Doctor Who (The Movie) ****

Paul McGann excels in this abortive attempt to reboot the Time Lord in 1996

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Doctor Who story guide
Mark Braxton
Mark Braxton
Doctor Who (The Movie) ****

Story 156

“The Eye of Harmony is open. If I don’t close it, get my Tardis and the Master off this planet, this planet will no longer exist” – the Doctor 

Storyline
Returning to Gallifrey with the remains of the Master – executed on Skaro by the Daleks – the Doctor’s Tardis is thrown off course and crash-lands in San Francisco, Earth, in December 1999. Caught up amid gang warfare, the Doctor is shot and regenerates into his eighth embodiment. The Master hijacks a paramedic’s body and tricks a young gangster called Chang Lee to help him access the Tardis’s Eye of Harmony. As time runs out on the old millennium, the Doctor and cardiologist Grace Holloway fight to repel the Master’s plan – to take the Doctor’s own existence – and save the Earth from the corrosive effects of the Tardis power source. Despite Grace’s attraction to the Doctor, she turns down his offer to travel with him. 

First UK transmission
Monday 27 May 1996

Production
Location filming: January-February 1996 in Vancouver, Canada. Locations include BC Children’s Hospital; 1998 Ogden Street; Hadden Park; Pacific Space Centre; and Andy Livingstone Park.

Studio filming: January-February 1996 at 8651 Eastlake Drive, Burnaby, BC, Canada.

Cast
The Doctor - Paul McGann
The Doctor - Sylvester McCoy
Dr Grace Holloway - Daphne Ashbrook
Chang Lee - Yee Jee Tso
The Master - Eric Roberts
Curtis - Dolores Drake
Dr Swift - Michael David Simms
Gareth - Jeremy Radick
Miranda - Eliza Roberts
Pete - William Sasko
Professor Wagg - Dave Hurtubise
Salinger - John Novak
Wheeler - Catherine Lough
Ted - Joel Wirkkunen
Motorcycle policeman - Bill Croft
News anchors - Mi-Jung Lee, Joanna Piros
Security man - Dee Jay Jackson
Old Master - Gordon Tipple

Crew
Writer - Matthew Jacobs
Designer - Richard Hudolin
Incidental music - John Debney, John Sponsler, Louis Febre
Producer - Peter V Ware
Executive producers - Philip David Segal, Alex Beaton
Executive producer for the BBC - Jo Wright
Director - Geoffrey Sax

RT review by Mark Braxton
I vividly remember settling down – with some excitement, a little trepidation and more than nine million other viewers – to this massive TV event: a big-budget, feature-length resurrection of the series after an unprecedented, seven-year hiatus. I also recall the numbing disappointment I felt 90 minutes later.

Sixteen years on, watching it all the way through for only the second time, I wouldn’t say I’ve revised my opinion. But I enjoy more things about it than I did, and find it fascinating as a televisual pontoon between two eras of the show. 

Back, briefly, to 1996. The kick of seeing expensive-looking special effects rendering an angry-red planet of the Daleks, a voiceover from an unfamiliar Doctor, and a gorgeous new, Gothic-style Tardis control room, is hard to describe now, seven years into a universally acclaimed, rebooted Who. But that was my initial feeling as the Movie began. The idea of the Master’s death by Dalek firing squad and his bequest for the Doctor to confer his ashes didn’t make sense, but I went with it… 

However, when the action switched to San Francisco (in reality Vancouver), my frown deepened, and I started to think the wrong people were in charge. 

In many ways exec-producer, Doctor Who fan and British expat Philip Segal was over a barrel, juggling the needs and wishes of the American and British investors. Not all co-productions trumpet themselves as such, but the Movie does, and not in a good way.

The bid to break the show in America was a brave, even pioneering one. And time has shown that the introduction of slicker action and a faster pace, in common with most US series, was a smart move. But grafting on a shootout, motorbike race and police-sireny, Streets of San Francisco-style chases stripped Doctor Who of its character and subtlety. 

I’m reminded of that hilarious scene in I’m Alan Partridge in which the furious Alan – an 007 fanatic – lambasts his friends with “Stop getting Bond wrong!” Yes, the researchers here have done their job, riffling through the Doctor Who glossary for Gallifrey and Rassilon, the sonic screwdriver and binary cardiovascular system, but so many scenes clang like a bent Cloister Bell.

