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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

classic ‘Doctor Who’ blogging: “The Movie”

(all spoilers! don’t read till you’ve seen the episode! and no comments from party poopers — this is a love fest only / previous: Sylvester McCoy: “Survival”)
I figured: I’ll do this one first. Yes, it’s Doctor Who Americanized. Yes, it’s painfully bad. Yes, its canonicity is questionable, at best. But at least there’s only one of them — only one story with Paul McGann as the Doctor — and I can get it out of the way and get on to the real classic Doctor Who.

I wish there were more examples of McGann as the Doctor. I’m aware of all the other copious material featuring his Doctor — the radio dramas and the comic books and the novels — but it’s not the same: I want his Doctor on TV, done by the BBC. I wish we could see more of how he’d have handled the Doctor, because he has an intriguingly funky Willy Wonka/Lord Byron kind of vibe going on.

And also because life is short and he is hot:

And still, “The Movie” is, at times, an excruciating trial. I haven’t seen this in years, probably not since it aired on American TV almost exactly 14 years ago, in May 1996. And it’s even worse than I remember. Perhaps because while I see now how it serves as a bridge between the classic Who and the new show, it also suffers mightily in comparison to both, having neither the goofy charm and sly subtextual verve of the low-budget original nor the twisty timey-whimey trickery and complex darkness of the Russell Davies/Steven Moffat incarnations.

What does it have instead? I cringe to tell you:

• awful, tin-eared exposition about the Time Lords, regeneration, the two-hearts business, the TARDIS, and the relationship between the Doctor and the Master (intended, I suppose, to get virgin mainstream American audiences up to speed)

• at least half the running time ticking away with the Doctor unconscious, “dead,” or suffering from amnesia

• a car chase — well, a motorcycle/ambulance chase — that lasts for about 20 minutes, or feels like it does

• a physical fight, a knockdown brawl, between the Master and the Doctor

• a forced “romance” with the supposedly brilliant/actually idiotic “companion,” cardiac surgeon Dr. Grace Holloway (Daphne Ashbrook, not that it’s her fault Grace is such a twit)

• wild coincidence paired with a ton of nonsense that suggests that the writer, Matthew Jacobs, had only heard rumors about Doctor Who and was not actually familar with the show (though I’m willing to believe that he was forced by Fox execs to water things down considerably).

That last deserves a lot of explanation. See, the story opens with the Doctor en route to Gallifrey to deliver the remains of the Master home, for the Master has been put on trial for his crimes, been found guilty, and executed — his last request was for the Doctor to bring him home. It’s preposterous enough that the Doctor would agree to such a chore, and it’s even more preposterous when you learn who prosecuted the Master and who asked the Doctor to perform this chore: the Daleks.

The Daleks.

I’d have thought the Master would be a bit of a hero to the Daleks, what with them all being so evil and bent on universal domination and stuff, but instead the Daleks went all Nuremberg trials on him. I would have loved to hear the rationale for their jurisidiction in this matter.

But the Master escapes his extermination, of course — he was only mostly dead, and mostly dead is a little alive — and he goes all mystical Goa’uld somehow and takes over the body of a San Francisco paramedic, Bruce (played by Eric Roberts, who gets to ham it up as the Master):

Meanwhile, the Doctor (still played by Sylvester McCoy) has gotten himself shot by stepping out into the middle of a shootout between two San Fran Asian gangs. That’s a bit of an intense turn for Doctor Who to take — the Doctor always seems so invulnerable, but of course this is just a way to force him to regenerate. (That’s why the Doctor didn’t bother to check the outside conditions before he stepped out, like he usually does — he typically has to at least get out of sight of the TARDIS before he gets into trouble.)

But then this really, really makes no sense: Lee Chang (Yee Jee Tso), one of the violent gangbangers, decides to hang around to help the Doctor (but not his fellow gangbangers), even riding to the hospital with the Doctor in the ambulance (which is where the oozy snakey Master hitches a ride, all the better to later take over Bruce’s body). And then Lee hangs around the hospital for hours, even though the police would be swarming around asking embarrassing questions of Lee regarding this gunshot “friend” he brought in (this is assuming that Lee was able to escape scrutiny by the police at the scene of the shooting).

