Ever since 1963, Doctor Who has been one of the more ubiquitous science fiction television shows in pop culture. However, it has been in that state to varying degrees: its popularity skyrocketed during its second serial thanks to the popularity of the Daleks; Tom Baker’s tenure on the show is still often seen as the golden age of the series in the mid-1970’s; the show was considered an embarrassment by the end of the 1980’s leading up to its cancellation; the 1996 telefilm with Paul McGann (pictured) was a ratings smash in the UK; David Tennant brought in a whole generation of new fans in the latter half of the 2000’s; Matt Smith courted an international audience and made the show a hit in the United States; and Peter Capaldi’s time in the role was polarizing to many.
I could probably write detailed articles about each of those times in the show’s history (hell, you could write several books detailing the show’s development through the decades; I’ll hold onto that idea), but today I want to discuss just one of them. Sort of.
Specifically, I would like to take the time to share an abridged recounting of the Eighth Doctor’s adventures in Big Finish Productions’ Doctor Who audio dramas, which have been released consistently in (mostly) chronological order since 2001.
If you’re unfamiliar with Paul McGann’s take on the character, I don’t blame you. He did only have the one TV outing, after all. Hell, fans weren’t even entirely sure if McGann counted as a Doctor until Tennant’s era, when McGann’s face was drawn in John Smith’s diary in “Human Nature” in 2007, and archive footage showed his face among the other Doctors’ in “The Next Doctor” in 2008. It wasn’t until 2013, a whole seventeen years later, that McGann came back to film his Doctor’s regeneration scene in “The Night of the Doctor”, a minisode produced for the show’s fiftieth anniversary.
It also canonized his audio adventures by way of unambiguously naming his Big Finish companions.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s briefly recap the beginning of the Eighth Doctor’s life.
The TV Movie
On December 30, 1999, the Seventh Doctor, while en route to Gallifrey to deliver the ashes of the Master following his execution by the Daleks, makes an emergency landing in San Francisco. There, he is gunned down by a Chinese-American street gang and promptly transported to a hospital while the Master, who has now taken the form of a Deathworm Morphant, is on the loose.
The hospital staff remove the bullets, but are concerned by his irregular heartbeat. While x-rays show he has two hearts, they write them off as being double exposures. Cardiologist Dr. Grace Holloway performs exploratory surgery on the Doctor, who all the while is fighting to maintain consciousness and declaring that he isn’t human. Grace’s unfamiliarity with Gallifreyan physiology leads to the Doctor having a violent seizure on the operating table and ultimately his death.
That night, in the morgue, the Doctor regenerates into his eighth incarnation: a young, long-haired man with a soothingly deep voice, played by Paul McGann. However, he seems to be suffering from some sort of amnesia due to the anesthesia used during surgery delaying the actual regeneration until several hours after his death, nearly killing him permanently. He swipes a Wild Bill Hickok costume from a locker room and runs into Grace in an elevator the following morning as she’s quitting her job at the hospital following her boss’ cover up of the previous night’s “incident”.
The Doctor convinces Grace that he’s the man she had on the operating table last night as the Master possesses the body of Bruce, the ambulance EMT who helped bring the Doctor to the hospital the previous night. The Master recruits Chang Lee, the young man who called the ambulance for the Doctor, into his scheme to steal the Doctor’s body and, consequently, the rest of his regenerations.
The Master opens the Eye of Harmony within the Doctor’s TARDIS, causing the Doctor to regain his memories but also dooming the Earth to destruction at midnight unless the Eye is closed. After stealing a critical component in an atomic clock and a few chase scenes where the Doctor and Grace ride a motorcycle to outrun the Master and Lee in an ambulance, everyone ends up in the TARDIS, where the Master takes over Grace’s mind and has her restrain the Doctor over the Eye of Harmony in order to allow the Master to steal his body. The Master kills Lee when the Doctor convinces him he was being manipulated, and kills Grace after she manages to put the TARDIS in temporal orbit, halting his body-swapping scheme.
The Doctor escapes his bindings, the Master falls into the Eye (refusing the Doctor’s help to save him), the Eye is closed, the TARDIS restores life to Grace and Lee, and the Doctor drops them off back in San Francisco during the first moments of the year 2000 before the TARDIS dematerializes, heading to parts unknown and beyond.
