Who Marathon: Paul McGann
I initially skipped writing about Paul McGann, but then decided I really should say something. The reason I skipped it is McGann’s entire output is one TV movie and a single 7 minute internet short. That’s it. I was going to skip that given there isn’t a ton to write about, but then as I got near the end of Eccelston’s season, and started thinking about what to write about him, it bugged me I didn’t write about Paul, so here I am.
As I said above, the Eighth Doctor’s era is extremely short. There was the single televised adventure of his in 1996, and then we didn’t see him on screen again until 2013 in a shock appearance. That’s it save for a couple of super short cameos elsewhere. So there’s not a lot to draw from.
When I wrote about the 1996 TV movie, I said “most people tend to have the opinion that he’s brilliant, but the story not so much.” – I stand by that. Paul McGann was a perfect choice to be the Doctor. I thought he captured some of the best bits from the past, especially Tom’s quirkiness really REALLY well. There’s a lot to like about Paul’s overall performance. But one scene in particular from his TV movie was a scene where he and Grace are at her apartment, and she’s listening to his heartbeat(s). Paul carries on two conversations at once – one with her, and another he’s having with his own memory. I always adored that scene. His palpable joy a little after that when he realizes who he is, how the shoes he’s wearing fit him, and then his snog of Grace. So much in his performance that was awesome. Granted some of that has to be down to the movie’s direction as well, but Paul delivered a great performance I thought. Even the scene when he had just regenerated and he’s walking around the hospital with a John Doe tag on his foot… His confusion at well everything came over well in his performance. I cannot say enough good stuff – such a great performance packed into one TV movie.
… and then it was over. The new series wasn’t picked up, Paul’s original contract term expired, and he was done. That was it. Doctor Who was dead. I remember the joy at sitting down to watch his movie, and then the sadness that nothing was going to come from it. Not only weren’t we getting any more of Paul, we weren’t getting any more Doctor Who period – this had killed it off once and for all. Except that it didn’t. The show came back in 2005. When it was first announced in 2003, there were a lot of fans (myself included) who wanted Paul McGann to have the title role. He didn’t get that, so that was it – not even a regeneration scene (something else fans wanted). Of course the lack of a regeneration scene led to Jon Hurt’s War Doctor much later on, but more about that some other time.
When the show finally got to the 50th anniversary celebrations, we wondered if there would be any “classic Doctors” (with Paul being lumped in with Hartnell – McCoy generally). We were told no, and to an extent that mostly held up. What most fans were wanting was the old guys in the main show again. What did happen however was a major surprise.
We got a digital short called “Night of the Doctor”, but there wasn’t a lot said about what was actually in it. I of course would consume any official media as put out connected to Doctor Who, so I sat there at my computer watching it for the first time and then you hear the line “I’m a Doctor. But probably not the one you were expecting.” HOLY SHIT – it was Paul McGann! Back in Doctor Who!!! I mean I surely had to be one of many who had the same reaction. Surely some people knew he was in it, but I certainly didn’t. I would wager most didn’t. So this was like a steak to a starving dog or something. This was going to be amazing even if it was just Paul standing there for the entire time picking his nose or something.
Then it was actually great! Ignoring the fact that we had McGann again, it was brilliant. It also brings back the Sisterhood of Karn from The Brain of Morbius, so that was a treat. It established McGann’s part in the Time War to that point, as it was still active when this story was set. It established people’s attitudes towards the Time Lords. It did a lot in its short time. But just in the sequence when 8 realizes he has 4 mins left to live, he rattles off a list of things he wants to do, which really reminded me of that scene I mentioned above from his 1996 TV movie about dual conversations. It was glorious.
As the short progressed, you realized we were headed for 8’s regeneration. Something we never got to see on screen. While I would have preferred the new show to regenerate McGann, I get why they didn’t. It’s not the first time. We never saw the regeneration from 2 to 3 either. But this window allowed Moffat to create the War Doctor, so that’s what happened here. Paul McGann regenerated into John Hurt, although the practical realities of Hurt’s real life age prevented him from participating in the flesh. As 8 was finished, he rattled off a bunch of friends and names, which were all characters from Big Finish audio plays. Sadly not Grace from his own televised adventure, but I understand that’s down to some insane legal rights over the character that prevented them from even saying “Grace”. Bummer.
