This is a post in the Tor.com Twelve Doctors of Christmas series. Click the link to peruse the entire series.
Paul McGann showed me that the Doctor was human.
I’m not talking about the half-human bit in the TV movie. I won’t go there, though I don’t think it’s that bad. Indeed, I’m not going near the TV movie at all.
Far more significant than McGann’s 90-minute sojourn in the TV movie is the 90-hour one that he’s had in the Doctor Who audio dramas released by Big Finish Productions. Much has been written on how these stories introduced to Doctor Who some of the changes in storytelling that eventually showed up in the new series: ongoing arcs, companions who actually mattered, big noisy season finales with the fate of the universe in the balance. But I’m not here to talk about that stuff now, because I think all of that overlooks a key factor in the success of those stories: Paul McGann himself.
McGann’s voice is marvelous. There are several other Doctors doing audio dramas, and I love them all, but I don’t think any of them have voices as suited for it as McGann’s. It’s all smooth and fluid, yet very expressive. It has this cute thing where it can go all squeaky when he gets excited, yet when he wants to be foreboding, it sinks into an ominous range. And when something dramatic happens, he goes all rough and loud and hard-edged in an instant. Like when I heard him recover the memories of the companions he never knew he had, shouting “I REMEMBER!” so loud it’s been seared into my memory, like so many other moments I heard.
I heard him squeal in dismay when he realized his shoes didn’t fit perfectly after all. They let in water.
I heard him go dramatic and portentous about the grim and grimy future of the human race, scaring his companion half to death.
I heard him revel in his ability to master 1930s slang—while no one from the 1930s actually knew what he meant.
I heard him rue the passing of Venice as it sank beneath the waves in the 23rd century, in the middle of one of the greatest love stories ever told.
I heard him adjust his hat proudly even as he listened to a deranged Roman rant about changing the course of history.
I heard him do his best to sound upbeat while he told Charley Pollard about the exclusive tickets he’d got her to a year-long party—“It’s not long, I know, but it was the best I could do on such short notice”—even as he knew the Time Lords were closing in on him.
I heard him chagrined at accidentally ramming a Time Station into a metal forest.
I heard him profess love to Charley Pollard, the girl he should have let die to preserve history, but just couldn’t because he didn’t have it in him.
And I heard him sum up the Doctor as well as anyone ever has before or since: “I am the Doctor, and whatever the odds, I never, ever, never give up.”
The Doctor has always had comedy and sci-fi melodrama, but Paul McGann brought emotion and genuine feeling to the role in a way that previous actors hadn’t been able to. If it wasn’t for those audio dramas, I wouldn’t have known how human, how real the Doctor could be. The first time I was ever frightened for him as a person was Big Finish’s The Chimes of Midnight, and that was because Paul McGann sounded like he’d actually lost as the TARDIS tried to escape the Edwardian house it had become trapped in…and went nowhere. For that moment, I thought it really was over. I’d always liked the Doctor. But without Paul McGann, I wouldn’t care about the Doctor.
Since experiencing Paul McGann as the Doctor, I’ve gone on to see him perform in Horatio Hornblower, Our Mutual Friend, and some thing where he’s a serial killer (or is he?!) that no one else has ever heard of. Since becoming the Doctor back in 1996, he’s continued to have a very good career, and there’s a reason for that: he’s a very convincing actor. But (excellent though they were) I didn’t need to watch any of those productions; I knew that already.
Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant have come and gone and Paul McGann keeps on plugging away, always the Doctor. So who cares if he only had ninety minutes on the television screen?
Steve Mollmann is a prolific reviewer whose coverage of the Eighth Doctor Big Finish audio adventures for Unreality SF makes him an ideal candidate to illustrate the life that the Eighth Doctor has been leading ever since his brief and Eric Roberts-strewn television movie appearance in the mid-1990s. You can also catch Steve’s work by picking up the Star Trek collections The Next Generation: The Sky's the Limit, Corps of Engineers: What's Past, and Myriad Universes: Shattered Light.