Doctor Who (1996), dir. Geoffrey Sax


Is it bad that I love this film so much? Doctor Who is a major part of my identity. The TV Movie was one of my first ventures into classic Who, alongside stories like Survival, cementing McCoy and McGann as, still to this day, two of my favourite Doctors.

But this wasn’t my introduction to Paul McGann’s role as the Doctor. Instead, thank Big Finish. Late 2005 or 2006, I stayed up late for a BBC Radio 7 omnibus broadcast of Shada (2003). Come 2006, I was recording The Stones of Venice, Invaders from Mars and The Chimes of Midnight onto DVD-Rs. By 2007, I was listening to the adventures of the Eighth Doctor and Lucie, before I got distracted and fell behind mid-way through Phobos and promptly gave up (I’ve still yet to catch up). Fans may complain of McGann’s limited appearance – but he already had an era for me, before I came into it.

Perhaps my nostalgia for the film may overshadow it somewhat, but it still holds up as a very competently made backdoor pilot. The production history of the film is very interesting, charting between numerous major (and minor) names, from Steven Spielberg, to Leonard Nimoy, to John Leekley. But there are many names to praise: Alan Yentob, looked more favourably towards the programme than Michael Grade, whilst the failure of The Dark Dimension and Last of the Time Lords helped to pave the way towards its return.  Meanwhile, Margaret Thatcher’s government saw the BBC forced to invest more in independent television. Many of the contenders for the part were familiar names, including John Hurt and Peter Capaldi.

If the film feels disjointed, it’s because it was, trying to meet the needs of different producers and parties, melding different drafts together. It kicked into production within weeks of script completion, still undergoing last-minute revisions, and only months before broadcast. The half-human aspect of the Doctor is only a holdover from Leekley’s concept of the show. Leekley’s concept had some interesting elements too – exploring the mythology of Gallifrey, and launching the Doctor into an overarching quest for the scrolls of Rassilon and into the battlegrounds of World War II (which would be explored more during the new series).

Whilst other potential revivals for the series were steeped in nostalgia, the TV Movie sought to move the series forward. Seagal expressed his dismay at the script for The Dark Dimension, whilst Downtime (1995), sought to relive the nostalgia of 1960s and 70s Doctor Who. But the TV Movie’s echoes can be found throughout the new series.

Whilst some of the criticisms laid against the film is that it’s “too Americanised” (I’d retort that it’s “too Canadian”, though filming in Canada is a very American thing to do), that isn’t exactly a criticism. Although some of the CGI effects are a little dated, the production values are high, the sets are designed well, scenes alive with background extras and attention to detail, the editing is solid, and Geoffrey Sax’s direction helps the film a lot. Think of our introduction to Chinatown: we open with the eye of a fish about to be sliced up, as we pan out through a window into the street and Chang Lee running through. It’s the type of direction we rarely even see today. The film never feels completely like a film or completely like a TV pilot – but the cinematography lends it a very cinematic quality. It’s ‘Americanised’ enough to actually be able to afford to license music and lend the world some reality. John Debney’s memorable operatic score (though not recorded by an actual orchestra), shows the potential of a new series, removed from the synth scores of the 80s.

Grace is as strong a companion as any in the new series. She’s a doctor, like Martha. She stands up for the right thing, quitting her job because her superior won’t listen to her curiosity around the anomaly of the Doctor’s two hearts. She drives him away from the hospital, even when she’s unsure. Ultimately, she saves the day.

Like the new series, it fuses multiple genres. In our introduction to Grace, it could be another episode of ER (1994-2009), presenting a sitcom-esque hospital complete with colorful characters, like joke-cracking morgue attendant Pete. During the chase scene, it feels like an action movie. When the Doctor and Grace open the beryllium clock, it might as well be a safe-cracking scene in a heist movie. There are elements of comedy: a cop drives a motorcycle into the TARDIS; Pete faints at the resurrected sight of the Doctor; brainless scientists wave their hands around like “idk”.

The Doctor’s prescience about time steeps him within Earth history, namedropping Puccini, Freud and an “intimate” encounter with Marie Curie. He knows where Gareth will be ten years from now based on a question on his midterm, knows Grace’s future with her ex-boyfriend, and knows where Chang Lee will be in Christmas 2000. But the film is obsessed with time too – continually, we see shots of clocks, whilst the film’s conceit is an atomic clock; as the physical properties of time bends, the film’s resolution turns back time; Grace wants enough time to save a human life, and hold back death.

