Welcome back to our Classic Doctor Who rewatch! Although technically we’ve finished the classic series, we’re not quite out of the woods yet. This week, we look at the first major attempt to revive Doctor Who onscreen, the 1996 made-for-television movie. Intended as a pilot for an American revival of the series, it’s an interesting look at what Doctor Who might have become on this side of the ocean…and a case study in what doesn’t work, as the series wasn’t picked up. Let’s get started!
We open with the Seventh Doctor, Sylvester McCoy, now at the end of his life cycle. He’s a changed man since his last appearance in Survival; he seems to have left his scheming days behind, as well as his companions (no Ace to be seen here). He’s quiet and calm, and clearly a bit weary; he’s also carrying a sonic screwdriver again (Lungbarrow states that it’s Romana’s, though it doesn’t look like hers). His TARDIS has changed too, in the most drastic redesign we’ve ever seen; it’s dark and comfortable in a very Victorian way, with its parlor and its wood-grain console and its vaulted ceilings and arches. (I’d describe it as “steampunk” if there was any evidence of steam-driven technology; there isn’t, but it certainly has that feeling). Ace’s final lines in Survival described the TARDIS as “home”, and this TARDIS is clearly the Doctor’s home; he’s at ease here as we’ve never seen. He’s on a mission; the Master, having at some point escaped the Cheetah world, has been captured, tried, and executed by the Daleks, and the Doctor—at the Master’s request—is bringing his remains home to Gallifrey.
(For fun and some additional insight, at about the same time as watching this film, I read Marc Platt’s Lungbarrow, the well-known and controversial novel dealing with the Doctor’s family and origins, which is set immediately preceding the film, and in fact leads up to its events. I won’t discuss that lead-in here, but I may put up a separate review post for the novel.)
As in any dealing with the Master, things aren’t that simple. A Time Lord’s remains carry his or her mind until it can be uploaded to the Matrix; and the Master is far from finished with this world. He causes a disturbance in the TARDIS, which disrupts its flight and allows his now-disembodied form to escape the urn; the TARDIS makes an emergency stop in San Francisco, Earth, New Year’s Eve, 1999 (or actually, judging from the time span we see, late night on Dec. 30th). Just in time for Y2K! But, no. At any rate, the Doctor steps out of the TARDIS…and into a gang battle. He’s immediately shot several times, and appears to be dying. Gang member Chang Lee gets him to the hospital…and the Master hitches along with the EMTs.
At the hospital, cardiac surgeon Grace Holloway operates on the Doctor; but due to his alien circulatory system, she unintentionally kills him. While she’s dealing with the fallout of his death, he’s in the morgue…and regenerating: Paul McGann takes the stage as the Eighth Doctor. He’s unusually strong—he batters the morgue door off its hinges—but his regenerative fog is worse than usual; the anesthesia has affected him, not only delaying his regeneration and making it more difficult, but giving him pretty severe amnesia as well. Pondering his identity, he steals some clothes from a locker (in the finest tradition, as established by the Third Doctor) and slips out of the hospital…only to run into Grace again.
From this time on, it’s a battle to recover his memory, outwit the Master, and get his TARDIS flying again, all with Grace in tow. Meanwhile, the Master hasn’t been sitting still. He’s taken the body of Bruce, one of the EMTs (and killed Bruce’s wife, who really didn’t deserve this); and he’s returned to the TARDIS and coerced Chang Lee into helping him capture the Doctor. He’s a consummate liar, even in this form; he convinces Chang that the Doctor is the villain here, who has stolen HIS body and TARDIS. It comes out that what he really wants are the Doctor’s remaining lives. He uses Chang to open the TARDIS’s Eye of Harmony, which has the power to transfer his consciousness into the Doctor’s body; only a non-Gallifreyan can open the Eye. In the course of this he makes the shocking discovery that the Doctor is half-human; later the Doctor confirms this, and states that it’s on his mother’s side (though that detail may have been facetious). Finally, at the stroke of midnight, Grace restores power to the TARDIS and overcomes the Master, and frees the Doctor, who sees the Master pulled into the open Eye of Harmony…and the battle is over.
