After nearly five decades, the BBC’s beloved sci-fi series Doctor Who still finds a way to surprise fans. The show is only a little more than a week away from its 50th anniversary special, “The Day of the Doctor,” which promises to be an extra-long, big-budget adventure featuring the current Doctor, Matt Smith, his predecessor David Tennant, and John Hurt as an newly introduced incarnation the Doctor. As the series has done with some of its bigger episodes, today it released a prequel to tease the finale. But the prequel does a lot more than tease: In just seven minutes, “The Night of the Doctor” upset assumptions about the 50th anniversary special and shook up the Doctor Who canon.
The minisode features an unlikely star: Paul McGann, the Eighth Doctor. McGann played the part in the 1996 television movie and went on to star in a number of audio dramas for Big Finish Productions alongside other past Doctor Who actors, but this is the first time since his debut that he's been on screen as the Doctor. Although he was the official, canonical Doctor for the longest stretch (from 1996 to the series reboot in 2005), his screen time has been the smallest of all the actors to play the role. Even Christopher Eccleston's short-lived tenure as the Ninth Doctor in 2005 gave him a full season.
His appearance here comes as a big surprise. McGann had denied any involvement in the 50th anniversary episode. Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat and the producers actually had drawn anger from fans regarding the fact that only three Doctors would be in the special. The 10th, 20th, 30th, and 40th anniversaries all brought back as many past Doctors as possible, with the 20th even recasting the role of the First Doctor because William Hartnell had died. Why, many Who diehards asked, should the 50th be less inclusive? But McGann's involvement in “The Night of the Doctor” now suggests the possibility of other appearances from past Doctors.
It also hints that the 50th anniversary could even more exciting than fans had been led to believe. As fun as the show is, Doctor Who can find itself being predictable when it comes to big episodes. For anniversary installments, you can expect Doctors swapping catchphrases, a big emotional moment, and a formulaic, avert-doomsday plot. And whenever popular past actors return, the show risks self-indulgence and fan service. But now it’s clear Moffat and company see a big virtue in unpredictability.
One other interesting element of “The Night of the Doctor” is that it seems to canonize a major part of the show's fan-built universe. Doctor Who, like other big, geeky properties such as Star Wars, has a very large expanded world via both official and unlicensed comics, novels, and audio plays. Much of this added content formed in the years the show was off the air between 1989 and 2005 (not counting McGann's movie). In “The Night of the Doctor,” the Doctor mentions the names of companions from the Big Finish audio stories. So, it would seem that Big Finish’s work—created by a third party, not the BBC—is now fair game for the TV series. Fans should be geeked at the possibilities afforded to the show by access to these worlds. They should also be geeked about the fact that for its most momentous episode ever, Doctor Who might just be as cunning and inventive as its protagonist.