Doctor Who [The TV Movie–1996]

Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, but in recent years rewatchings of old episodes have been few and far between.  But recently I decided to spend some of my 50th birthday spending money on some of these adventures, and enjoy them with one or two of my nerdier daughters.

Doctor Who

Starring Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor.
Co-Starring:  Eric Roberts as the Master, Daphne Ashbrook as Grace Holloway, Yee Jee Tso as Chang Lee and Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor.
Written by Matthew Jacobs.  Directed by Geoffrey Sax.

Format:  1 single television movie, about 85 minutes long
Originally Aired:  May 14, 1996

I didn’t actually buy this 1996 TV movie–it was just sitting there on one of my streaming services. But I did watch it again. This movie, called only Doctor Who, is unlike any other installment of the series, either before or since. The original series went off the air in 1990, the revived series didn’t start until 2005. In between, there was very little in the world of cinematic Doctor Who–leading to “The Wilderness Years” as the unofficial banner for this period.

Spoilers Ahead!

How is it? Well, that depends largely on the perspective one views it from.

From the point of view of a viewer at the time?

Wow, Doctor Who is back! This is so cool! The special effects are great! They even got Sylvester McCoy back into it! This is exciting! I hope it becomes a series!

From the point of view of watching the original series?

Well, this is a bit strange. A single movie-length episode? The Doctor kisses his companion? The Master is a gooey snake thing? And it’s not bad, exactly, but it does have an odd American sheen over it all.

From the point view of being a fan of the revived series?

Wow, this is weird. The whole thing is bit slow, with far less zing and imagination than we’re used it. The Daleks don’t sound very good and the Master for some reason isn’t a prancing lunatic, so that’s unusual.

From the point of view of the whole Wilderness Years?

Well, “okay” Doctor Who is definitely better than no Doctor Who.

Overall, the 1996 TV movie is a testimony to the fact that even though Doctor Who was off the air, there were obviously still quite devoted fans for the show, and some of them were working in the industry. Producer Philip Segal was apparently the key figure in getting the movie made, which went through lots of iterations before settling into the production we got. By all accounts, it was an incredibly complex process to secure all the necessary agreements from the various parties, and so in spite of its weaknesses we consider ourselves fortunate that the show exists at all, and that it fits so well into the show’s existing continuity.

Paul McGann makes a strong debut as the Doctor, bringing lots of charm to the role. I’ve heard it said that his is the most fully formed first appearance of a new Doctor since William Hartnell, and that’s certainly a reasonable opinion. Maybe the biggest loss of this version of Doctor Who never becoming a series is the fact that we didn’t get several seasons of McGann on TV. Oh well, at least we have plenty of Big Finish audio dramas (see here, for example) to listen to.

There are other positives as well. The effects are good, on par with other American TV productions of the day. Some of the show’s production design is a big step up from the classic series, with a much more interesting TARDIS interior and a better costume sense for the Doctor than the show had given us for quite some time. The regeneration sequence is well staged (with it cross-cut with scenes from Frankenstein). And there is some unusual cinematography, for example in the climactic confrontation between the Doctor and the Master.

But…none of that really makes up for the story’s failings, the biggest of which is the overall sense of meh about it all. Doctor Who is a show whose greatest strength is perhaps its versatility–it has the ability to take us anytime, anyplace, and to plop us into the middle of any situation and deal with any sort of crisis. This story makes the bold choice to introduce a new audience to its format by taking us into a near-future that is so near that one can’t tell the difference between it and the present day, putting the Doctor into a mostly routine action story. The Doctor himself has spark and wit about him, but the story that he’s in does not.

Of course, the 2005 revival also set its opening episode in the present, but in that case they also brings in a healthy dose of the fantastic, with its living plastic mannequins and wheelie-bins, and a giant amorphous living plastic consciousness. The 1996 movie, by contrast, seems to be downplaying those elements, in spite of its animated snake-Master. When the show finally introduces us to a cosmic threat, it feels like an afterthought. These world-ending stakes are tacked on, remaining vague and unrelatable. We never feel a sense of danger to anyone but the Doctor himself.

The show also really drops the ball with the way it introduces the Doctor himself. As much as old-school fans like myself were pleased by the continuity tie-in with the Seventh Doctor, the show would have been massively improved if it had not started with the main character’s predecessor doing nothing but walking outside and getting shot by accidentally. It’s only after about 20 minutes that we get Paul McGann’s Doctor, and even then he spends a huge amount of time being befuddled and confused. Paul McGann is good as the Doctor, but its ages before he gets to prove it to us–it makes the movie feel unnecessarily long. Contrast that with Christopher Eccleston’s 9th Doctor, whose script serves well from the very first moment.

In the end, the TV movie remains an odd curiosity which the modern series has never properly revisited, aside from various flashbacks of Paul McGann and his brief return to the role in the Night of the Doctor mini-episode from 2013. It’s certainly not the worst Doctor Who adventure, but it’s a far cry from being particularly good.

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