Oh, and it’s obvious the cops have been all over the scene:

And did none of them wonder about the “police box” there? Apparently not. One policeman appears in a throwaway bit later in the story, but any serious police involvement is entirely absent here, which makes absolutely no sense at all.

Anyway, we have no idea what the hell Lee is thinking, why he’d go to such lengths for the Doctor. He just does, so that he can be around to become the Bruce-Master’s “companion”:

The Master needs Lee because, well, it’s hardly even worth going into, except that it involves the Eye of Harmony on the Doctor’s TARDIS — even though the Eye of Harmony is supposed to be on Gallifrey, from where it does the little thing of powering all of Time Lord civilization; this is like having Federation HQ suddenly be on the Enterprise. It seems that only a human eye looking into the Eye of Harmony can open it — which makes perfect sense: of course a human eye would be needed to make Gallifreyan technology work! (I wonder what Gallifrey did before humans evolved, because we came along way later than Time Lords…) Oh, and the Doctor couldn’t open the Eye because he’s only half human.

Say what?

Yup, “The Movie” informs us that the Doctor is half human, on his mother’s side.

*facepalm*

This has got to be the meddling influence of Fox execs, who would “naturally” assume that American viewers would only be interested in an alien Time Lord if he was half human. (Mom was probably American, too. And a Republican. She was probably Sarah Palin.)

But I’ve skipped over so much! Did I mention that it’s December 30, 1999, and the mad evil demented plan the Master puts in motion will culminate at precisely midnight, ensuring the certain doom of Planet Earth and all of the cosmos, hence resulting in a millennial disaster, at least for those on Pacific Standard Time? Did I mention that the Doctor ends up getting “killed” by Dr. Holloway at her hospital because she doesn’t know he has two hearts (they never get around to opening up his chest, which would presumably have been evidence enough that he was at least some sort of anomaly of nature, and they don’t believe their X-rays)? And then he regenerates in a freezer in the morgue — simultaneously with the Master being reborn into Bruce’s body — which also occurs (in case the viewer were too stupid to understand what was going on) as a morgue attendant is watching the 1931 Frankenstein on TV? I mean, the regenerations and Frankenstein are intercut with one another: “It’s alive!” and the Doctor is rising from his gurney. It’s like Doctor Who for Dummies.

Fortunately, the Doctor is able to convince Grace that he’s the same man she killed in the OR, and even more fortunately, the beryllium atomic clock he needs to fix the TARDIS and save the universe is about to be switched on at a big New Year’s party, and by a stupendous coincidence, Grace is on the board of the smarty-pants organization that is throwing the fancy-schmancy atomic clock party that night, so everything works out so great that he has to kiss her:

She’s supposedly “amazing” — not as a kisser, I mean: the doctors and nurses all snicker at the idea of “Amazing Grace” being on call that night that the Doctor is brought in, but why? No clue. She’s obviously good enough — great enough — that the hospital administrator is willing to do some hugely illegal things to make sure she doesn’t get into trouble for “screwing up” the Doctor’s treatment — like covering up his death and theft of his body (as it looks to them) — but who knows why? It’s a secret.

But that’s what other people think of Grace. What does Grace think of Grace? Who the hell knows. She swings from thinking the Doctor is a mental patient to saying “I finally meet the right guy and he’s from another planet” with no interim anything. Why is he right all of a sudden? And if he’s right, why doesn’t she go with him, go travel in the TARDIS with him, when he asks her to at the end of the story? She’s quit her job (over the aforementioned adminstrator being such a jerk), her boyfriend has moved out… what’s left to keep her from a life of adventure and awesome sex with an alien Time Lord?

Who knows?

So what’s good here? It’s a bit of a stretch to get me to my prescribed lovefest realm, but here’s some stuff I like.

The TARDIS:

It’s beautiful: we hadn’t seen anything like this before, and even not much like it since. It’s Gothicky steampunk like the ship is on the new show (though I don’t think all the candles and open flames are the best idea ever), and it’s big. The old show hinted at the sheer expansiveness of the interior of the TARDIS, but beyond the console room (and one quick glimpse at the wardrobe), we haven’t seen any of the interior of the TARDIS on the new show. I can imagine entire stories — whole seasons, even — taking place within the confines of the ship. I wish they’d at least give us more of a looksee round its depths.

