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Sunday, 24 October 2004 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

Seven years after Doctor Who finally came to an end on BBC television, the phoenix seemed set to rise from the flames with co-production between the BBC and the American company Universal Television. Rumours abounded that this was to be a pilot for a new series (although by the time it was transmitted this already seemed unlikely) and the promise of a bright new start delighted legions of fans. With Sylvester McCoy returning to the role of the Seventh Doctor for a regeneration scene and Paul McGann cast as the Eighth Doctor, the TV movie, entitled simply ‘Doctor Who’ promised a great deal. Unfortunately, it didn’t deliver on this promise…

Eight years on, ‘Doctor Who’ stands as something of an oddity. It never developed into a fully-fledged series, and with a new BBC series just around the corner, it’s easier to look at in perspective as a one-off that led to a whole new direction for theDoctor Who novel ranges and a starting point for Big Finish’s Eighth Doctor audios, rather than bemoaning the fact that that it could have been a last, wasted opportunity for a new series. Given this, how then does it stand up as a Doctor Who story in its own right? Well, actually it’s mostly a right load of old bollocks. It does a few things right and it can be entertaining if the viewer is in the right mood, but its saddled with a nonsensical plot and a crap villain, and if Russell T. Davies wants a tip on how to make the new series appeal to a new generation of viewers, all he needs to do is look at ‘Doctor Who’ and think, “yeah, I’d better not do anything like that”. I’ll come to what I like about it shortly, but first I’ll discuss what I consider to be its plethora of flaws. Just one point however: some fans feel that ‘Doctor Who’ doesn’t feel like “proper” Doctor Who. If this is the case, given that it features a horribly over the top actor hamming up the role of the Master and a nonsensical plot that makes no real sense in the final analysis, then neither is ‘Time-Flight’.

‘Doctor Who’ does not start well. It seems logical to me that the best way to introduce the central character and the concepts of the series to a new audience is to introduce the Doctor, explain who he is and what the TARDIS is gradually, and allow the plot to unfold at the same time. As opposed to, say, starting with a garbled pre-credits sequence, which prattles of Daleks, Skaro, and the Master with bugger all explanation as to who or what any of these are. The inclusion of the Daleks is gratuitous and pointless, especially since they aren’t actually seen and they sound like Smurfs. To be fair, the Master is described as the Doctor’s “old enemy” in the voice over, but no explanation is given as to how he can survive death in the form of a snake made out of snot, possess badly-acted ambulance drivers, and allow them to immobilize their opponents with acid and what looks like semen, whilst also controlling the minds of other people using a special effect nicked wholesale from The X-Files. New viewers must have been baffled by this, although to be fair so too are established fans. The established fans have the opportunity, in retrospect, to find a half-arsed explanation for all of these things in the pages of Terrance Dicks’ ‘The Eight Doctors’, but unfortunately in order to find out what that explanation is, they would have to actually read ‘The Eight Doctors’, which is about as much fun as sitting on a toilet seat made out of barbed wire. Or, for that matter, reading Terrance Dicks’ ‘Warmonger’. 

Things do not improve. Any new viewers who haven’t already switched off, are treated to twenty minutes or so of Sylvester McCoy putting in a restrained and dignified performance but having to contend with dodgy expository dialogue that includes waking up on an operating table and explaining to a confused surgeon that he has two hearts and that surgery will therefore kill him. What is especially annoying about this is that it’s completely unnecessary; a more confident writer would have let the x-ray of the Doctor’s chest speak for itself, rather than explaining what it means three times. Fortunately, things get better once McCoy regenerates into McGann. The amnesia suffered by the Eighth Doctor immediately following his regeneration is a contrivance and amnesia has become something of a contentious issue for many Doctor Who fans who read the BBC Eighth Doctor novel range, but it is well utilized here, as the Doctor rediscovers his past with both Grace and the audience. In retrospect, he story might have been better served if it had opened with the Eighth Doctor wandering San Francisco as an amnesiac and gradually revealing his past with a regeneration in flashback (I am, I must admit, glad that McCoy was given the opportunity to return to the role to see off the Seventh Doctor in style, I just have issues with the effect that it had on the story).

