As I popped the DVD into my DVD player, I was treated to a trailer for a DVD release of the Revived Series. In fact, it’s only because of the Revived Series that I can even talk about the TV movie. It wasn’t released on DVD for the longest time. And even then, it was initially unavailable in America. Thanks to the popularity of the Revived Series, this is no longer the case.
Now that we live in a time when Doctor Who is no longer scarce, the TV movie is no longer an oasis of Doctor Who in the middle of the “hiatus.” As such, it often ends up ignored by fans of the Revived Series or the Classic Series, as it fits into neither very well.
The TV movie was meant to be a jumping-on point for a whole new generation of viewers. As a fan of both Classic Who and New Who, I will do my best to explain things that fans of one series or the other might not understand. Heck, I’ll even explain things for those of you who are completely new-to-Who. Because I’ll tell you right now, this TV movie makes a lot of assumptions that its audience is already familiar with Doctor Who. So without further ado, let’s take a look at the Eighth Doctor’s only full-length Doctor Who adventure.
|At least, full-length with visuals. There's a lot of 8th Doctor audio plays out there.|
Doctor (voice-over): “It was on the planet Skaro that my old enemy, the Master, was finally put on trial.”
Well, that didn’t take long. How far in am I?
Doctor (voice-over): “They say he listened calmly as his list of evil crimes was read and sentence passed.”
Since we’re not even thirty seconds in, I’ll make it as quick and simple as I can. Planet Skaro is home to an evil alien race called the Daleks.
|Since the TV movie doesn't show them, they look like this.|
As for the Master, he’s like an evil version of the Doctor. Instead of simply seeing the universe with his time machine, he wants to rule it.
So here’s a fair question: What’s with this “trial” BS? And why would they care about the Master’s long list of crimes against non-Dalek races?
Well, I’ll tell you. In an earlier draft of the script, the Master had tried to take over the Dalek Empire with his own enhanced squadron of Daleks. Such modification of “perfection” was seen as blasphemy by the Daleks, so they had him executed. But when you remove that context from the story, it makes the Daleks look like the universe’s criminal justice system.
|Which may actually be the case, apparently.|
So now that I’ve used up about 400 words talking about the first thirty seconds, I’ll cut to the chase. The Daleks execute the Master by way of explosion, but grant him one last request. The Master wants his old enemy, the Doctor, to take his ashes back to their homeplanet of Gallifrey. What, did the Daleks just call up their old enemy the Doctor for a favor?
|An evil empire using Apple devices? Sounds about right.|
Anyway, we soon see the familiar shape of the Doctor’s time machine, the TARDIS. Namely, the shape of a 1960’s police box.
I’ll admit right now, this movie might not be the best introduction to the show for newcomers. And yet, that’s really what it was supposed to be, even though it assumes that either you’re already familiar with the show or that you won’t question some of its sillier aspects.
Long story short for any newcomers to Doctor Who: The TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space) can change its outside appearance to blend in, but it got stuck in the form of a police box when the BBC realized how expensive it would be to come up with new exteriors for every episode.
Inside the TARDIS, the Doctor is putting the Master’s ashes away for safekeeping while explaining in a voice-over that each Time Lord gets twelve “regenerations,” which completely heal the body at the cost of replacing their actor with a new guy. This gives each Time Lord thirteen lives, and the Master had already used all of his up.
The Doctor puts the Master’s ashes into a fancy chest and remotely locks it with his handy-dandy sonic screwdriver, returned to the series for the first time since it was written out of the series 80’s because it was a bit of a deus ex machina. Huh. Makes me wonder about what the old writers would think about its usage in the Revived Series….
Anyway, as he looks into the mirror, we get the first glimpse of….
|Radagast the Brown?|
Anyway, the Doctor is locking up the Master’s remains because the Master actually used up all his regenerations back during the Third Doctor’s tenure. Since then, the Master developed this nasty habit of stealing people’s bodies. Hence locking him up just to be on the safe side
The Doctor goes back to the TARDIS control room to sit down with a nice cuppa and listen to some royalty-free music while reading The Time Machine. So, remember when I said that the TARDIS can alter its exterior? It can also change the appearance of the interior. And sweet Rassilon, this TARDIS interior is beautiful. The production designer went with this steampunkish, Jules Verne aesthetic that I can’t help but love. It’s a far cry from the old TARDIS interiors, though there will always be a place in my heart for those low-budget sets.
|A beautiful man and his beautiful machine.|
|Oh my God, he's eating a jelly baby like the Fourth Doctor!|
But suddenly, the Master’s containment chest start’s a rumbling, causing an even larger disaster. The Doctor’s phonograph is skipping. After sorting that out, the Doctor’s tea suddenly jumps into the air as the chest cracks in half. Some kind of CGI blob inspired by Terminator 2 comes oozing out and makes its way to the central console of the TARDIS, causing all sorts of electrical havoc. The Doctor rushes over to flip switches, turn dials, and just generally try every button on the console, but the main screen still shows that there’s been some kind of “critical timing malfunction,” meaning that the TARDIS is going to have to make an emergency landing. And just like every other malfunctioning alien spacecraft, it’s heading straight for Earth.
