The Movie

Posted in Episode by - February 06, 2016
The Movie

Aired 14 May 1996

Seven years after the final episode of ‘Survival’ aired, Doctor Who returned to screens in 1996 with an American co-production in what was hoped to serve as a backdoor pilot for an ongoing series. With a tumultuous scripting and production cycle, the results were mixed, ultimately offering fans only a glimpse of what could have been.

Possibly the biggest issue that plagued The Movie when airing is that it contained too many nods to the past. While long-term Doctor Who fans unquestionably appreciated even the seemingly innocuous references like the presence of gold dust in the TARDIS, the entire plot was based heavily around mythology that must have seemed overwhelming to potential newcomers to the franchise. This applies even to the titular hero as audiences are treated to two incarnations of the Time Lord. Sylvester McCoy is spectacular in the expository scene, reprising his Seventh Doctor in a more subdued, nuanced role. However, room must be made for the hopeful new lead in Paul McGann and so, after being unceremoniously gunned down in the streets of San Francisco with the millennium looming, McCoy’s Doctor meets his end as the surgeon Grace Holloway makes a fatal operating mistake, not knowing that her patient is not human. It is actually a bit disheartening to see the Seventh Doctor depart in agonising pain instead of the more traditional silent grace, but, continuity issues aside, it was an odd choice to spend so much of the limited running time introducing an actor in a role to then have to turn around and introduce another actor in the same role.

Fortunately, Paul McGann quickly proves that he is a capable replacement, capturing so much of what made previous iterations so memorable despite a script that tried its best to take that non-human sensibility away from him. By the time he begins to recover from his post-regenerative amnesia, there is very limited time to actually get to know the character, leaving many more questions than answers about this new Doctor. Regardless, his charm, wit, and eccentricity are all immediately apparent, and his charisma easily carries every scene in which he features. It is a bold choice to have your character suffer amnesia in the pilot for a new series, especially one burdened with as much history as Doctor Who; assumedly the goal was to allow the audience to discover the Doctor as he is discovering himself, but the execution was perhaps a bit underwhelming due simply to the running time and the need to progress the plot.

As mentioned, the plot is quite continuity laden as well, but unfortunately that does not help elevate the overall story beyond a fairly generic action adventure, albeit one with distinctly Doctor Who flare. Off-screen, the Master has been tried and found guilty on the planet Skaro and starts the story off existing as a sort of sentient, snake-like ooze. He promptly manages to take over the body of an ambulance driver, Bruce, to give him a corporeal presence. The Master has always straddled the line of suave menace and over-the-top egomaniac depending on the story, but unfortunately The Movie amplifies the latter tendencies to levels previously unexplored. It’s not completely bad, but rarely is there a scene where Eric Roberts is not gloating or yelling clichéd threats, and even the scenes where he is trying to garner support through persuasive lies are filled with a level of disconnect that just doesn’t sit well with previous portrayals. This Master is serviceable as a villain, and probably to new viewers that was adequate enough, but he just doesn’t seem like a logical continuation of the Time Lords’ most nefarious citizen even as his plot to steal the Doctor’s remaining regenerations comes dangerously close to succeeding.

Conversely, the stand-in companions for this tale are excellent. Daphne Ashbrook as the afore-mentioned Doctor Grace Holloway portrays a strong and independent woman, one trying her best to keep her insecurities hidden beneath a tough outer persona. She plays off McGann extremely well, and even gets the first on-screen kiss from the Doctor, leaving viewers with just a taste of what could have been. Likewise, Yee Jee Tso as Chang Lee superbly brings to life the young man who has a good heart but has no qualms in changing allegiances when it suits his favour. Of course being wooed by the Master initially, he eventually takes the path to a satisfying redemption and leaves a very lasting impression after such a short time on screen.

The issue with the resolution here is that it relies on winding back time and undoing past events, a well-trodden but unexciting path that too many science fiction stories have relied on in the past. The presence of the millennium adds a heightened sense to the setting, and it’s a rare instance where the Doctor comes perilously close to losing not only himself but his friends as well, but the reset button- as is inevitable- only serves to undermine the drama and emotions of the preceding action.

The production value truly elevates Doctor Who to the level of a Hollywood movie, featuring stupendous special effects that only serve to enhance rather than detract from the action. Of particular note, the regeneration happening side by side with Frankenstein is a clever touch even if it is a bit heavy-handed. A strong dual lead in the Doctor with strong companion performances almost serve to overcome the over-the-top nature of the villain, but the continuity-laden plot featuring a regenerating lead, a body possession, and the return of the Eye of Harmony with all of its implications keep this from being the introductory story needed to launch another series. It’s an interesting glimmer of what the future of Doctor Who once looked like, but ultimately this serves merely as a standalone adventure that served more to launch a very successful range of novels and audios with McGann in the lead, continuing to prove what a quintessential Doctor he is.

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