The Doctor drinking tea and reading The Time Machine is just horrible. The agenda seems to be to flag up the Doctor as English and eccentric rather than alien and different. That ghastly song, In a Dream by Pat Hodge, written specially for the film, is another misstep. And as for the CGI see-through snake/slug incarnation of the Master... argh! Stop getting Doctor Who wrong!

There is a middle ground of material that shows an intelligent, novel approach. The Frankenstein imagery of the Doctor’s regeneration is a nice idea to highlight the series’ revival. And the Messianic parallels (bedsheet for a shroud, mortuary door for a tomb stone, electrode-diadem for a crown of thorns) are interesting. Director Geoffrey Sax, to be fair, does a creditable job on these sequences. But it’s all rather laboured and inappropriate. The rebooted Who, of course, went on to explore the idea of Doctor as both monster and saviour, but with a much lighter touch.

Which brings us to probably the best aspect of the Movie: the Doctor himself. It still impresses me that Sylvester McCoy, acknowledging the importance of Who lore, flew to Canada to film his transformation. It’s little more than an extended cameo for the longest-running Doctor (nine years from 1987 to 1996, on and off), but as McCoy realised, it was important for Doctor Who. It’s also the first use of CGI in a regeneration.

The Movie ditches the unwritten rule that a new Doctor must be his own man, and relies far too much on the past (jelly babies, a velvet smoking jacket, stealing clothes from a hospital). So it’s remarkable that in just 90 minutes, McGann comes over as one of the most charming incarnations of the Time Lord. It’s a fizzing tribute to the Withnail & I/Monocled Mutineer star that, lumbered with so much baggage, pressure, and flawed scripting, he establishes the eighth Doctor as such a presence: smiley, excitable, childlike and lovable.

Tied in with McGann’s Doctor is writer Matthew Jacobs’s success in bringing out the romance and playfulness of the show (“Ah, Da Vinci. He had a cold when he drew that”; “Don’t be sad, Grace, you’ll do amazing things”). And there are seismic implications to some of the innovations: the Doctor’s semi-humanity is an intelligent introduction; the showboating kiss isn’t but it does pave the way for what will follow. As does the character of Grace, economically established and gamely played by Daphne Ashbrook, who reminds me of a young Lynsey de Paul. The proactive role of Grace here is almost identical to that of Rose in the 2005 relaunch. In both, it’s the companion who saves the day while the Doctor is tied up. 

Otherwise, the Movie confirms what we already know. Although if you watch the moment where the Doctor says: “Grace, don’t you see, I have 13 lives”, you’ll see the scene has been overdubbed. You may hear the number “13”, but I’m pretty sure McGann’s lips aren’t saying that…

So many good things – the disappearance of the Tardis roof to show planets and stars is truly magical – so many bad – I hated Eric Roberts as the Master – and so many wasted opportunities – Chang exploring the Police Box is completely flubbed. 

If only the plot made sense, and wasn’t resolved so insultingly: fans expect more than a few wires being connected under the Tardis console. And it doesn’t take a genius to see why the pilot wasn’t picked up. In particular, there are two massive shooting-in-foot moments. The Doctor rewinding time to save lives is just stupid and superficial. If he can do that every week, where’s the jeopardy, or the reason to watch? And having set Grace up as a companion (and Chang Lee as possibly another), making her stay on Earth at the end is nonsensical. A pilot should always end with an ellipsis, not a full stop. As the Doc goes back to his cup of tea and Time Machine, you can’t help thinking, “Who cares?”

We can only wonder how the show might have evolved had the Movie been better and born fruit. The optimism was always there. As McGann said, “I signed a contract to say that if the pilot was picked up I was theirs for six years.” Six years! Whatever else one might think of the Movie, McGann would have been wonderful.

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Radio Times archive

RT had lots of coverage for the Movie.

It started in February 1996 with a profile of Paul McGann page one  page two

...and resumed with the Spring Bank Holiday issue (25-31 May)  RT cover

A three-page splash as Alison Graham went on set in Vancouver
page one  page two  page three

There was also a 16-page supplement, looking back over all Who. You'll find the whole item as a PDF on the BBC DVD, but here are the cover and pages specific to the Movie: page one  page two

Plus: the RT preview, the episode billing and a page of Reader Offers (no longer available of course!)  

Third Doctor Jon Pertwee died the week before the Movie aired. The RT letters page carried an obituary by Elisabeth Sladen.

RT's coverage was praised in Letters (RT 8 June) while the mailbag brought a mixed response to the Movie Letters (RT 15 June)

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