There’s a lot on which to comment in this movie. Perhaps most notably, there’s the controversial idea that the Doctor is half human. Who knew that a few little lines would spark so much argument over the years? I’m unsure what the writers were thinking, but it WOULD go a long way toward explaining the Doctor’s love for Earth and humanity, so there’s that. Still, it runs counter to everything else we’ve ever seen about the Doctor (and if you’re a fan of the Cartmel plan and Lungbarrow, it’s an outright impossibility, as the Doctor would have been Loomed without parents instead of born). Later episodes in the revived series would play with this idea, especially in Series Nine with the idea of the Hybrid—a product of two warrior races, sometimes suspected to be humans and Time Lords. The Series Nine finale, Hell Bent, would even come right out and say that this is one of the suspected possibilities for the Hybrid; when Ashildr makes that allegation to the Doctor, he doesn’t deny it, but waves it away as irrelevant. Personally, I think that (as much as we can say that Doctor Who has a canon at all) the concept isn’t canon; like other hints of the Cartmel plan from the last few seasons, it’s a possible direction for the show that failed and was soft-retconned out. I do acknowledge that a regeneration doesn’t have to produce a Gallifreyan body, and also that the Time Lords can change the anatomy to match another species (as seen in Human Nature/The Family of Blood and Utopia/The Sound of Drums), therefore a single regeneration could make a Time Lord half human; but not by birth, and not “on his mother’s side” in this case. However, I choose to think of it like the Cartmel plan: While I’m happy with the direction things ultimately went, I like to think I would have been okay with this had it been made canon for the series. It’s not worth getting angry.
The Master is able to take over a mind (Grace’s, in this case) more thoroughly than ever before, and without any direct interaction; Chang refers to it as possession, and it’s seen to even affect her physiology, most notably her eyes. His stolen body is degrading, as we see when he pulls his fingernails off; this is inconsistent with his theft of Tremas’s body in The Keeper of Traken, as he kept that body for years, possibly even longer than its normal lifespan. He clearly still has the cat eyes from Survival, and they persist into his new body as well; I had previously stated that this is mostly symbolic, as the novels establish that he was already free of the Cheetah contagion, but the movie makes it clear that he actually has them, as seen by onlookers. Clearly the movie, at least, disregards the novel continuity. People have often criticized Eric Roberts’ portrayal of the Master, but I didn’t mind it. He’s pretty wooden at first, but he loosens up throughout the film; this makes perfect sense when you consider that he’s in a new body and growing slowly more acclimated to it. His ruthlessness is also a bit out of character for the Master, whose schemes usually have a bit more finesse; but I think we can chalk that up to desperation on his part, as he’s trying to avoid death. While his portrayal may not make sense for a long-term role, it’s perfect for a Master in extremis. (One unanswered question: How did he get into the TARDIS without a key? The key was in Chang’s possession at the time, and it seems unlikely that he found the spare, used it, and put it back.)
The TARDIS is impressive. I like the new console room, and I feel like we would never have gotten all the wonderful “desktop themes” of the revived series without this one to inspire them. When sitting there, the Doctor is reading H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine; this is a throwback to several jokes in the classic series: The Master reads that very book in one of his earliest appearances; Wells appears in Timelash; and every book the Seventh Doctor reads onscreen has “time” in the title somewhere. The Eye of Harmony is, for the first time, seen to be aboard the TARDIS. I don’t know what the intention of the writers was—did they intend for this to be the actual Eye, as in, the black hole that constitutes the Eye? At any rate, they set a precedent of establishing that TARDISes contain a subset of the actual Eye (the “Prime Eye”, if you will) which links to the Prime Eye and draws out power from it. The loss of Gallifrey allegedly broke this connection, which is why the TARDIS in the revived series can run out of power and must be recharged at the Cardiff rift; it’s that subset of the Eye that must be recharged, and that we see in Journey to the Center of the TARDIS.
The Doctor himself has an unusual relationship with time here. He is able to see things from Grace’s past and future despite having never met her before. He’s a far cry from the Eighth Doctor we’ll see in the audios and in the mini-episode The Night of the Doctor, but we can probably attribute this to his recent regeneration. He’s flighty and excitable, where later he will be confident and strong. In addition to the controversy over the “half-human” statements, there’s controversy from another quarter: he has his first onscreen kiss, or kisses, to be precise, when he kisses Grace. It came as a disturbance to many fans who felt that the Doctor should be asexual and non-romantic, as he had always been portrayed; but as a result, we get his later romance with Rose Tyler. As well, we know he had a family in the past, so it’s more likely that he does have a romantic side, which he has just suppressed for the duration of the classic series.
