TV GEMS: Doctor Who: The Movie (1996)

Paul McGann becomes the Time Lord in this feature-length link between McCoy and Eccleston. Did he deserve his own show? 

Though true believing fans might angrily disagree, it is entirely reasonable to assume that Doctor Who would have died if it wasn’t for this late-90s attempt to bring the iconic Time Lord back. The series came to an end in 1989, and it seemed that both the BBC and the general public were ready to see it go. The Doctor had already amassed seven forms, countless serials, and more related merchandise than you can shake a Sonic Screwdriver at. Critics were calling it old hat and even tired, with successful competition in the shape of sci-fi sitcom Red Dwarf and the American behemoth that was Star Trek: The Next Generation. Perhaps to everyone except the religious viewers – who lobbied hard to see the show return – the credo was clearly: if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!

Therefore, 1996’s big-budget telly flick was partly financed by – shock horror! – US networks. A co-production between Universal, BBC Films, BBC Worldwide, and 20th Century Fox, the retroactively-known Doctor Who: The Movie has always got a bad rep. It didn’t lead to a full-length series (much to the annoyance of my eleven-year-old self who saw it live on BBC1), and there are some notable fudges in series’ lore, but it remains, to me anyway, a thoroughly enjoyable outing and an exception to the rule when it comes to American takes on very British material. With most of the key personnel being from the UK and solid support from Canadian studios, this “backdoor pilot” is superior to the first episode of the 2005 revival in almost every way. There’s money to burn here.

I mean, checkout this title sequence…

Some time after his last televised appearance, The Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) is transporting the remains of his nemesis The Master back to Gallifrey. This should be a simple task, but somehow The Master’s liquid form breaks out of his chamber and finds its way to the TARDIS’ controls, forcing the time machine to materialise in San Francisco (read: Vancouver) on December 30, 1999. After stepping out of the TARDIS, The Doctor is inadvertently shot by a street gang attacking Chang Lee (Yee Jee Tso) and his friends. The troubled but heroic Chang ensures that this strange old man is taken to the nearby hospital, where he promptly dies on the operating table in the hands of the brilliant Dr. Grace Holloway (Daphne Ashbrook). Since The Doctor is an alien with two hearts, she was naturally ill-prepared to save him. Grace’s questions about her strange patient are answered, however, when the Time Lord regenerates into his eighth incarnation (Paul McGann) whilst in the morgue.

Meanwhile, The Master’s essence has assumed a new body in the form of medic Bruce (Eric Roberts, yes, that Eric Roberts). He plots a scheme to steal The Doctor’s remaining lives whilst recruiting an unwitting Chang as his accomplice, telling Mr. Lee that the TARDIS belongs to him. The new Doctor, with Grace’s reluctant help, must become accustomed to his new body and stop The Master once and for all…

First things first, we have to be eternally grateful to the American financiers for not forcing the Beeb to reboot the concept entirely. Doctor Who has become well-respected partly for its long and consistent continuity; it has built a history that is perfectly suited to a story about a man who travels through time. It would have been disastrous to cast all of that aside and start afresh, but wouldn’t it have been easier to do that? Foreign viewers had less of a stake in the series, after all. To begin with McCoy and give the fans closure on his era is the first sign that everyone involved here wanted to do the original justice, and I completely disagree with those who say this TV movie is too Americanised. Yes, it takes place in San Fan and, yes, it’s good that the brand is back in our hands, but this film was more important to the show’s development than many give it credit for (how many of the plot elements above were recycled in Russell T. Davies’ “Rose” for instance?). The core structure of the story would feel right at home in a modern episode.

As plots go, its never going to be up there with the best of Doctor Who, but taken as a lead-in to a series, it does its job very well indeed. This is a tale told to ease people back into the Whoniverse as well as giving newbies (read: Americans) a chance to catch up. The Doctor always recounts the necessary exposition to his new companions, and I love the idea that he has partial amnesia after a regeneration. It allows the audience to discover the world of Doctor Who along with the title character, and it gives McGann ample room to instill a tortured dimension to the well-trodden hero. When he finally remembers his home planet Gallifrey on a rush of old, warm memories, it feels like a victory. Writer Matthew Jacobs is clearly well-versed in the mythology and keeps the plot moving with enough surprises and even a motorbike chase to keep things interesting. Fans bitch and moan about The Doctor being half-human (“On my mother’s side”), and the fact that he gets all romantic with Grace, but such things are easily overlooked.

As for his “companions,” the two here were definitely protagonists that could have gone some interesting places. Grace is a strong-willed woman who gives as good as she gets, instantly making her better than some of the assistants over the years. She’s also a doctor that can go toe-to-toe with him intellectually, and there’s a delicious irony to the idea of a companion who met The Doctor by killing him. Chang, on the other hand, spends much of his only screen appearance being an antagonistic pawn in The Master’s machinations until the truth comes out. His character might have brought some friction to Eight’s future adventures.

Speaking of The Master, Roberts is having an absolute blast here. He’s never been known as a fine thespian but he’s an entertaining screen presence, hamming it up rather appropriately as one of The Doctor’s best nemeses. By the time he dons the villain’s signature (and ridiculous) costume, you wish he could guest star in the role again. He’s so amusingly cheesy and broad… and therefore so Doctor Who.

