Doctor Who The 1996 TV Movie: 20 Years OnBookmark and Share

Friday, 27 May 2016 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
The TV Movie (Credit: BBC)

Starring: Paul McGann (The Doctor), Eric Roberts (The Master),
Daphne Ashbrook (Dr Grace Holloway),
Sylvester McCoy (The Old Doctor), Yee Jee Tso (Chang Lee),
John Novak (Salinger), Michael David Simms (Dr Swift).

Written by Matthew Jacobs 
Directed by Geoffrey Sax 
Music by John Debney 
Additional Music By John Sponsler and Louis Febre

A Joint Production by Fox and the BBC.

Transmitted in May 1996.

It does seem scarcely conceivable to myself that it is now two whole decades since the transmission of the most lavish TV production thus far seen in Doctor Who history. This is a beautifully directed collection of character drama and hi-octane escapades, and still stands up visually to this day. Of course, the script is far from perfect and the running time is somewhat on the short side, no doubt dictated by the many ad breaks that Fox TV needed for it to be able to afford showing the story. This still is a good watch, and has a pace to it that few of even the strongest four-part stories from the original 1963-1989 run could really pretend to boast, when viewed in one go.

 

It is a shame that Sylvester McCoy had such a truncated and gratuitously dismissive exit, involving a very careless departure out of the TARDIS without checking the surrounding area by scanner first. And although the actor does some fine work with very little screen time, he would perhaps have made a better cameo as a flashback to the Seventh Doctor's last full adventure. At the time writer Matthew Jacobs wanted a transition from the last of the classic series Doctors into this arrestingly romantic 8th Doctor, in order to honour tradition. However as was proved 9 years later on, the better method was to jump straight in with a new leading man and allow him to fully establish his credentials. It is rather curious that Paul McGann actually is present as a narrator in the very early stages. The script has a rather muddled approach to trying to honour the past but look forward at the same time. And many have commented over the years that brand new viewers who had never seen a single story with the Doctor would have been rather befuddled by the way the key principles of the show are conveyed.

 

If only Paul had actually had the opportunity to truly show his great skills as an actor in a proper ongoing series. We have many big finish audios to enjoy but most doctor who fans regard the TV medium as predominant. He eventually came back for the short but enthralling Night Of The Doctor, and it managed to pack a lot of continuity for audio and book followers alike. He really can be seen as a great prototype for the much loved David Tennant incarnation. Endlessly energetic, not afraid to take risks, and always looking to please people that he encounters. McGann is a rather modest and self effacing man in real life, and rarely does a fan-related event in the way that Tennant, Matt Smith, or Peter Capaldi would. But he clearly appreciates the opportunities he has had over the years, and respects the institution that is Doctor Who. He may still have another chance to blaze on screen, and perhaps this would be a multi-Doctor vintage. I cannot be alone in hoping along those lines.

 

Regardless, McGann can still be counted as a worthy Time Lord and one that kept the franchise alive as the face of the various BBC books, official magazines, and other merchandise that dotted retailers' shelves. He is instantly likeable in this story, and really makes the idea of a more passionate and relationship -conversant alien from Gallifrey seem credible. The line about the Doctor being half-human is one of the glaring weaknesses from the script, however and takes some of this boldness in McGann characterisation away. The idea of a man of many lives, and infinitely more knowledge and experience having the patience for us mere Earthlings was a wonderful element of the never-ending continuity that first had its roots in the days of William Hartnell and grainy black-and-white experimental efforts.

 

A couple of new 'companion' figures were introduced as well along with the Eighth Doctor. We have initially the rather thinly sketched Chang Lee, who is innocuous and passive but does have some wells of anger and frustration simmering beneath the surface. Jacobs does not really give us enough of a reason to care for this character in the crucial opening act. He has obviously fallen in with the wrong crowd and got into the lethal environment of gang warfare. He is young and reckless, and easily won over by the thoroughly malicious Master; along the lines of Eve seduced by the serpent in Eden. Yee Jee Tso is likable enough for the most part, but does struggle to make this character breath full life in various aspects.

 

Grace Holloway however is almost the equal of the Doctor in terms of being a relatable and inspiring protagonist. She clearly has a full life of worries and torrid emotions, as she tries to find the right man who can appreciate her demanding duties as a surgeon in San Francisco. She is in the middle of a date with a handsome man, and wondering if he is the one for her, before a fate-defining phone call gets her straight back to work. She was certainly not expecting a seemingly manic, eccentric with a Scottish burr calling out "I am not human.. I am not like you!".

