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Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Doctor Who - The Name of the Doctor


Series Seven of Doctor Who has come to a close in an episode that is supposedly game-changing. And I suppose in a sense, it is. The Doctor’s greatest secret has been revealed...sort of. With its revelation, tons more questions have arisen, and very few old questions have found an answer. But in another sense, it’s really not all that game-changing. “The Name of the Doctor” is a quite typical Steven Moffat finale. Indeed, to a great extent, if you’ve seen his previous finales, you’ve seen this one too. There are a lot of grand ideas mixed with complex interweavings of time-streams and plotlines. There are a lot of things happening because they have to happen. People do things because, “This is what I’ve already done.”

Like many Steven Moffat stories, “The Name of the Doctor” is best enjoyed if you just turn off your brain because, as complex as Moffat likes to make his plots, when you pause to examine them, they start to fall apart. Better to just let things happen, be taken in by the spectacle, the rapidly changing images, and the bigger-than-life ideas. Unfortunately, turning off my brain has never been something I’ve been particularly good at. As such, the problems start to stick out like a sore thumb: the repetition of old ideas, the lack of believable characters, the plot holes. I’ve watched “The Name of the Doctor” three times now, and to be fair, each time, I’ve enjoyed it a little more than the previous time. The are a number of good individual moments throughout the episode, and each time I’ve been able to appreciate those moments a little more. Alas, strung together as a whole, the episode falls quite flat.

And then there’s the ending. Oh, the ending.

SPOILERS FOLLOW



REALLY BIG SPOILERS



SERIOUSLY, YOU’VE BEEN WARNED

In “The Big Bang”, the TARDIS is destroyed, causing the cracks that appeared throughout Series Five. The universe is destroyed, but rebooted. The Doctor is erased from existence, but Amy remembers him back into existence, and everything is fine again. The destruction of the TARDIS is preordained earlier in Series Five when the Doctor finds a piece of the TARDIS in one of the cracks. Series Five concludes with the Doctor and friends doing what they’ve essentially already done, but then finding a way to work around it.

In “The Wedding of River Song”, the death of the Doctor witnessed at the beginning of Series Six comes to fruition. River kills the Doctor, but the twist is that it’s not really the Doctor. It’s just a robot disguised as the Doctor. Everything happens as it was preordained to. Once again, the Doctor and his friends do what they’ve already done, what they’ve always done. When River tries to do something different, all of time scrunches together into one moment. Essentially, the universe as we know it is destroyed, and can only be set back right by following the preordained path.

In “The Name of the Doctor”, the Doctor comes at last to Trenzalore, first mentioned in “The Wedding of River Song”, to the place of his death and to his very tomb. This time, the Great Intelligence kills the Doctor by stepping into his time stream and being scattered into millions of copies, reversing all of the Doctor’s previous victories and destroying him over and over again at every point in his life. The stars start to go out because those are worlds that the Doctor should have saved but didn’t because he no longer exists. Then Clara steps into the time stream, splintering herself and setting everything right again. The Doctor is restored once more.

This has been the basic structure of all of Steven Moffat’s series finales. He has shown a definite fascination with examining the Doctor and who he is, and what his effect on the universe is. Unfortunately, I think he’s gone too far, and the Doctor has become too big, too important. Everything revolves around him. The universe falls apart without him. To be fair, the building-up of the Doctor’s importance began with Russel T Davies (or I suppose, in a sense it actually began with Andrew Cartmel’s “master plan” in the seventh Doctor’s time), but Moffat has taken it much further than Davies ever did. Davies gave us allusions to the Doctor as “the Lonely God” or as a Christ-like figure in stories like “Last of the Time Lords” or “Voyage of the Damned”, but the universe didn’t end simply because the Doctor ceased to exist. Whole organizations didn’t try to destroy the universe simply to stop people learning the Doctor’s greatest secret. (Some did try to destroy the universe on several occasions, but they generally did that because they were evil.) Even after the Doctor himself states that he has become too big and he needs to go into hiding, his enemies still treat him as if he’s the most important thing in the universe and, he still behaves like it. He’s not good at hiding, and that’s certainly part of the point. Charlie Jane Anders of IO9 has an excellent article on the whole idea that the Doctor has gotten too big during the Moffat years. He has become so pivotal to everything that everything has started to lose its own meaning. Characters no longer have autonomous identities outside of the Doctor.

