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Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
t this point, after five seasons (and change) of dazzling new “Doctor Who,” it’s almost difficult to remember how lean the years were for the show after its cancellation in 1989. If I really project myself back to that time period, it reminds me that I shouldn’t take the new series for granted, because it can’t last forever. For a young fan in his twenties, each passing year with no new “Who” began feeling like an eternity. After seven years, we finally got something, and the results were this TV movie, which was co-produced by the BBC, Fox and Universal, and it aired on Fox in May of ‘96. Of course, seven years is nothing compared to the 15 years it’s taken for the TV movie to get a home video release in the U.S., and most fans had pretty much given up hope for any kind of domestic issue until last August when it was suddenly announced that the rights issues had been cleared up, and a R1 DVD loaded with bonus features was imminent. Who-ray (but not Blu-ray)!
Those aforementioned feelings of desperation were brought up to help illustrate how incredibly monumental the TV movie felt back in 1996. Not only was “Doctor Who” back, but it finally had boffo production values, there was the tease of a possible series provided the movie snagged some respectable ratings (which in the U.S. it did not), and perhaps more than anything else, Paul fucking McGann was playing the Doctor. I’d been a “Withnail and I” fanatic for several years already, and to my mind there was no better actor suited to bring the Doctor back to life. Indeed, I even recall telling my then-girlfriend a couple years prior during a “Withnail” viewing how McGann would make a great Doctor Who someday. I was likely stoned out of my gourd at the time, but that matters not.
So as you might guess, I have an enormous affinity for this film, despite its numerous problems. But it’s also interesting to note that nostalgia doesn’t necessarily have to play a part. I was talking with my Bullz-Eye compadre Will Harris the other day, and he was recalling how when he was a kid, he watched some “Doctor Who,” and knew instinctively it was something that he should like, yet it never really clicked for him. That all changed for Will in ’96 when he saw this movie and it turned him into a fan in one sitting. Of course, these days there are plenty of folks who really only know the show in its current incarnation, and one wonders how somebody who’s only ever seen new “Who” would react to this film. I’d like to believe favorably, but then again, it requires adjusting to a whole new Doctor, and some new series fans are slavishly devoted to some of the current Doctors to the point where they can’t be bothered with the concept if David Tennant isn’t on the screen.
Anyway, it’d probably be a good idea at this stage to talk about the actual film. Though it takes place in San Francisco, it was shot in Vancouver, and though it was filmed in ’96, it’s set on New Year’s Eve 1999. Right off the bat this presents a minor problem, simply because the planet went Y2K-crazy that New Year’s. The folks who made this movie did not have a time machine of their own, so they didn’t foresee the Y2K hysteria, and that’s something of a shame because it could’ve worked beautifully in this story. The Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) is transporting the remains of the Master back to Gallifrey after his arch-nemesis was put on trial for his crimes by the Daleks and they exterminated him. It’s a fairly absurd piece of exposition, especially since the Daleks aren’t well known for their legal system, but it gets the story going, so whatever. As the Doctor kicks back in the TARDIS drinking tea and reading H.G. Wells, something goes wrong with the machine, and the Master’s remains, in a kind of ooze-like form, escape from their urn and infect the console, forcing the machine to make an emergency landing in San Fran.
The Doctor steps from the TARDIS and is immediately taken down by a bullet from a Chinese gang fight. Chang Lee (Yee Jee Tso), whose life was saved by the materializing time machine, accompanies the wounded Time Lord to the hospital along with Bruce, a paramedic (Eric Roberts). Once there, Dr. Grace Holloway (Daphne Ashbrook), a cardiologist, enters the picture, and begins operating, botches the surgery (it’s tough to get heart surgery right when the patient has two of them), and the Seventh Doctor dies on the operating table. The body is moved to the morgue by Will Sasso (of “MadTV” and “Shit My Dad Says” fame), who’s got a pretty funny supporting role. It’s in the cold, dark morgue that the regeneration occurs and 20-some odd minutes into the film we have our new Doctor in the form of McGann. As was frequently the case in the old series, the Doctor has amnesia after his regeneration, and only after forcing his way back into Grace’s life (she’s the one person he recognizes from being on the operating table) do his memories come back to him. Meanwhile, the Master’s ooze has taken over Bruce the paramedic, thus Eric Roberts becomes the new Master. He befriends Chang Lee, and convinces the boy that the Doctor is evil and that he’s stolen the Master’s body, and together they work to get it back, but not before opening the Eye of Harmony in the TARDIS, an act which threatens the entire planet. The Doctor and Grace must find a beryllium clock by midnight in order to make things right, all while the Master and Chang are in hot pursuit of the two Doctors.
So that’s more or less the dramatic thrust of the TV movie, although there’s plenty of charming characterization and acting along the way from pretty much every member of the cast, most of which keeps the sometimes inane plot seeming grounded and worth watching. The entire thread about the Eye of Harmony and the MacGuffin in the form of the beryllium clock is pretty ridiculous, and anyone who knows their “Who” lore will find it nonsensical at best and a big waste of time at worst. On the other hand, the idea of the Master wanting to take the Doctor’s body, as well as his remaining lives, is a perfectly reasonable notion, and in fact goes a long way towards explaining some of the core minutiae of the “Who” concept, as well as reinforcing the ideas behind Time Lord regeneration, which is a big part of what this movie is all about from start to finish.
