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In 2013, Doctor Who celebrated its 50th anniversary and Steven Moffat decided to do something us Whovians had been waiting a long time for: the 8th Doctor's regeneration. Only it was a little different from what we expected, as instead of Christopher Eccleston being the next Doctor, it was John Hurt.
Night of the Doctor was an eight minute minisode released on BBC Red Button and iPlayer and told the story of the Doctor (Paul McGann) trying to rescue spaceship pilot Cass (Emma Campbell Jones) from her crashing spaceship. He fails and the spaceship plummets to Karn with Cass dead and only the Sisterhood there to save the Doctor. It's a relatively simple story but it doesn't need to be complex for this. This was a milestone for the show after all, given it was one of the biggest unseen moments of the show. It's incredibly in-character for this Doctor to sacrifice himself to save a woman he'd never even met; this is exactly how you would imagine Paul McGann's Doctor would go. Not for some big universe-destroying event or a massive climatic battle, not for some enormous story centred around the mythology of the series...but in a failed attempt to save a woman in a crashing spaceship. This ultimately feels more like a classic series regeneration, which were less climaxes of big story arcs but rather more self-contained.
It's also brilliant the reason why Cass won't let herself be saved. You see, because of the Time War she sees both Time Lords and the Daleks to be pretty much the same. This is hugely convincing and shows the horrors of the Time War through one simple exchange as the Doctor tries to persuade her he's not like the others.
Cass: Is this a TARDIS?
The Doctor: Yes, but you'll be perfectly safe, I promise you.
Cass: Don't touch me!
The Doctor: I'm not part of the war. I swear to you, I never was.
Cass: You're a Time Lord.
The Doctor: Yes, I'm a Time Lord, but I'm one of the nice ones.
The fact that Cass won't even let the Doctor touch her shows just how devastating the Time War has become. It's powerful stuff and wonderful writing from Steven Moffat. One of my lecturers at university said about dialogue the other day that you write dialogue you can 'see' and this is certainly the case here.
The scene with the Sisterhood of Karn is great too, as it also highlights the horrors of the Time War. It's heart-breaking to see this man who has dedicated his life to travelling around the universe helping different civilisations and fighting the monsters decide he has no choice but to basically become a monster (or, as Sisterhood call it, a warrior) himself. It also gives a nice fan theory for why the Doctor's regeneration is always shown through golden energy now: the effect of the potion from Ohila and the Sisterhood of Karn.
Paul McGann is absolutely at his best here. He gives a stunning performance as a desperate man taking desperate measures he really doesn't want to take. Paul McGann is even given one of the best final lines of any Doctor in 'Physician, heal thyself' and it's great to see the Big Finish companions made canonical when he lists them before drinking the potion. Emma Campbell-Jones and the Sisterhood of jar are great too but completely outshone by Paul McGann. It is a shame he didn't appear in Day of the Doctor also.
Overall, Night of the Doctor is the perfect regeneration story for Paul McGann that nicely explores the impact the Time War has had on something even as simple as touching someone. This may be only a minisode but in those eight minutes it establishes itself as bonafide classic.