Blightyvision: Doctor Who: The Movie

Starring Paul McGann, Daphne AshbrookYee Jee Tso, and Eric Roberts
Written by Matthew Jacobs
Directed by Geoffrey Sax

Okay, guys.  I’ve been putting this off as long as possible.  Partly because I suppose people could argue the “British television” categorization of this, partly because it divides the fandom so much, but mostly because the last few times I watched it I was drinking every time someone said “two hearts” so my objectivity is really up in the air here.  But with the copyright struggle finally sorted and a legitimate US release available a full fifteen years after the original air date, it’s about time.

Whoops.  Damn.  Sorry.

All right, New-Whovians, history time.  The original run of Doctor Who ended in 1989 with the Seventh Doctor story “Survival.”  The franchise lay dormant for seven years, at which point Fox and Auntie Beeb got together and decided they were going to attempt a trans-Atlantic revival of the series.  The 90-minute TV pilot introduced Paul McGann (“I” of Withnail & I) as the Eighth Doctor, and set his first adventure in Vancouver San Francisco.  It failed to relaunch the series, but did spawn a long (and still-running) line of new unofficial-but-sanctioned audio dramas from Big Finish that finally helped to revive the show in 2005 — with a continuity hiccup straight to Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor.

The other thing nu-fans should be warned of in advance is that this movie has been dividing the fandom for years.  People have loved it, hated it, argued about individual lines in it and their effect on canon … you name it.  What’s to argue about?  Here’s the requisite plot rundown — I’ll italicize things the fans don’t like.

At some undefined point post-“Survival,” an oddly-subdued Seventh Doctor is flying the Master’s remains to Gallifrey after his execution on Skaro by the Daleks. Along the way he’s forced to make a crash-landing on Earth just before New Year’s Eve 1999, where he is caught in the crossfire of a gang shoot-out and ends up dying during a botched surgery. Eighth’s regeneration crisis is particularly severe, and he ends up in the company of the surgeon who accidentally killed him.  Meanwhile, the Master has taken the form of a snake and possessed TV’s Eric Roberts, who has decided to steal the Doctor’s body and remaining regenerations.

Oh, and it’s also revealed in this that the Doctor is half human, and for some reason that alone has managed to turn dozens upon dozens of fans away from it.

The fact of the matter is … it’s a bit of all right.  It’s not up there with the best of the best memorable-forever serials, but it definitely has the feel of the original pacing- and story-wise.  Though, while I know the point was to make a movie-length pilot, I can’t help but feel like it could have been trimmed down a bit and been just as good, if not better.  Just to keep things moving.

First things first: Paul McGann is an excellent Doctor.  He is.  And it’s just not fair that this was his one screen outing.  Eight has this wonderful ability to be brooding and mysterious one minute, then get distracted and run off after something shiny a few seconds later.  Coming just after the Machiavellian retooled-Seven (and, in retrospect, just before the super-angry Nine), he’s just happy more often than not.  Incidentally, Eight was also the first Doctor to ever kiss a companion.  At the time it was considered shocking and Earth-shattering, but considering anyone who gets in or near the TARDIS now gets a free snog with the price of admission, his moment of “I’m really happy and you’re here, so I’m-a kiss you now” seems downright innocent.

Grace as a character bothered me because she seemed a little too high-strung, but Ashbrook as an actor does well in a one-shot role … I’m not sure I could see her as a regular companion.  But Yee Jee Tso as Chang Lee, an inner-city kid whom the Master takes under his wing like some sort of twisty alien variation of Dustin Hoffman as Captain Hook, would be fun to see returning.

Honestly, there are only a few things that bother me about it.  The script was written by the man behind “Young Indiana Jones,” and it has more good to it than bad — the only truly awkward stuff is the obvious handful of “this’ll go in the trailer” lines.  It’s shot awfully dark, too, and while I understand it’s meant to be very gothic and atmospheric, some scenes are a bit too underlit to see.  Which is a pity, since honestly it’s a very pretty movie and Victorian/gothic anything is one of my weaknesses.

The main problem, though, is Eric Roberts. I’m sorry.  I really am.  I hate, in reviews, boiling down the badness of something to one person.  But he is flat-out the worst Master in Christendom.  I’m not sure how much of it was the characterization contained within the script and how much was director/actor choice.  A lot of people argue he’s bad because he’s camp and not scary.   Whereas I argue that he’s just not a match for the Doctor.  These two are meant to be Holmes and Moriarty, and there’s no feeling of these two as matched rivals.  You’re never really worried about the Doctor — or the safety of Earth — because the Master’s so ridiculous and flamboyant that he doesn’t seem to pose any particular threat.

But, those individual negatives aside, this is the story that got me into Doctor Who fandom.  In retrospect I can look back and see why existing fans didn’t dig parts of it, but I don’t think those things warrant fan ire.  It was a stand-alone story meant to establish the continuity for new viewers in a 90-minute space, and it did that.  And it introduced a Doctor that people would actually enjoy following through a series.  Nu-Who fans will get a kick out of it, and it’s a nice link-back to the original series if you’ve considered getting into it.  If you can’t set aside your super-cereal fandom … probably not for you.  But at least attempt it.

Doctor Who: The Movie is now available in a special-edition R1 DVD release. Not for the faint of heart as it contains motorcycle chases, gun fights, exploding planets, phallic CG imagery, and a really really unfortunate wig.

Posted on February 17, 2011 at 01:58 by Kara Dennison · Permalink
In: Columns, Television: British and Canadian · Tagged with: , , ,

2 Responses

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  1. Written by Arkonbey
    on 2011-02-17 at 20:40

    I remember this well. I remember being first, elated that Dr. Who was coming back, then suspicious that it was on Fox and not the BBC, then I watched it.

    Your review was spot on, I think. I’ll sum it up: Show = meh, but MgGann = good doctor who deserved another chance. I wonder if the Matt Smith rummaging-through-the-hospital lockers was a nod to that episode.

    • Written by Kara Dennison
      on 2011-02-21 at 02:02

      The Moff has gushed about the movie on various occasions. I’m very glad he’s been giving it its due, at the very least in little nods to it.

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