Usually when I tell a fellow Doctor Who fan that my first real foray into the fandom was the 1996 TV movie, I get a look of revulsion, confusion, or sympathy. Some people are amazed I would give the show another chance after such an ignominious introduction, while others think they’re wasting their time talking to a newbie who so obviously bungled their entry into this deceptively spacious corner of sci-fi.
There are, of course, fans of the TV movie who will proudly claim the joint U.S.-U.K. production as their gateway to this geekery, myself included (yes, even after rewatching it). There’s practically a consensus among the film’s supporters and detractors that Paul McGann acquits himself well as the eighth Doctor and Sylvester McCoy’s (and Colin Baker’s and Peter Davison’s, etc.) successor. And McGann’s title sequence went over well right from the start.
In 1996, the decades-old series had already permeated American broadcasting, popping up on PBS as early as 1972. Most of my early public broadcast exposure involved trips to Sesame Street or Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, but I had an older brother who caught wind of the time lords back in the ’80s. As our self-dubbed steward of pop culture, he felt obligated to try to bring his six siblings in line. But although I had an inkling about the show growing up, it wasn’t until the mid-’90s that it managed to get a toehold in my own consciousness.
Doctor Who: The (TV) Movie was essentially a backdoor pilot to a proposed U.S. remake of the long-running British children’s show, with seaQuest: DSV’s Philip Segal producing for American viewers. The series had been canceled by the BBC in 1989, putting a pin in McCoy’s two-year stint as the seventh Doctor (who wound up reprising his role for the movie). Segal, a longtime Who fan, finally brought his ideas to fruition in 1996, working with the BBC, Universal Studios, and Fox on the ill-fated (some would say ill-advised) remake.
I had none of this background when I tuned in that evening in May 1996. My older brother had long since moved out, having taken his Star Trek (the original series) VHS tapes with him. The Next Generation had ended two years prior, so there was an Enterprise-shaped void in my life that I tried to fill with the TARDIS. I remember liking both McCoy’s and McGann’s performances, though there was hardly enough of the former. Eric Roberts as the Master gave shades of the Terminator, while the setting and plot were reminiscent of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and Superman III. Although I wasn’t familiar with the Doctor’s previous relationships with his companions, the central romance was a tough sell even to my teenage naïveté. But overall, I enjoyed properly meeting the Doctor.
Although McGann’s portrayal of the eighth Doctor didn’t end with the movie—he went on to “appear” in many Big Finish Productions audio dramas—I didn’t keep up with his work. But I did check out previous seasons in addition to the 2005 revival in 2006 (damn imports); I’d say the TV movie did its job. With The A.V. Club’s yearly trip back to 20 years prior providing as good a reason as any to revisit the film, I was anxious to see how his performance would hold up, especially now that Peter Capaldi has barnstormed the show as the 12th Doctor.
My first impression upon rewatching the movie was that it had managed to leave a lasting one on the property, from the title sequence to the appearance of the TARDIS. Although a precursor, the opening theme echoes the newer renditions. The console rooms of previous iterations were sterile, almost nondescript. But here we had more vibrant visuals to accompany the TARDIS engines’ iconic wheezing to life. There was also far more detail than ever before, and we learned that the seventh Doctor’s tastes in decor ran to the Gothic.
Other positive elements include Jee Yee Tso’s and Daphne Ashbrook’s performances as Chang Lee and Dr. Grace Holloway, respectively. They each served as ersatz companions to the Master-as-the-Doctor and the eighth Doctor. Chang’s and the Master’s bizarro facsimile of the Doctor-companion relationship was lost on me the first time around, because I didn’t know about the time lord’s propensity for bringing company along on his trip through the stars. But there was something subversively funny about seeing that same automatic trust established between a different (possibly mad) extraterrestrial and the earthling he hits it off with.
