This week I have the joy of presenting 1996's Doctor Who: The Movie at Alamo Drafthouse, starring Paul McGann's the Eighth Doctor and for reasons that will never be fully appreciated Eric Roberts as The Master. Thus began a period in Doctor Who history that is to this day hotly debated as to what's canon in the long life of The Doctor and what isn't.
In 1989, after 26 years continuous years on television, the Seventh Doctor and Ace walked off screen promising many more adventures. "Somewhere there's danger, somewhere there's injustice, and somewhere else the tea's getting cold. Come on, Ace. We've got work to do," smirked Sylvester McCoy to Sophie Aldred as we cut to that classic theme.
But there wasn't another adventure, at least not in television. The show was cancelled due to poor ratings, and a legion of fans were cut adrift. Instead, the life of the Seventh Doctor and his travels with Ace would continue to be featured in Doctor Who Magazine comics (And as a back-up feature in Incredible Hulk Presents... your guess is as good as mine).
This was also the beginning of the Doctor Who novels. Virgin Books had purchased Target Books, who handled the show's novelizations, in 1989. They approached BBC about starting a new line of original print stories, but the BBC balked until it became clear that the show was indeed gone for what looked like good. So from 1989 until 1996, the Seventh Doctor remained very much active, but with his actions shrouded in shadow behind the pages of The New Adventures.
On of those writers was Russell T. Davies.
Until the day he was charged with transporting the body of The Master home to Gallifrey. While en route the Tardis malfunctions and The Doctor lands in '90s San Francisco. His landing interrupts a local gang, who shoot him as he exits the Tardis. Taken to the local hospital, his alien physiology confuses Dr. Grace Holloway, and leads to his death under anesthesia. In the morgue Seven dies, and Eight rises to enlist Grace in his quest to stop the resurrecting Master.
It is my personal opinion that Eight does not represent the last of the classic Doctors, but the first of the new. He was the first Doctor to romantically kiss a companion, and his attitude towards Earth is much closer to Ten and Eleven than any of his predecessors. True, he maintained a certain old world style that was more in keeping with Three or One, but he was in all senses of the word thoroughly modern.
Television audiences never got a chance to see more, though. Fox's television movie was a flop and a disaster. Reading about the production's inception to its completion, which at times rewrote the entire history of the show and ran from a president day outing to World War II, shows a mishmash of competing interests that only diluted the final product. McGann won the role against names from Tim Curry to Jim Carrey, to give you some idea of the fractured nature of the film.
And I really can't stress how hammy Eric Roberts was as The Master, though people remain much kinder to Paul McGann. The hoped-for American series never materialized, and The Doctor fled back into the dark.
More of the Eighth Doctor's history on the next page.
Even though McGann would only portray the Time Lord for a mere 90-minute movie on the screen, the Eighth Doctor continued on as his predecessor did in comics and novels. In DWM Seven would cease being the "current" Doctor after rescuing Ace, Peri, Sarah Jane, and Susan in the strip Ground Zero which segued into Seven's appearance in the television film. Eight would become the current Doctor immediately afterwards, picking up a new companion in Izzy Sinclair in Endgame and having many adventures right up until the series re-premiered in 2005.
Indeed, the death of Eight was originally supposed to occur in the pages of DWM. Russell T. Davies pitched the idea to the staff, who accepted. However, they refused to kill off Eight's then-companion Destrii, and BBC was equally unwilling to allow her to be seen traveling with the Ninth Doctor. Instead, the strips would pick up with Nine and Rose immediately in The Love Invasion without any sort of real explanation.
Meanwhile, Eight was also being featured in a whole new series of novels. The New Adventures came a close with its sole Eighth Doctor adventure, and the BBC repurchased the novel rights back to launch it's own line of highly successful books with The Eight Doctors. These ran for a total 73 books, which along with his comic adventures actually makes the Eighth Doctor possibly the longest running of all The Doctors.
Yet even his last novel, The Gallifrey Chronicles leaves no hint as to when and where he finally met his end.
McGann himself would finally return to the role in 2001, when Big Finish Audio invited him to reprise the Eighth Doctor with yet another new companion, Charley Pollard in Nicholas Briggs' Storm Warming. He's still doing these adventures to this day alongside other Doctors of the 20th century, most recently in last year's Dark Eyes. Interestingly enough, McGann would take all new promotional pictures as The Doctor for the latest episode, sporting short hair, a leather jacket, and a sonic screwdriver closer to that used by Nine and Ten.
When did the romantic and underestimated Eighth Doctor meet his end? He alone of the Doctors has never been shown regenerating. Indeed, up until 2008 and "The Next Doctor" it was never even made clear if the new series formally acknowledged that Eight even existed. Even during the flashbacks of "The Name of the Doctor" he is seen so briefly that if you blink you will miss him.
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It was always assumed from the opening of "Rose" that Nine was in a recently regenerated body, and that the disastrous Time War was actually fought by Eight at the end of his life. Thus, all those cliffhangers in print were leading up to the one great conflict that has never been shown. The appearance of John Hurt as a previously unknown incarnation, who in the most recent trailers is firmly established as having lived between Eight and Nine, seems to nix that idea.
So all we can hope is that the rumors are true and that Steven Moffat is lying to us. They say that Paul McGann recently returned to the Doctor Who studios, but just what he may have filmed is completely unknown. His Doctor remains a mystery never fully explained, and even though I am as excited as anyone to see the return of Billie Piper and David Tennant, I do hope that even if it's just for one second Moffat will allow Eight to step out of the shadows on the television screen one last time to thank him for all he did for the show during the dark days of cancellation.
Join Jef at Alamo Drafhouse Saturday, August 31 for Doctor Who: The Movie.