As the TARDIS prepares for landing, the Doctor goes to check on the Master’s remains. And when he sees the gooey remains on the broken chest, he makes one of the biggest “Oh, sh*t” faces I’ve ever seen. Then we cut to a fish getting its head cut off. Because how else are we going to know that this next scene takes place in the Chinatown area of an oddly Vancouver-looking San Francisco?
Three Asian teenagers run through traffic into a back alley, chased by a car. Fortunately, it seems as though cars are absolutely terrible at climbing over chain link fences, so the three teens celebrate as the car drives away to avoid their gunshots. Unfortunately, they’ve just walked straight into an ambush. Two of them get gunned down, but the third guy is saved from the rival gang’s bullets by the arrival of the TARDIS materializing between him and them. Thankfully, the TARDIS is completely bulletproof. But when the Doctor exits the TARDIS to check his surroundings, he proves to be about as bulletproof as a newspaper.
That’s right, everybody. The Doctor, a long-standing British icon, went to America and was instantly gunned down.
|There's a metaphor in that somewhere....|
Kid: “Hold in there, old guy. Chang Lee will help you.”
A bit of a clumsy introduction, but I can finally refer to him by name, so I’ll take it. Lee rides with the Doctor in the ambulance… which is already something that doesn’t happen in real life. Unless you’re a paramedic or the injured person in question, you don’t get to ride in the ambulance. Anyway, the paramedic, Bruce (played by B-movie star Eric Roberts), hands Lee the usual forms.
Chang Lee: “Hey, I’m not signing anything, mister.”
Bruce: “Sign, or we can’t do nothing. C’mon, kid.”
You see, UK readers, in America, treatment is insurance-based, meaning that paperwork is necessary to get treatment. Except in life-threatening situations, of course. Like a gunshot wound.
So Chang Lee fills out the date, December 30th, 1999, and fills in the Doctor’s name as “John Smith,” which the Doctor coincidentally uses as an alias all the time. On an unrelated note, I actually knew a guy in high school named John Smith. I wish him the best of luck when it comes to filling out paperwork like this.
Soon, the ambulance arrives at the back of some Vancouver buildings cheaply made up to look like a hospital. As the Doctor is rushed inside, the atmosphere is as frantic as the editing. There’s definitely some ER influence in how this scene was shot. …you know, ER? The main medical drama before House and Grey’s Anatomy?
|Bruce Wayne was in it?|
Nurse Curtis: “Two hearts!”
Other Nurse: “What?”
Surgeon: “As if. It’s a double exposure, Curtis.”
Unbelievably wrong. Double exposures show denser images of the same thing, not mirror images. A double exposure would have shown a denser image of a single heart. Here’s an idea. Redo the x-ray.
As a nitpick, you’d think that the Doctor’s other internal weirdness, like the respiratory bypass system that saved his life in “The Two Doctors” would show up.
As Dr. Knows-Nothing prepares to operate, the gooey, snake-like Master slinks from its hiding spot in the ambulance to Bruce’s discarded jacket. In the space of a cut, the bullets are all out, but the Doctor’s heart is still going like crazy.
Surgeon: “Then we’ll have to bring in Cardiology.”
Nurse Curtis: “Who’s on tonight?”
Surgeon: “Amazing Grace.”
“Amazing Grace,” being the only cardiologist currently on-call, is at the opera. What a terrible hospital.
Now, I’m going to give something away a little early. See, the Doctor traditionally has what’s called a “companion.” Basically, a traveling buddy (usually young and female) who he shows the universe to. Somebody to ask questions on behalf of the audience and get into a bit of trouble on alien worlds. “Amazing” Grace Holloway, the cardiologist, will become the Doctor’s companion for this adventure.
