Friday, September 18, 2015

Review: "Doctor Who: The TV Movie"

And so, it only took me a week to cover all the Eighth Doctor episodes. I can guarantee that I won't get through the other Doctors' runs nearly as quick. Of course, they actually got full seasons as opposed to a one-shot. Except for poor Richard Hurndall.

And Richard E. Grant.
And Rowan Atkinson.
So at least Paul's not alone.

The plot is exactly what they specified. It was personal to the Doctor. It’s actually quite rare for an episode to be this personal to the Doctor, even today. The Doctor was targeted by the Master, leading to the Doctor’s regeneration, leading to his memory loss, leading to a race against the clock to save both himself and Earth. There are a few holes, a few leaps of logic, and a few things that aren’t quite explained… but it’s Doctor Who. You can find examples of that even in the really good episodes.

Personally, the thing that leaps out at me is the fact that all the characters refer to the year 2000 as “the new millennium,” ignoring the fact that thanks to the absence of the year 0, the millennium doesn’t change until 2001. But as former Doctor Who writer Douglas Adams once wrote, it doesn’t matter if it’s the new millennium. It’s just an excuse to say “Wow, all the numbers changed!” Looking back on it, some people note that setting the episode at the (alleged) turn of the millennium (when this was made in ’96) makes little sense. After all, the only way that matters to the story is with the New Year/World’s End synchronicity. But remember, the point of this movie was to provide a new Doctor for a new generation. And what better way to symbolize that than set the film at the cusp of an allegedly new millennium?

All the other themes of the movie stem from the idea of beginnings and endings. Life after death. Death after life. Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end. I know who I want to take me home.

There are also a few nods to Classic Doctor Who. The villain, the gold dust, the Daleks; the plot itself is even a reference to “Spearhead from Space,” where the Doctor regenerated, confused a hospital with his two hearts, and went on to save the world from an Auton invasion.

Eyes definitely play a large role in this movie, as well. Scene transitions, the Eye of Harmony, dead fish, the Master’s cheetah-eyes… If I had to guess, I’d say that with the life-transfer plot, you could make some kind of allusion to eyes being the windows to the soul…. But maybe it’s just because eyes look cool.

As a Continuation of the Classic Series
Well, this is a pretty terrible continuation. After all, ties to the Classic Series were mainly jettisoned. The Master was killed off after being played by new actors, the Seventh Doctor barely appeared, and the Doctor’s former companion, Ace, disappeared between the last Series and this one. And with a new creative staff doing new things, this doesn’t really pick up where the Classic Series left off.

As a Rebooted Series
The original plan was for this to be a backdoor pilot to a full series if reaction was positive. As you probably know, this was not picked up for series. Fairly recently, it was revealed what the plans were for the proposed series.

Long story short, they would have retraced the First and Second Doctors’ adventures with reimagined versions of the classic enemies. Spider-legged Daleks, yetis, a remake of “The Gunfighters,” Cybermen as post-apocalyptic scavengers calling themselves “Cybs” because it was the 90’s….

Seriously, we dodged a bullet.

As a Bridge between Classic and Revived Doctor Who
It works. It has enough similarities to both the Classic Series as well as the Revived Series that it works as a gateway for fans of the Classic Series to get into the Revived Series and vice-versa. The two versions of Doctor Who are vastly different beasts, but this is a good way to bridge the gap between them.

Grace Holloway (Daphne Ashbrook)

Grace is like a template for every companion to follow. Though I joked a bit about her, she’s smart, confident, and can definitely save the day in more than one way. Previous companions were a bit more damsel-in-distress-like (some more than others), but they all had a single trait tacked on to compensate. Mel was a computer programmer, Romana was a Time Lady genius, et cetera. But Grace saves the day through stubbornness, quick thinking, and just a little bit of luck.

Daphne Ashbrook was not a fan of Doctor Who initially, and admits that she didn’t get a few of the more tongue-in-cheek aspects of the show until they actually started rehearsing. But her chemistry with McGann makes her character believable, and is honestly one of the best parts of the movie. It also helped that she as one of the few Americans in the movie’s cast of Brits and Canadians.

As a fun fact, she had a very hard time keeping a straight face when she was supposed to be dead, and she ended up giving her autobiography the name Dead Woman Laughing because she’s that awesome.

Chang Lee (Yee Jee Tso)
Fun Fact: Yee Jee Tso was late to his audition, getting him the part. They thought being late and not caring about it was a very Chang Lee-ish thing to do.

Chang Lee owes a lot to Ace, the Doctor’s previous companion. But Ace was a young punk with a heart of gold who was being groomed to be a Time Lady, while Lee is a young punk with a heart of gold-ish who just gets some gold dust at the end. He’s a pretty standard mid-90’s nonthreatening, troubled, ethnic youth. Ticking all the demographic boxes, as the Master will later say.

Speaking of the Master, I really like how Lee and the Master form a twisted mirror of the classic Doctor/companion dynamic. The Master using threats and promises of riches as opposed to the Doctor’s good will and promises of amazing sights. Yee Jee Tso was very excited to work with Eric Roberts, and that shows onscreen.

As an aside, I think it’s interesting that fictional Asian characters always have generic names like “Chang Lee,” “Lee Chan,” “Li Sato,” and “Wu Chou,” while the people who portray them often have cool and unique names like “Yee Jee Tso” and “Ming-Na Wen.” Just saying, Hollywood, the name "Chang" has been used to death.

The Master (Gordon Tipple/Eric Roberts)
Much like “The Deadly Assassin” and “The Keeper of Traken,” the TV movie focuses on the Master’s search for a new body. Actually, let’s talk about that.