The Doctor. He can ride a motorcycle:

(though I always suspected he could).

He’s got some interesting bondage gear stashed away on the TARDIS:

And he makes strange and unusual though effective threats:

“Now would you stand aside before I shoot myself?” he tells a cop (having swiped the cop’s gun). This is probably the most Doctor-ish he gets to be here (though he does drop names like Puccini and Da Vinci and Freud, and that he knew Madame Curie “intimately”). Not very Doctor-ish: How he knows things about individual, nonfamous people, specific details about their pasts or futures that are just ridiculous (like telling one character, “Answer the second question on your midterm exam, not the third. The third may look easier, but you’ll mess it up.” WTF?) He’s not omniscient, and an ability to travel in time is not the ability to know everything about the past and the future.

We should be thankful for small favors, however: this was meant to be the pilot for an American Doctor Who series. Thank Rassilon the ratings were bad enough that Fox passed on it.

Random thoughts on “The Movie”:

• This is about as naked as the Doctor ever got:

Which is pretty naked for the Doctor.

• This is the last time the TARDIS key would look like this:

• As Whats’erface asked on Wormhole Xtreme, if they’re out of phase — or, as the Doctor notes here, “the molecular structure of the planet is changing” enough so that he can push his hand through glass:

How come he doesn’t fall through the ground?

• Oh, yeah, didn’t we say? The Bruce-Master can shoot killer KY Jelly out of his mouth as a weapon:

He just can, okay?

• And the Master, he loves to vogue, darlings:

• It doesn’t say “Humanian,” does it?

It does. *facepalm*

• Two stylin’ Time Lords:

(next: Christopher Eccleston: “Rose”)


MPAA: not rated

viewed at home on a small screen

IMDb
  • Ken

    This does not seem like much of a love fest

  • VT

    Valiant try at the lovefest, MAJ. But yeah, the Movie is pretty much a stinker no matter what way you look at it. McGann is awesome though, and I kind of love the bit in the beginning where the Seventh Doctor is just hanging out in the TARDIS drinking a cup of tea and reading H.G. Wells.

  • John Stanowski

    Willy Wonka/Lord Byron thing goin’ on. That’s perfect.

  • Laurel

    I will admit that the plot of this movie is terrible and as ignited arguments in fandom that are still burning to this day, yet I still have a soft spot for it. There’s something about Paul McGann that just makes the scenes between the Doctor and Grace work, and I love it for that. And, as hammy as Roberts!Master and Lee are, I love them too. It’s silly and fun to watch by yourself.

    You should check out some of the Big Finish audio stories MaryAnn. Most are pretty decent stories, and some are absolutely terrific

  • Pertwee gets more nekkid in his debut “Spearhead from Space”…

    I got to hear hear Philip Segal (the exec-prod) talk at a convention a few years ago, and he credited all the faults to being “too many cooks in the kitchen.” Since this was a co-production between the BBC and Universal – with the poking nose of FOX – he had many different directions he was being told to go in. For one, the scriptwriter was foisted upon him by Universal – so you can understand why the script isn’t that great.

    at least half the running time ticking away with the Doctor unconscious, “dead,” or suffering from amnesia

    Almost all of part one of “Spearhead from Space” the Doctor’s not all there, and mostly out of it (and again in part 2…)

    a car chase — well, a motorcycle/ambulance chase — that lasts for about 20 minutes, or feels like it does

    The other end of Pertwee – “Planet of the Spiders” – has a massive car/helicopter/hovercraft/boat chase – so nothing new there…

    a physical fight, a knockdown brawl, between the Master and the Doctor

    Maybe not as elegant as their sword fight in “The Sea Devils.” I seem be pulling a lot of Pertwee references here – maybe that’s the era they modeled it on…

    a forced “romance” with the supposedly brilliant/actually idiotic “companion,” cardiac surgeon Dr. Grace Holloway (Daphne Ashbrook, not that it’s her fault Grace is such a twit)

    I never had a problem with that…

    wild coincidence paired with a ton of nonsense that suggests that the writer, Matthew Jacobs, had only heard rumors about Doctor Who and was not actually familar with the show (though I’m willing to believe that he was forced by Fox execs to water things down considerably).