Of course, that same blind faith has been criticized as bad writing, but there are far more glaring problems with the TV movie’s story. Some of those are obvious from the beginning—if Segal and company were going to work on a remake, they would have been better off with a clean break, at least in the introduction. It felt like writer Matthew Jacobs and director Geoffrey Sax were hedging their bets, putting McGann’s voice to McCoy’s face. They were already dealing in backdoor pilots, so why would they sneak in the introduction to who they hoped would be our new hero?
The TV movie also made a mess of the continuity. Those inconsistencies could take up the rest of this Memory Wipe, so suffice it to say that, looking back, it does seem rather weird that the Daleks would hold a trial for the Master and that he would display shape-shifting and hypnotizing abilities the likes of which had never before been seen. As the Master, Roberts was more juggernaut than mastermind. The character’s not exactly known for his restraint, but his battles with the Doctor were depicted far too literally here—there’s no real suspense.
Of course, all of these things—the table-setting, mismatched narration, and one-note villain—can be forgiven as long there’s a new (or first) Doctor by the end of the 89-minute runtime. I found this to be true the second time around as well. Although his demeanor isn’t exactly compatible with it, McGann looks every bit the heavy-lidded Byronic hero, complete with velvet coat and cravat. McGann’s Doctor is also just as quick-witted, brilliant, and pieced together from his past lives/consciousnesses as his antecedents. The movie drives this point home in melodramatic fashion with a lightning storm, a seemingly abandoned hospital wing, as well as many broken mirrors and cries of “Who am I?”. And in case the Frankenstein-aided rebirth metaphor wasn’t obvious, the new Doctor is also framed in Christ imagery following his regeneration.
The eighth Doctor also shares the same boyish curiosity as some of his predecessors and successors, and the open mind and heart(s) he maintains toward interspecies relationships ends up foreshadowing the romantic complications between the 10th Doctor and Rose (and Martha, and Madame De Pompadour, and…). Anyone who’s not a fan of this particular aspect of NuWho was probably leery of the budding romance between Eight and Grace (Ashbrook), the heart surgeon who ditches her boyfriend at the opera in a desperate attempt to save his life.
The romance was shoehorned in, with such clunkers of lines as “I finally meet the right guy, and he’s from another planet.” But Grace should have been more interesting—like the Doctor, she was compelled to help others, even though her motivations weren’t entirely altruistic (her desire to heal others stemmed from a fear of death.) Instead, she was relegated to “damsel in physical and emotional distress with sparks of ingenuity,” just like Martha and Clara. Ordinarily, I would chalk that up to there not being enough time to spell out the pseudoscientific explanation for just how they were going to undo the Master’s disaster. But since the resolution turned out to be “turn back the clocks,” it felt like another missed opportunity.
I haven’t yet touched on that most objectionable aspect of the Doctor Who movie, and that is the not-quite-canonical classification of the Doctor as a time lord/human hybrid. It was so casually tossed out on the movie that I thought nothing of it the first time around. In trying to Americanize the character, Segal, Jacobs, and Sax ended up humanizing him, à la Spock. But while Gene Roddenberry and his successors fleshed out Spock’s, um, multicultural heritage, there was no chance to learn just how the Doctor’s human side would play into his adventuring. (There were distinctly American touches, though, including the Fonzie-esque knocking on the TARDIS engine to get ’er done as well as an out-of-place high-speed motorcycle chase.)
It was probably the most regrettable decision made in the storytelling, and the most unnecessary alteration. The Doctor could love and want to defend humanity without having a personal stake on Earth. Even without knowing the full history of the character, that revelation felt tacked on. This was a guy who owned and presumably wrote in a journal with “900 years” embossed on it—not exactly the typical life span for a human, half time lord or otherwise.
I haven’t held many of the Doctor Who movie’s flaws against it—I still rather like it, plot holes and all. And McGann’s portrayal was impressive enough to make his regeneration poignant, even in a mini-episode. Although the remake wasn’t picked up and the eighth Doctor wouldn’t appear onscreen again for 17 years, together they did garner my interest in the series. They also whet the appetite for Doctor Who’s proper return in 2005, which is still going (mostly) strong after 11 years.