Seven or so years after the original Doctor Who was finally canceled by the BBC, there was an attempt at a reboot that would have been a joint production of the BBC and American television. Originally airing on the Fox Network, it…did not go any further than the original pilot before disappearing again until 2005.
Still, Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor counts as far as anything in Doctor Who counts, and you would not believe what it took for me to even see this made-for-TV pilot movie…
Yeah, so, BritBox carries “classic Doctor Who” while various other streaming services (currently HBO Max) carry the revived series and all of its many spin-offs. But this one and only TV appearance for the Eighth Doctor? Neither.
Could I do a digital rental off Amazon or iTunes? Apparently no.
I finally found it in a DVD set that came out for the show’s 50th anniversary with an adventure for each of the first eleven Doctors, as well as a short documentary series with each half-hour episode covering a different Doctor. BritBox actually has the first seven included, but the rest? Nah! So, there it is. I bought a whole set of DVDs with eleven different Doctors just to see one. I don’t regret the purchase, but that’s what I had to do.
So…was the Eighth Doctor worth it? Well…
The way I see it, the Eighth Doctor is something of an anomaly. The story here is a bit different in certain respects. Sylvester McCoy returns as the Seventh Doctor to show the regeneration. The TARDIS is there with the familiar theme song and sound effects (even the rarely heard cloister bell!), as well as the sonic screwdriver. Heck, this Doctor hands out jellybabies. The movie opens with the Seventh Doctor flying the Master’s remains back to Gallifrey (apparently the Daleks took the Master down), but even as a pile of ashes, the Master can still causes trouble. He crashes the TARDIS into San Francisco on New Year’s Day 1999, and after stepping outside, the Doctor’s shot multiple times by a street gang.
That said, the thing that kills Seven is the surgeons not realizing he has two hearts. The lead surgeon is one Dr. Grace Holloway (Daphne Ashbrook), and she’s clearly set up as the new companion for the series that never happened. The street kid who brought the Doctor to the hospital, Chang Lee (Yee Jee Tso), may also be companion material, but again, those adventures never occurred. That said, both actors have done some of the Big Finish audio works, but not as their original characters.
Meanwhile, the Americans insisted on having a name actor in the mix somewhere, so we have the Master taking over the body of a paramedic played by Eric Roberts. He’s up to his usual Master antics, surviving something he probably shouldn’t have and trying to kill the Doctor. He’s got his hypnotic eyes, and his efforts to stay alive may destroy the Earth.
Essentially, this is one long regeneration story, where the Doctor is a little confused and disoriented. So, there isn’t much of a chance to get a feel for what this Doctor’s personality is really like. Sure, he has a lot of Doctor-ish qualities. When he needs to get past a cop, he gets the cop’s gun and threatens himself with it. He has a few fighting moves, mostly defensive, but he saves the day using his brain and does offer the Master a hand when the bad guy is getting sucked into…somewhere else. He does have promise as a new Doctor. We just won’t see it on TV.
Oh, I have seen the Eighth Doctor’s short webisode showing his own regeneration to the next Doctor, and it’s rather good. He did have a lot of heroic qualities there, and I would be a bit more curious about what might have been.
But, it seems to me, that this is neither here nor there. McGann got his first TV appearance here and that was that. There was some innovation that carried over to the new show like how the TARDIS could be alive or a companion could be a potential love interest, but then other ideas like the Eye of Harmony and the fact that the Doctor is half-human seem to be have been dropped and rightly so. Grace and Chang made for rather standard companions even if Chang initially sided with the Master–and switched to the Doctor when the Doctor simply pointed out the inconsistencies in the Master’s story as a sign of lying. Plus, Grace may be the first potential companion not to bat and eyelash over how the TARDIS was bigger on the inside than the outside.
But in the end, this was just a so-so pilot movie with a very 90s feel to it.
And yet…McGann is actually the longest-running Doctor despite only appearing in one TV movie. There’s a simple reason for that: despite how his TV series didn’t get really picked up for more and the series disappeared for another nine years or so, Paul McGann never actually stopped being the Doctor.
That’s due to Big Finish, the audio play company. McGann has made a lot of further adventures for the Eighth Doctor. True, so have many of the other surviving Doctors. Apparently, Big Finish can make adventures for any Doctor Who-related character except for any currently on the show. So, Jodi Whitaker and her companions are out, but anyone before that are fair game with all of the still-living classic era Doctors plus David Tennant and recently even getting Christopher Eccleston. McGann has been making a lot of those, and I can’t just have a one-and-done Doctor.
And that means…well, I got myself two of McGann’s Big Finish audio plays to cover before moving on to the current series. Maybe I’ll get a better grasp on the character from that…