Because the TV movie was a co-production between American television network Fox and the BBC, it certainly feels much more American than British, which was a common observation at the time of its broadcast and still is today. This can be attributed to the movie originally being conceived as a full continuity reboot of the series for an American audience who had largely never even heard of Doctor Who, but then being turned into a continuation of the original program serving as a backdoor pilot for an American TV series.
However, not many Americans watched it during its broadcast. It was being pitted against a pivotal episode of the ABC sitcom Roseanne, and the few who did watch the telefilm were mostly lost due to the jumbled nature of it trying to set itself apart from the old series but also trying to directly connect to it.
In the UK, the broadcast of the TV movie was a ratings success, and the movie itself had a generally favorable Audience Appreciation score. While this could have meant a new series could be commissioned, Fox held the rights to such a decision at the time, and they were not keen on green-lighting a show that had a lukewarm reception among their own viewership.
The TV movie itself is certainly a mixed bag, and opinions of it among fans are often mixed, as well. The general consensus is that its plot is muddled and has a few too many continuity snarls (the Deathworm, the Doctor being half-human, the Eye of Harmony being in TARDIS itself) and plot holes (How did the Master get in the TARDIS? Where did the Doctor get those jelly babies? Why does the Eye of Harmony need to be opened by a human?); Eric Roberts is too ridiculous as the Master; the romance between Grace and the Doctor is pointless; and it feels too American; but the new TARDIS looks gorgeous; the score is foreboding and powerful; the production values are light-years beyond the original series; and Paul McGann’s performance holds it all together.
As for myself, I agree with the general consensus to a point. McGann’s TARDIS is easily my favorite, the romance felt forced and devoid of any real chemistry, and Paul McGann is my absolute favorite Doctor. But I don’t mind Eric Roberts as the Master because while he could be pretty campy, so could Roger Delgado and Anthony Ainley. I think that trying to link the movie to the classic series worked against it, even if the continuity of the franchise is maintained in doing so (sort of). It’s ultimately a bit of a mess, but a fun mess.
Many fans, myself included, also see the TV movie as something of a bridge between the classic series and the reboot series, in terms of style. If you’re a fan of the reboot and want to give the classics a shot, I recommend watching the TV movie as a way to help transition between the two. After all, the movie is neither part of the classic series or the modern series; it is a product of the Wilderness Years.
Moving Forward: Novels & Comics
Before Big Finish took up the reigns of the Eighth Doctor’s adventures on audio, however, there were two other mediums which would continue the Doctor’s adventures following the telefilm: Doctor Who Magazine would feature the Eighth Doctor in comic strips for nine years, right up until Christopher Eccleston became the newly incumbent Ninth Doctor in March 2005; and BBC Books’ Eighth Doctor Adventures, a series of seventy-three novels which take place directly following the events of the TV movie, which were published from 1997 to 2005.
Admittedly, my knowledge of both the novels and the comic strips is extremely limited, as I haven’t had the time (or much of the inclination) to acquire the trade paperbacks of the DWM comics and the novels are not only expensive but a bit hard to come by. From what I have researched, the Eighth Doctor(s) as written in the novels and comics are vastly different from the version of the character McGann portrays in Big Finish’s audio dramas, which is the version of the character presented in “The Night of the Doctor”. It certainly doesn’t help that Nicholas Briggs, one of the executive producers at Big Finish, considers their output to be separate, continuity-wise, from the comics and novels, though he does admit that they sometimes get “a bit naughty” when it comes to referencing the other continuities.
From what I know of the DWM strips, they were initially written by Alan Barnes, who would later write the Eighth Doctor’s first Big Finish story, “Storm Warning”. As a result, the Eighth Doctor of the comic strip is apparently reasonably close to the Eighth Doctor of Big Finish, as Barnes established the character in both mediums.
The comic strip also featured the first LGBT companion: Izzy Sinclair, a seventeen-year-old sci-fi nerd and amateur sleuth with an interest in the paranormal. She was emotionally withdrawn and had difficulties trusting herself or admitting that she was a lesbian. This seems to have stemmed from when she was told by her parents at eight-years-old that she was adopted; her parents had abandoned her at a bus stop a few hours after she was born. Heartbroken by this revelation at such a young age, she took to calling herself “Izzy S.”, short for “Izzy Somebody”, due to her unknown ancestry.