Given the way in which the story unfolds, the interest of new viewers might have been grabbed by the plot. Unfortunately, the plot is bollocks. With the budget apparently unable to stretch to more than two monsters, executive producer Philip Segal instead opts to pit the Doctor against his old arch-enemy the Master, an idea that might have worked were it not hamstrung by a ludicrous plot and a denouement that, as Doctor Who novel author Lance Parkin once put it, amounts to two men shouting at each other in a cupboard. The plot, such as it is, is as follows; the Master having cheated death in ways that are none of the viewers’ damn business, possesses a convenient human as a temporary body whilst he sets about trying to steal the Doctor’s. To do this, he needs the Eye of Harmony, an enormous stone scrotum that is a key component of the Doctor’s TARDIS, which will apparently steal the Doctor’s soul if he looks into it for too long, leaving his body an empty vessel. An unfortunate side effect of this is that the Earth will be “turned inside out” and sucked through the Eye of Harmony, a process that involves glass becoming soft and pliable and the Doctor losing twenty pounds in weight. In order to prevent this, the Doctor must close the Eye of Harmony before it’s too late, which requires him to steal a beryllium chip from an atomic clock and wire it into the TARDIS, except that he does it too late in order to save the world. As a result, once he has defeated the Master, he has to use the TARDIS to rewind time until before he arrived, which somehow negates the events of the last forty-eight hours without negating either his regeneration or his battle with the Master, and also just happens to resurrect a couple of unfortunately deceased supporting characters. It’s absolute tripe. It hinges on so many contrivances and coincidences that I can’t help wondering if writer Matthew Jacobs is taking the piss. There just happens to be a beryllium clock close to hand. Grace, a human surgeon whom the Doctor has known for less than two days works out how to rewire the TARDIS and make it dematerialize. Sheer poppycock.

Having potentially alienated and/or confused any new viewers, the production team seeks to charm existing fans with nods to the past. There are numerous continuity references, including a glimpse of the Fourth Doctor’s scarf, the cloister bell, and the sonic screwdriver, none of which are intrusive and which appeal to the fan in me, but are unlikely to confuse new viewers. Bizarrely however, there is some weird buggering around with continuity, some of which is pointless but ultimately irrelevant (the Eye of Harmony is recognizable to anyone who has seen ‘The Deadly Assassin’ but is now inside the TARDIS, for example, a fact that prompted Lance Parkin to include an explanation in ‘Cold Fusion’), some of which is incredibly irritating. What is interesting about this is that much of it seems to be a patronizing attempt to appeal to American viewers. The Doctor kissing Grace doesn’t especially bother me, as it seems more like a tactile expression of jubilation than the Doctor trying to get his end away, but I can’t help suspecting that it’s an attempt to appeal to Star Trek fans who are used to Captain Kirk shagging anything that isn’t nailed down. Likewise, the Chameleon Circuit is referred to as a Cloaking Device, which again isn’t really important or problematic in story terms, but seems to imply that the target audience is composed of cretins unable to infer anything from the word “chameleon”. What is really annoying however, is the half-human revelation. After twenty-six years of the Doctor being an alien in the television series, the production team have decided that he’s actually half-human on his “mother’s side”. Now this could be justified given the right plot; it might, for example, explain the Doctor’s obsession with Earth and his fondness for humans. But it isn’t; instead, the only purpose it serves within the plot is so that the Master can use a human to open a Time Lord energy source at the heart of a Time Lord craft, because they have similar retinal patterns to the Doctor. This is in itself gibberish, but more to the point it creates the impression that the production team feel the need to give the Doctor a closer link to Earth than mere fondness in order to create a hero that their target audience can really believe in. Because he’s, like, one of us and not a foreigner. I mean alien, of course. 

