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Why Paul McGann is the Best Doctor

By David Lawrence

Bob Beechy's neat wee piece last issue ("Patrick Troughton IS the Doctor!") got me thinking and I decided that it was time for yet another poorly-thought out, thinly researched rant and rave where I generalise and talk bollocks for a bit and raise people's ire. Or maybe not. Patrick Troughton is my favourite Doctor, but I decided quite some time ago that Paul McGann is the best Doctor.

"... When I look back at Doctor Who now, I laugh at it, fondly. As a television professional, I think how did these guys get a paycheck every week? You've got an old guy in the lead who can't remember his lines; you've got Patrick Troughton, who was a good actor, but his companions - how did they get their Equity card? Explain that! They're unimaginably bad."

Steven Moffat, TSV 43, p26

I find it difficult to watch Doctor Who these days without being objective. The criteria I had for watching it when I was younger has changed somewhat. Regardless of the script, I thought the McGann film was fantastic because it met the criteria I have for judging most film and television I see these days.

When Survival was broadcast in New Zealand I was at secondary school and as a fan I had an expectation of Doctor Who which involved each story making sense, being intelligently written and upholding all the norms and continuity of the series. I would defend the show to people who criticised the shoddy sets and dodgy special effects and say "But look at the story!"

[Eighth Doctor]

When Doctor Who (the TV Movie) was broadcast in New Zealand I was opening in my first professional job as an actor after leaving university. We had Doctor Who playing on the telly in our dressing room and as my cast mates were saying "This isn't the crappy show I remember!" I kept quiet - remember Paul's editorial last issue about being ashamed to be a fan?

Unlike with any of the previous Doctors, I was aware of Paul McGann as an actor before seeing him as the Doctor. So I had other performances to measure him against. Film and television actors are notoriously bad in their consistency for playing exactly the same role - themselves - over and over again. I have never found Paul McGann guilty of this crime.

To my mind, there are two distinct kinds of actor - stage actors and screen actors. Stage actors have to convey all their emotions and actions through their entire body - they have to be more vocal and physical than people are in real life because there is not the benefit of close-ups or boom microphones. A screen actor need only whisper or raise an eyebrow depending on the shot. Acting on screen has a huge technical component - as well as remembering what you're doing in a scene, you have to be able to find your marks, stay in the right light and in shot, and execute all your movements perfectly and identically for each take. On stage, you can vary what you do and where you go each night.

Also, with so many technical matters to be aware of, screen actors don't have much time for deepening their performances and end up just playing themselves. The basic difference is that stage actors will become the character, while screen actors will make the character become them. Stage actors bury themselves within their roles, putting the character on top of their real self, while screen actors put themselves on top of their characters. For instance, every actor on Shortland Street is playing themselves, and if you met them in real life they would look sound and possibly even behave exactly the same.

The advent of Method Acting means that there has been a crossover - you find actors in films that have taken a stage approach. Daniel Day-Lewis, playing John Proctor in the film version of The Crucible, spent the shoot living in one of the huts in the village set and not showering for three months. It doesn't need such extreme behaviour as that to give a character depth. There's an old story about Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman filming The Marathon Man and Hoffman, being a Method Actor, not eating or sleeping in order to develop the role, and Olivier saying, "Why don't you just try acting?"

When stage actors take on screen roles, it goes one of two ways. Either they're really great - such as Troughton and McGann - or they're hammy, over the top and embarrassing.

The eight Doctors are easily divisible into these two categories. William Hartnell, Jon Pertwee, Peter Davison and Paul McGann are screen actors, while Patrick Troughton, Tom Baker, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy are essentially stage actors.

How many actors have had successful screen careers after leaving Doctor Who? Answer: three. Troughton, Davison and McGann were employable before doing Doctor Who and continued to be so after leaving it (Okay, so Jon Pertwee continued to work after Doctor Who, but always as himself - even in Worzel Gummidge - and perhaps it's unfair of me to group William Hartnell here as he effectively retired after Doctor Who). Both Troughton and McGann turned the role down when originally offered it. Peter Davison, it seems, has never been out of work. And it is a mark of the professionalism of these three actors that despite none of them enjoying being in Doctor Who, their reticience never shows in their performances. It's quite easy on the other hand to spot the episodes that Hartnell or Tom Baker weren't enjoying making. And as for professionalism, weigh the amount of stories of Hartnell, McCoy, Pertwee and Tom Baker being difficult to work with against similar stories about Troughton, Davison or McGann.

In theatre there is always the "Less is more" phrase, which refers to the period late into rehearsing a role where all the refinement takes place. Often, for the first three quarters of rehearsals, the actors will be doing too much, trying to illustrate every point, find every different way of playing the scene, and over-acting. Once they've settled on something definite everything becomes a bit more real and they stop "doing" so much. Sylvester McCoy lamented the fact that there was never enough time filming Doctor Who and I can see why this frustrated him - when I watch McCoy, Tom Baker and Colin Baker episodes, it always seems like their performances are still unrefined, just short of the "Less is more" point. In contrast, Patrick Stewart as Captain Picard is always clear of that point - always in control and understated, so that any outbursts of anger, joy or other emotions are always true to the character they're conveying. Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy lack this consistency and there are countless stories of Tom Baker always trying new ways of improving a scene. Peter Davison is always in control of his character, whether he's investigating, relaxing or panicking.

I don't care about the plot of Doctor Who (the TV Movie). It is expertly directed and beautifully edited, the sets are gorgeous and the lighting excellent; the dialogue and performances are perfectly pitched. Paul McGann conveys so much in such a short time - he has outstretched the "Less is more" point and his character is entirely developed in a minute amount of screen time. Evidence: all the novels featuring McGann's Doctor have been bang-on in their portrayal. The Dying Days and Vampire Science are two of the best original Doctor Who novels available, a large attraction being the strength of their characterisations. How many of the sixty McCoy New Adventures capture his character perfectly?

In summary: why is Paul McGann a better actor than the other Doctors? Tom Baker, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy are all too inconsistent and do too much, as I've said. Jon Pertwee is really just being himself, and that's nothing interesting. William Hartnell was a great actor in his time, but regardless of his ill health it is inexcuseable that an actor who cannot remember his lines or be well enough to work (as happened on several occasions) should have accepted the part in the first place. Peter Davison is a good actor but he's a wee bit wet, don't you think? Troughton is a superb actor but his Doctor verges on the melodramatic a bit too often. McGann has his persona judged perfectly, delivers his lines with a magnificent voice and never behaves out of character, even when snogging his companions or punching out his enemies. It seems a huge shame that it is unlikely we will see McGann's Doctor on the screen again; unlike Sylvester McCoy, the consolation of his performance continuing on the printed page doesn't seem half the same as seeing such a great actor in action again.

This item appeared in TSV 54 (March 1998).