"Doctor Who: The Television Movie" (Originally aired May 27, 1996)
The lone official appearance of the Eighth incarnation of the Doctor marks an odd, outlying moment in the history of Doctor Who, a brief reappearance during a nearly unbroken 15-year void between the 1989 cancellation of the original series and the 2005 revival. The TV movie, broadcast on Fox in 1996, was meant to be a pilot that could kick off a new series of its own, jointly produced by the BBC and the American studio Universal. The fact that it didn't do so is simply explained: It's terrible. DW:TVM is deeply flawed, incomprehensible to first-time viewers, infuriating and incomprehensible to longtime fans, and basically off-putting to anyone who just who likes a good story well told. It is formulaic and fatally wrecked by a script that becomes more and more incoherent as it goes along, not to mention a wretchedly over-the-top performance by Eric Roberts as a snake-eyed version of the Master, the Doctor's longtime Time Lord nemesis.
Having said that, it's also a key transition, crucial to the development of Doctor Who into what we know it as today. It did much to rescue the series from the doldrums of the 1980s, and anticipated or innovated much of the approach that the 2005 revival would take. Though it tanked in the ratings (partly because it aired opposite the series finale of Roseanne), I think it helped spark the idea that the continuation of Doctor Who was worth pursuing, even if this version wasn't. Russell T. Davies' 2005 revival, especially the debut episode "Rose," would fix many of the mistakes made here, and get a relaunch off the ground the right way.
A brief history: When the BBC cancelled Doctor Who in 1989 after a long stretch of poor ratings and questionable quality, the powers-that-be were prepared to let the show stay dead or dormant for a long time. Although the show still had cult appeal, it was thought to be embarrassing and old-fashioned. (And it's hard to argue with that; just compare "Time and the Rani" to the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which debuted the same year.) If Doctor Who was ever to be viable again, it needed a long rest. Like Star Trek, Doctor Who had a life-after-TV-death in other media, first with a line of novels and later an extensive series of audio dramas. But in the early 1990s, there were two attempts, somewhat in competition with each other, to bring the show back to TV. One was a BBC-made direct-to-video timed for the show's 30th anniversary which would have brought all the surviving lead actors together for a multi-Doctor adventure. That never got off the ground, though a shortened version of it appeared as the dreadful charity special Dimensions In Time. Based on what I've read about it, it's not a bad thing it didn't get further; I think it would have been painfully kitschy and dumb. It was torpedoed largely to make room for the much more ambitious British/American co-production, and although that has plenty of problems of its own, I think it was clearly the better choice.
DW:TVM was essentially the brainchild of an American producer named Philip Segal, whose credits included the sci-fi show Seaquest DSV. Segal was a genuine fan of Doctor Who—he'd grown up in Britain and watched the show since childhood. Seaquest gave Segal a connection to Steven Spielberg, who co-produced that show through Amblin Entertainment, and though Spielberg lost interest long before actual production, it was enough to allow Segal to overcome BBC skepticism and get the ball rolling. Eventually, the TV movie was a co-production between the BBC, Universal, and Fox—a too-many-cooks situation that explains much about the show's incoherence.
Early drafts for the new Who included drastic overhauls of the concept; at one point, the Doctor was searching for his lost father with the disembodied spirit of his grandfather, Cardinal Borusa, who controlled the TARDIS. But instead of a hard reboot, Segal and the BBC's Jo Wright pushed for the U.S. version to continue directly on from where the BBC show had left off, even bringing back Sylvester McCoy to hand over the role to the incoming actor. They also insisted, over the objections of the other Americans involved, that the lead should be played by a British actor. Eventually that role went to Paul McGann, largely on the strength of his performance in the cult comedy Withnail & I.
I mention all that before launching into a discussion of the TV movie itself to point out that its creators were trying to do right by the show, and stay true to the spirit of the old version. Because now I'm gonna have to talk about all the things they got wrong, and it's a long list. The deep-set problems are apparent from the very first scene, a prologue which informs us that the Daleks have tried and executed the Master, who has asked the Doctor to ferry his remains back to Gallifrey. It's meant to intrigue new viewers and old fans, and satisfies neither.
