Doctor Who: The TV Movie Review
No one wanted to believe it was over. Not really. Even the BBC refused to use the word “cancelled.” (Unsurprising, really, given the furore that surrounded the first attempt to kill off the show). When the Doctor and Ace headed for home at the end of Survival, on the 6th December 1989, it was hard to imagine that this really could be the end of the Doctor’s thrilling adventures in Time and Space. For twenty-six seasons he had fought some of the most awesome adversaries the universe could throw at him – Daleks, Cybermen, the Myrka (well, okay, maybe not the last) – and now surely he couldn’t be about to felled by, of all things, Coronation Street? And yet, in a cutthroat world dominated by ratings (and not helped, to be fair, by some critical apathy) it seemed so. After its first reprieve in 1986, following Michael Grade's attempt tried to bury the show, the series was always on borrowed time. A new actor in the title role, the to-this-day controversial choice of Sylvester McCoy, gave the series a little momentum that managed to keep production running for three extra years but ultimately it wasn’t enough. Moved from its traditional Saturday evening slot and placed opposite Britain’s Favourite Soap, it could do little to halt falling audience figures and dislike among the upper echelons of the BBC, and in late 1989 producer John Nathan-Turner was told there would be no Season Twenty-Seven.
Fortunately, it was a show that refused to die. A year or so after the last episode, original novels featuring McCoy’s Doctor began being published monthly (subsequently joined by “Missing Adventures” with past Doctors), regenerating the series into a literary series. Doctor Who Magazine helped keep the flame alive too, a publication one might have expected to have folded shortly after its parent series but which instead went from strength to strength over the next few years, developing an increasingly sophisticated approach to "the children's show that adults love too." Conventions around the country continued to attract high numbers, and for a while the culture of the fan community became arguably as important as the show itself, the fans literally becoming the lifeblood of the series.
Even amongst the general public there was still an affection for the series, generations who had grown up being thrilled and scared in equal measures by the Doctor’s adventures (although not hiding behind the sofa: I know no one who ever did this, and don’t believe it happened more than twice ever). Every time there was even a whiff of a television or film revival the newspapers jumped on it eagerly, reporting even the most absurd rumours (an enthusiasm that it has been heartening to see has continued with the new series). Between the end of the McCoy era and Paul McGann’s casting we were treated to all sorts of rumours about who would enter the TARDIS next, from Eddie Izzard to Anthony Hopkins to Denzil Washington to - yeuch - Sylvester Stallone, via most of the Monty Python cast. Steven Spielberg was posited as a possible director for a big screen Hollywood treatment. Ninety-nine percent of the rumours were absolute rubbish, but they were fun (aside from the Stallone one, which was just horrible) and showed that there was still an appetite and interest beyond the confines of fandom for the series which had been an indisputable part of so many people’s childhoods.
Because there was such goodwill towards it, there was always a feeling that, at some point, it would come back as something, but there was still a sense of shock when it actually happened. The casting of Paul McGann by American producer Philip Segal (the man responsible for Seaquest) seemed to come almost out of the blue, despite the fact Segal had been floating around the series for as long as it had been off the air. McGann, up until that point best known as the I from Withnail and I, was hailed as an excellent choice, and for a while it seemed that the period 1989-96 would just be seen as another hiatus between seasons. Doctor Who, it seemed, was back.
This impression was reinforced by Sylvester McCoy reprising his role as the last (at that time) television Doctor, with whom the film begins. The Doctor is given the task of transporting his arch-nemesis The Master’s remains back to his home planet of Gallifrey after the latter has been executed. En route the remains, for no readily apparent reason, reanimate and cause the TARDIS to make an emergency landing, in San Francisco, date December 30th 1999. No sooner has the Doctor stepped out of his TARDIS to make repairs than he is gunned down by a street gang. Taken to a hospital he is treated by the well-meaning Dr Grace Holloway (Daphne Ashbrook) while the Master manages to take over the body of the ambulance driver, Bruce (Eric Roberts). Forced to regenerate into Paul McGann, the Doctor suffers from his usual post-regenerative trauma, unaware that the clock is ticking and the Master is planning to take over his body before midnight on New Year’s Eve.
Regrettably, the end product was not everything we had hoped it would be. One of the film’s main problem – and it has many – is that it tries too hard to pander to existing fans while making no concessions at all to those not in the know. Producer Philip Segal seems to be desperate to persuade people that, despite the fact the Doctor has made a transatlantic journey, he is still the same as he always was, and tries to ram in as many continuity references as he possibly can. It’s almost like a checklist of Who clichés – we have the Daleks (although what’s happened to their voice boxes goodness knows), the sonic screwdriver, jelly babies, Gallifrey, the Master, Rassilon, regeneration, all appearing within the first ten minutes. The problem Segal doesn’t seem to appreciate is that these aren’t the thing that make Doctor Who – they are but minutiae that colour the background, details that add to but don’t make the legend. What really matters – a good, straightforward story with plenty of heart and a sprinkling of magic – is almost completely missing, making the whole affair seem rather pointless. Meanwhile, anyone not up on their Doctor Who lore is just lost, staring blankly and wondering what the hell is going on. Some will wonder exactly what is the correlation between the weird blue box spinning through space and the gigantic interiors we see the Doctor moving through – the whole interior-is-bigger-than-the-exterior thing is not explained until well into the film – and also exactly why we should be caring about any of this. Until our first sight of Grace we are not given anything to latch onto at all, no human reference point, with the script going by the assumption that we are interested in the Doctor and his goings-on. The result is, ironically, alienation, and it is little surprise that so many Americans turned off so quickly.
