The original series of Doctor Who came to an end in 1989, and the new series returned to our screens in 2005. But between these two there was one fleeting ray of light, the moment Doctor Who returned for the Paul McGann era in 1996. Unfortunately that “era” never got beyond one tv movie. It was a UK/US co-production and the viewing figures were good in the UK, but what we might describe as middling in the US. Of course, the amount of people who tune in for a pilot episode is not the only measure of success. The potential for an ongoing series didn’t seem to be there, because… well, it just wasn’t a very good movie. It was a bitter pill to swallow at the time, when the fans had pinned their hopes on this as the big revival of Doctor Who. Looking back on the Movie, free from those concerns, there are actually plenty of things it got right, some of which became the model for the new series since 2005, but a lot did indeed go wrong. Normally that gets blamed on the Americans, and like most established fan wisdom, that’s entirely wrong.
The only thing about the Movie that we could really point to and say “that’s American and it’s really rubbish” is Eric Roberts, but the US doesn’t have the monopoly on bad acting. Let’s face it, just about every bad actor who has worked in the UK since the 1960s has appeared in Doctor Who at some point. The script does things that people identify as US-style melodramatic trash, particularly the half-human revelation, but that’s just bad writing, not being American. It’s a relic from the aborted original script, and it’s the same kind of melodramatic approach to the Doctor’s past that would have happened in the original finale to the Third Doctor’s era, or in the aborted original script for the conclusion of The Trial of a Time Lord. That was a Robert Holmes script, and it was going to be awful in exactly the same way that the Movie almost was. Bits of the abandoned awfulness found their way into the end product, much like Trial.
We have been lucky enough that the original run of Doctor Who ended with a genius script editor working with a great team of writers, and the new run in 2005 began with a genius showrunner also working with a great team of writers. 1996 is an example of what happens when Doctor Who is made by people who are merely very good indeed. And it is a sobering fact that Doctor Who is actually something that is very, very difficult to get right. Over the last 12 years since 2005 we have had just two lead writers, and both have been complete and utter geniuses. Perhaps we are about to find out what happens when a lead writer who is merely very good indeed takes over.
To return to the Movie and what went wrong with it, we could point to the wealth of continuity and blame that, but most of it doesn’t really detract from the story, apart from one thing: the inclusion of the Seventh Doctor. As lovely as it was that everyone wanted to provide a continuation, there are more ways than one to do that as we found out in 2005, and launching a new version of Doctor Who with a regeneration is a very bad option. At the time I thought it was a wonderful idea and would probably have been annoyed if McCoy wasn’t in it, but I was a teenage Doctor Who fan, and nobody should have been making Doctor Who for me. A relaunch has to be about capturing the new audience. That comes first, and the little treats for the fans have to be an afterthought.
Post-regeneration stories can be absolutely brilliant, but they are generally only ever brilliant because of the effort put into them, allowing them to succeed while being hampered by a very bad idea. The actual post-regenerative trauma stuff is invariably awful, unless it is dealt with rapidly. After starting with McCoy and then going through all that stuff with the Doctor not knowing who he is, it takes a long time before we really have the Doctor in Doctor Who, and that means the plot has to be simplistic to accommodate that. And simplistic in this instance basically means bad guy doing bad things, while hero races around from place to place trying to stop him, until we get a big confrontation at the end. McGann is brilliant as the Doctor, but that’s not quite enough to make the whole thing work.
But what really goes horribly wrong here is not so much the plot, which is serviceable for a backdoor pilot episode, but the way in which the core concepts of Doctor Who are introduced to a new audience: the Doctor and the TARDIS. Look how the TARDIS is introduced to us in An Unearthly Child and also in Rose: with the new companion(s) walking through the doors, in wonderment. This clearly establishes the link between the police box and the interior dimensions, which is actually a weird thing for the viewers to get their heads around. The companions are our audience identification figures at that point. But look what happens in the Movie. We see the box flying around and then we see McCoy in a weird cathedral-ish room, with little effort to establish the connection between those two things. Then when Grace eventually goes inside she starts spouting off technobabble as if she knows what’s going on.