What the plot of ‘Doctor Who’ does have is subtext. Except that it’s so unsubtle and overt that it barely qualifies as subtext at all. ‘Doctor Who’ has themes of life, death and resurrection, from the Doctor’s regeneration, the Master’s return from the dead as an animated cadaver, and Grace and Chang Lee’s literal resurrection. It’s nice to know that Jacobs was at least putting a modicum of thought into this, but the contrast between the reborn Doctor and the unborn Master would have sufficed; instead, we get the inexplicable use of the TARDIS to cure death in supporting characters and some woefully unsubtle imagery which includes the regeneration scene intercut with mortuary attendant Pete watching Frankenstein, and references to Christ include Grace stating, “Somehow I don’t think the Second Coming is going to happen here” when the Doctor vanishes from the morgue, and the Master sort-of crucifying him in the TARDIS whilst making him wear a crown of thorns. I don’t object to subtext by any means, but the pudding is so over-egged here, that it just feels crass. Grace’s motivation for becoming a doctor is a further example and arguably the most successful; the Doctor deduces, “You dreamt you could hold back death”, and as a result it is, ultimately, the fact that she accidentally killed him and that he came back to life that makes her trust him. 

‘Doctor Who’ also suffers from some poor characterisation and acting. Firstly, there is mortuary attendant Pete, an utterly facile character intended to provide comic relief but merely irritating instead. Admittedly, actor William Sasko couldn’t have done a great deal with lines as cringe worthy and witless as “We’ve got a nice autopsy booked for you, followed by a sauna”, but his delivery of “What, you think he might have gone to a better hospital?!” alone is enough to make confirm that his abilities as an actor aren’t exactly cramped by the dialogue. Then there’s Chang Lee. By this point, I’ve also reviewed the Big Finish audios ‘Real Time’ and ‘Excelis Decays’ and I’ve been fairly disparaging about Yee Jee Tso’s acting in both of those stories. Here, he’s not too bad, but his character is a bog standard smart-arse street punk who gets some reasonably good lines on occasion, but basically exists for one reason and one reason only; if it seems unlikely that the Master might adopt a companion, then consider that he spends a great deal of time explaining his plans, and therefore the plot, to Chang Lee and therefore the audience. Chang Lee essentially fulfills the same purpose as Grace, but comes across worse because aside from anything else he’s just thick; it takes a great deal to convince him that the Master is lying and it isn’t in fact the Doctor that is the homicidal body snatcher. He also gets some very bad dialogue, most notably “The guy from the ambulance? Bruce, don’t scare me like that”. In spite of all this, Lee gets a few good moments (such as his amusing if predictable reaction to entering the TARDIS for the first time) and some good lines and Yee Jee Tso does fairly well, especially when the Master scares Lee, which happens on several occasions. Which brings me neatly to the villain of the piece…

The Master is awful. This is a combination of two factors, one of which is the scripted dialogue, one of which is Eric Roberts. Even during the worst excesses of his performance, Anthony Ainley was always entertaining, whereas Roberts is merely atrocious. Impressively, he manages to be both wooden and hammy at the same time, camping up the role to previously unseen levels and generally making an arse of himself. The script does not help; a vacuous attempt at wit that badly misfires and undermines the entire story with such sphincter-clenching bad dialogue as “My name is not honey… Master will do”, “The Asian child”, “Genghis Khan… that was him”, and “Lee is the son I never had”. In fact the funniest line that the Master gets here is, “We must get to the Doctor before he finds a clock”, which I suspect is actually meant to be taken seriously. Then there is the “You’re sick” “Thank you” exchange which reinforces the fact that the Master here is even more of a pantomime villain than usual, which is a shame because in the final analysis the Master is obsessed with survival, power and humiliating the Doctor, which is perfectly true to his past motivation. Their old relationship also holds true in the scene in which the Doctor, despite all that the Master has done, offers him his hand as he is sucked into the Eye of Harmony. As the script stands, a decent actor might have been able to salvage the part or extracted some genuine wit from scenes such as the one in which the Master corrects Grace’s grammar. Unfortunately, Roberts instead relies on extravagant hand gestures, and a smirk that makes him look as though he’s touching cloth, all of which is epitomized by the ludicrous scene in which the Master changes into a fetishistic dressing gown and groans, “I always dress for the occasion”. 