Grace is usually considered a companion of the Doctor, although she doesn’t do much traveling in the TARDIS (just a day back in time, really). She chooses not to travel with him at the end, and of course he won’t stay with her. There have been conflicting statements that, had the series been picked up, Grace would or would not have returned as a regular companion; she does persist in some comic strip stories. Unfortunately, due to licensing complications, she is not available for use by Big Finish in their audio dramas; nor is Chang Lee, who is more of a companion to the Master than the Doctor. Chang is not a bad guy; he’s just misled by the Master. He too leaves at the end; the Doctor just casually hands him half a billion dollars in gold dust! And we wonder where the Doctor gets his money.
For lack of another place to put it, I’ll say it here: Gallifrey is stated by the Doctor to be 250 million light years away from Earth. It’s the closest to an actual, real-world location we’ve ever had.
Overall, I enjoyed the movie. (I admit that I don’t often find great fault with any episode, so take that as you like—it’s entertainment, and I enjoy it.) It’s certainly different from the series; it feels very Americanized, but I can’t easily define what that means in context. The filming techniques, the pacing, the dialogue—it’s all subtly different. Still, “different” doesn’t have to mean “bad”; and any differences in the behavior of the Doctor and the Master can be attributed to the extremity of their circumstances here. While it’s certainly not the most complex plot in Doctor Who history, it helps to remember that this was a pilot for a series; it’s meant to showcase the acting, the design, and the potential of the series, not necessarily the complexity of the plot. Had it persisted, it certainly would have deepened at some point. It’s interesting to think about what might have been, had the series continued in America; but I’m happy with the outcome we got. I can’t help feeling that it wouldn’t have persisted as long as NuWho has, or added so much to the lore of the show. Still, it’s a great little story, and it gave us some valuable screen time for the truly excellent Paul McGann, which led to his long history in the audio dramas. For that, if nothing else, we owe the movie a debt of gratitude.
Bonus: I know it’s not part of the classic series, but I also wanted to include a brief review of The Night of the Doctor, McGann’s other onscreen appearance. This mini-episode came as a very welcome surprise during the lead-up to the Fiftieth Anniversary Special in 2013, and gave us the other end of the Eighth Doctor’s life: His entry into the Last Great Time War, and his regeneration into the War Doctor. As this is the last bit of screen time the Doctor gets before the new series opens (at least, until the special came and showed us Gallifrey’s last moments), it’s worth a quick look.
The Doctor has been avoiding the war, and helping out where he can, which is perfectly in keeping with his character. He tries to rescue a young woman named Cass from a crashing gunship; but when she discovers that he is a Time Lord, she refuses to deal with him, choosing to die instead. Die she does, as does the Doctor, when the ship crashes…on Karn.
We haven’t seen this planet, or its Sisterhood, since The Brain of Morbius. Here the Sisterhood is less rigid in their rituals, but they take their purpose very seriously: they are the keepers of the Flame of Eternal Life, or as the Doctor puts it, “the Flame of Utter Boredom”. They revive him, but only briefly; they can save his life, but they won’t force it on him. We meet the high priestess Ohila (her name is a tribute to Ohica, the high priestess from Morbius); and watching her trade barbs with McGann is pure gold. McGann is at the top of his game here; no more the flighty, chaotic Eighth Doctor of the movie, he’s now seasoned and in control of himself and his wit. My opinion is that this short, seven-minute episode has the highest concentration of great dialogue to be found anywhere in the series, both classic and new.
This episode does much to represent the utter terror of the war in just a few lines—“You haven’t finished yet, some of the universe is still standing.” “Who can tell the difference anymore?” “She didn’t miss much [of the universe]; it’s very nearly over.” Further, the war does something new: it gives the Doctor the only true death he’s ever experienced—the death of the man he chooses to be. Giving in to Ohila’s request—that he join the war, and end it—he takes the elixir, and regenerates; the Doctor dies, the Warrior is born. It’s his apology, not just to Cass, but to the universe, and to himself. Dying, he acknowledges his companions from the Big Finish audios (but oddly, not Grace Holloway), thus giving his adventures there an added degree of canonicity. At the end, he serves as body double for John Hurt’s War Doctor, with a manipulated bit of stock footage giving us the young War Doctor’s face; this makes him one of only two actors, with Sylvester McCoy, to play two different Doctors. In all, I find this episode to be a great and vital piece of Doctor Who history, and one of the best overall in terms of acting, dialogue, and emotion. It’s simply fantastic.
Next time: Final thoughts, and future plans! See you there.
All episodes may be viewed on Dailymotion; links are below.