For comparison, take a look at "Rose," which clearly established its human point-of-view character and the basic "good alien who fights bad aliens on humanity's behalf" premise within the first 10 minutes. Within 40 minutes, it had succinctly and entertainingly fleshed that out, introducing Rose's mother and boyfriend and clearly explaining to newcomers that the Doctor was very old, mysteriously powerful, and had long experience traveling back and forth through human history and among aliens in outer space. Forty minutes into DW:TVM, it's still not entirely clear what's supposed to be happening.
The prologue bogs down immediately in technical details of old continuity without giving new viewers a coherent context to understand it. Much of the information overload is irrelevant anyway, since neither the Daleks nor Gallifrey have any further involvement in the story. Meanwhile, it doesn't bother to explain exactly how the Master is able to return from the dead, or why he takes the form of some kind of ectoplasmic snot-cobra. (It doesn't help that the Master's plot is derived largely from 1976's "The Deadly Assassin," which is a great episode on its own terms but also one of the most continuity-heavy and newbie-unfriendly stories the show ever did.)
And despite reveling in minutiae from the past, the script constantly gets those details wrong, or at the very least changes them in ways that are hard to swallow. Case in point, albeit a minor one: The Daleks would never put someone on trial, especially a non-Dalek. They're a race of paranoid genocidal maniacs; that's why they keep shouting "Exterminate" all the time. I'm hyper-focusing on trivia here, but only to make the point that the story is wobbly from the beginning.
The movie repeats these mistakes over and over. For example: It's great for fans that McCoy was brought back to reprise the Seventh Doctor, but his presence only muddies the waters for people trying to jump on board for the first time. And it isn't even a very good way to go out: First, he lands in the middle of a shootout between rival Asian gangs who must have wandered out of a nearby Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, and is unceremoniously shot. Later, at the hospital, he piteously pleads for the ER doctors not to butcher him on the operating-room table, which they do anyway. And the fact that the Doctor can regenerate is never explained until after it happens.
The operating-room scene also introduces Daphne Ashbrook as Grace, the heart surgeon who later befriends the Eighth Doctor. The general tone of DW:TVM often seems wildly overheated, which must have been deliberate considering how much weight they give to Grace being an opera fan. The show is literally operatic, in the sense of throwing realism out in favor of extravagant, swooning scenes that ratchet up the emotions—too often, in a forced and transparently formulaic way. Grace cannot simply be a heart surgeon who's trying to save her patient. No, she's got to be called in while she's at the opera, so she can run down the hall in her flowing ball gown, tears streaming down her face, as if she's a prom queen desperate to save a box full of kittens from a burning building. Then her boyfriend has to break up with her while she's scrubbing up. I'm surprised she didn't have to defuse a bomb while she was at it, or deliver a baby in the elevator on her way to the operating room. The only reason this scene doesn't have a car chase is because there's one coming up later.
And while there are moments of comedy every now and then to puncture that grandiose pomposity, they're usually amateurishly broad and farcical. I suspect they're only in there because someone on the American production side insisted that a time-travel show had to play like Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. Will Sasso of Mad TV isn't bad as the wacky morgue attendant who inters the Doctor's body, but he knows how to play broad comedy and make it funny. But the excruciating bit later on when a motorcycle cop drives full-speed into and back out of the TARDIS while yelling "I haven't got no brakes" is just missing a chorus of "Yakety Sax" before becoming an outtake from The Benny Hill Show.
