The TV Movie at the BFIBookmark and Share

Sunday, 6 October 2013 - Reviewed by Anthony Weight
For the previous screenings in the British Film Institute’s monthly Doctor Who 50th anniversary events, there has been some degree of choice for the organisation in which story it selects to celebrate the era of each particular Doctor. While it’s true that every era of the show has a small gaggle of stories held up as classics by a large portion of fandom, there have still always been options. Not so, however, for Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor. The man who once described himself as “the George Lazenby of the Time Lords” is represented by only a single entry in the televised history of Doctor Who – the 1996 TV Movie, which brought the programme back from the dead after seven years, but failed to lead to the new US network series that the team behind it had been hoping for.

That said, McGann’s sole outing on-screen wasn’t the initial focus of this event, which – unlike the others in the series that I have attended – began with a discussion panel before the showing, which kicked off at 10am, with much apology from host Justin Johnson that we’d all had to get up to early on a Saturday to be there! The first panel was a discussion and celebration of something the sheer level of which may be unique to Doctor Who – the plethora of fan-originated professional spin-off media that carried the flame of the series during the long years the TV show was off-air, both before and after McGann’s sole outing.

Dick Fiddy, Johnson’s co-host at all of these BFI events, expertly and deftly guided a panel consisting of Seventh Doctor script editor Andrew Cartmel, Big Finish’s Nick Briggs, Jason Haigh-Ellery and Gary Russell, BBC Books novel editor Justin Richards and non-fiction author and former Doctor Who Magazine co-editor Marcus Hearn. Cartmel more seemed to be there because he wasn’t able to attend the Seventh Doctor event back in August, and unlike the others on the panel didn’t come up through fandom and the fanzine world, but he did write for both the novel ranges of the 1990s and for Big Finish, and had interesting things to say about what were being somewhat jokingly referred to as “the wilderness years.”

While you might perhaps think that such a panel could be a little dry, the conversation was free-flowing and, for me, fascinating, and it was interesting to hear the opinions on display about the years when Doctor Who was very much a non-mainstream, cult property, being made by fans, for fans in terms of books and audio dramas. Some of the panel even admitted that they never really thought Doctor Who would ever return to television, although of course all were delighted when it did.

The panel was enjoyable and informative, perhaps the most so among all those I’ve seen at the BFI, and I was surprised to find it had gone on for as long as 45 minutes. If anything was missing it was perhaps any real discussion of Virgin Books’ output during the 1990s, although Russell did acknowledge what an important contribution they had made in originating the careers of writers who went on through BBC Books, Big Finish and in some cases onto the TV series itself. But it was an organic discussion, you can’t plan to include each and every thing, and there was only so much time available.

It was a small surprise that the TV Movie wasn’t then formally introduced – after the panel had finished and the chairs were removed from the stage, the lights went down… Then briefly up again, then down again, then the movie started – hopefully not catching anybody out who’d taken the opportunity to nip to the toilet!

I hadn’t watched the film for eight years – the last time I did so being just before the series returned back in 2005. But it was still very familiar, as I’d watched it repeatedly when it originally came out in the 1990s, when I was 12 years old and the return of Doctor Who, even sadly briefly, was one of the most exciting things I could ever remember having happened. I think fandom in general is a lot more relaxed about the TV movie these days. Before it was made there was anxiety and paranoia that it would be a heavily “Americanised” version of the show, and after it had come and gone much wailing and gnashing of teeth about its failings and the fact it didn’t lead to a full series. Now, with Doctor Who having been back on television for several years as a great success, we don’t have to be quite to worried about what it did or didn’t do, and we can just enjoy it for what it is. Flawed, indeed, but still with some great moments of humour and charm.

Indeed, for a production that was being pulled in so many different directions – by the BBC, by the Fox Network who were broadcasting it in the US, by Universal who were producing it, by Philip Segal as the Doctor Who-loving producer behind it – perhaps the most surprising thing about it is just how good it is. If it had been as big a mess as the process of getting it made was, then goodness only knows what we’d have seen on-screen.