The Name of the Doctor” is definitely a continuation of this same basic theme. Even after his death, the Doctor still has a huge impact on the universe. His “body” has become a massive tear in time and space, one that beings like the Great Intelligence can use to make the stars themselves go out.

I think part of the problem comes from a need for every finale to outdo the one that came before. Russel T Davies was guilty of this too; he just had the benefit of having a small point to start from. Each successive finale has to have something even bigger and grander and crazier than the last out of a fear that people won’t think it’s as good otherwise. Moffat has found himself at the point where it just can’t get any bigger, but yet he continues to try to make it bigger. I think it’s far overdue time to dial things back a bit—no, make that a lot. We desperately need a small-scale finale, after which the building-up can start again. Small-scale doesn’t have to mean dull and boring. There can be a lot of drama and excitement in something that’s a little more personal, a story that has real effect on the characters rather than the universe. Indeed, it can be much more powerful to feel the loss and heartbreak of a single individual than the entire universe.

But that aside, what of this giant-scale story, “The Name of the Doctor”? On its own terms, how good or bad is it? There are a number of things that the story does well. Indeed, I am very satisfied with the resolution of the Doctor’s name plot. As I predicted (and I’m sure most others also predicted), we did not learn the Doctor’s “real” name. Instead, the title very cleverly refers to the meaning of the name, Doctor. “My name, my real name. That is not the point. The name I chose is the Doctor. The name you choose...it’s like a promise you make.” The Doctor’s name is the Doctor because that’s what he chooses to be known as. This is beautiful and affirming. In my Advance Thoughts article (linked above), I said that names are just words and words only have the meanings that we attribute to them. A name can only have power through associations that we make with that name. No name given to the Doctor could ever have the sort of power over the audience that the show has implied the Doctor’s name to have. But I was perhaps just a little bit wrong. There is one name with that power: the Doctor. And we learn here that that is indeed his name. No other revelation could have made me happier in this regard.

The Name of the Doctor” also resolves the mystery of Clara in a logical and satisfying manner. In fact, I was able to guess the answer before it was actually revealed, which shows it was well-structured (and also that Steven Moffat is rather predictable in his writing). However, the resolution does not justify the fact that we’ve never really gotten to know Clara as a person. Back in “Cold War”, I postulated that her lack of interests and goals might actually be part of the mystery (from her answering the question of what she likes to do with, “Stuff. You know, stuff”). But it turns out that’s not the case. The Clara that we’ve been following since “The Bells of Saint John” is just a normal person. The other Claras are created when she splinters herself in the Doctor’s time stream (when she does what she was preordained to do). So why is this Clara so personality-less and boring? Her lack of character development makes it difficult to accept that she would sacrifice herself for the Doctor in the way she does (although I’ll argue in a little bit that it’s really not a sacrifice on a meta-level anyway). Oh but, “This is what I’ve already done.” Like in “The Angels Take Manhattan”, people do things not because it makes sense for their character, but simply because the plot requires them to because it’s preordained. It’s also difficult to accept that she becomes so jealous of River since we’ve never really gotten to know her or her relationship with the Doctor. It comes across as something she does simply because Moffat thinks women always get jealous of their love interest’s exes. Because that’s just what women are like. It certainly doesn’t help Moffat in the sexism department.

I’m also not sure that I like the idea that Clara is now present in every moment of the Doctor’s life, hidden somewhere in the background out of sight, but trying to make contact with him. “I was born to save the Doctor,” she says. Millions of copies of her that live lives with no other purpose than somehow saving the Doctor. I’ve commented many times before how the women in Moffat’s Who always end up defined by a man, generally the Doctor. Clara’s now done it a million times over. Still, the original Clara survived, so perhaps now that her purpose to save the Doctor is finished, she can start to develop her own identity. We’ll see.

