Friday, November 28, 2008
Academy of the Underrated: Doctor Who: The Movie
With DOCTOR WHO’s popularity now at an all time high, it’s interesting to look at a period when its hopes for the future seemed to rest on a long shot. The 1996 DOCTOR WHO television movie was an American co-production between Universal and the BBC for the Fox Network, and intended as a backdoor pilot for a potential new series. It was not a reboot, but a straight continuation of the classic show, and is still considered canon for whatever that’s worth. Obviously it was not the hit its producers wanted, and making the thing dependent on an American audience was probably a bad idea to start with, but despite falling into obscurity somewhat, the DOCTOR WHO TVM (as it’s sometimes referred to) has a lot to recommend it. It’s atmospheric, good-looking, and fun, and though the plot is twisty and coincidence-laden the whole production has too much charm to let that be a major problem. It’s gotten the reputation of being an “Americanization” of the concept but I think that’s being too harsh.
The Doctor (first seen in the guise of Sylvester McCoy) starts off being entrusted to take the remains of his old enemy, the Master, back to their home world of Gallifrey after his apparent execution on Skaro. (The arguments over why the Daleks would let the Doctor do anything or put the Master on trial to begin with echo widely throughout fandom, but let’s keep moving shall we?) However, the Master hasn’t so much died as turned into a slithering amorphous thing, and he manages to short out the TARDIS, which crash-lands in San Francisco on December 30th, 1999. The Doctor gets shot by a street gang as soon as he exits the TARDIS (insert your own social commentary), and Chang Lee (Yee Jee Tso), former Chinatown street gang member (former by virtue of his entire gang getting gunned down just prior) accompanies him to the hospital.
However, at the hospital, there’s a lot of confusion over a patient whose chest X-ray shows two hearts and seems to react very negatively to anesthetic, and in the confusion the Doctor dies. He regenerates into a younger body (Paul McGann) but with quite a few gaps in his memory, and he latches onto one face he remembers: Dr. Grace Holloway (Daphne Ashbrook), the heart surgeon who was in charge when he croaked. She thinks she’s dealing with a crazy man until he pulls a surgical probe out of his chest, and even then she’s not really convinced. In the meantime, the Master has possessed the body of an EMT (Eric Roberts), but his human form is not long for this world, so he cons and hypnotizes Chang Lee into helping him with a plan to use the Eye of Harmony, the TARDIS’ power source, to steal the Doctor’s body and all his remaining regenerations. The side effect? Having the Eye open during this procedure will eventually suck the entire planet through it, and wouldn’t you know, the deadline is midnight on New Year’s Eve.
So, yeah. Screenwriter Matthew Jacobs came up with a plotline that ultimately was too big for a 90 minute film, and a few details were sacrificed in trimming it down. There was an apparently an explanation for why the Master becomes a snake creature and how the Daleks were involved and so on, but the plot we see on screen is just a tad convoluted and relies a lot on coincidence. Some details get lost in the wash- the Doctor walks through a window and says he’s lost 20 pounds in 20 minutes both as a result of the Eye being open, but these elements of the Earth’s impending doom never come up again. There aren’t any plot holes of the “this really cannot happen given what we’ve seen so far” variety- the film doesn’t break its own laws as far as I can tell- but there’s an awful lot of handwaving involved.
The film also introduced a few controversial elements to the new WHO mix. The Doctor hints that he’s half-human, something that was intended to be a much bigger issue in executive producer Philip David Segal’s original series pitch- here it’s not even clear whether he’s serious, but the Master appears to think he is. It’s an element that might have been a problem had this gone to a series, but as such it’s just a weird quirk. Somewhat more controversial at the time was the Doctor’s romantic chemistry with Grace- up to that point he had been portrayed as mostly asexual (despite having a granddaughter), and though it never gets developed any further than a John Steed/Emma Peel type flirtation and a couple of good kisses, it was shocking at the time (as was the British press’ mistranslation of a phrase in the script, “Grace bonks the Doctor.”) The romance, plus a scene where the Master and Chang Lee in an ambulance pursue a motorcycle-riding Doctor and Grace, led to cries of “Americanization”, even though both the writer and director are British and the whole thing was shot in Vancouver. In the interim, though, the new series has taken the concepts of Doctor/companion romance and high speed action even farther, and though the TVM does some catering to American sensibilities, it doesn’t blot out the show’s roots.