    With my comment near the top, I’m more with the he didn’t have a clue…

  • Kathryn

    It’s been so many years since I’ve seen the movie, I’d forgotten how very bad it was. Or maybe, since I’d only really seen bits of McCoy’s Doctor as a kid, I didn’t realise how awful it actually was in terms of The Doctor as a character and the logic of The Who universe. (The Doctor does something FOR the Daleks? WTF?)

  • From what I saw back in 1996, I came away from the movie with the belief that the writers, director and producers never watched a minute of the original show. They just took the blurbs from the backs of the VHS boxes and jammed it all into a pseudo-technobabble X-Files/Trek hodgepodge.

    The few things the movie got right was the casting (McGann was an effective actor for the role, and I regret he never got the chance to continue playing him on tv) and as you noted the set design. Everything else is discontinuity.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    I don’t know about the canonicity of the details of this story, but we do have to take as canon the existence of this incarnation of the Doctor, given that his face has been shown on screen between Sylvester McCoy and Chris Eccelston in roll-calls of the faces of the Doctor, most recently in The Eleventh Hour. Also, no one has ever accused Doctor Who of having an internally consistent continuity. ;-)

    Here’s a thought to throw out to the group: I’m only halfway through series 4 (just watched The Wasp and the Unicorn), but so far, I can’t recall the Doctor ever mentioning the canonical 12 regeneration limit. Am I right about that?

  • MaryAnn

    Pertwee gets more nekkid in his debut “Spearhead from Space”…

    Not *much* more…

    I don’t know about the canonicity of the details of this story, but we do have to take as canon the existence of this incarnation of the Doctor

    Oh, sure. I’ll even accept that he got up to something in San Francisco in 1999.

    I don’t buy the “half-human” thing, however. And we could even take the Doctor’s comment about it as a joke, as a distraction (he’s stealing someone’s security badge at the moment he says it), if only the Master hadn’t said the same thing (even if it’s for such a stupid reason).

    Oh, and the Eye of Harmony being on the TARDIS is ridiculous. :->

  • Danel

    That they felt the need to have the Doctor spend most of the movie unconscious shows that they’d wanted to make the movie Doctor-Who-ish, disregarding whether this made sense or a good movie. The TV series hasn’t always had it happen, and it’s certainly a lousy introduction – which is probably why the new series doesn’t open with a regeneration at all. It’s an awful way to greet new viewers.

    Even in “Spearhead”, which is probably one of the stronger stories to use the gimmick, its a tool used to introduce the viewer to the new regular cast of the retooled premise while the main character is unconscious; in “Christmas Invasion”, it’s used to show how badly things can go without the Doctor so that his triumphant return is all the more dramatic. But in this… it’s just *there*.

    One of my favourite moments from the audios is one of them where the writer just through hoops in a desperate attempt to explain the bizarre business about Time Lord technology needing humans to work.

  • Max

    Liked the new look Tardis interior; thought the motorcyclist going in and out was cute; wondered what the back story was that the Eye of Harmony would be relocated to a type 40, maybe there were some upgrades done by the CIA; finally, I thought the kiss was ok due to the regeneration possible being unstable.

    The rest was … less.

  • Vanessa

    he has an intriguingly funky Willy Wonka/Lord Byron kind of vibe going on.

    You nailed it!! I could never articulate what that unique look was! Awesome!

  • Vanessa

    I never noticed before how much Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor looked like Eric Roberts’ Master in the Movie…

    I don’t think anyone has mentioned it, but could RTD have been oblivious of this? I’ve not seen any discussions about how Nine’s costume was chosen (though lots of stories about Ten and Eleven’s outfits).

  • JMark

    Americanized? It was a British-Canadian production. Sorry, the Americanized tag doesn’t work since it’s a lie.

  • Americanized? It was a British-Canadian production. Sorry, the Americanized tag doesn’t work since it’s a lie.