The clips of old Doctors were a bit of fun. In particular, it was great seeing William Hartnell on Gallifrey, and in colour! Alas, there’s little pay-off to the clips later. When we first see them in the pre-titles sequence, they come across as a teaser for something that will be expanded upon later in the episode. Yet when Clara jumps into the Doctor’s time stream, all we see is a succession of mostly the same clips again with a couple other very brief snippets thrown in. Just before that, when the Great Intelligence jumps in, we see a couple of the same moments with the Intelligence in place of Clara, but nothing new. Obviously, inserting new material into old footage (or lifting old footage and placing it into newer) is difficult and probably expensive, and I wasn’t expecting lengthy, detailed sequences of the GI and Clara interacting with the old Doctors (it was probably hard enough for them to have Clara interacting with the first Doctor for just those couple of lines). However, it would be nice to see a little bit of what the Intelligence and Clara actually do during the Doctor’s life. How does the Intelligence go about reversing the Doctor’s victories and how exactly does Clara stop him? The Great Intelligence is a powerful disembodied force, yet we’re expected to believe that Clara is able to defeat him every single time. We don’t need to see every occasion—indeed, there are too many to make such an idea feasible—but an extra scene between Clara and the Intelligence would help a great deal and allow us to extrapolate further instances. Instead, we’re simply told what happens. When the Intelligence enters the time stream, Vastra provides us with some handy exposition, as she apparently has a very convenient device that tells her exactly what moments of the Doctor’s life the Intelligence is currently interfering with. “He’s being rewritten. Simeon is attacking his entire timeline. He’s dying all at once. The Daleks asylum, Androzani...Now he’s dying in London with us.”

I realize that Moffat is, in part, trying to focus on the sacrifice that Clara makes by jumping into the time stream. Showing too much of what happens after risks ruining the impact and drama of the sacrifice itself. Except there is no impact and drama with that moment. Clara is just doing “what I’ve already done.” But more than this, the moment is robbed of its impact not just because we don’t really know Clara well enough to respond to her emotionally, but also because there is ultimately no sacrifice really happening here. Even if the characters believe there is, we as the audience know none of these people will really die. There is no threat of death in Moffat’s Who, and that is particularly true in this episode. At this moment in the story, we already have post-death River wandering around freely (albeit incorporeally), and Jenny has already died and come back to life. Following this, we get to see Jenny die again (or erased from history, I suppose) and come back. Vastra kills Strax and then he comes back to life (and he died previously in “A Good Man Goes to War” too). Stars go out and come back. And of course, Clara comes back.

I’ve commented on it before, but it bears commenting on it again. By bringing so many characters back to life, Moffat has stripped death of any menace in this show. Jenny’s first death in the episode could, and should, be one of the most chilling and frightening scenes ever seen in Doctor Who. Moffat uses the Whisper Men (which I feel are otherwise an underwhelming enemy) to great effect in this scene. The idea of Jenny in the dream only just managing to figure out what they’re doing to her in real life is brilliant! “Sorry ma’am, so sorry...I think I’ve been murdered.” And actor Catrin Stewart plays the scene beautifully, showing incredible terror in Jenny’s face. But instead of gasping with shock and horror as dream Jenny fades away, my reaction the first time I watched this scene was, “Yeah, whatever. She’ll be back soon enough.” And sure enough, about ten minutes of screen time later, Strax brings her back to life with his handy little resurrection device (that he also used to bring Clara temporarily back to life in “The Snowmen”).

As viewers, we know the good guys are probably going to win in the end. They’ll win the vast majority of the time and most, if not all, of them will survive to the end. This is just a part of storytelling. However, it is also part of storytelling, that every once in a while, something doesn’t quite work out right. There are consequences for people’s actions. Sometimes people are hurt; sometimes they die. Sometimes the good guys even lose, or don’t achieve a full victory. Not knowing when something bad might actually happen is what helps create tension in a story. Even though we know the protagonists will probably survive, we know they could die, and that makes us fear for every action they take. Yet when people start coming back from the dead repeatedly, that source of tension vanishes. Why should we worry about the characters if we know that death is always surmountable?

Paradoxically, this story where death holds so little power is set at a time after the Doctor’s final death. Is this an attempt by Moffat to tell us that death still awaits everyone in the future, that coming back from the dead only delays that final death? Probably. However, it doesn’t restore the tension because we know that final death will always be sometime in the future. It won’t ever happen right now.

