Doctor Who #708: Doctor Who (The TV Movie)

"Life is wasted on the living!"
TECHNICAL SPECS: This story is available on DVD. First aired May 12 (Canada, well, only in Edmonton, Alberta), 14 (USA) and 17 (UK) 1996.

IN THIS ONE... The 8th Doctor and Dr. Grace Holloway grab a clock to fix the TARDIS before the Eye of Harmony destroys the universe. Oh, and the Master is Eric Roberts camping it up.

REVIEW: So the brief on this - what I've always told people and what I still say today after seeing the TVM at least half a dozen times - is that 1996's telefilm was too continuity-conscious for a new audience, and yet got all that continuity wrong so as to frustrate older fans. Perhaps it was unrealistic to expect better from an American production of Doctor Who filmed in Vancouver. It is, in television terms, the mother of all mixed metaphors, as best exemplified by the regeneration scene evoking BOTH Frankenstein's monster and Jesus Christ. And so it's Doctor Who, but the Master's been turned into a gross X-Files monster played by Eric Roberts. The Doctor uses fast talk and technobabble, but also participates in vehicular chases and kisses the girl. And before anyone says "That's not Doctor Who!", let me just say I hate that kind of talk. Doctor Who is EVERYTHING, so I'm not dismissing the TV Movie so easily.

It certainly THINKS it's Doctor Who, even if its continuity implants are the wrong way to get new fans on board. It's quite interesting to compare it to "Rose", which may just be the anti-TVM. On the surface, they look alike. A teaser before the opening credits, a very similar vortex effect with the credits flying through it, an orchestral score, and ultimately, even a kissy-kissy Doctor. But as we'll see, Russell T Davies' Doctor Who stayed close to the show's pure premise and only introduced continuity elements as needed, building up the new viewer's ability to accept the bonkers Whoniverse. The TVM takes the opposite, and much thornier, path. It starts BEFORE the leading man's regeneration, and while I don't begrudge Sylvester McCoy a farewell, it's a really confusing element for those tuning in for the first time. AND I wish the mastermind Doctor had met his end in a less random way (then again, maybe that's the most ironically appropriate), getting shot by gangbangers and then becoming the victim of medical malpractice. Because it's not the gunshots that kill him, it's DR. GRACE HOLLOWAY who will shortly become his new companion! (But more on her later.) Does it make any sense to introduce regeneration as a concept in the pilot as opposed to when it's needed to change lead actors? In this case, it's almost necessary because the plot concerns the Master's attempts to steal the Doctor's remaining lives, but that's just more continuity to assimilate.

But while diehard fans can accept and appreciate these elements, the production gets into trouble with this finicky group too because it really feels like the scriptwriter put in every word he remembered from the original show, without checking his references. So while you can play spot-the-reference, each of those references has a more than even chance of confounding the spotter. So the seventh Doctor has a fourth Doctor-style sonic screwdriver, has the second Doctor's 900-year diary, and eats jelly babies. He's returning to Gallifrey with the Master's remains to Gallifrey after the evil Time Lord's been tried and executed by the Daleks in some strange mash-up of ideas that don't really make any difference in the story. The Eye of Harmony is suddenly inside the ship and has whatever properties are needed to drive the plot, from seeing through the Doctor's eyes to switching the Time Lords' bodies to sucking in the universe. Absurdly, it can only be opened by a human retinal print (not even a half-human one) AND starts to cause the apocalypse (set for midnight sharp) before it is ever opened by the Master and Chang Lee. And now the Doctor is half-human, apparently on his mother's side (see Theories). So while it does get some of the details right - the Doctor's post-regeneration obsession with shoes, there being bags of gold in the TARDIS, likely to fight Cybermen - it gets most of them wrong. They all just blur into a nonsense plot predicated on the Doctor stealing a clock to fix the TARDIS before the universe is sucked into the Eye, Grace rewiring the time machine despite being a surgeon by trade, and time going backwards in some way which somehow resurrects her and Chang at the end of the story (do NOT see Theories, I've got nuthin'). When you resort to Superman movie science to get you out of trouble, you're in entirely different trouble, my friend.