The Master wore out his final body off screen in the Classic Series (thanks to the untimely death of Roger Delgado, his actor), but ended up looking like a rotting monster and eventually stole a body, which was then executed, leading to the events of the TV movie.

But I believe the theory that the shadowy Master played briefly by Gordon Tipple at the beginning of the TV movie was actually the Delgado Master, executed by the Daleks on Skaro (neatly explaining why it’s still there, despite being destroyed), who then gets defeated here by the Eighth Doctor before escaping into the Eye of Harmony, later escaping that as a rotting corpse before stealing the body of Anthony Ainley in “The Keeper of Traken.”

Long story short, wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey.

As for Eric Roberts’s actual performance, he does an okay job for not being familiar with the character. He claims to have caught an episode where the Master was a “black blob,” but it sounds like he’s misremembering “The Three Doctors,” which would have aired while he was training at RADA in 1973. He’s suitably menacing and suitably camp. Perhaps a bit over-the-top, but that’s par for the course for the Master. Actually, he dialed his own performance down, if you can believe it, once he saw how far Paul McGann was going as the Doctor. He brought his own lighting and makeup crew, too. That way, he knew exactly how the light would hit him and could adjust his performance accordingly.

The other actors remembered him as being very business-like, which probably enhanced the awkwardness in the scenes where the Master is pretending to be human.

The Doctor (Sylvester McCoy/Paul McGann)
It’s really kind of pointless to critique Sylvester McCoy’s final performance, seeing as how he had barely any lines and was wheeled around enough times to joke that he could write a book about the ceilings of Vancouver.

The final scene McCoy filmed was the Doctor’s death. When it was over, he stood up, walked over to Paul McGann, and shook his hand, saying “Cheers, mate; it’s all yours now,” unaware that McGann was going to get the short end of the stick. During the Vancouver shoot, he was accompanied by a young writer shooting a video diary. His name?

Mark Gatiss.

You may remember his writing and acting credits for both Doctor Who and Sherlock.

As for Paul McGann, he says that he knew full well going in that he could very well be the George Lazenby of Doctor Who. Hmmm… a new actor to fill a popular role who was slammed at the time but has since been reevaluated and is now considered to be underrated? Sounds about right.

Paul McGann’s Doctor is warm, kind, slightly loopy, and human. And I’m not just talking about the half-human retcon, he’s a strong-yet-vulnerable leader, as opposed to the manipulative chessmaster he used to be. It’s a real shame that McGann didn’t get a series because his take on the Doctor is very interesting. He’s just happy to be where he is most of the time.

His performance reminds me of a mixture of the Fourth Doctor’s eccentricity and the Fifth Doctor’s kindness. He was really like an amalgamation of the Doctor’s best traits. Bravery, self-sacrifice, kindness, and an appreciation for the little people. And those of you who hate the kiss will be happy to know that Paul McGann kept his lips tightly shut to keep the kiss from seeming too sexy.

Oh, I don't know, Colin. You bit your co-star on the rear for a fiver.
Actually, I'd like to bring up a bit from the First Doctor's run.

"Messing about with human women," indeed.
Unfortunately, the Doctor only gets a few scenes to just… be who he is. Most of the time, he’s scrambling around or forgetting who he is. A full series could have fleshed him out a bit more, but, uh, yeah. I don’t think it would have been worth it to have to sit through that show.

The music was arranged by the two Johns of John Debney and John Sponsler. Debney had done music for Star Trek: TNG and DS9, and would later work on movies like Sin City (which I should cover someday) and Iron Man 2 (which I have covered already). I must say that I’m glad the BBC bought back the rights to the Doctor Who theme, because the orchestral arrangement is absolutely wonderful. In fact, I’d even say that I like it better than most of the overproduced Revived Series themes.

The CGI hasn’t really aged too well, but it’s passable. The practical effects still hold up to this day, though. There’s a lot of morphing effects and goo effects, which shows a bit of Terminator 2 influence, so it’s definitely a product of its time. But unlike a lot of other 90’s TV in America, the relatively subdued nature of it definitely makes it fairly timeless. And it beats the pants off of that other thing from ’96 I reviewed.

As much as I gushed over the redesigned TARDIS set…

In the interests of fairness, here's the old console room.
It was actually met with a fair bit of criticism originally. People wondering how the TARDIS interior could change so radically. Keep in mind, Steven Moffat hadn’t thrown out the “Desktop theme” joke yet.

Of course, these people apparently ignored the secondary control room….
Still, all things considered, the H.G. Wells TARDIS and the Wild Bill Hickok outfit keep the Doctor himself firmly grounded in his timeless feel, which makes him feel like an outsider in America. Thank goodness he wasn’t dressed in the casual clothing of the 90’s.

Final Thoughts
All in all, the TV movie is a really good way to cross over between the versions of Doctor Who. If you’re a fan of the Revived Series, this is a good way to ease into the Classic Series and vice versa. While it might not be the best story Doctor Who has ever told, it’s certainly not the worst. There’s a lot to like about Paul McGann, the look of the TARDIS, the fun story, et cetera.

Next time, the Doctor will have changed off screen into a stern man with huge ears who fights aliens that are clearly made out of plastic. See you then!


  1. Sometimes I wonder what would be good starting point to watch series, since I never watched an episode of Dr Who. I'm pretty sure 85% of my Who knowledge is based on Professor Paradox, who from what I can tell is one big walking homage of The Doctor.

    1. Oh, never fear, my anonymous friend. I'll rectify that problem with a post on the matter very soon.

      Either at the end of September or the beginning of October.