You might consider each Doctor to have the same attitude to warfare and militarism, but that’s not entirely true. Okay, so he’s broadly against it, but many incarnations of the Doctor have stories which tell us a lot more about their individual stances: The Zygon Invasion/ The Zygon Inversion features the Twelfth Doctor’s famous speech opposite Bonnie (Jenna Coleman); The Face of Evil sees the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) scoffing at opposing factions, the Sevateem and the Tesh; and the Seventh Doctor is happy to throw his hands up mid-battle in Survival.
You’d think Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor wouldn’t get that chance, what with him only appearing in one full serial, The TV Movie (1996). But not so. In 2013, The Night of the Doctor gave us a glimpse of a Doctor trying his best to avoid a giant war – the biggest in history, in fact. The Time War.
And that is exactly what he tries to do: avoid. He skirts around the edges of it, picking up strays and offering help where he can. He asserts that he will not fight. This is where we find him, trying to aid the doomed Cass (Emma Campbell-Jones) as her ship plummets towards Karn.
“I’m not part of the war,” the Doctor tells her. “I swear to you. I never was.”
But of course, it doesn’t work.
From this perspective, Cass reflects the Doctor: the pair basically consider both sides in the Time War wrong. “Yes, I’m a Time Lord, but I’m one of the nice ones,” he tells her, almost as if it’s an apology. He does at least ask her to concede that he’s not a Dalek, i.e. the worse alternative. Because there are no nice Daleks. He, himself, is the evidence of there being a nice Time Lord (in his own eyes), but he’s presumably met others refusing to have a hand in the battles.
Nonetheless, he remains pretty chirpy. He’s doing what he does best: saving people. This is Doctor 101. Despite the circumstances, he’s carrying on, perhaps seeing his job now as dealing with the aftershocks of the war, helping those adversely affected by it.
However, his glibness is likely still an act. It’s probably the perfect time to remember 2007’s Smith and Jones, in which Florence Finnegan (Anne Reid) notes, “You’re quite the funny man. And yet, I think, laughing on purpose – at the darkness. I think it’s time you found some peace.”
Or it might be in an effort to keep Cass calm, amid all the chaos. Levity used as a diversion. He’s certainly trying to highlight the fact that he’s not like the rest. He’s attempting to distance himself from it all, from any responsibilities he may have, even telling Ohila (Clare Higgins), “It’s not my war. I will have no part of it.”
Yet he concedes. The Night of the Doctor is relatively unique in Doctor Who (although I’m sure I’ll regret that statement), in that this sees the Doctor actively accepting his fate lies in war. He arguably comes close in Bad Wolf/ The Parting of the Ways (2005), for example, but he doesn’t take that final step. Here, he does. And he wants to be punished for it. He seems pleased his regeneration is going to hurt. Equally, he’s angry – shouting at the Sisterhood of Karn to get out. Or is that shame? Is he afraid of people seeing what he’ll become?
So what prompts this change of heart? The catalyst is seemingly the body of Cass. He’s seen the result of the Time War; more than that, he’s seen her reaction to his race.
Let’s not forget that he, too, is dead. The Sisterhood have bought him back for 4 minutes, and after that, he either fully passes away or regenerates. He doesn’t have to be a warrior – he could keep running, denying the inevitable. There’s no definite reason why he embraces this change, throwing away his name and taking up arms. It’s probably too complex to sum up why, but it likely all boils down to one thing: death. His own, and the people around him.
And he thinks it’s time for this to stop. No more. It’s that line of thinking that leads him to The Day of the Doctor… and beyond.
The Eighth Doctor didn’t have much screen-time compared to the likes of Patrick Troughton, Tom Baker, and Matt Smith, but in under 10 minutes, we see his perspectives change. The Night of the Doctor, however, feels like it’s just the last straw for him. More has gone on behind the scenes that has changed his mind. Nonetheless, this is a Doctor who remains himself to the end: flippant in the face of danger, always running, and brave enough to sacrifice all he is for the greater good.