The TVM gets two things absolutely right though, and one of these is Geoffrey Sax's direction. Not only does he set up interesting angles and moody lighting, but he also plays around with motifs. Eyes are of particular importance - the Eye of Harmony, the Master's tell-tale reptilian eyes, Grace's blacked-out possessed eyes, etc. - so our attention is often drawn to them with lighting, transitions are keyed to eyes and eye-like objects, and so on. Cutting back and forth between and the regeneration and Frankenstein on the morgue's TV is another memorable sequence, mixed metaphor though it be. (And yet, I can't watch the Doctor try to plug the show's title in an existential scream without thinking of Jackie Chan's goofy "Who Am I?".) My favorite, however, is the recurring motif I only noticed on this, my latest viewing: The fireworks at the end are prefigured in an early speech in which the Doctor remembers a childhood moment involving a meteor shower and his father. And later, that motif recurs the TARDIS ceiling as it shows the universe breaking down, colorful planets exploding. Speaking of which, full props to the art direction as well. The new TARDIS interior is a huge, beautiful, detailed, Gothic space.

The other thing the TVM gets right is the eighth Doctor himself. Paul McGann becomes the Doctor is just a few short strokes, taking on all the qualities we expect from the character, but also adding his own spin. So yes, he's a youthful, dashing and ROMANTIC Doctor, like someone out of a Jane Austen novel, but kissing aside, he's not far off Pertwee's Doctor. I think he sells it remarkably well, and I'm buying. And no, I won't spend any more time defending the kisses. You're either on board and don't need me to, or you're not and there's nothing I can say. This is a Doctor who embraces life - perhaps because he came so close to dying this time - and all its pleasures. He's less of a curmudgeon than his past selves and more bemused by humanity's foibles than impatient with them. He's a name dropper, but not conceited; he's not doing it to show off. He seems to see people's future, but I think it's more likely he's either joking or really good with biographical details. And he's an action man, racing motorcycles through the streets of San Fran and dropping down second story windows on fire hoses. His most Doctorish moment, however, is the brilliant moment when he takes himself hostage to get the cooperation of a policeman. If you don't think he's a brilliant Doctor after that, there really is no hope.

I wish Grace was a better match for him, but there's something off about Dr. Holloway. For one thing, everybody hates her. Hospital staff, her boyfriend, and every cop and scientist she interacts with during the movie... They all have an antagonistic reaction to her. Only the Doctor likes her, but he sees a different Grace from the rest of us. In his presence, she's an infatuated school girl, terribly flighty for someone the people in her life seem to think is a hard-as-nails professional woman who puts duty above relationships. This transformation into a romcom heroine is as suspect as her suddenly having the skills required to repair the TARDIS. The antagonism seems designed to cut her off for the world - her job, her boyfriend - so that she's free to follow the Doctor on his adventures, but then... she doesn't! He asks her to come with him, and she responds by asking him to come with HER! It's actually one of my favorite companion moments ever, I only wish Grace had been more deserving of the Doctor doing just that. I can only imagine that, had the show been picked up, he would have returned to San Francisco again and again to sort things out until she eventually joined him on his travels (perhaps with episode 2), but as it is, it's a remarkably self-contained pilot.

THEORIES: So what's all this about the Doctor being half-human? On the one hand, this is a daring revelation, and according to the series bible, would have broken new ground as the Doctor searched for his long-lost father, a Time Lord explorer called Ulysses, and so on. A little more reboot-y than we would like, and it's the one sticking point that to this day makes some fans deny the TVM's place in the canon. The extracanonical material tried to address it, of course, most recently in The Forgotten comics series from IDW stating he tricked the Master into thinking this thanks to a Chameleon Arch. And back when Human Nature was part of the seventh Doctor's adventures and not the tenth's, we might have surmised something of the Doctor's time as a human being would have left a trace. Several 8th Doctor novels refer to his human half and even name his human mother as Penelope Gate, a Victorian woman alive in the 1880s. Of course, the TVM also has the Doctor claim that he can regenerate into a different species, which is just as bizarre (though if you look at Romana's choices in Destiny of the Daleks, some of them are rather extreme for a Time Lady), yet could explain why human DNA has been introduced into his body, perhaps as recently as his latest regeneration (taking material from nearby bodies to offset the fact he was dead too long?), with the TARDIS/Eye compensating thanks to their innate bond. Then again, Grace says his blood isn't human blood at all, but this is a thoroughly inconsistent story to begin with. Can we just agree the 8th Doctor had some humanish biology, which was all fixed by time he turned into Christopher Eccleston?

VERSIONS: The original VHS release was trimmed for gun violence following a school shooting in Scotland. The novelization has a number of differences due to being commissioned before the final script was drafted. The 7th Doctor has just changed the TARDIS interior. There's a scene in which Lee is interrogated by the police before he's allowed on the ambulance. Grace's dream of becoming a doctor is explained by her mother dying young. All eight Doctors are seen in the Eye of Harmony. The 7th Doctor's hat is used as a symbol of the past and is fingered by the Doctor often, until he finally gives it to Grace in the last scene. The Master exits Bruce's body in the end and becomes a silhouette of a man. There's no final, jokey malfunction.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - Paul McGann makes a brilliant Doctor and the movie looks great, but the plot is complete drivel. Doc8 deserved a damn sight better, which makes watching this a rather frustrating experience.