Talking of being on-screen, while still strictly in standard definition format (no high definition version exists, nor is one ever likely to unless someone tracks down the original film elements and rebuilds it all from scratch) the fact it was made on 35 mm film means it scrubs up very nicely, possibly the best of the any of the three BFI showings I have attended. It was also the full original US edit, not the slightly cut BBC One version, meaning we got to see just exactly what happened to Chang Lee’s mates (they didn’t make it, in case you didn't know!) and also hear the Seventh Doctor’s rather undignified final scream.

Following a very brief break (during which I did manage, with many others, to make a lightning dash to the toilet, before causing a minor inconvenience to Andrew Cartmel and the others sitting in my row as I made my way back to my seat!), we were onto the panel discussing the actual film itself. Philip Segal wasn’t in attendance, and there was no note read out from him as there had been from other high-profile figures who’ve been unable to attend previous screenings – I’m sure the BFI asked him along, of course, but doubtless living in the US made it difficult. However, someone who also lives across the Atlantic, and got a huge round of applause when it was announced she’d made the trip specially, is Daphne Ashbrook. Indeed, the actress seemed rather overwhelmed by the huge round of applause she received, perhaps even bigger than that given to her co-star in the film – the Eighth Doctor himself, Paul McGann.

Ashbrook and McGann were joined by the film’s director, Geoffrey Sax, for another enjoyable and convivial session, answering questions from Justin Johnson and, later, the audience – including me! I was brave enough to finally pluck up the courage to put a question at one of these events, and I’m glad I did as asking Sax whether he’d ever been invited to come back to Doctor Who by Julie Gardner (with whom he worked on the ITV Othello in 2001) or any other of the post-2005 production team prompted the revelation that he’d actually been invited by Gardner to direct the very first block of filming for Christopher Eccleston’s series back in 2005. He also said that after working with Matt Smith on the BBC drama Christopher and his Kind a couple of years ago, Smith had secured him an invitation to direct one of the Christmas specials. However, he was busy on both occasions, so has still to return to Doctor Who. As, of course, has Paul McGann, and I was surprised that nobody asked him the big question about whether he has even a cameo role in the forthcoming 50th anniversary special. The special was mentioned – with McGann suggesting that speculation about who is going to be in it even beats “Who’s going to be the next Doctor?” speculation these days – and someone asked him about a Tweet he’d recently made talking about Matt Smith and voiceover work, but nobody put the question itself outright – which I thought showed remarkable restraint!

Much of the discussion during the panel would have been familiar to anyone who has read the making-of book by Segal and Gary Russell, or seen the documentary on the DVD re-release of the movie, which Ashbrook herself spoke of recently having seen and been astonished by just how much effort it took to get the thing made. Ashbrook indeed seems to have been on something of a mission to discover Doctor Who in her years since appearing in it, when she had no knowledge of the show at all – she was even able to name-check Patrick Troughton when discussing favourite Doctors, and said how she still misses Amy and Rory from the current series! Her best story, however, was of returning in 2010 to the house in Vancouver which was used as the location of Grace’s apartment in the film. The same couple who’d owned it back in 1996 still lived there, and gave her a copy of a photo taken with her and McGann back when the film was being made.

McGann himself was most fascinating when revealing some of the tentative discussions he’d had with Segal about how the Doctor and the series might have developed had the movie been more successful Stateside. He was very clear that the appearance of the Eighth Doctor was not what he’d wanted, and he’d wanted a look and a costume much more akin to what Eccleston eventually got – a look McGann jokingly referred to as “the bin man!” He also confirmed that, had Russell T Davies offered him the chance to star in the 2005 series instead of Eccleston, he’d certainly have come back as the Doctor for that run.

Overall, it was nice to see a group still so pleased and proud of their association with Doctor Who, despite its brevity and its not leading to a full series. McGann remains a Doctor cheated out of exploring his full potential as the character, on screen at least, but I’m pleased he was here for his day in the sun at the BFI. These monthly celebrations continue to be hugely enjoyable, and I’m very glad I’ve been able to attend some of them – it seems such a shame they’re coming to an end soon, as the 50th anniversary reaches its climax. Can’t we just carry on and keep having one every month ad infinitum…? Please, BFI…?
Paul Hayes