People are usually surprised when I say that Paul McGann is my Doctor. Previously, his only onscreen appearance was in Doctor Who: The Movie, making his the shortest run. (He still continues to portray the Eighth Doctor in audio dramas. If these are factored in, that bumps his run up to nearly twenty years, which would actually make his run the longest.)
Before we delve into the episode, I should probably explain why I consider him my Doctor. Typically, when introduced to a new Doctor, it takes some time to adjust to that iteration. Paul McGann is the only actor to play the Doctor who manages to fully embody the character within his first episode. The moment in question is when he steals a police officer's gun and holds himself hostage in order to steal the cop's motorcycle. It is such a ridiculous solution that a lesser actor would be unable to convincingly pull it off. He also gives such a brilliant performance in the animated version of Shada in which the timey-wimey events of “The Five Doctors” erased the adventure from Tom Baker's timeline, so the Doctor must return to save the day.
But, back to the episode at hand. It begins during the much-alluded-to Time War. As the war between the Time Lords and the Daleks rages on, many innocent people become casualties. Refusing to join the war, the Doctor insists on helping those affected by it. His TARDIS (which looks like it has seen better days) lands on a crashing ship where Cass, the ship's pilot, is the only crew member left after she teleported everyone else to safety. While trying to rescue her, she chastises him for being a Time Lord, who in her mind are the cause of the terrible state of the universe. Unable to convince her to leave before the ship crashes, they both die on impact.
The wreckage is found by the Sisterhood of Karn who are able to resurrect him temporarily. The Sisterhood attempts to convince him to join the Time War, because they believe he is the only one who can end it. Once they persuade him, they give him an elixir that will trigger his regeneration and make him a warrior. The regeneration transforms him into a young John Hurt, who says that he is, “Doctor no more.”
The TARDIS' exterior is not the only thing to look ragged and beaten up in this episode. The Doctor himself appears worn out and weary from war. While his costume is not the same as what he wore in the movie, it still maintains the original's iconic feel. The new scaled-down look implies that he has traded the ostentatious for the practical. While the Eight Doctor may have toned down his wardrobe, his wit remains sharp as ever, going so far as to mock his own death; when informed that he had only minutes to live, he quipped about worrying that boredom may set in.
Despite its short length, Steven Moffat managed to cram quite a lot of answers into his script for “The Night of the Doctor.” We now know exactly where John Hurt fits into the Doctor's timeline and why he is not known as the Doctor. The Eighth Doctor renounced the title of Doctor and assumed the role of a warrior, which is the breaking of the promise that the Doctor mentioned in “The Name of the Doctor.” We also know now that this War Doctor only existed within the Time War, sealed away from the rest of the universe, which is why other species such as the Cybermen and Atraxi had no record of him in previous episodes. But, most importantly, this episode acknowledges Paul McGann's audio dramas and confirms them as canon. There has been much debate on whether or not these were, indeed, part of the Doctor's history. Before regenerating, he mentions his companions from the audio dramas and apologizes for failing them, which means that the adventures did happen.
After the lackluster Series 8 this past year, I had begun to worry about the 50th anniversary. I had still held out hope that the sub-par quality was due to Moffat focusing so much on “The Day of the Doctor” that this past series was rushed. Now that I have seen the prequel, it appears that this is, indeed, what happened. The return of Paul McGann was what I most hoped for with the celebration, and, hopefully, the other two characters I want to return will, Captain Jack and Omega.