20 comments:

CiB said...

Thanks in part to my Big Finish fandom Paul Mcgann is one of my favorite doctors. Like Colin Baker all you get from the TV appearances is the potential for him to have been a really good Doctor had he had better scripts to work with. Thank goodness, in both their cases, that Big Finish caused them to get those better scripts. Which, as far as I've heard, don't go near the "half human" thing. I think just sweeping it under the carpet and pretending it didn't happen is the way to go there. Bit like "Doctor Who is required" in that regard.

Madeley said...

Totally agree with CiB re. the half human thing. There are loads of continuity glitches in Who, this is another one best filed away and not thought about. It's part of the nature of the show.

I've always liked the episode, despite its obvious and glaring faults, and it's all down to McGann. He's so good, he completely elevates the material. Also, after watching the extras on the special edition DVD, I have a bit of a soft spot for the producer (whose name I forget), even though he added in all the rubbish elements. He just comes across as such an enthusiastic fanboy, I can't quite blame him for the way it turned out.

I've actually always liked 7's death, basically for the reason you mentioned- he's the mastermind, always one step ahead, mindful of the games he's set up. The only thing that would ever get him in the end was something senseless and random that he couldn't ever predict.

Weird coincidence: when McCoy approaches the console for the first time at the beginning, the orchestral motif sounds a lot like the 11th's iconic "I Am The Doctor" theme. It's such a striking similarity that both my wife and I noticed it at the same time.

The new TARDIS interior is just beautiful. I wish we'd got some more McCoy adventures using it. I love the way the ship becomes almost a cathedral. In Lungbarrow, the penultimate (and best, to my mind) Doctor-centric New Adventures novel, the new interior is explained as the TARDIS taking on aspects of the Doctor's ancestral home, a touch I always liked.

As for the eye motif, there's also the fact that when you see the Master's eyes at the very beginning (implied to be the Ainley incarnation's), they look like the transformed eyes from Survival...

snell said...

With nuWho hindsight, the Master being tried on Skaro could be seen as a link to the Time Wars. The Time Lords turn him over to the Daleks as a peace offering (they want him for abandoning them all those years ago in Frontier In Space). But when he's resurrected after his execution, the Daleks see this as Time Lord treachery, a deliberate affront, and thus start the Wars. And then the Time Lords give the Master his new set of lives to help them, and...

Siskoid said...

Great details to bring up Madeley! Visually, I don't really have anything bad to say about the TVM.

Snell: Obviously, the extracanon also tried to address this. A Time Lord-Dalek treaty is mentioned in Lungbarrow and is apparently responsible for the extradition. The Eight Doctors talks about his turning into a Morphant Deathworm. And the audio Mastermind shows the Master get grabbed by the Daleks in Ancient Egypt. No implicit contradiction between these stories, nor with the idea that it might be an untold chapter of the Time War. But is this chronologically before or after the 7th Doctor blows Skaro up?

Anonymous said...

I interpret the "half human" thing as not quite literal, but with at least a little truth to it, in some way that my dumb 21st century brain doesn't need to understand. I figure the Time Lords are what some offshoot of mankind will eventually become anyway. As soon as Donna Noble's DNA makes contact with some of River Song's, we'll see the start of things.

Putting on my Moffat hat for a minute, that's how I figure Gallifrey will be "brought back": not as the Doctor remembers it, but at its beginning. That way it will exist again but be beyond the Doctor's reach. This way we can have our time-cake and chrono-eat it too.

Siskoid said...

I've been calling for the reboot of Gallifrey since The Sound of Drums, so I completely agree that's how it would return.

As for the Doctor's human genes showing up because Time Lords are essentially humans, it would almost work if the Master wasn't the one to let that particular cat out of the bag. Of course, he's not even Time Lord at this point. He's a deathworm inside a human body (but one without human eyes). Still, an odd observation to make.

Jeff R. said...

Seven has probably done two very mastermind-y things immediately prior to regeneration. First, he has relocated the Eye of Harmony to his own Tardis somehow, and Second, he has made himself in some sense half-human. I suspect these are both in anticipation of what 8 (or 8.5) is going to have to do to end the Time War: being half-human rather than being off Gallifrey at the time is the critical factor that keeps him (and the Master, wholly human at the time) from sharing the exile of the Time Lords

Siskoid said...

