Defining the Doctor: The TV Movie

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Patrick Kavanagh-Sproull continues his series looking at one key story from each Doctor, this time with Paul McGann.


Defining the Doctor… it’s a term to chew over, one with a simple self-explanatory meaning. I pick a story I feel best represents the Doctor in question and talk about how he is characterized in said episode. For this month’s instalment I have an easy job, much more undemanding than previous articles for an entirely different reason to the one you’re thinking of. Yes, I didn’t need to pick from a range of episodes; The TV Movie is Paul McGann’s only onscreen appearance but I also don’t need to talk about every aspect of The TV Movie. This series is mainly about the Doctor but admittedly I digress every month. I’m not a big fan of The TV Movie but I don’t hate it. There are elements that are hugely likeable but then others that leave this fan boiling with rage.

The Eighth Doctor is an incarnation of the Doctor that has always fascinated me. He’s a hidden Doctor, tucked in the dead space between Survival and Rose but still a very good one. From Paul McGann’s outstanding performance to his extravagant TARDIS to his black velour morning jacket, there is much to be found in the Eighth Doctor. A few weeks ago I sat down to pen my review of the recent fiftieth anniversary short, Spore, and I found myself chewing over the paragraph where I talked about the Eighth Doctor. I wanted to talk about his characterization (I find that crucial in the electronic novella series) but I wasn’t entirely sure who his character was. Of course I had the full hour and a half of The TV Movie to go on but because the producers thought that it was a springboard for a series, they didn’t think to give his character any depth – they predicted that would come later in the now cancelled series. As I’m not a listener of the Big Finish audio adventures (although I really would love to be) I have no knowledge of the Eighth Doctor bar his San Franciscan yarn. Which poses out the question, who really is the Eighth Doctor? Fans of Big Finish have a much clearer view on him – there’s a lot of Time War combatant suggestions (well, not suggestions, more assumptions) – but we uninitiated aficionados are in the dark on the dark Doctor.

Now as much as I’d like to make my defence for The TV Movie, it’s already been done – and with a deft touch – so I’m just going to have to scrutinize the more striking elements of Paul McGann’s first and last trip out as the Eighth Doctor. This brings us onto Grace, the one hit companion for this month’s Time Lord, and one of my favourites. Grace was somebody different, someone that didn’t adjust to the Doctor’s alien world unlike modern day companions who manage to take in the existence of outer spatial worlds in the space of forty-five minutes or so. Initially she reacted against the Doctor (he did follow her and start pulling out gastroscopic probes from his bare chest) but after some unconvincing convincing she concluded that he must an alien. Grace’s background was also a change from the norm, her predecessor having an opposite backstory to her – Ace was a working class teenager from the UK; Grace was a middle class American. There’s never been an Ace vs. Grace argument (it rhymes, someone must do one) but I always find it interesting to compare consecutive companions as do fellow fans (Rose versus Martha is a popular one). My argument is that Grace didn’t get enough time to shine and even if the Eighth Doctor era had continued past The TV Movie she wouldn’t have been there, she left on her own accord. To this date, Grace Holloway’s only appearance in the show was The TV Movie – she’s not even part of the Big Finish team (thankfully the delightful Daphne Ashbrook is). I’d love her to return but knowing Moffat she’s probably not popular or well known enough.

After The TV Movie Doctor Who continued into a different medium with the Eighth Doctor furthering his journey through time and space by audio. The Big Finish audio adventures are rather popular nowadays but alas, I have never had the good fortune to listen to one. I felt that, as this series is about defining the Doctor, the Big Finish series ought to be touched on but by someone more learned in that area. I asked Doctor Who TV contributor Gustaff to share his thoughts on the audio adventures of Paul McGann’s fleeting incarnation…

“I’ve seen entire species destroyed, civilizations left in ruins. I’ve witnessed solar systems vanish in the twinkling of an eye. I’ve seen things that would freeze your blood.” – Eighth Doctor

With a badass boast like that, you know Eight is better in the audios! Even though McGann only had one outing as the Doctor, his incarnation lives on in the audios. Comparing the incarnation in the audios to the movie counterpart requires its own article as Eight has really evolved and so has a lot of his personal Doctor quirks, such as his Cloud Cuckoolander-ness which is easily the most severe of all the Doctors. Eight also has an extreme case of Attention Deficit… Ooh Shiny! syndrome that just isn’t as relevant in the movie and he suffers from the running gag of people assuming that his hair is a wig (which is an inside joke to you people who don’t know much about Paul’s Doctor. So laugh people! Laugh and dance!)

A lot of fans regard the audios as a separate continuity and won’t touch Big Finish, even though it’s likely (yes I said likely) that it’s the only place where you’ll ever meet the Eighth Doctor outside of the movie. However, the great thing about the Eighth Doctor and Big Finish is that anything could’ve happened to him between the classic and new Who… and it did! He lived a long life before the Time War. A long and timey-wimey filled life. His stories are mature and they’re entertaining (although I personally find Eight’s taste in companions horrendous, barring Lucie Miller and Benny Summerfield).

Like most Doctors, Eight also gets a fair share of character development during his run which has him starting out as a ditzy genius (Storm Warning), but later transforms him into a severely traumatized individual (To The Death). If Eight has a defining Doctor audio story, then To the Death definitely qualifies. We might never get to see what happened to make Eight turn into Nine, but Big Finish audios is as close as we’re going to get.

You might be a bit puzzled to find that you’ve just read an article on an episode of Doctor Who that doesn’t actually cover the eponymous story. But I wanted this series to look at the Doctor as much as the story I’ve selected and mull the incarnation in question over. The Eighth Doctor was a funny one, someone that I’d love to return and Paul McGann concurs. He’s always said he’d be very much up for stepping back into the Eighth Doctor’s (stolen) shoes, why not Moffat? The 50th anniversary is months away (an exciting thought) and I wonder: could McGann be making a surprise appearance?

Below: A clip of Paul McGann’s audition for the role: