared dumbly at the screen. “Er… this is nuts. Your best choice was right in front of you…” I said to an empty room as if somehow, magically, my voice and fan opinion would reach Steven Moffat in the UK and the whole thing could be re-thought and re-shot.
All of which makes it sound like I might be very down on John Hurt who portrayed the War Doctor. To which I’d say, not at all. Hurt was one of the best actors of his time and to have him as a Doctor in our beloved series was a huge coup. No two ways about it and, frankly, that coup was likely the reason why McGann was left on the bench when push came to shove and a new Doctor was invented for the one-off TV special.
But can you imagine McGann in the 50th? While it’s fair to say much of the audience wouldn’t necessarily know him or get the depth and profundity of his character being forced onto a war footing, it’s equally true that they knew nothing at all about the War Doctor anyway, so would it have been that different a character for the casual viewer or new fan? The beauty of using McGann, of course, is that older fans would get it right away and the Junior Burger fans would get it over time. There’s nothing like being into something on one level, then going back to it at a different time of your fandom or life in general, only to realise, Oh! So THAT’S what that was! That sort of thing, where you suddenly twig to a new level of understanding, is so rare and so beautiful. Doctor Who could have had one of those moments lying in wait for someone who was 12 years of age back in 2013 to sit bolt upright in bed as they realise it as a 22 year old, a few years from now.
It’s all academic now, of course. The War Doctor is canon and, indeed, we have both 8th Doctor and War Doctor stories set during the Time War, courtesy of Big Finish. How much a fan wants to dip into that, or indeed have a ‘head canon’ that contradicts it is up to the individual fan in question. Personally, I go with what I’m shown on-screen. The War Doctor happened. I think McGann’s Doctor would have been far more interesting in that role, but it doesn’t change what happened. What about you? Would you have liked to see more McGann? Why not write in the comments below?
[To finish off, can I also recommend for your reading pleasure, ‘5 times Paul McGann didn’t return to Doctor Who‘ over at the DWC. Bye bye!]