The title-less television movie “Doctor Who” which aired in the interim between the old and new series is a particular favorite of mine. For the first time, Doctor Who was made with a decent budget and strong production values, and the show benefits immensely. In addition, Paul McGann makes an excellent Doctor, easily capturing the essence of the character while adding his own unique personality traits.
This is not a gateway story made specifically to ease new fans into the series, although much of the dialogue is aimed in that direction and explains a good deal of information about the original series. This is a continuation of the original series, picking up where it left off after a time skip of an indeterminate number of years. The Doctor is still the seventh, played by Sylvester McCoy. Ace is no longer with him, and he’s drastically redone the TARDIS interior, which now looks like a comfortable place to live with the wood paneling, comfortable light levels and living area beside the console room. Continuity references come think and fast, from the bowl of jelly babies to the 900 year diary. Skaro and the Daleks appear in the opening teaser, and the Master still has the cat eyes from Survival. The opening minutes of the movie reassure us that this is the same Doctor we all enjoyed watching in the original series, not a reboot of any sort. And considering what has been written about possible re-imaginings, I’d have to conclude that the movie we got was by far the best option.
The Fox promo from the original broadcast sums up the plot succinctly. To quote (more or less), “For over a thousand years, they’ve been mortal enemies. These two time travelers from a distant world, one good, one pure evil, face each other in a final duel to the death, and the battlefield is Earth”. Here again the movie keeps the Master true to his motivations during the series. Having reached the end of his regenerations, the Master is still trying to prolong his life, and now plans to steal the Doctor’s remaining regenerations. He’s engaged in desperate actions before, and really goes off the deep end here, allowing the Daleks to execute him so that he can assume a new form and infiltrate the TARDIS. How he does this is unclear. The eighth Doctor tells Grace that he can take the form of another species, but only when he dies, so presumably this is what the Master did. However, the seventh Doctor takes the Master’s “remains” on board without any apparent worry that this might have occurred and seems quite horrified to learn that his old enemy is still alive. All in all, this is a Time Lord ability that the movie introduces that I can’t quite accept, like the Doctor being half-human. More on that in a moment.
The Master sabotages the TARDIS and it crash-lands on Earth, where both the Doctor and the Master end up with new bodies. The Doctor is “killed” during a misguided attempt at heart surgery, while the Master takes over the body of an ambulance driver and uses him to go after the Doctor. The result is a chase through parts of San Fransisco where the Doctor hunts for a component to repair the damaged TARDIS, and the Master hunts the Doctor.
The Doctor’s companion for the story is cardiologist Dr. Grace Holloway, who was responsible for the seventh Doctor’s ‘death’ and whom the eighth latches onto as he tries to work out who he is following post-regeneration amnesia. Grace is a wonderful character, who gets a large amount of history and characterization in her brief hour or so onscreen. She’s “tired of life, but afraid of dying” according to the Doctor. Grace is accomplished, principled and determined. She quits a lucrative job at the hospital because of the corrupt actions of her hospital supervisor, and takes time to help the Doctor even though he appears to her to be not quite sane. She even manages to rewire the TARDIS (using residual knowledge gained when the Master possessed her mind?), commenting while trying to sort out the mess of wiring in the console that she thought surgery was difficult. In the end she chooses not to go with the Doctor on his travels, and though he’s tempted to stay with her, he chooses instead to keep moving on. Paul McGann and Daphne Ashbrook play their roles with skill and conviction, and are a pleasure to watch.
The Master, in an unusual turn of events, also has an assistant in the form of Chang Lee. Lee is a member of a local street gang who sees his buddies gunned down in front of him, helps the Doctor to the hospital after the Doctor is shot, and who then ultimately steals his belongings which leads him back to the TARDIS. The Master uses the boy to try and track down the Doctor, and also to activate the TARDIS since it apparently “likes” Lee. Here is where the movie takes a departure from the series with the formerly unseen revelations that the Eye of Harmony rests in the center of the TARDIS, that the human retina is needed to open it, and that the Doctor himself is half-human. None of this really fits in with what the TARDIS is or where it came from, and the half-human revelation is poorly regarded by most fans, including myself. It can’t really be said that the Doctor is lying about it later on, since the Master himself insists that it’s true when he examines the Doctor’s retinal pattern. While this would explain the Doctor’s preference for Earth over other places in the universe, it also tends to diminish the character’s selfless nature, since it could now be said that he has a personal stake in the Earth’s fate. The new series has ignored the half-human idea, going so far as to implicitly deny the idea in “Journey’s End” when Doctor 10.5 who was cloned from Donna and Ten’s hand is visibly unhappy with the “new state” of being half-human.
The relationship between the Doctor and Grace also turns lightly romantic, with the Doctor getting two kisses before the movie is over, more than he got in 26 seasons of the original series. This galled me at the time, and I still object to it though the Doctor and Grace’s relationship seems quite tame compared to the new series. And if he has to have feelings for someone, Grace is preferable to Rose any day. In any case, it’s always seemed to me that one major way to make the Doctor “alien” is to keep him removed physically and emotionally from any romantic relationship, since love and romance are such fundamental human emotions. Perhaps this was an attempt to “Americanize” the show and appeal to U.S. viewers. I don’t know that it was a factor any more than the motorcycle chase was. At least the chase has precedent in the Pertwee years.
Thus the movie tries to not only continue the broad narrative of the original series, but also to bring something new to the table, and this is commendable. The attempt is not always successful, but I appreciate the effort. Then the climax of the movie arrives, and I’m left trying to work out just what has happened. The time travel model doesn’t appear to conform to the general ideas seen up to this point in the series. The Doctor lives through events, and then finds it necessary to go back in time and undo some of them in order to prevent the destruction of Earth. In fact, I’m still not entirely sure what he does to prevent the Earth from being sucked through the Eye of Harmony by going back in time a couple of days. Grace and Chang Lee are resurrected by the TARDIS after being killed by the Master, which again seems like an event that’s at odds with the Doctor’s past philosophy about life and death, though he does credit the TARDIS with the action. The fight between the Doctor and the animalistic Master works very well, and both are entirely in character.
In the end, the Master is killed/trapped in the TARDIS, the Earth is saved from destruction, and both Grace and Chang Lee remain behind on Earth to continue their lives, while the Doctor heads back out into space to pick up where he left off. The future’s wide open… but not for the eighth Doctor, who has made no other on screen appearances as of this point, barring a brief clip or two. The Doctor’s next television appearance wouldn’t be for another nine years, when Christopher Eccleston kicked off the new series. Thankfully we’ve had a series of audio stories from Big Finish that have allowed us to enjoy Paul McGann’s portrayal of the Doctor, so the potential of the character hasn’t been entirely lost.
“Doctor Who” could have been the pilot for a new series if things had worked out differently. Even though it wasn’t, it was a worthy follow-up to the original show that also produced some new material for the expanded universe to play with. It has flaws, but it also has a number of strong points, and is tremendously enjoyable, largely thanks to Paul McGann’s performance in the title role. And hopefully one day we’ll get an R1 DVD release and I won’t have to rely on my old off-air copy whenever I want to watch the movie.