Thankfully, there is an oasis of calm in the middle of all this, in the performance of Paul McGann as the new Doctor. True, he starts with some egregious overacting demanded by the post-regeneration sequence, in which he can't simply see his new face in a mirror with momentary shock and dismay, as other Doctors have done—no, he's got to wander into a wing of the hospital that has apparently been abandoned for years, see himself in the shards of a dozen broken mirrors, and shout "WHO?! AM?! I?!" amid thunder and lighting before dropping to his knees in a Christ-crucified pose. But once he's allowed to take things down a notch, McGann acquits himself well, and creates his character's most compelling moments during the quietest scenes. He's charming, a little scatterbrained, has an unaffected, graceful courtesy and moments of great enthusiasm and whimsy, like his unexpected glee at discovering that his new shoes fit after all. But it's really just a taste; there really isn't quite enough here to judge the Eighth Doctor, especially considering how Roberts' hamming it up as the Master overshadows the last third of the story. (McGann has since appeared in dozens of Big Finish Productions' audio Doctor Who tales; I'm largely unfamiliar with them, but they'd be the place to start if you found his nascent character intriguing.)
If the Doctor gets through this with his dignity intact, the Master doesn't fare nearly so well. The character has often been mishandled as cartoonishly eeeeee-vil throughout the history of the show, but never more so than here. Roberts doesn't even attempt to give the character more than one dimension, though I'm not sure why he'd have wanted to bother given that he's saddled with lines like "Soon I will have all your lives!" How much nuance should an actor bring to a character gifted with the ability to throw up on four security guards at once? Or who answers the question "who are you" by dramatically whipping off his sunglasses to reveal green snakelike eyes, as if Lord Voldemort had taken over David Caruso's role on CSI Miami? But it's not until the finale that Roberts and the dreadful script reach an apotheosis of awfulness together, as the Master prepares for his final victory by camping around in a high-collared ceremonial Time Lord robe—a costume with a long history on Doctor Who going back to "The Deadly Assassin," but treated here as a gaudy joke, with Roberts' swishy hand gestures and the arch quip "I always dress for the occasion," like it's a Halloween costume. And it kind of is: The person he really looks like is Flash Gordon's evil space emperor Ming the Merciless.
The TV movie also made two other big changes to the Doctor's character, only one of which lasted past 1996. The first was to make the Doctor half-human on his mother's side, which seems like nothing more than a contrivance to make the character seem more "relatable," and it's been ignored in the current series. The other new element has had far more staying power—the idea that the Doctor might have a romantic connection beyond mere friendship with his human companions. Of course, it wasn't strictly true—as some fans insisted—that romance had never been a part of the earlier series. William Hartnell's Doctor woos an older woman in "The Aztecs," to cite the earliest example I can think of, and the off-screen marriage of Tom Baker and Lalla Ward resonated in the characters of the Fourth Doctor and Romana. (So did their divorce, but that's another story.) What was different about the TV movie is how overt the romance was, and the idea of it pretty clearly was carried over into the Doctor and Rose's relationship later on. The real problem here isn't the romance itself, despite how controversial it was, but that Grace and the Doctor don't actually have much chemistry. When Grace walks off at the end, you're not really rooting for her to change her mind.
One thing that the movie gets right: It looks great. The cinematography is light-years better than the 1980s, with some terrific moments like the way the camera angle shifts as the confused post-regeneration Doctor wanders down a hospital corridor. The TARDIS interior has never looked better; the reconfigured console room is spectacular compared to the old white box, and still beats the new series. Its starfield ceiling is great, as is the handbrake on the control panel that's still part of the steampunk-inspired design of the current Eleventh Doctor's console.
• A couple of good lines worth singling out from a script that doesn't have enough of them, besides the aforementioned "These shoes fit!" 1) Ashbrook's nonchalant response after the Doctor tells her he knew Puccini, her favorite classical composer: "Name-dropper." 2) The Master, just after taking over the body of an ambulance driver, tells the guy's wife that he's not a fan of tender terms of endearment: "My name is not 'Honey.'"
• Another nice touch: Sasso's morgue attendant watches Frankenstein while behind him, the Doctor also returns from the dead.
• Upcoming schedule: Next week, the First Doctor (William Hartnell) meets his oldest enemies in 1964's "The Daleks."
[Edit, 7/26: Note corrected schedule below]
• Aug. 7: "The Mind Robber"
• Aug. 14: "The Time Warrior"
• Aug. 21: "The Brain of Morbius"
• Aug. 28: "Earthshock"