The TARDIS works best simply as a means of getting the Doctor from one place/time to another (i.e. a magic door). But instead we get a very different version of the TARDIS here, one that uses time travel as a way to cheat the plot and undo anything that has happened. It’s no wonder this didn’t seem like a concept with potential, considering what we get here is not a magic box that can take the Doctor anywhere, but instead a magic box that undoes the plot and renders everything we have just seen irrelevant.
The Doctor is actually introduced to us through the eyes of a new companion, so what goes wrong with the TARDIS goes right with the Doctor, but the problem here is that Grace is simply dreadful as a companion. To take Rose as a comparison again (which might seem unfair, but it’s our obvious example of how to get things right, and therefore an insight into why the Movie goes wrong) she makes a choice to leave Mickey and go travelling with the Doctor, and it takes two whole seasons for her to gradually fall in love with the Doctor until she actually confesses her feelings. With Grace we instead get the equivalent to what the classic series tended to do with new companions: give them no reason to stay at home. Often this was done by orphaning young women (Vicki, Victoria, Leela, Nyssa). Here Grace is dumped by her boyfriend. Note that difference: Rose chooses the Doctor over Mickey. Grace is passively thrown from one man to another. Fans made a big fuss about the kiss, but it’s not a problem in itself. There’s no reason why the Doctor can’t do that! No, the problem with it is that it’s an emotionally hollow whirlwind romance, a far cry from the genuine connection that develops between Rose and the Doctor. It’s not that this can’t be done within a single story: The Girl in the Fireplace just about manages it by having the Doctor appear at intervals during Reinette’s life, giving the romance some meaning. But done in this way it ends up as just another thing that is there as a faux dramatic beat, much like the half-human subplot-that-isn’t-a-subplot. Then, having gone to all the trouble of placing Grace in a position where she is obviously going to go with the Doctor, removing her from her previous relationship and having her fall for the Doctor, she just says no and goes home, while the Doctor heads off to drink some more tea and play old music among his books and clocks in his British cathedral.
But there were plenty of positives to take from this. We had a great new Doctor with Paul McGann, and it would be his audios that would really bring Big Finish to life, showing the way for the return of Doctor Who to television in some respects. The viewing figures were proof that there was a strong demand for Doctor Who in the UK, and exceptional numbers might not be impossible if it was done right, plus at the very least there was a strong niche audience of viewers ready and waiting in the USA. And maybe, just maybe, it was possible for the first pair of shoes you try on to fit perfectly, without spending all day trawling around the shops. This might have felt like the final nail in the coffin of Doctor Who at the time, but we were all wrong about that. It was a major step on the road to the return of Doctor Who. And it would be worth the wait. RP
The view from across the pond:
I remember when Doctor Who went off the air. In 1989, I was old enough to remember the absence. But over the next few years, a company called 800-Trekker helped me keep Who alive. I subscribed to a monthly book service and received 2 books a month: The New Adventures and The Missing Adventures. These two ranges of Doctor Who books kept the adventures coming month after month, covering new McCoy episodes and giving us past Doctor stories to fill in the gap. And then that announcement came out… He’s back and it’s about time! Tuesday, May 14th, 1996. 8:00pm. I was glued to the television set…
It was on the planet Skaro that my old enemy the Master was finally put on trial…
I can’t say whether or not I blinked over the next 90 minutes, but I’d venture I didn’t.
While we didn’t see the Daleks, they sounded like they’d been hanging out with Charlie Sheen on the set of Hot Shot! (“Great helium!”) but that didn’t detract from the story. Nor did the Master’s trial, on Skaro of all places. Even though we could not see his face, that stance and those clothes… it was Delgado’s Master, surely! Then the music began and the Master’s inhuman eyes glare at us as the opening credits began. That music was epic. Then the TARDIS… Lord above, that console room looked great!