Now, whether the movie should have been about regeneration is another matter entirely, as pretty much everyone familiar with this movie will attest, it wasn’t a terribly smart way to introduce the concept to Americans who’d never seen or even heard of “Doctor Who.” No doubt Russell T. Davies took note, and when he launched his vision in 2005, Christopher Eccleston was the Doctor coming right out of the gate. That said, some of the mechanics of this film are astonishingly similar to the first episode of the new series, “Rose,” although “Rose” does a much better job of rejiggering the concept for new audiences in half the time. One big way in which the film differs from the new series is in its approach, which in tone often feels like much sci-fi TV that was made back in the mid-90s – kind of dry, but still engaging. It never really scales the fantastic, imaginative heights “Who” is so well known for today, but alternatively it demonstrates how far the concept can be stretched while still remaining “Doctor Who.”
Much hay was made at the time by fans uncomfortable with the casting of Roberts as the Master, which was the network tradeoff for having the unknown McGann taking the lead. Eric Roberts does a perfectly fine job in the role, and interestingly, his portrayal of the character isn’t all that far removed from what John Simm would eventually end up doing with the Master years later. Similarly, Ashbrook makes for a fun, albeit goofy companion. Billie Piper she is not, but she gets the job done in that Grace’s function was to discover the world of the Doctor on behalf of the viewer, much as Piper did in “Rose.” Then there’s Sylvester McCoy, who, despite being a visible component of the movie for the first 20 minutes, has only maybe five lines of dialogue (and is given a pretty undignified exit). It’s revealed on one of the DVD documentaries that this was at the request of the BBC, who actually weren’t keen on having the old Doctor regenerate into the new, as they really wanted to do something fresh with the concept and not harken back to a period when the series wasn’t at its best. It was only at producer Phil Segal’s insistence that McCoy was included, but he was told something along the lines of, “If you must…but don’t have him in it for very long and don’t have him say very much.”
The real star of the movie is unquestionably Paul McGann. McGann’s performance, as well as his Victorian look, are both so perfect, that despite the fact he only played the Doctor onscreen for this singular outing, he became the Doctor for the following nine years in all the officially sanctioned BBC novels, comics and, eventually, audio plays; the actor returned to the role of the Eighth Doctor for Big Finish productions in 2001 and he’s been playing the part on compact disc and radio several times a year ever since. Had the actor playing the Eighth Doctor underwhelmed? It seems unlikely any of that would’ve happened. To this day there are folks (myself included) who would treasure seeing McGann return to the new series in a “Two Doctors” type episode. Simply put, this movie is well worth watching for Paul McGann’s immensely likeable and engaging take on the Doctor alone. He, and the movie along with him, are fascinating bridges between the old series and the new. This movie kept the spirit of “Doctor Who” alive for another nine years, and if it had truly been a disaster, it’s entirely possible there might not even be a new series for us to bask in today.
And I didn’t even get around to praising the TARDIS interior, which is an elaborate, gorgeous thing of beauty that deserves to be talked about right alongside both interiors we’ve seen in the new series.
Special Features: This double-disc set has pretty much anything and everything you’d ever want to know about this flick. Disc One sports two audio commentaries; the first, featuring director Geoffrey Sax, has been ported over from the original BBC DVD release from many years back, while the second is new to this set and features both McGann and McCoy and is moderated by Nicholas Briggs. “The Seven Year Hitch” is a doc that’s nearly an hour long and features just about every behind the scenes figure involved in the making of the film. Producer Phil Segal in particular is incredibly blunt about every stop on the long road to getting this move off the ground. It’s an utterly absorbing piece that makes this a must-have DVD for hardcore fans. “The Doctor’s Strange Love” is a piece featuring three fans/writers (Simon Guerrier, Joseph Lidster and Josie Long) discussing what they love about the movie. There’s also a photo gallery, an isolated music track, as well as four extra music tracks of pop songs used in the movie, and a coming soon trailer for “The Seeds of Doom” which will be out next month. The PDF materials on this disc are a real treat, as the Radio Times did a massive spread on “Doctor Who” and it’s all included here in full color for your perusal. But that’s just the first disc.
Disc Two features behind the scenes material, an EPK, Phil Segal’s Tour of the TARDIS set, Paul McGann’s audition tapes, a couple scenes worth of alternate takes and some BBC trailers for the movie. “Who Peter 1989-2009” is the second half of a documentary exploring the relationship between “Who” and “Blue Peter,” although it has very little to do with the TV movie, yet there’s heavy emphasis on the new series. (The first half of this doc can be found on “The Horns of Nimon” DVD.) “The Wilderness Years” is a piece on how “Who” was kept alive via books, videos, audio plays and comics between ’89 and ’96. Speaking of comics, another installment of the excellent “Stripped for Action” series – this time focusing on the Eighth Doctor – is on here. Finally, there’s “Tomorrow’s Times – The Eighth Doctor” which examines press reaction to the movie at the time of its shooting and broadcast.