Her kiss with the Doctor’s companion Fey Truscott-Sade (pictured left) was the first same-sex kiss shown in a visual medium of Doctor Who, and Doctor Who Magazine received two letters in response to it: one from an angry fan who canceled their subscription, outraged over the lesbianism; and the other from future Doctor Who showrunner Russel T. Davies, who praised the revelation of Izzy’s sexuality and her acceptance of herself.
I am even less knowledgeable of the novels than the comics, unfortunately. All I know for certain is that the first companion in this series, Samantha Jones, is picked up by the Doctor during some sort of drug deal. All I remember specifically is that cocaine was involved, and that the Doctor lost his memory again and goes through sort of a “greatest hits” of his past selves’ adventures before returning to help Sam.
There was also something about a group called Faction Paradox, who started a war with the Time Lords or something to that affect, but the novels admittedly don’t interest me very much. From what I have researched, the Eighth Doctor of the novels is vastly different from the version I am used to with Big Finish, with minimal charm. However, this is merely based on research without actually having read the books themselves, so if you were interested in them don’t let me discourage you from pursuing them. I’m sure there are PDF’s online somewhere.
On Audio: The Breakdown
Since “Storm Warning” in 2001, Big Finish have released a staggering number of Eighth Doctor stories. Collectively, there are about twenty seasons released as of this writing, with the next seven scheduled all the way through to the year 2020.
While I do plan to cover the Eighth Doctor’s life in Big Finish in broad strokes, it’s important to note that there are several eras and story arcs, and that I may have to listen to a good number of these again in order to collect my thoughts on them without resorting to generalizations based on somewhat foggy memories, leaving me to fallback on the wiki to fill in any gaps. So, suffice it to say, this Brief Recap series of articles may not be posted as consistently or regularly as one would like, but they will be posted.
Thus, without further ado, the general breakdown to the Eighth Doctor’s eras and story arcs in Big Finish:
- The Monthly Era (Seasons 1-6; 2001-2007)
- The Charley Arc (Seasons 1-2)
- The Divergent Universe Arc (Seasons 3-4)
- Post-Divergence (Seasons 5-6)
- The Eighth Doctor Adventures (Seasons 7-10; 2007-2011)
- The Mary Shelley Stories (Season 11; 2009, 2011)*
- The Box Set Era (Season 12-Present; 2012-Present)
- The Dark Eyes Saga (Seasons 12-15)
- The Doom Coalition Saga (Seasons 16-19)
- The Ravenous Saga (Seasons 20-23)**
- The Time War (Seasons 24-27)**
*The Eighth Doctor’s travels with Frankenstein author Mary Shelley take place before “Storm Warning”, the first story of the first season of the Eighth Doctor’s Big Finish adventures. However, they meet in the 2009 monthly range release “The Company of Friends”, featuring short one-shot stories of companions from the books and comics, with “Mary’s Story” closing the set. Shelley meets an Eighth Doctor following the events of Season 10’s “To The Death”, as evident by some of his spoiler-filled mutterings, and she travels with an Eighth Doctor from before “Storm Warning” in the subsequent stories, which spoil a major reveal in Season 5’s “Terror Firma”. Thus, it is recommended to listen to the Mary Shelley stories after finishing the Eighth Doctor Adventures range.
**While Ravenous and The Time War are listed as Seasons 20-23 and 24-27, respectively, this is merely in terms of continuity. As of this writing, The Time War 1 has been released, with Ravenous 1 due out in April 2018. The two ranges will be alternating releases. Ravenous follows directly on from Doom Coalition, while The Time War takes place an unknown amount of time after Ravenous. All of these box sets are scheduled to be released by the end of 2020.
There are also some things here and there that I have left out of this breakdown, such as the Short Trips and The Light at the End, but this is meant to be a brief recap in broad strokes. As such, few extraneous stories will be covered in order to streamline the recap, which is already an intimidating undertaking in and of itself. They may get brief mentions when appropriate for the sake of knowing where they are continuity-wise, but that’s about it.
I suppose that’s all there is to it, then. If you would like to listen to these stories yourself before reading my analyses, the first five seasons and half of the sixth are available for $2.99 per story digitally from Big Finish’s website, where the Eighth Doctor’s stories have been collected into a single list, as have the other Doctors’.
Have a nice Sunday, and I’ll see you tomorrow.