There are some interesting questions posed by the setting, however. Exactly how far in the future (of the Doctor’s personal life, that is) is this? The future TARDIS interior looks the same as it does now (albeit overgrown with weeds). Also, despite the fact that the Doctor explicitly states that his time stream here includes events from his future, Clara doesn’t see any future Doctors when she splinters herself through his time stream. And this isn’t just because we don’t see her seeing them. She explicitly states that she sees eleven Doctors. Is the episode indicating that the eleventh Doctor is the last, that the Doctor who comes to Trenzalore and dies there is the eleventh? It would certainly fit with the earlier prophecy stated by Dorian about “the fall of the eleventh”. Although at first glance it might seem that the prophecy was referring to this episode, it doesn’t really fit with it very well. The “fall of the eleventh” could possibly refer to the TARDIS literally falling to Trenzalore, I suppose, but what of the question that must never be asked? Dorian says that on the fields of Trenzalore, no one can fail to answer and that they must answer truthfully. Yet the Doctor does fail to answer when Simeon asks, “Doctor who?” Simeon repeats it several times, and yet the Doctor continues to refuse, even when the lives of his companions are at threat. Perhaps Moffat is just being inconsistent or perhaps this is an indication that the whole Trenzalore/first question storyline is still not over. I hope it’s just inconsistency. I’m getting tired of this particular story.

In terms of the characters in “The Name of the Doctor”, they are pretty much all there just to play a particular role in the plot. As is unfortunately typical with these particular characters, they don’t get any actual development. I’ve commented already on Clara, but it is also true of the others. Strax is even more one-note than ever, just a vehicle for jokes that the show has already used numerous times before. (Clara to River: “Sorry, it’s just that I never realized you were a woman.” Strax: “Well, neither did I.”) I used to like Strax. I really did. Not anymore. He’s just a joke that has long since lost its funniness.

Vastra is just an exposition machine in this episode. She tells us what the situation is, from the time-travelling dream séance (which itself is annoying, as it makes time travel far too simple) where she tells us and Clara all about Trenzalore, to informing us what the Great Intelligence is up to in the Doctor’s time stream, to monitoring the stars going out and telling us all (yet again) how wonderful the Doctor is. To be fair, she has two moments of genuine emotion, both times surrounding Jenny’s death. After Jenny’s first death, while she’s pleading with Strax to bring her back, we get to briefly see a side of Vastra we don’t normally see, and for once, the relationship between her and Jenny isn’t treated as a joke, so I suppose there is a bit of character development there. However, it’s so brief.

Jenny remains as characterless as she always has. She is basically just someone Vastra can tell things to and get briefly emotional over. The best character development we’ve seen of Jenny is in “The Crimson Horror”, and even there, we don’t really get to know her that well.

River is really the only character in this story who gets any degree of real development. This post-library River is much more subdued than what we’ve generally seen of her before, and I do get the impression that her death has humbled her somewhat. We also get to see some moments of actual affection between her and the Doctor. Admittedly, this comes out of nowhere. Sure, we’ve always seen affection from River, but generally not the Doctor. His marriage to her was one of convenience, and he’s pretty much always felt uncomfortable with any affectionate moments from River. Kisses have always been initiated by River, yet this time it’s the Doctor that initiates the kiss. While this doesn’t quite work as development for the Doctor, it does give a nice sense of closure to River. As annoying as it can be that River’s entire life is centred around the Doctor (who doesn’t centre his around her), well, at least she gets something out of it in the end.

It’s a bit disappointing to learn that the way she learned the Doctor’s name was that she pestered it out of him. In “Silence in the Library”/”Forest of the Dead”, the Doctor says, “There’s only one way I ever could [tell my name].” Apparently, that way is by being pestered frequently enough. It kind of removes the awe and majesty implied by his words. Oh well.

It is nice that the story takes the Doctor to task for the way that he’s treated River, the way he essentially abandoned her in the library, “like a book on a shelf”, she says. “Didn’t even say goodbye. He doesn’t like endings.” The Doctor spends most of this episode pretending he can’t see or hear her (since only Clara is supposed to be able to) because he’s afraid acknowledging her and speaking to her will cause him too much pain. When he finally does, it gives closure to the callous way he left her. Of course, we also learn that River has cheated death again. The Doctor apparently didn’t intend her state to be permanent. He expected her to fade away, yet she’s lasted. We don’t actually learn how, and we don’t actually learn how she continues to be present after Clara is gone, even though she is mentally linked to Clara. “Spoilers,” she says one last time. While this may be the oldest version of River we will ever seen (the end of her personal time stream), I doubt this is the last we will see of her.

