The Doctor Who “TV movie” is an interesting look at what could have been but, ultimately, never was. A collaborative effort between the US and UK, it would have gone on to become an American series, had the networks picked it up. They did not. On the face of it, this is probably for the best because, while it undoubtedly looks the part and is remarkably well-produced, the TV movie misses that spark that makes Doctor Who what it is.
There’s little here that is recognisably Doctor Who-ish. It’s VERY American, set entirely in San Francisco at the turn of the millenium, and features a cast of generic modern day American characters (doctors, cops, gang members). McGann is stuck in the middle of it like Hugh Grant in a rom com.
Sylvester McCoy’s aged seventh Doctor gets barely three lines of dialogue in his twenty minutes on screen, and is unceremoniously gunned down seconds after leaving the Tardis. A botched surgery and a night in the morgue are an undignified end and he deserves better from a people he has saved from the brink of destruction many times, but perhaps the film is trying to make a point about gratuity, selfless good deeds and human stupidity, I don’t know.
Having watched twenty-six years’ worth of Doctor Who on small BBC sets with cheap production values, it is a real thrill to see an expensive-looking version. I must admit, I did get a few goosebumps during the intro montage and credits sequence, listening to an orchestrated version of the theme music while the Tardis flies through a colourful time tunnel. It’s great to also see some actual cinematography at work, focus-pulls, artful compositions and a real movie-like appearance. It’s a great-looking piece, and features some pretty advanced CGI for a 1996 TV special.
There’s no question that it looks good but, as is often the case, with a bigger budget comes a responsibility to broaden the appeal to a wider (international?) audience and tick boxes. So we have to have relatable human characters, and generic tropes like a romantic interest, a car chase, a final showdown with a villain, friends coming back from the dead, and so on. It is more po-faced than the entirety of the BBC series, lacking in nearly all the whimsical Britishness that makes Doctor Who special.
The Doctor doesn’t defeat the Master with trickery or cunning, he just beats him in a fight. The relationship with Grace is the first time the Doctor has shown any sort of romantic interest in anybody, which is a contentious issue, although it could be put down to his post-regeneration state of mind. Much more contentious is the revelation that the Doctor is half-human (on his mother’s side). Were they trying to make him out to be a Mister Spock character? Whatever, the fact that it’s never mentioned beyond this movie should tell you it was a bad idea. It’s not even relevant to the movie, really.
There are hints of whimsy and humour sprinkled throughout, struggling to break free. The new Doctor is likable and, to my surprise, the new Master turns out to be good for somebody who starts like the Terminator before becoming a mad, extravagant villain in a ridiculous costume (though I’m not sure if some of his lines are intentionally funny or just an accident).
The eighth Doctor offers a few people jellybabies, just to remind us that he’s still the same character we know and love (he also has his sonic screwdriver back – its first appearance since Davison’s fifth Doctor broke his), but sadly there’s not a lot of time for his charms to come across, as the plot has to race towards its dramatic conclusion. Everything is crammed into the middle, and it does suffer for it. Still, at least it’s never boring. That said, the best scene in the film is at the beginning, where the seventh Doctor is settling down with a book, a cup of tea and some music, while McGann narrates. It’s nice to see that lively, adventurous Doctor now in his final years, and imagine all the adventures he has had since I last saw him.
With so much of the movie dedicated to getting the plot across, it’s a shame we don’t get more time to acquaint with the new Doctor. Paul McGann plays a more human, more charming and romantic version of the character. Less weird, less alien, but full of love for life and the Universe around him. Dashing, and not unlike Davison in terms of being young, fresh-faced and eager. As I’ve no particular intention to explore the audio dramas, this is my only reference from which to judge the character. If only the BBC would bring him back to the screen, perhaps in some sort of short film for the anniversary year, and-… oh, wait a minute, what’s this?!
Seventeen years on, Paul McGann appears on screen as the eighth Doctor once again, bringing his character’s life to an end at the hands of the Sisterhood of Karn. A lot has changed in that time, a war with the Daleks that has seemingly diminished the reputation of the Time Lords, much to the eighth Doctor’s frustration. This is a world-weary portrayal of the character, still struggling to find the good in people, but ultimately letting go of the life that has run out and accepting his fate as the warrior the universe needs. I found this reversal to be rather sudden, but this is again the problem with short films, whether they be seven minutes or ninety – there simply isn’t enough time to develop properly. Perhaps I will have to seek out those audio dramas after all.
Although I did originally watch the TV movie in 1996, I was surprised by how little of it I remembered. It was almost all new to me, save some fragments here and there, so this was less of a memory jog and more of a new experience, which was nice. From here on, I’m much more familiar with the show, as I did start watching it properly in 2005. For now, though, I would have to say I generally enjoyed this. The steampunk-inspired Tardis rooms look great, the visuals and cinematography are excellent throughout and overall it’s a fast-paced adventure with a likable new Doctor. It’s not really Doctor Who, it’s more a slightly silly American B-movie with the name attached. I wouldn’t have wanted a whole series like this – it’s too generic and without character – but as a one-off, I was fine with it.