Despite all this dross, there are things that I like about ‘Doctor Who’. For one thing, as I noted above, although I have issues with the way it was handled, I’m glad that Sylvester McCoy was able to reprise the role of the Seventh Doctor for a proper send-off. McCoy gives a restrained, dignified performance and gets some great scenes. His obvious foreboding over the presence of the Master’s remains in the TARDIS is well conveyed, for example. His final appearance, as the Seventh Doctor “dies” on the operating table is extremely well done, the initial calm as Grace prepares to operate giving way to rising drama as the Doctor wakes up and tries to resist her ministrations and ultimately goes into cardiac arrest, before expiring, all of which is impressively reflected by Puccini’s music as it rises into a crescendo and then tails off. 

Then there is Paul McGann. Whatever the many deficiencies of ‘Doctor Who’, I’m very keen on McGann’s performance as the Eighth Doctor. In some ways, the script is written to provide a set of criteria associated with the Doctor; he is for example, obviously eccentric, and the production reflects this with a costume that is notably Edwardian in feel. It’s essentially an identi-kit Doctor, but it works, thanks to some great scenes and thanks largely to the actor. McGann brings tremendous enthusiasm to the role, conveying joy, warmth and anger with equal aplomb. The Doctor’s confusion when he exits the morgue is obvious and due purely to McGann’s facial acting, and he packs great emotion into the line “What is this?!” as he pulls the broken probe out of his chest. Once the Doctor becomes more relaxed, even before he fully regains his memories, McGann quickly makes him both compelling and commanding with equal measure and the moment when he tells Grace “You’re tired of like but afraid of dying” is strangely captivating. He’s also immensely likeable, such as when he tells Grace “hearts – plural” whilst grinning cheekily. The obligatory name-dropping (“I was with Puccini when he died”) is delivered with a mixture of joy and melancholy and it immediately creates the impression of a Doctor who cares. And whilst everybody cites it as a great moment, the “Yes! These shoes! They fit perfectly!” is an oddly defining moment for the Eighth Doctor. The flashes of foresight are also an interesting, if slightly pretentious touch, as the Doctor advises Gareth to answer a certain question on his mid-term exams and later tells Chang Lee to take a holiday away from San Francisco next year. My favourite McGann scene here however is when the Doctor holds himself hostage using a policeman’s gun, which instantly seems perfectly in character, but isn’t something we’ve seen before in the series. 

I also rather like ersatz companion Dr. Grace Holloway. Daphne Ashbrook plays the part very well, despite some scenes in which Grace does little save fulfill the traditional companion role and ask stupid questions. Her growing friendship with the Doctor works nicely, heightening my suspicion that ‘Doctor Who’ would have worked much better if it had opened with Grace meeting the newly regenerated Eighth Doctor with everything else revealed in flashback, as she would have worked perfectly well as a means of viewer identification. Her desire to hold back death is of course supposed to be a defining character trait and part of the overblown subtext, although this largely fails since it is only ever the Doctor who mentions it and when she actually returns from the dead she glibly dismisses the experience as nothing to worry about. Nevertheless, she’s likeable enough and her easy acceptance of the dimensionally transcendental TARDIS interior is an amusing subversion of audience expectations. 

Finally, there is the production; ‘Doctor Who’ looks great. As director, Geoffrey Sax is partly to blame for the lack of subtlety regarding the resurrection subtext, but for the most part he does a great job. The first shot of McCoy in a warped mirror, the introduction of Grace weeping at the opera and the aerial shots of San Francisco all give a polish to the production that can’t hope to compensate for the shortcomings of the script and some of the acting, but do make them more tolerable. He also handles the car chase well, which is an unusual feature for a Doctor Who television story, but works rather well. The sets are also very impressive, especially the new TARDIS interior, which combines the feel of Heath Robinson and Jules Verne. On the other hand, the incidental score is pompous, brash and intrusive. 

Despite decent ratings in the UK, ‘Doctor Who’ never led to a series. Nevertheless, it had an impact on Doctor Who. BBC Worldwide reclaimed the license to publish original Doctor Who novels from Virgin Publishing, with mixed results, and the Eighth Doctor’s adventures continued in print. Despite this it seemed unlikely that Paul McGann would reprise the role of the Eighth Doctor, until Big Finish announced that they had secured his services, and a whole new series of adventures was announced...