    Canada is part of the Americas, or so I was led to believe… Anyways, it was filmed in BC, like a lot of US made shows were (X-Files, for a long time, was…)

  • MaryAnn

    It was shot in Vancouver. That doesn’t make it a Canadian production. The production was overseen by the BBC, but mostly it was Fox and Universal… which are absolutely, no-question American companies with Hollywood outlooks.

  • I enjoyed this film not as a movie so much as I enjoyed it as many little tidbits of Doctor Whoness. I liked the enormous innards of the TARDIS. I liked Paul McGann’s Doctor.

    Ok. Actually, I’m out of tidbits.

    Glad I saw it, though. When I imagine the Doctor turning the tide during the Time War and making the final, decisive actions which both ended the conflict and (I assume, but am not sure) brought about his demise/a regeneration into Christopher Eccleston, it’s McGann’s face that I imagine at that moment.

    It helps.

  • Lisa

    it’s terrible

  • Interestingly, once I saw Lesbian Vampire Killers I realized the Doctor Who movie was the best thing McGann would ever star in.

  • Barb

    Two things that were good about the movie was Paul McGann and the re-design of the Tardis (still my favorites to this date). The downside was Eric Roberts who was horrible as the Master with the ham acting and making the Doctor half-human (probably to make it more friendly to the new audience.

    I had suspected at the time this version would muck up the re-boot of the franchise and I was right. This is a Brit show and should have stayed there with its roots intact.

    At least I can still enjoy McGann in the Big Finish audios (my favorite in the line followed by Peter Davison & Colin Baker). Plus, the current Doctor Who show acknowledges McGann was one of the regenerations.

  • VT

    @Corey Tamas: Clearly, you’ve never seen Withnail and I

  • Sabrina

    I, for one, refuse to believe the Doctor is half-human. It just defeats the point of him, in the “relaunched” episodes, being the last Time Lord.

  • At least I can still enjoy McGann in the Big Finish audios (my favorite in the line followed by Peter Davison & Colin Baker). Plus, the current Doctor Who show acknowledges McGann was one of the regenerations.

    Wouldn’t it be grand, though, in a future “The 4-6-7-whatever Doctors” special, to be fully built up for Tennant and Donna to come walking out the Tardis door, and out pop McGann and Grace instead? With (hopefully) a -real- script?

    Geekgasm…

    (It’s just this long-delayed-justice thing of mine…)

  • MaryAnn

    When I imagine the Doctor turning the tide during the Time War and making the final, decisive actions which both ended the conflict and (I assume, but am not sure) brought about his demise/a regeneration into Christopher Eccleston, it’s McGann’s face that I imagine at that moment.

    I like to think about a Time War movie starring McGann as the Doctor.

  • Dave

    Just to pick a nit or two. They never mention the Daleks just the planet Skaro. While they have taken over the whole planet at one time they hadn’t and there were other groups of people on the planet. It is possible that one of those groups executed the Master.

    OK I admit it was probably more like the writer was looking for a planet name and grabbed the first one he saw in the research book he was given. Much like how the Sonic Screwdriver is shown but not used and the bizarre inclusion of Jellybabies (which had to be really stale if they were hanging around since Tom Baker.) both have the feeling of being thrown in as a strange kind of fan service even though they were used so badly all they do is anger the real fans.

  • I like to think about a Time War movie starring McGann as the Doctor.

    Absolutely, but with a different writer than the Doctor Who movie kthx. :)

  • Lisa

    I don’t want to see a tv movie of the time war – I like to think it’s beyond human comprehension – any version would ultimately disappoint

  • Christopher Roberts

    A page devoted to the 1996 movie.

    http://www.youtube.com/user/TemporalOrbit

    I wish McGann would get the chance to return to Doctor Who. A good solid two-parter ought to do it, if another film is forever out of the question.

    How about it, Mr Moffat?

    :)

  • Patti Browning

    Re: New Regenerative Cycle….
    Just a random little thought here, but since we’re getting close to the end of the regenerations our current Doctor (the 11th) can have, it seems they’ll have to come up with a good reason why he’ll be able to have more once they need them. So here’s my thought: River gave him hers, so he’s got maybe one or two extra laying about somewhere? :D

  • 3yearlatecomer

    They definitely did mention the daleks..

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