The story is, frankly, rubbish and has so many plot holes it’s not funny. A lot just doesn’t make any sense at all. The fact the Master’s plans can only come to fruition at midnight is silly – there is some waffle about gravitational changes on Earth “that only happen once every thousand years” (convenient date then), but why would events occurring in the TARDIS, which is supposed to be an entirely self-contained space, be affected by outside gravitational changes? For fans, the contradictions are even worse (ironic, given Segal’s attempts to placate) – since when do Time Lords become snakes when they are exterminated? Since when can the Eye of Harmony be opened only by a human? Since when was the Doctor half-human (for me, the worst crime of all)? And isn’t the whole point of regeneration to happen before the Doctor dies? Odd when such attention is paid to the past that so much is gotten wrong…
The main plus in the film is the wonderful performance by Paul McGann. Despite his limited screentime he manages to get across exactly what kind of Doctor he is, a man full of warmth, compassion and sheer joie de vivre, a welcome contrast to the last couple and a man who you feel you could trust with your very life. A potentially dicey moment in the script, where Grace finally decides to trust him, is made completely believable by his charisma and personality, his energetic enthusiasm and sparkle in his eye. Witness the scene in the park where he finally regains his memories – one of the few moments that feel like they do belong in “proper” Doctor Who. He dances around the park, reclaiming his past before becoming so overwhelmed with joy at the fact he knows who he is again that he grabs Grace and kisses her. This was incredibly controversial back when the film was first released, but with McGann’s Doctor it is perfectly acceptable – the kiss is both platonic and passionate, passionate for life and living, and in this context is the descendant of such scenes as the second Doctor comforting Victoria in Tomb of the Cybermen or Sarah Jane’s emotional departure in The Hand of Fear. McGann is the Byron of the Doctors, and one we really could have done with seeing a lot more of (thank goodness for Big Finish!)
His principal companion, Daphne Ashbrook, is pleasant enough with just a hint of a spark that might have come into play had the film gone to series. Her doctor is “tired of living but afraid of dying”, as the Doctor puts it, with a insensitive boyfriend and a high pressure profession. The actress does a good job of showing her character slowly coming round to believing the doctor, and if her weeping at the opera is a crass shortcut to show she is sensitive we should probably blame the director more than the actress. Eric Roberts, on the other hand, is a bit of a pain. His is a blandly monotonous performance, coming across as a sub-Terminator without the sparkle in the eyes, giving the impression he is bored with the entire affair. Even at the end when he is given outrageous lines (such as the infamous “I always dress for the occasion”) he does so without much enthusiasm and isn’t fit to stand in the shadow of the original Master, the great Roger Delgado, or even the sometimes-lambasted-but-actually-pretty-good Anthony Ainley (although he certainly keeps up the campness of the latter).
Direction is equally mediocre. Geoffrey Sax takes at time rather odd decisions on how to approach the material – he spends half a minute establishing Chinatown, including a completely irrelevant scene inside a house, when that setting is of little consequence. He chooses to imbue the regeneration scenes with a religious significance which is obvious and trite, while the climax is overblown, all odd angles and sudden zooms (although to be fair the script does inspire such histrionics). It's passable but nothing more than you would expect from a journeyman director working on US television and is just as insipid, much like the film in general.
And yet. And yet. Every so often the film breaks from its constraints and briefly feels like Doctor Who again. There’s the afore-mentioned scene in the park. There are little touches of dialogue – the Doctor giving advice to various people about what they should and shouldn’t do in the future. The moment when the Doctor gets past a policeman by threatening to shoot himself. Little glimpses like this show what could have been if more restraint had been shown. That this is helped by the leading man there’s no doubt but that’s not the only reason. The console room of the TARDIS is magnificent, a wonderful extrapolation of how the Doctor really would have it, overflowing with books and mementos from past travels (although the less-said about the silly Cloister Room, which continues the Christian allegory with its Cathedral-like pretensions, the better), warm and cosy and yet undoubtedly alien at the same time. Even the theme isn’t that bad – it’s a little tinny but it’s certainly no worse than some of the versions we got in the 80s.