Except that wasn’t it for Paul McGann. He did participate in the “Five-Ish Doctors Reboot” special put together by Peter Davison surrounding the 50th. This of course is not a piece of Doctor Who fiction, it’s just a bit of fun. A really elaborate fan film produced by one of the actual Doctors of the show. Paul was only in one scene of this, so it was effectively a cameo here too, but it was still cool he was involved. Was on screen with Colin, Sylvester, & Peter so that was fun. Although he was in the same scene with them, I’m not so sure he was in the same room as them at the same time. If you watch how it’s cut, it wouldn’t surprise me if Paul didn’t film that on his own.
We jump forward in time nearly another ten years, and we get another appearance of Paul in Doctor Who – only this time in the proper television show. In Jodie Whittaker’s final episode, multiple former Doctors (First (Bradley), Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth) all appeared as visions to Jodie’s Thirteenth as “Guardians of the Edge”. Paul’s had a funny bit when they talked about all of them wearing the same outfit except Paul’s Eighth. Was an amusing moment.
Given Paul’s writeup is somewhat different than the others, it’s not following the same format that I’ve used. However, I had to include the bit about his companions. I won’t include Cass Fermazzi from the Night of short. She was on screen for a total of two minutes, and then dies. Impossible to write about that.
Here’s a few words about the two televised companions of the Eighth Doctor.
- Dr Grace Holloway (Daphne Ashbrook) – This is a character I didn’t focus on a lot when I watched this originally. Mostly because I was fixated on the Doctor. However, when I rewatched the TV movie recently as part of my pilgrimage, I really enjoyed Grace. She’s cute, looked great in a fancy dress, and was no dummy. She was a cardiologist, and while she technically “killed” the Seventh Doctor, she became a big friend of the Eighth. She also has the distinction of being the first companion that had an on screen snog with the Doctor. She played well off of Paul McGann both in the scene I mentioned above about “dual conversations”, as well as in the scene where she gets kissed. Later on when she’s possessed by the Master, I thought she handled being possessed well too. Seemed like a character the started strong, and probably would have only gotten better with more episodes. However, due to some insane rights issues over the characters and story here, we’re probably never going to see Doctor Grace Holloway again, and that makes me sad.
- Chang Lee (Yee Jee Tso) – This was going to be the other companion of the Eighth Doctor. A kid who helped the Seventh Doctor after he’d been shot. He initially started as a “somewhat companion” to the Master in this story, but eventually realizes the Master is bad and switches sides. Bit of a street punk as he starts off with a gun and is involved in street warfare. This is the only thing I’ve ever seen this actor in, so I can’t tell if the performance was intended to be that way or a commentary on the actor himself. Not enough information to judge. But what I can say is the character wasn’t terribly deep, and based on this individual story, wasn’t terribly great. One has to imagine he would have been developed had this gone to an actual series, but given it didn’t, we have just this single story, and it wasn’t terribly great. Given the difficulties with the Grace character from a legal standpoint, one has to assume Chang Lee has the same issues, and I’d be surprised if we ever saw the character again for much the same reason.
Paul’s Eighth Doctor was however VERY well served in Big Finish audios. He has done MANY stories there. Far more than I can count off the top of my head. Head on over to Big Finish and take a look. Some of them are free, you might even find something that starts you off on the path of discovering more of the Eighth Doctor.
That’s about all I can think of to write about Paul McGann’s Doctor. Given there’s not a ton of material, there’s not a ton to write. I actually have already written more than I thought I would, but I didn’t want to sign off without saying that I really wish there would be more of him. As I write this in Jun of 2023, Paul is 63 years old. He’s starting to age out, but of all of the classic Doctors he still looks the closest to what he looked like when he did the role originally. There’s always been desire to see more of him, and with Russell T Davies’ new era about to start, finding a spot for the Eighth Doctor would be something I’d love to see. Perhaps a rumored anthology series where 8 could get a few more TV adventures would be awesome. I’m not 100% convinced we’ve seen the last of the Eighth Doctor, although it might be more like wishful thinking on my part.
Here is Paul’s 7 minute segment from 2013, “Night of the Doctor” in full, as it’s still on the BBC Youtube channel. Below that are some more pictures that I happened to like for one reason or another.