In many ways, it’s a conventional regeneration story. The Doctor returns to Earth unexpectedly, encounters a new companion initially hesitant towards him, but by the resolution they form a chemistry and have defeated an enemy. One common complaint is that McCoy’s appearance doesn’t give McGann’s Doctor enough time to shine. But it also reframes the narrative in an interesting way: it is a story about life over death, as the Master tries to claim the Doctor’s lives in order to further his own (very much a continuation of his possession of Tremas, creating a ‘final battle’ with the Doctor). We are introduced knowing the Doctor has multiple lives and is immortal of sorts. He conquers life, almost dying because of Grace’s anaesthetic hampering the regenerative process. Life and hope is a central aspect of this Doctor – from a sense of joie de vivre to Molly O’Sullivan as a symbol of hope in Dark Eyes (2012-14), to his  role as a reluctant warrior in The Night of the Doctor (2013).

My main criticisms of Sylvester McCoy’s presence is to do with performance, unfortunately. He performs a handful of lines with mediocre delivery, requiring either a larger role, setting up his demise in the first act, or a smaller role. He dies a small yet very dark death, not a grandiose regeneration story: he exits the TARDIS only to be gunned down, an accident that could have happened anywhere else. Lying on an operating table and forced unconscious under anaesthetic, but he, the unrelenting fan, won’t stop; in a parallel to Frankenstein (1931), brought a new energy of life under the electricity of a storm.

The universe is a dangerous place. It’s refreshing to have a story about regeneration, rather than because of regeneration. Yet the cinematography and editing adds no gravitas to this, acting as a plot device, a necessary event but given little emotion. How much cooler would it have been were we introduced to the story from Lee’s POV (as we are from Rose’s in Rose, discovering the corpse of the Doctor in a disused backalley, thereby leading more ambiguity to the character and allowing more to be set up later on?

His habit of sitting alone in the TARDIS, reading books, drinking tea and listening to records presents a wonderful idea for a more weathered Doctor, but the circularity of the Eighth Doctor sitting back in the TARDIS and doing exactly the same thing subtracts his characteristic individuality.

The Doctor becomes a Jesus figure: the shroud in the morgue; his quest for identity within a human world; Pete’s exclamations of “oh my God!” at the sight of him; Grace dismissing the notion of the “Second Coming”; Grace later positioning the Master as the Devil and the metal crown of nails could just as easily be the crown of thorns (or possibly something out of Hellraiser or a BDSM device); the TARDIS granting grace to all who are its passengers.

Setting an Earth story set in San Francisco, the film gives us a more diverse cast than even the Andrew Cartmel era could give us; we see Chang Lee actually existing within Chinatown, outside of the yellowface of The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977). Although gang member perhaps isn’t the most positive role, in an era today of colourblind casting, seeing Lee exist within his actual community is a relief.

Chang Lee could have been a much better character, but he needed to be more developed. To have one of the semi-antagonists of the film but also potential companions be a gang member who carries a gun is interesting: a street urchin with a troubled past but a nice soul, becoming an adoptive son to the Master. He isn’t sure where his life if headed. When the Master grants him anything in the world, he chooses money. But this could have been the perfect way to show his hardships: surely his greatest wish is to see his family again, to get off the streets, for his friends not to die? He is redeemed through his resurrection in temporal grace, but the script could have done with another rewrite.

Unfortunately, the film is let down by its unsubtle melodrama. A poster advertises London in Chinatown, right next to where the TARDIS materialises. The Doctor reads The Time Machine (1895), because he flies a time machine. Bruce has a space alarm clock, because he’s five years old and about to be possessed by an alien. The Doctor is compared to Frankenstein, because Universal have the rights. The TARDIS’ interior is impressive, but the Eye of Harmony is still a gothic cathedral complete with flames and bats.

As Bruce, Eric Roberts is comedic and likeable – but none of that carries over to his hammy performance as the Master, complete with a cackling, maniacal laugh, an implausible false identity (whereas Roger Delgado’s Master could pass for a vicar), a propensity for ripping off his fingernails and wearing a lavish cloak (“I always dresssssss for the occasion.”) He never takes off his sunglasses, driving around SF in greased hair and a leather jacket,  whilst referring to Lee as “the Asian child”. The Master’s supposed dramatic ‘final battle’ with the Doctor devolves into nothing but the two kicking each other, the Master leaping into the Eye of Harmony whilst speaking in a comical voice, flitting between the Doctor’s face as if it were The Mask (1994). I’m not sure Christopher Lloyd could have done any better than Roberts, though it would perhaps have brought the viewing figures up – but what we needed was a British American.

But there’s something that feels so perfect when we see the Doctor, Grace and Chang Lee together, looking out upon the stars from a projection upon the console. Out there is Gallifrey and the distant galaxies. Through everything that has happened, we have the perfect Doctor/companion team – but licensing rights means that will never happen. We’ve seen glimpses into Grace’s future, with the Doctor reuniting with her a couple of times. We’ve seen the Eighth Doctor be given multiple British companions, but there’s something about a doctor and a teenager from SF that would be more appealing than another Edwardian adventuress, northern lass or a nurse from space. There’s fertile ground to be explored – it’s just a shame that this was the closure.


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