NOW you're talkin'!

Calamity Jon said...

iunMaybe only tangentially apropos, but your mentioning Romana's varied regenerations and the claim that the Doctor can hop species; has there ever been any evidence that the Time Lords might maintain "body closets", a la the aliens of Moore's Miracleman? I've always enjoyed a variation of this idea in my, er, "headcanon" of the series...

Siskoid said...

I don't think so, although the looms might serve a similar purpose. Time Lord DNA seems like a complicated thing, with as many as 13 identities (or more?) overlaid (temporally?) on the same biological matrix, and "loomed" from the DNA of other Time Lords that make up one's "family".

If there is a "storage" space for bodies, it's in the imprimatur's quantum state.

Or something.

How does Miracleman's closet work exactly?

Randal said...

I remember reading about the TARDIS control room layout...how the walls facing the control panels corresponded with each other, so the index file panel's wall were giant file cabinets and bookshelves, the navigation panel was opposite a wall of maps and globes, things like that.
Damn, I loved that control room.

Calamity Jon said...

Alternate bodies are crafted from scratch, genetically customized for a specific purpose or aesthetic appeal, then shunted into (I think it was called) "infraspace", an other-dimensional wardrobe. Users had a brain implant which allowed to them switch bodies in an out of infraspace by use of a key word ("Kimota" in Miracleman's case, obliquely "Shazam" or "Kaji Dha", et al for others), which is obviously more convenient than Time Lord changing.

Romana clearly had access to some sort of body-selecting option, tho whether she was just futzing about with her own DNA or using some sort of TARDIS technology to manage the changes, I dunno, I'm new here...

Siskoid said...

The commonly held beliefs are that either the female of the species has more control over her regeneration, either Romana was able to do this because she initiated the change as opposed to it activating as a failsafe against death, either it's the Doctor who's particularly rubbish at it.

jdh417 said...

I might be the only one here who doesn't have problem with the Doctor being half-human. It would explain why he's always hanging around earth.

Another lover of that Control Room. Were I rich and slightly more eccentric, I'd redecorate and set that up as my living room.

Siskoid said...

That control room is SO good. It's a real crime that we didn't get to explore it more over the course of several episodes.

I'm not a half-human hater either, and it would have been interesting to see where they would have gone with that. As it is, it's a bit of a sore thumb sticking out of the canon because nothing before or after it actually supports the idea.

Madeley said...

Yeah, at the time the half-human thing was a bit of a jolt for me, because of course I'd grown used to the idea of the Gallifreyan Looms in the novels and the idea that the Doctor had parents required a mental gear shift. It was more the fact he had parents rather than what species his parents were that threw me.

I wasn't 100% convinced by it, though, because it had never been mentioned before, but I don't think I'd have been completely opposed to it if they'd gone somewhere with it. As it is, it was never mentioned again, even though the current run has confirmed the Looms are not in continuity (for whatever "continuity" actually means in a show like this one.)

Thinking about it, as it's never been contradicted by NuWho, I suppose that strictly speaking and continuity-wise the Doctor has a human mother.

Siskoid said...

RTD meant for that mysterious Time Lady in The End of Time to be his mother, so it's been contradicted in INTENT, if not in dialog exactly.

Bit like the looms.

Madeley said...

Yeah, I never really understood all of that in The End of Time. RTD was usually so good at foreshadowing and all of that, it seemed a bit odd that his mother was just dropped in without explanation- a further Susan regeneration always made a bit more sense to me. And wasn't there also some story that Moffatt had some hand in the Gallifrey scenes too, suggesting he was going to refer to it at some point? Although to date he never has.

Servo said...

Not to interrupt the canon discussion, but wanted to wholly agree about McGann being a great attempt at a new Doctor. He had a certain energy that contrasted with McCoy's subtler "chessmaster" approach. In the earlier days of NuWho, I kept hoping we might get some flashback or re-visit between him and Eccleston - just to give him a proper send-off.

Also - correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't part of the whole plot revolve around the fact it was supposed to be 1999 instead of 1996? It seemed like all shows with any sci-fi drama in the late 90's hinged on how pivotal the turn of the millennium was - Y2K bug, new era, and all that.

Siskoid said...

As long as he doesn't get a send-off, the expanded universe stuff can go ANYWHERE. Lately, the 8th Doctor has been given a short-haired make-over and a darker streak following some tragedy (I'm not there yet in my BF audio listening, so watch the spoilers!) for example.

(And yes, the story did take place in 1999... near future like the UNIT stories are supposed to be, and yeah, reality goes Y2K.)

 

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