Ultimately, however, it just doesn’t work, and it’s no surprise it didn’t take off. In America it was faced with a big episode of Roseanne and was annihilated in the ratings, not helped by the fact no one had a clue what it was about and didn’t really want to find out. In the UK it got nearly ten million viewers but this wasn’t enough to put the series into regular production. And, let’s be honest, it was a pretty good thing it didn’t. Although it was bitterly disappointing at the time, had the series been commissioned it would have been, on the evidence of the pilot, a very different beast to the series it was ostensibly following on from. If truth be told, it would have been Doctor Who in name only. Although it would have been based around a Time Lord called the Doctor who travelled around in a rickety old Police Box, it would have been a soulless interpretation, shorn of the magic and wonder that lies at the heart of the series. It would have become a generic American sci-fi show, which would have been infinitely worse for the show’s heritage – it deserves so much more than that. Paul McGann would have become the literal embodiment of our hero: a wandering soul, in a place he didn’t really belong in, trying to do his best to make things work for those around him. But, for once, I feel it would have been even beyond even the Doctor’s amazing abilities to save this crisis.
But it doesn’t matter anymore. The Doctor is coming back for real this time...
The disk has the same template as all the other Who releases bar The Five Doctors. The main menu has clips running on one side with the options laid on a grey background on the other, with appropriate submenus. The layout of these disks are a little drab but functional enough.
The movie is presented in its original 4:3 print, with a really bad layer-change halfway through at an ill-judged moment. The Video itself is not very good, both soft and full of digital artefacting - I actually found it difficult to get suitable screen captures for this review. The Audio, too, is functional but, unsurprisingly given the circumstances in which the film was made, doesn't have any bells or whistles on it. Some of the classic series disks, especially those with the 5.1 mixes by Mark Ayres, put this soundtrack to shame.
Commentary by Geoffrey Sax
The commentaries on the Who disks have got increasingly better as they've gone along, but this is an example of an early, rather dull one (see also: The Robots of Death and Spearhead From Space). Sax has some interesting things to say but his general tone is a bit boring and there are some lengthy pauses. It would have been enlivened immeasurably by Paul McGann's participation and it's a shame he doesn't get to have his say on the film now. Pleasingly, though, the commentary is subtitled, something that isn't implemented on many of the other Who disks and is a definite bonus.
These are always a highlight of the Who disks, the DVD version of the "Archives" from Doctor Who Magazine, and work well to compliment the director's commentary. Once more they mix trivia from the actual film with Who history and these maintain the disks' general high standards.
Four Audio Tracks
An unusual but welcome extra, this has the complete versions of four pieces of music that appear in the film, most notably In a Dream, the record the Doctor is listening to in the TARDIS. Although its singer is a bit scrawly, the track is strangely hypnotic and works well, both in the film itself and as music in its own right.
BBC 1 Trailers
Two trailers shown in the run up to the first broadcast on British TV. They’re pretty good, actually, and give the impression of an exciting adventure ahead with well chosen clips.
A typical featurette like you’ve seen on every American DVD ever, four minutes of brief talking heads (here Sylvester McCoy, Paul McGann, Daphne Ashbrook, Eric Roberts, Geoffrey Sax and Philip Segal) and a few clips. Again, totally incomprehensible to anyone who doesn’t know their Daleks from their Drahvins.
Slightly extended versions of the interviews used for the Fox Promo that are made up of strictly promotional soundbites (I find it very unlikely Eric Roberts used to settle down to watch Doctor Who in 1973). The only interesting one is one with Philip Segal recorded in 2001, in which the producer looks back on the making of the TV Movie. It's a little downbeat in that Segal talks about what went wrong with the film, but good to see and is a nice touch.
Behind the Scenes Compilation
Features a look at the shooting of three scenes – the Doctor being gunned down, the encounter with the cop and the Master taking over Bruce’s body (although this latter concentrates more on the riveting spectacle of Eric Roberts having his make-up done). Feels a bit like spying on your neighbours through the garden fence – you can see what’s going on in the distance but don’t really get a feel for the atmosphere.
Philip Segal Tours the TARDIS Set
Two minutes of Segal pointing out the TARDIS set is crammed full of replica memorabilia of past adventures, ending with close up shots of said pieces.
Two Alternative Scenes
The two scenes in question are the one in which the Doctor and Grace get the traffic cop to hand over his bike's keys, and the Eighth Doctor's first meeting with Grace in the lift. Neither lasts longer than a minute and it's easy to see why they were cut. The video quality's not great either.
Isolated Music Score
Does exactly what it says, listen to John Debny's score on its own.
A nice collection of photos, including pretty much all of the publicity shots, including the very first press call after Paul McGann was announced.
The TVM (as it is known) is really not very good, but is rescued from being completely unwatchable by Paul McGann, a great Eighth Doctor. For his addition to the show's legacy alone we should be glad the TVM exists, but in of itself, it's very far from the series it was trying to continue. The disk's extras are okay - not as laden as some of the later ones but that's understandable - but it's a shame Paul McGann (and for that matter writer Matthew Jacobs who is notable by his absence from any extras at all) weren't roped in for some reflective pieces like the Segal one. Truth be told, there's nothing here that demands a purchase except for hardened fans.