'Doctor Who' Anniversary Prelude 'Night Of The Doctor' Explained [Video]

Doctor Who is legendary as a long-running sci-fi series, and the show has all the convoluted continuity you'd expect from a show about to celebrate its 50th anniversary. That special day will be commemorated next week with a new special episode, called The Day of the Doctor. But it is preceded today by The Night of the Doctor, a six-minute short that sets up a very important part of the storyline.

Even if you don't know Doctor Who this is a neat short. If you do know the show — I mean if you really know and follow the series, going back years — this will act as total continuity porn, because it ties up a long-running mystery embedded between incarnations of the series. Watch it below, and stick around for a thorough explanation of just what the hell is going on here.

For those who've never watched much Doctor Who, or who only know the show in the most recent series featuring Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, and Matt Smith as the Doctor, here's a primer for what you just saw:

Which Doctor was that?

That was Paul McGann, the Eighth Doctor, who has only ever visually played the role in a 1996 TV movie. The movie wasn't all that well-received, but fans liked McGann enough that he played the Doctor in several radio plays by a company that licensed the character rights from the BBC. After that movie, the show was dormant until its revival in 2004 with Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor.

What's the best McGann trivia related to this short?

Today, the day of the short's debut and McGann's return to the role, is the actor's birthday.

What's that war stuff all about?

This short takes place during the Time War, fought between the Time Lords (the Doctor's race) and the Daleks, all but destroying both. We've never seen much of it on screen, but it took place in series continuity between the McGann movie and Eccleston's run. The Day of the Doctor special should fill in many more details.

Where does this take place?

Aside from the stuff on the ship, where the woman Cass reacts violently against the presence of a Time Lord, which sets up a good perception of how everyone other than Time Lords and Daleks view the war, we're on Karn, introduced to the show in 1976. The women are the Sisterhood of Karn, who are nearly equal in mental power to the Doctor's people. In fact, they were in power on Gallifrey before the Time Lords were.

What's all the regeneration stuff?

When he's old or near death, the Doctor can regenerate into a new form, which comes with a personality change. Originally a clever way to explain different actors taking on the role, regeneration has become a core part of the series storytelling. From all we've known for years, the expectation was naturally that McGann, the 8th Doctor, had regenerated into Eccleson, the 9th. But now we know there's a middle step.

Wait, did one of the Sisters mention that the Doctor could come back as a woman?

Yep! She did, which is creator Steven Moffat's way of nodding towards the many fan conversations that hoped that after Matt Smith, the current and outgoing Doctor, we'd see the character regenerate as a woman. (We won't; he'll return as Peter Capaldi instead.)

Yeah, so about that middle step...

Here the Doctor chooses to take an active role in the war, it seems, by casting aside the "doctor" mantle for that of a warrior. "Doctor no more," as he says at the end. And as we see reflected in the glass at the end of the short, his new form is John Hurt, who is being called the War Doctor. Hurt was introduced at the conclusion of the most recent Doctor Who season, and will be a big part of The Day of the Doctor, as the trailer for the special shows. This sets up an expectation that we'll see Hurt regenerate into Eccleston at some point in The Day of the Doctor.

Where did that footage of John Hurt come from?

Good question! Given the hair and costume, I'm guessing it's the actor as he appeared in the 1979 Crime and Punishment TV series.

Who were all those names the Doctor reeled off before regenerating?

Remember what I said above about the McGann radio plays? Well, the company that does them does not have the license to use characters or incarnations after McGann's, so there's never been any real crossover between the radio plays and the current TV incarnation. This changes that slightly, as those names are many of the characters from those McGann plays.