(The following is the first in a series of three reviews intended to celebrate the end of the Russell T. Davis era of Doctor Who, which began in 2005 with the revival of the series. I will be looking at the three film adventures of the Doctor, one television film and two cinema features from the 1960s featuring Peter Cushing. This review looks at the 1996 TV film that is set between the classic series and current series.)
Doctor Who is a quirky little science-fiction-fantasy-horror-comedy-every-other-genre-you-can-think-of franchise. Focused on the adventures of a time and space travelling alien known only as The Doctor, Doctor Who is a series that has constantly evolved and changed over time, with radical shifts in format, tone, themes, characterization, cast, and media, while still managing to be the same series through it all. This is due to the simple fact that when it is boiled down, the premise is little more than an incredibly intelligent being managing to get himself into a variety of messy situations while travelling the galaxy and human history in his ship, the TARDIS.
Of course, a rich mythology has built up around the premise, from why his ship looks like a 1960s British Police Box, to the Doctor’s ability to cheat death by randomly transforming his dying body into a new healthy one (allowing for the fairly easy replacement of the lead actor when needed). Then there is the various threats the Doctor runs into every so often, from the Cybermen to the Daleks. Unlike American genre franchises though, like Star Trek and Star Wars, Doctor Who has never been obsessed with continuity to the point of alienating viewers, with the majority of stories being accessible without having seen the series before.
The simplicity of the series premise thus should have made a revival of the show in any medium a relatively simple task, even if a revival was a continuation of the original show which was cancelled in 1989. Cast a new Doctor, give him a new companion, write a new adventure mostly free of past references, and the production should have stood a solid chance of securing a new generation of viewers. The 1996 television film Doctor Who: The Movie, directed by Geoffrey Sax and released theatrically in some parts of the world (if internet sources are to be trusted), was an attempt to do just that, a full nine years before the 2005 revival by Russell T. Davis. The first (and so far, only) co-production of Doctor Who between the Britain and America, the movie was a high budget (for television) film that was intended as a back door pilot to launch a new Doctor Who series on American network television as well as the BBC.
(As a side note, the American network in question, oddly enough, was the totally inappropriate Fox Network, whose loud, crass identity is at total odds with the subversive, progressive nature of the program. Just try imagining the violence prone Jack Bower getting along with the near pacifist style of the Doctor, and you can start to imagine how odd the show being on Fox would have been.)
The story of Doctor Who: the Movie centers on the earlier noted concept of the Doctor being able to overcome death, known in the series as regeneration. Attempting to transfer the remains of his archenemy the Master back to their home planet, an elderly Doctor (Sylvester McCoy, reprising the role from the final years of the classic show) finds that the Master has survived in a new alien form, forcing the TARDIS to land in San Francisco on December 30th, 1999. Injured after landing in the middle of a gang fight, the Doctor is taken to the hospital where he is accidentally killed by surgeon Grace Holloway (Daphne Ashbrook), who is confused by the alien nature of his body. Regenerating into a new body (actor Paul McGann, Withnail and I) and suffering amnesia, the Doctor turns to Grace for help, while the Master, now possessing the body of a paramedic (Eric Roberts), seeks to take the Doctor’s body and remaining lives by utilizing the power source of the TARDIS, a power which threatens to destroy all of earth on the stroke of midnight, December 31st, 1999 if the Master is not stopped.
While I didn’t become a fan of Doctor Who until 2005, I was first introduced to the series in 1996 by this TV film during its original American broadcast (I live near the US boarder), working on math homework during the commercial breaks. Looking back to my original impressions of the film as well as my thoughts since becoming a fan, Doctor Who: the Movie is a fun, but frustrating experience. There is much in the film to enjoy and wonder at, yet nearly as much to question. As an introduction to Doctor Who, the film is a failure due to its execution. Considered as an adventure within the overall context of the franchise, the film is a solid but unremarkable effort.
While the premise of the film itself is sound enough to build a story around, the execution of the premise is confused. The film is frequently bogged down in unnecessary exposition, particularly the introduction to the film which mentions various elements of the series that are not relevant to the story at hand; the Daleks, Skaro, the number of lives a Time Lord is allowed, etc. Such information is dropped on the audience at such high speed that there is little time for new viewers to take it all in (reversing the problem the classic series sometimes had with stories dragging on too long), while for fans, some of the information only raises unanswered questions about the events preceding the film.
Furthermore, while Sylvester McCoy is my favourite Doctor by far, the time spent with him at the start of the film is questionable given the goals of the film. While the “death” of his Doctor is a vital story point, this could have easily been handled in flashbacks, thus allowing Paul McGann to take center stage right from the start of the story, as he should as the new Doctor. It takes immense skill to suddenly switch to a “new” character as the lead, but not enough time is spent with McCoy's Doctor for new viewers to really know or care about who he is. His screen time either needed to be reduced or expanded, and given that the film is only eighty-five minutes long, only one of these options could reasonably been considered at the time.
