"Life is wasted on the living!"
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.