Speaking of the “Spoilers” line, there are a lot of repeated catch-phrases in this episode and they start to get a little annoying:
I’m the impossible girl.”
The soufflé isn’t the soufflé. The soufflé is the recipe.”
Doctor who?”
That said, I did find it particularly funny when the Great Intelligence tells the Doctor, “Less poetry, Doctor. Just tell them.” This, when poetry is the only way in which his Whisper Men speak.

Alas, the Great Intelligence/Simeon remains as ill-defined as in “The Snowmen”. However, “The Snowmen” is clearly setting the Intelligence up as a long-term, recurring threat. Yet here, nothing really comes of it. There’s no examination of his motives. Why does he want to do more than just kill the Doctor? Why must he destroy the Doctor multiple times over? Revenge for past defeats, yes, but why to this extent? Including the two sixties stories (which aired well before the majority of the current audience was even born, so expecting the audience to be familiar with them is asking a lot), the Doctor has defeated the Intelligence four times (and one of those times, “The Bells of Saint John”, the Doctor doesn’t even realize the Intelligence was involved). That gives reason to be angry at the Doctor, yes, but why such a strangely elaborate plan to destroy him? The Whisper Men can reach into a person’s chest and pull out the heart. Why not just have them do that to both the Doctor’s hearts? Admittedly, you can ask this question of most Doctor Who villains, but it stands out here because we haven’t been given enough insight into the Intelligence to understand his hatred of the Doctor. Ultimately, he is a lacklustre and ineffective villain.

For a story that Steven Moffat claimed would tie up all the loose ends, there are quite a few unanswered questions left behind. I’ve already drawn attention to the whole “fall of the eleventh” business, but there are several others, most notably, who gave Clara the Doctor’s phone number in “The Bells of Saint John”? I predicted at the time that it would either be future Clara or River. River is obviously not the answer as River in this episode (set after her death) doesn’t recognize Clara. It could still be future Clara, I suppose. More likely, it’ll be one of those Moffat questions that are never resolved, like how did the Silence blow up the TARDIS in Series Five? The other big hanging question is, why does the TARDIS dislike Clara? It could be because the TARDIS has always sensed Clara’s future splintering through time, and like Captain Jack, the TARDIS doesn’t like people who don’t fit in time correctly. Or maybe it was just all in Clara’s imagination because she really couldn’t figure out that she needed a key to get in! I doubt we’ll ever know.

And that brings us to the closing moments. “Introducing John Hurt as the Doctor”. I don’t quite understand the point of that caption. It’s pretty clear we’re looking at a mysterious lost incarnation of the person who calls himself the Doctor. The closing credits include the actor’s name, so why include it here? It find it rather jarring. It takes one right out of the moment. Sure, the episode ends mere moments later anyway, but it kind of ruins that ending. It suddenly feels like an advertisement, like we're watching a trailer instead of an actual episode. More than that, immediately after the Doctor makes it clear that this is him but he isn’t the Doctor—he hasn’t lived up to that name—the caption contradicts that statement.
I said he was me. I didn’t say he was the Doctor... The name you choose...it’s like a promise you make. He’s the one who broke the promise... He is my secret.”
What I did, I did without choice.”
I know.”
In the name of peace and sanity.”
But not in the name of the Doctor!”
It is a clever little way to keep the eleventh Doctor the eleventh and not suddenly make him the twelfth. However, I can’t help but feel that this wastes an entire incarnation. He may not be “the Doctor”, but he is still an incarnation of the same person. Now, I have no doubt that the show will find away around the twelve-regeneration limit if/when it gets to that point. The thirteenth Doctor (or twelfth now in this case, I suppose) will not be the last, so it’s not giving the Doctor one less life. However, it has robbed us, the audience, of an entire life, and that’s quite disappointing (although I know we’ll get to see some of that life in the upcoming fiftieth anniversary special). It’s certainly not the end of the world though.