But then things started to go wonky. I mean, they had started the moment the Master was put “on trial” on Skaro but we could ignore that, right? It was just part of a prologue. While it was only a little over a season earlier that Skaro was destroyed, it was 8 years between those two seasons, so to not do the research wasn’t that big a deal either. But then there was that serpent version of the Master. We had to read additional books to get any idea why he looked like that and there is still question of the canonicity of those books. No explanation was coming in those 85 minutes though, so what choice did we have? Eric Roberts is always fun to watch when he plays the caricature villain, and he’s no less fun to watch in this as he intones deeply, “this is an am-byoo-lance!” but it was his Popeye impression that left me boggling. (Seriously, go back and watch his reaction during the fire extinguisher scene!) And Grace! Beautiful Grace; who goes to the Opera in full scale opera dress and runs into heart surgery in the same thing. And allows a CD player into the room to perform that surgery! What if she were into heavy metal music? Would that be good for the patient?
Then there are the other things that make your head hurt. Like the hose scene when the Doctor and Grace are getting off the roof via hose… Via a slow-moving-hose that knows to unwind gradually so they don’t get hurt in the fall. And The Eye of Harmony is in the TARDIS? And needs human eyes to open? And what???? The Doctor is half human? Let’s go over something on this subject. The Doctor is dealing with regeneration trauma so he’s always confused. Plus he’s trying to trick Dr. Wagg. So we can accept that when he says it, it’s bogus. But wait, you say, the Master also says it. True, but he’s lost his mind and currently does not have the same eyes, as we see clearly during the opening credits. In fact, whatever he’s using to preserve his life makes his eyes totally evil and inhuman looking, not at all like Gallifreyan’s we’ve seen before, so perhaps all he’s really seeing is that they don’t have the same eyes and leaps to the conclusion that the Doctor is half human, ignoring the fact that he’s walking around in an animated corpse. And since the Master and the Doctor are telepathic, it’s probably what made the Doctor think of it for his ruse anyway. I’m sorry, I can see no better solution, so I’m sticking with it. I refuse to acknowledge the stupidity that the Doctor is half-human!!
With so much to rip apart, was there anything good about it? Maybe the fact that we finally saw how the old Tom Baker key fit into the TARDIS lock? That was good, sure. Or the reference to the Doctor’s youth with his father? Maybe, but honestly, I prefer to think that was the monk he spent time with. I prefer some mystery to remain around his family. The kiss? I’ve said it before in my regeneration analysis, I take no issue with it; in fact, based on what we know of regenerating, that was totally acceptable. Did it make, or break, the episode? No. What sold it was Paul McGann and Daphne Ashbrook.
Ashbrook, who I’ve had the extraordinary pleasure of chatting with, is honestly, wonderful. She plays Grace, well, gracefully and fun and as a companion to admire. She’s an accomplished surgeon, has a sense of identity, even helps save the day by guess-wiring the TARDIS. She’s a companion that represents the modern era of fandom too. (For more on her, see my previous piece about the companions here.) As for McGann… Paul takes his one episode of Doctor Who and hits a home run on his first attempt. In less than an hour on screen, he becomes the Doctor. So much so, that he’s a mainstay of Big Finish playing the Eighth Doctor and had even made a return to television for Night of the Doctor. He has the right look even if the outfit is supposed to be Wild Bill Hickok. His voice is perfect. He’s friendly and alien and intelligent and quirky and in every way embodied this latest Doctor. He is undoubtedly the hero!
Doctor Who (The Movie) is full of plot holes and silly moments that make us scratch our respective heads, but that portrayal of the Doctor and his companion was outstanding and ultimately what we watch for. We know there will always be odd episodes, but we watch for the adventures of our favorite character, and Paul McGann, for one crazy television episode, embodied all that is great about Doctor Who. ML