Indeed, I remember that when this was broadcast, my biggest concern was whether they’d get the “feel” of DOCTOR WHO right. But from the very first scenes, where the Doctor relaxes in a charmingly steampunk TARDIS control room to an Eartha Kitt record, the atmosphere is dead on. Throughout the film maintains a great balance of whimsy and dread, with enough of the surreal to remind us that we’re still in the same universe as the old series. It helps that the dialogue is fairly snappy and clever even when the plot comes up short; there’s some very nice banter, and a spirit of good humor that makes the goofy moments more palatable.
The great tragedy of the TV movie’s poor ratings performance (in the US at least, where it was up against stiff May sweeps competition) is that this is as much as we’ve ever seen of Paul McGann as the Doctor (though not the last we heard, as he did several Big Finish audio productions afterwards.) As short on screen time as he is, McGann makes his mark pretty strongly; his Doctor is brighter than his immediate predecessors (McCoy had been a humorous Doctor to start but darkened near the end), capable of almost childlike wonder but possessing the intelligence and presence of a 900-year-old Time Lord. (The filmmakers also gave him the interesting ability to know a bit too much about everyone he meets.) Rumors often circulate among fans that McGann might appear in the future, possibly in a flashback to the offscreen Time War, but so far no dice. Eric Roberts’ version of the Master is high on the camp scale, but that seems to be the nature of the part. Daphne Ashbrook has a couple of shrill moments but is mostly charming, and Yee Jee Tso does pretty well; neither of these two were signed on in the event a series was ordered, but it’s interesting to think what they might have been like as companions.
More expensive than the average Fox Tuesday night movie, DOCTOR WHO has great production values and appealing visuals (with effects supervised by Tony Dow- THAT Tony Dow, yes). Director Geoffrey Sax composes all sorts of interesting shots, usually around themes of eyes and other circular patterns, and the use of colors- mostly blue and orangish-yellow- is striking. When the old series went off-air in 1989, it was still stuck in an increasingly outdated and stagey method of filming; low budgets and tight schedules meant fewer camera setups and fewer takes. During the long hiatus/cancellation, drama TV and its bastard cousin genre programming adopted a more cinematic style, and this film was really our first hint of what WHO would have to look like in the modern era. The TVM also benefits from a lush score by John Debney, John Sponslor, and Louis Febre; I have to confess I’m one of the few fans of the unusually superheroic rendition of
the classic theme.
DOCTOR WHO aired once on Fox, didn’t do well enough to merit a follow-up, and has since pretty much vanished in the US apart from a couple of cable airings. Universal still owns the film in part, whereas Warner Home Video handles the BBC’s WHO releases in this country, hence nobody’s made much effort to get this on R1 DVD. The project may have been doomed from the start; a DOCTOR WHO series made to the visual standards of US television in the mid-90s would be very expensive, what with the changing locations every week. After the production became a backdoor pilot instead of a proper series opener, Universal decided it would have to get a pretty big audience share to merit taking things any further (at this point they still had SLIDERS, a slightly cheaper spin on the whole “dimensional travel” concept), and of course it didn’t. Some have blamed the reliance on past continuity, spending so much time with McCoy’s Doctor instead of the proper star, etc., but really, this aired once and never again; there was no time for word of mouth to have an effect, positive or negative. The film received good ratings in the UK, and the BBC wisely decided that any future attempts at reviving WHO would be directed chiefly at that audience. Took them 9 years to try again, but I understand there was some sort of legal thing.
It’s interesting to look back on the DOCTOR WHO TV movie and see it as a taste of what was to come: faster and often looser storytelling, stylish visuals, a bit more action, and a finally-not-asexual Doctor. But I also love it for what it is, a high-spirited adventure about defying death, turning back time, and taking chances, all things that the good Doctor does regularly. It’s a shame this couldn’t be much more than a footnote in the show’s history, but at least it’s an entertaining one.
Written by Matthew Jacobs
Directed by Geoffrey Sax