There is a lot of potential in this storyline. Naturally, people have their theories on where this missing incarnation fits. The popular one is that this incarnation is between the Paul McGann and Christopher Eccleston ones. This is the incarnation that fought in the Time War and destroyed the Time Lords. This is the Doctor’s greatest secret. A part of me suspects this might be the case, but it’s a very problematic theory. First, the Doctor has been open about what he did to the Time Lords. We may not know exactly how he did it, but we know its effects. So it’s not really a secret, is it? Personally, I think it would be far more interesting if the secret has nothing to do with the Time War. A pre-Hartnell incarnation comes to mind, although that doesn’t quite work with the idea of him breaking the promise of his name, as pre-Hartnell would then likely be before he took the name of the Doctor. Still, if he took the name because of what this incarnation did, that could be pretty powerful. I doubt that though, as that would require this incarnation to use some other name in the anniversary special, and I’m quite certain John Hurt’s character will call himself the Doctor, even if the tenth and eleventh Doctors refuse to call him that. At any rate, that all remains to be seen.

In the end, “The Name of the Doctor” is a rather frustrating story. Like so much of Moffat’s work, there are wonderful, brilliant ideas and concepts in it (I simply love the giant, dying TARDIS), but he throws them at us at such a break-neck pace, on the surface clever, but breaking down when looked at closely. Characters do things only because the plot requires them to do them, because they’ve done them before. We never really get to know the characters or to care about them. They die and come back to life so many times, we can’t even feel any tension in the situations they are in. So, while I like individual snippets of the story, as a whole, it just doesn’t work. And it brings to a close a season that I’ve felt pretty much the same about. I’ve liked individual parts, but as a whole, it just doesn’t work. I suppose there’s an odd consistency there. A somewhat muddled and messy season has ended with a somewhat muddled and messy finale.

7 comments:

  1. If I may say, thank you! Thank you for not shutting your mind while watching the episode.

    Over Tumblr I am tired of seeing others beinged awed at the brilliance of Moffat, while in reality - like you said - the Doctor has gotten too big.

    For example, Clara is driven to save the Doctor because the stars he is in pain. Not because the stars are going out or that the world is in danger.

    Another thing, how come Vastra remebered everything when Jenny and Strax didn't? Without the Doctor shouldn't she be ruling this earth?

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  2. Same thing here. Your reviews are greatly appreciated.

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  3. Wow, that is a thorough review. I made for a good lunch break read.

    I agree with a lot of what you said, especially about death losing its importance. But I watch quite a bit of Classic Doctor Who but I never knew the GI was in anything previous to the Snowmen.

    I don't know if you noticed but the Eye of Harmony has been mentioned at twice in this series so I'm thinking that that will be a way for the Doctor to get new regenerations.

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  4. But... it can't be any regeneration before Hartnell. Because he aged with one heart, Time Lords win their second heart when they regenerate for first time. That fact is unchangeable, Moffat can't change it and I doubt he will.

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  5. Anonymous, that's fanon. And contradicted by that time the Master aged the Tenth Doctor with a "lazer screwdriver".

    "Dorian says that on the fields of Trenzalore, no one can fail to answer and that they must answer truthfully. Yet the Doctor does fail to answer when Simeon asks, “Doctor who?” Simeon repeats it several times, and yet the Doctor continues to refuse, even when the lives of his companions are at threat. Perhaps Moffat is just being inconsistent or perhaps this is an indication that the whole Trenzalore/first question storyline is still not over. I hope it’s just inconsistency. I’m getting tired of this particular story."

    I understood that as part of the prophecy or whatever. THE DOCTOR could not lie or fail to answer ... because the people he loved were threatened. Very nice.

    Also, wasn't it said that one of the names of this eeevil incarnation was the Valeyard? Doesn't that make it "between his twelfth and final incarnations"?

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    1. That's an interesting interpretation of the prophecy, and you could be right. I'd have to rewatch a couple of the episodes to make up my mind for sure, but if so, it would actually be a clever handling of it. Thanks for that!

      As for the Valeyard, Simeon just mentions that as one of the names the Doctor is known by, not necessarily the John Hurt incarnation, and John Hurt has since let it slip in interviews that he is indeed the incarnation between Paul McGann and Christopher Eccleston. Of course, he could be deliberately lying...

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