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Wednesday, 12 November 2014


Directed by: Geoffrey Sax
Written by: Matthew Jacobs
Starring: Paul McGann, Daphne Ashbrook, Eric Roberts
Music by: John Debney
Release date: 12th May, 1996

Today, the Doctor Who TV movie is generally remembered for two things: one, for the being what turned out to be the bridge between the original series and the revived series, and two, for being of the most divisive segments of the show's 50+ year history. An insight into the hellish future that would've arisen if Doctor Who was given to a creative team that had no understanding of the show, this telemovie was produced by the Fox Broadcasting Company and served as a backdoor pilot for a new British-American-Canadian series that would've been commissioned if this movie proved to be successful. Ratings in Britain were high, but it failed to resonate with those across the pond, and so the series went into hibernation once more until its revival in 2005. And if this movie is any indication of the quality of the stories we would've received from Fox and co, that's probably a good thing.

We're quickly introduced to the Doctor courtesy of every lazy screenwriter's BFF: voiceover, and told that The Master - the Doctor's childhood frenemy - has a dying wish: for the Doctor to take his remains back to their home planet, Gallifrey, after being put on trial and executed for his crimes by the Daleks and the horrible helium voices that they seem to have here in their fleeting cameo. ...Aaaaaand then it's never brought up ever again. The Master's essence escapes (somehow, as it's never actually explained) from the Doctor's TARDIS, which (again, somehow) causes it to crashland in San Francisco on the 30th of December, 1999. As soon as the Doctor steps out of the TARDIS he is shot by an Asian gang member and taken to hospital by the imaginatively-named Chang Lee, and Sylvester McCoy's Doctor dies and regenerates into Paul McGann's, with the help of some face-morphing CGI that's actually a bit more believable and creative that many of the attempts in the classic series. After overcoming a pointless bout of amnesia, the Doctor befriends the surgeon who tried to save his previous incarnation's life, Grace Holloway, and they eventually find themselves having to stop the Master from destroying the planet. There's some other stuff involving the Eye of Harmony, the Master wanting to steal the Doctor's regenerations and an atomic clock or something, but the plot is wafer-thin and incoherent. And while having a send-off for Sylvester McCoy's Doctor is nice for the fans and continues the tradition of showing every Doctor's regeneration process, literally transforming your main character into someone else about fifteen minutes into the movie may prove to be bewildering for newcomers.

There are some great production values, with the TARDIS console being a particular highlight.

Paul McGann is a fantastic Doctor in every sense and by far the best thing on offer here. His gentlemanly and somewhat youthful incarnation of the Time Lord is quite a change from past versions, and most likely served as a basis for certain Doctors in the revived series. He's also one of the very few actors who seems to show some genuine enthusiasm, and is very likeable with his sense of childlike wonder and earnestness. It's a crying shame that McGann never actually got to play this role onscreen more as he showed huge promise, although he has done a very extensive list of audio dramas and briefly returned for a seven-minute minisode detailing his final moments as the Doctor for the 50th anniversary of the show in 2013.

Unfortunately the rest of the cast isn't anywhere near as strong. Eric Roberts seems to be having fun in the role, but his Master's occasional moments of menace are hampered by this incarnation of the character's apparent love for the camp and overly-theatrical. Chang Lee (Yee Jee Tso) is a weak and completely useless character who's omission probably would've improved the movie, and Daphne Ashbrook's Grace Holloway is as dull as her surname suggests. Not only does she have very little interesting qualities, but we know almost nothing about her, and her romantic relationship with the Doctor is incredibly forced, as he literally grabs her out of the blue for a snog when there wasn't even a hint of romance between the two beforehand. It assumes that the relationship between the two needs to be romantic because they're two members of the opposite sex, and comes off as lazy, especially when the character of the Doctor has remained largely asexual up until now. There's no point in reinventing the character every few years if you aren't going to take a risk or two, but if they had to take it down this route it could have at least been done in a more believable way. Apart from the contrived romance, it's also stuffed with other clich├ęs such as a generic end-of-the-world-by-midnight plot, car chases and cartoony dialogue.

Slyvester McCoy's Doctor moments before his demise.
It doesn't really seem to know which audience it's for, either. One one hand we have numerous superficial Doctor Who tributes being used in the place of characterisation and storytelling, such as the Doctor offering numerous people jelly babies very much in the vein of Tom Baker, and on the other we have subplots such as the Doctor apparently being half-human. The inclusion of this is puzzling, as it's brought up twice and goes absolutely nowhere (it's also been retconned various times through throwaway lines in various other Doctor Who stories), and this is far from the only spit in the face to canon here, which makes it hard to tell whether writer Matthew Jacobs knows Doctor Who at all, or is deliberately going out of his way to enrage fans.

It tries to appeal to audiences both new and old, and somehow manages to fail at both. All of this comes complete with an Americanisation of the Doctor Who universe that makes it barely feel like Doctor Who at all, and it slaps you in the face with its symbolism: the aforementioned regeneration scene of Sylvester McCoy to Paul McGann is intercut with clips of the creation of life scene in Frankenstein, the song playing on the Doctor's record player in the TARDIS repeatedly becomes stuck on the word "time" (God knows why because it serves no purpose or relevance to the movie other than the fact that the Doctor frequently travels through time), all topped off with some overt visual references to the Doctor as Jesus Christ.

The Doctor, Grace, and the T-800.

You would've thought that, due to the immediate skepticism that an American interpretation of Doctor Who would receive, the creative team behind this would've tried to preserve the sensibilities of the show and avoided any American stereotypes, or at least have given it a decent script. But apparently not, and as a result it's hard to recommend the Doctor Who TV movie to anyone. Fans will still find plenty to complain about and anyone wanting to get into the show is better off looking elsewhere. If it wasn't for McGann it would have very little to no other redeeming qualities. Shame. He deserved better.