In 2005 the Doctor changed. For Doctor Who‘s new audience this meant little to nothing, while for a likely majority of the old series’ fans the casting of Christopher Eccleston merely meant the continuation of what had always been – the inexorable restoration and reinvention of the series’ lead character. And yet, even a year on, there were fans who clearly saw the seeds of this bold, new direction for Doctor Who and its hero in the brief TV tenure and its extended multimedia afterlife of the Eighth Doctor.
It’s not a bad achievement, really. Consider how the series and Doctor might have been interpreted had it lived on as novels and comic strips only after Spearhead from Space [no Master, no name Gallifrey, no Sontarans, no Sarah Jane] or Robot [no Davros, Leela, K9, Romanas or Hinchcliffe/Holmes or Williams/Adams eras ], let alone The Twin Dilemma or Time and the Rani in their respective portrayals of the Doctor. Doctor Who the TV Movie may in its eighty-nine minutes say little new about the series beyond a hastily papered-over half-human parentage and a squirmed-at Doctor-companion kiss, but few would argue that its version of the Doctor, and particularly its choice of leading man, was absolutely perfect.
This perhaps ought to be surprising; Doctor Who the TV movie is itself the product of mixed parentage, being a US production with UK and US names behind it. Its pitch at the renegade Time Lord is the closest the series had come to casting the Doctor as an Englishman Abroad – novelty factor included, Remington Steele in a TARDIS. Add to that the Doctor’s own ensemble being a collision of sartorial nods to archetypes from both countries [the Byronic antihero, the Wild West gunslinger] and the resulting impact and the longevity of its half-life is quite remarkable.
The Eighth Doctor was, more than any other incarnation, designed and extended by committee. Beyond the TV Movie the fan writers who took up the baton for the most part (some older hands – Dicks and Peel, excepted) invested a lot of their impressions of Paul McGann’s Doctor, rather than his predecessors, into their continuations; and so we know that in preparing their BBC Book Vampire Science Jon Blum and Kate Orman watched as many McGann films and programmes as they could to retain his mannerisms in their prose, while in Endgame on Alan Barnes seeded his comic strip Eighth Doctor with nods to the likes of Withnail & I. The success of the TV Movie in the UK is well enough known (it wasn’t actually a flop in the US, either, it simply wasn’t the remarkable success needed to become a series), but it’s as much a sign of good faith in Paul McGann’s role in the movie that his caretaker creators from 1996 to 2005 took great pains to keep his interpretation of the Doctor intact.
And yet, 2005 is not where the Eighth Doctor’s story ends; the Eighth Doctor’s story is still being written. We know that it does of course have an end somewhere, and that this may involve the Time War. Thanks to Big Finish and the continued involvement of Paul McGann himself we have an audio and visual acknowledgement of the Eighth Doctor’s evolution leading up to that catastrophe, the stripping away of his carefree, Romantic exterior to reveal a more desperate, death-haunted loner – perhaps an early indicator of the Ninth incarnation to come. And there’s more to tell and not be told, because the Eighth Doctor is still a largely unfilled page, available to be read and added to by new custodian creators while his legacy, the revived series, forges on.
“Humans,” the Doctor explains, are “always seeing patterns in things that aren’t there.” And so it is that the vivid impression cast by Paul McGann and his co-creators have allowed the ‘not there’ post-TV Movie life of the Eighth Doctor to continue, faithful indeed to the pattern set by eighty-nine miraculous minutes broadcast in 1996.