Adding to the film's problems is the relationship between the Master and his companion, Chang Lee (Yee Jee Tso). Part of the narrative hinges on the Master manipulating Lee into believing that the Doctor is evil and the Master a wronged victim looking to set things right, but not once is any real reason given for Lee to buy into the Master’s claims. He threatens to kill Lee, freely admits to causing the deaths of others, and at no point makes any real effort to cover up who he is, and yet Lee buys into his story. The audience is left to assume that either the Master or Lee are idiots (perhaps they both are), or accept that it is shoddy scripting. I understand that the point of the Lee/Master relationship is to mirror that of the Doctor's relationship with Grace, but not enough time is spent developing this relationship to make this mirror relationship work, either dramatically or thematically.
The most aggravating aspect of the film however is the moments when the filmmakers try for broad comedy and come up short. Canada’s own disastrously unfunny comedian Will Sasso (Mad TV) appears as a morgue attendant, and proceeds to overact his way into infamy by yelling at the top of his lungs, mugging for the camera, and performing comedy shtick that was dated long before he was even born. The sound design of the film also contributes to this problem, with the occasional inclusion of “wacky” sound effects that are distracting and out of place. Doctor Who has always to some degree embraced a level of camp when it fits, but the audio track carries this a little too far.
Yet, despite these failings, when Doctor Who: the Movie works, it works brilliantly, presenting ideas and concepts that would find their way into the current series. The main hero of the production is, without question, Paul McGann, in his only televised appearance as the Doctor. More than any of his predecessors, McGann’s Doctor is a man in love with life itself, infectious in his enthusiasm for even the smallest of things, and charged up with childlike wonder. The best moment of the film is a small scene between the Doctor and Grace as he tries to recall who he is during a walk in the park. Building in his enthusiasm as he remembers a moment from his childhood, without missing a beat, the Doctor suddenly declares that the shoes he is wearing fit perfectly, much to the confusion of Grace. It is a funny and sweet moment, and makes the lack of a follow up effort from McGann a tragedy of the film’s North American ratings failure.
Also, while I was critical earlier about the Master and Lee relationship, a problem which Eric Roberts and Tso’s performances contribute to, when the writing is works, they duo do rise to the occasion. One particularly fantastic moment appears late in the film as the Master, talking to a captive Doctor, makes the absurd claim that Chang Lee is the son he never had, proceeding to give a mock fatherly kiss to Lee’s forehead. Roberts and Tso have a nice chemistry in the film, and in moments like this that allow the pair to explore the strangeness of their relationship are able to achieve a level of genuine humour the "out and out" comedy scenes lack.
Kudos must also go to director Geoffrey Sax, who turns into one of the most stylish and handsome Doctor Who stories in the entire history of the program. While it is fair to note that Sax is working with far more money that the productions that proceeded it, Sax does have a good eye for composition and camera movement, making good use of symmetrical images and subtle nods to religious iconography connected to the resurrection of Jesus Christ without slamming it over the audiences head. The scene in which the Doctor regenerates is particularly well executed, cross cutting between footage of James Whales’ Frankenstein and the Doctor’s rebirth, underlining the unnatural nature of the regeneration process.
Lastly, while writer Mathew Jacobs deserves much of the blame for the structural failings of the film, he is to be credited for crafting some of the best dialogue in the history of the series, particularly when the Doctor makes observations about humanity. Jacobs manages to keep the technobabble to a minimum and focuses instead on character, making good use of his time to forge a three dimensional characters out of Grace and the Doctor in a eighty-five minute long film.
Sadly, the failings of the film in the public memory have often outweighed the strengths, and the film for a long time was viewed as one of the final nails in the coffin for the show before 2005. McGann has continue to play the Doctor in radio plays, starting early in this decade, along with three of his predecessors, but has often gone ignored in the mainstream public, overshadowed by his predecessors and successors in the role. Yet, in this one outing, McGann proves that he is among the best and most accomplished actors to ever handle the role, equal to everyone who has come before and since.
While it is but a small consolation, Doctor Who: the Movie has held much impact on the series as it is now, from the production design to pacing. Furthermore, while for years some fans tried to discount the film from continuity, Russell T. Davis set about securing the film’s place in canon in his revival by making clear references to the film, including images and footage of McGann in episodes referencing the Doctor’s history. Furthermore, within the history of the show, McGann’s Doctor has taken on a mythic feeling that other Doctor’s lack, based upon how little we truly know about him and his history before regenerating again. While McGann's Doctor in the public consciousness is low, among fans, he is a legend.
For fans, it is a film worth watching as an important point for the series. For all others, it is something to watch once one has become familiar with the universe of the saga. If you have no intent to do so though, I must recommend against seeing the film, as a negative reaction is bound to be provoked by the sheer confusion that may come with the film’s narrative.