 

That she turns out to be the Seventh Doctor's inadvertent killer, by using a 'cutting edge' probe is an interesting irony. Bullets did not kill our beloved rogue wanderer, it was the lack of earth technology and a determined medicinal doctor that ended up doing that deed. This makes the eventual romance between Grace and the new Doctor truly interesting. She sees him as a miracle man, but also somewhat terrifying. Ultimately she takes a leap of faith and trusts him, and proves to be of great value thereafter on more than one occasion. By the end, and the rather too neat way Grace and Chang lee are returned from the dead by TARDIS 'gold dust' the audience has been taken on a journey with a really engaging and relatable person. Daphne Ashbrook deserves plaudits for her efforts. She has a long sustained career on television and showed much range. Her acting chops are indisputable and a great asset for what was a much hyped venture, for which those who were responsible had invested so much hope.

 

Crucially this TV movie needed a robust and chilling villain. For much of the running time it did have it. Eric Roberts has famously been in the shadow of his sister Julia much of his career, but is still a fine actor. I certainly enjoyed his brief turn in Christopher Nolan's triumphant The Dark Knight. He does well enough in the dual roles of Bruce and then the Master proper. This in itself was not unprecedented, as the Anthony Ainley incarnation of the renegade had first come about from the disturbing fate Tremas had in the early 1980s Tom Baker story The Keeper Of Traken.

 

It is rather silly, especially today after the three rather weaker films in The Terrminator franchise, that Roberts attempts to emulate Arnold Schwarzenegger's most celebrated alter-ego. When those shades are not used and the terrifying snake eyes are in full display then the stout-hearted and quick witted McGann Doctor has a true equal and opposite. And even when Roberts waltzes in for the final battle revolving around the TARDIS' Eye Of Harmony - something that went over the heads of many a casual British and American watcher - and oozes camp rather than creepiness, he has a dominant presence. Ultimately he does not really belong in the elite of onscreen Masters, but definitely is worth being remembered all these years later.

 

Paul McGann as The Doctor (publicity photo from The TV Movie) (Credit: BBC)In terms of the audience participation, this feature needed to have a double triumph in order to justify further expenditure into an ongoing series or mini-series. Whilst there were pretty good ratings on BBC 1 over in the UK, the US side of things was lukewarm at best. Things were not helped by the ever popular Roseanne having its finale being shown around the same time on the networks; an ironic reflection of how latter day Sylvester McCoy stories had to contend with the UK's powerhouse soap opera Coronation Street. As this was a limited success in terms of pure numbers, Doctor Who just could not carry on at that point in time. However a certain Russell T Davies was only just now coming into his own..

 

On a perhaps more personal level I found the lack of any new Doctor Who, and the frustration entailed, further compounded by the decision at the time by BBC Video to delete the majority of classic stories in the catalogue. This was to allow the maximum number of editions of the TV movie on shelves everywhere. There probably was some sound enough economic argument, but I cannot have been the only collector out there grimacing as I missed out on invaluable ways to witness capsules of history. For a 13 year old adolescent that got a rush from exploring shops on the sly, whilst also trying to fit in socially with various peer groups with more current and inherently Nineties pop culture in mind, it did feel undoubtedly cruel.

 

Of course before long there was another medium altogether in DVD which made the return of all those stories suddenly something to look forward to. And nowadays every Doctor Who story that exists in the archives is available via streaming across the internet. But at the time, even for someone wildly imaginative like myself, this felt as troublesome a setback as any other.

 

Over time as well the rating for this story has been modified. When it first was released in the UK on videotape some of the early stages had to be edited down so that the youngest fans, who traditionally are the target audience of Who, could be catered for in terms of the video being a viable 'present'. Some years later when the BBC did a Doctor Who theme night, the full version of the story was shown for viewers, and most notably gave the full account of how Chang Lee lost his pair of friends. And then on DVD release the story finally could be shown uncut and with the 12 certificate retained, obviously reflecting the changes in what was acceptable language and violence according to censors.

 

So let's raise a toast to this one proper story that represents the dynamic, vibrant universe of time travel and twin hearts, from the final decade of the 20th Century. There were of course high profile charity shorts in the form of Dimensions In Time, and The Curse Of Fatal Death, with the latter's case being a sign of greater things to come from Steven Moffat. All the same, this feature-length tale has a great deal of verve, and willingness to try new things, such as suggest the Doctor truly wants to love and be loved, and that there is more than one way for a Time Lord to survive a final incarnation. This fascinatingly unique entity is worth at least one look, if you yourself have yet to sample its many attributes.