Elsewhere, there’s certainly no doubting that this pilot was made by one of the more accomplished production crews Who has ever had. Editor Patrick Lussier has worked on everything from Scream to Drive Angry, composer John Debney is a valued Hollywood musician with credits including Sin City and Iron Man 2, and director Geoffrey Sax went on to make White Noise and Stormbreaker. Whatever you might think of these respective projects, they all brought a sure-footedness to this unjustly maligned effort. This is one of Who‘s most handsomely-produced outings, boasting occasionally cinematic photography, reasonable special effects (which have dated well for a near twenty-year effort), and a general competence that evaded many of the 80s serials. It also has what might be the definitive TARDIS interior. No, really! It’s a Gothic mansion with windows of cascading light and an almost-cyberpunk control room. It looks damned impressive, and Sax delights in finding fresh ways to shoot it, getting into the nooks and crannies of a familiar machine and truly selling the universe at play. This film has problems, yes, but its never less than well-made.

Yet The Movie has always been worth watching for McGann. The Withnail & I star never became the success he should have been, being relegated to supporting roles in films like Alien 3, but he’s an absolutely cracking Doctor. He has that otherworldly quality mixed with the gravitas of a classically-trained Shakespearian actor, and right from the moment he steps out of a morgue locker, he slips into The Doc’s shoes with ease. There is a darkness to this iteration but also a lot of the playful energy that we’ve now come to associate with the Time Lord. McGann is funny, troubled, eccentric, intelligent, and hyperactive, nailing the role. It’s an absolute travesty that the BBC didn’t give him an opportunity to carry on, restricting him to a series of acclaimed audiobooks (especially when his successor, Christopher Eccleston, has made it clear he no longer cares for Who). If this version had gone to series back then, I would have been a devotee for life, and a lot of that is due to how good McGann is in the role.

And the story would have ended there if it wasn’t for Steven Moffat. On a wave of related media in the run-up to the 50th anniversary, the BBC unveiled a short online prequel called “The Night of The Doctor” (below). No one really expected anything special from it, but within a minute, who steps into frame but friggin’ Paul McGann! Almost two decades after he last played the role on film, he returned for a highly secretive short that gave us some sense of closure on his contribution, and made my eleven-year-old self cheer at the possibilities. In less than ten-minutes, he confirms once and for all that he is a Doctor worth remembering.

Give this man a miniseries… anything!

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • The line “Life is wasted on the living!” is a reference to the original Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy radio series. Douglas Adams, author of the Hitchhiker’s Guide series, is a former writer for Doctor Who.
  • When The Doctor rifles through a locker looking for clothes, we see him momentarily admiring a long scarf. This is a reference to the costume worn by the fourth Doctor, Tom Baker.
  • The BBC originally wanted Tom Baker to be The Doctor at the opening of the film, as this version is the one most familiar to American audiences. The American producers insisted on Sylvester McCoy, as they were avid Doctor Who fans, and felt the Seventh Doctor still deserved a proper send-off. BBC One Controller Alan Yentob and executive producer Jo Wright were very resistant to the return of Sylvester McCoy, as they associated him with the decline in popularity and eventual cancellation of the original series. Wright eventually said that McCoy could appear as long as he was “in it for a very short time and didn’t say anything.” This was revealed on a documentary made about the film.
  • The TARDIS set cost $1 million to build and was constructed in the hope that a series would have emerged from the film. Although it does not resemble the control rooms seen in the original series, it has long been established that The Doctor is capable of changing the interior configuration of the TARDIS anytime he chooses, as well as the TARDIS having more than one control room.

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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  1. cobrazombie says:

    If Paul McGann was cast on the show, I might have actually watched it. He’s a far better actor than any recent Doctors.

  2. Jeremy Holloway says:

    How exactly is Eric Roberts not a “fine thespian”? I guess you haven’t seen “The Coca-Cola Kid”; he is an Academy Award Nominee after all. What I find amusing about fans criticizing his performance in the TV Movie is how those very same “fans” generally praise John Simm in the role even though The Master never before behaved as if he was Cesar Romero’s understudy on the 1960s era Batman tv series. And since I just referenced Batman there, I should point out Roberts had a crucial role in “The Dark Knight”. But I digress.

    McGann owned the role as The Doctor, and he still does. Grace was the smartest [human] female companion onscreen since Liz Shaw and she’s definitely leaps and bounds better than her onscreen successor. The relationship between the two of them is certainly far more believable than between the Tenth Doctor and Rose, just saying.

    And as for the half-human reveal, it’s always made perfect sense! Why does The Doctor always save the Earth? Why did the First Doctor actively push his own granddaughter – the only surviving member of his family – into the arms of a human male if there’s not even a trace of humanity in his ancestry? Why did the Third Doctor refer to the Earth as “home” as he lay dying? Why did the Seventh Doctor warn about the pains of the offspring of inter-species relationships as if he were speaking from experience? And why was the Eleventh Doctor’s left heart attacked by that cube in “The Power of Three” when he himself had explained the cubes only attacked human hearts? Hmmm…

    • Dave James says:

      Cheers for the comment, and I’m well-aware of what Roberts has done in his career, but we’ll have to agree to disagree on his actual talent. Glad we agree on everything else, though. The Doctor’s “human” nature is certainly intriguing when you list those precedents.

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