In the minds of many, companions usually end up stereotyped as overemotional damsels in distress, whether that’s fair or not. Well, not this time! This is the 90’s, people! Long gone are the days when the companions would be primarily ruled by emotion, because Grace Holloway…
|Is crying at the opera. Never mind.|
|"Going off to save lives again? What a selfish bitch."|
As Grace finishes scrubbing up, her boyfriend, Brian, calls the hospital basically just to tell her how unreasonable she is by doing her job. Grace soon gets to work, but not before getting her assistant to play Puccini’s score to Madame Butterfly in the OR. The Doctor, recognizing the music, begins to shrug off the effects of the anesthetic, thanks to that respiratory bypass system he has, and grab Grace’s hand to prevent her from cutting him open.
Grace: “You’re going to be alright.”
Doctor: “No, I am not human, I am not like you!”
Grace: “Nobody is like me, Mr. Smith.”
You know, seeing a doctor with scalpel in hand looking down at you saying “Nobody is like me” is like something out of David Lynch.
|"Fire walk with me, Mr. Smith."|
They up the dose on the Doctor’s anesthetic, but not before he pulls off Grace’s mask, getting a good look at her. Speaking of getting a good look, the hospital administrator has just arrived in the viewing area with the Board of Directors to show off the amazing medical techniques that they’ve been funding. To be honest, I’ve never understood why there’s a viewing area in many operating rooms. Well, okay, I understand bringing in medical students and surgeons-in-training, but bringing in the investors to see somebody stick a probe into a patient’s chest and poke around for a bit? And they’re all like, “Ooooh, ahhhh, that’s neat.” You’d think one of them would be a little squeamish.
But before you can say, “What could possibly go wrong”….
Grace: “Déjà vu, where am I?”
Surgeon: “Uh, subclavian.”
Grace: “I should be in the bronchial cephalic.”
Surgeon: “Uh, not unless this man’s a donkey.”
The surgeon and nurses all have a good laugh over Grace’s mistake, despite the fact that the subclavian artery arises from the bronchial cephalic artery, meaning that this would actually be a relatively easy mistake to make. And I’m pretty darn sure that doctors should not laugh over potential malpractice.
Grace tries to correct her mistake, but because she and the rest of the medical staff refuse to believe that this man has two hearts, she ends up poking the probe where it shouldn’t go and ends up inducing a seizure. And what’s worse, the probe she was using breaks off inside his arteries. Not even the magic TV defibrillator can fix that. After one final scream of fear, pain, and horror…
|Aren't you so glad they brought him back for this?|
Elsewhere, Bruce is back home in bed with his wife after a long day of paramedicalizing. Like most TV husbands, he has a bit of a snoring problem, keeping his wife awake.
Meanwhile, the Doctor is brought down to the morgue, where the comic relief awaits. They probably have actual names, but I’m just going to refer to them as Bill and Ted. After Bill (Will Sasso) talks to Ted about the upcoming New Year’s costume party, Bill gives a quirky monologue to the Doctor before hitting us with one of his classic catchphrases.
Bill: “Party on!”
And be excellent to each other. After they wheel the Doctor’s cold, lifeless body into the morgue, the Master’s serpentine form slithers out of Bruce’s coat and rams itself down his throat, stopping his snoring while making his eyes wider through the magic of Photoshop. Because it’s Bill’s night to watch over the morgue, he passes the time by watching Frankenstein. But unbeknownst to Bill, something is coming back to life in the morgue. The Doctor’s regenerating into his eighth body through the magic of Sylvester McCoy’s talent at making funny faces. Eventually, the face he makes belongs to Paul McGann.
|The other option was to return as Radagast the White.|
Bill: “Hey, Ted, is that you?”
Wait, the other guy’s name actually was Ted? So does that mean…. Nope. Just looked it up. His name’s “Pete,” but I’m going to keep calling him “Bill.”
Anyway, Bill enters the morgue just in time to see the Doctor somehow knock down the steel freezer door. The sudden display of super-strength doesn’t bother me (it has precedent), what bugs me is that he does this despite the fact that both his arms are still wrapped up in his burial shroud. But the shock of seeing a shrouded Christ analogue come back from the dead is too much for poor Bill, and he suddenly decides to take the weight off his feet and pass out. Left unchecked, the Doctor hums a bit from Madame Butterfly while wandering through the darkened corridors of the hospital. Eventually, he comes across a ruined wing with rain pouring in through broken windows.
God, this hospital really is terrible.
After being startled by seeing his face in seven different mirrors that all just happened to be lined up, the Doctor drops to his knees and
Doctor: “Who... am... I!?”
|"Wait, who am I?"|
|"What do you mean?"|
|"That's what I'm asking you!"|
Coming up in Part 2, old enemies, new friends, and the big two reasons why some hate this movie.