It feels faintly ridiculous trying to discuss the Paul McGann "years" on this site. For McGann is the self-proclaimed George Lazenby of Doctor Who, the man who only got one shot at the lead role. Any chance to explore the character and the themes of his "era" are doomed to fail, due to the fact that only 90 minutes of this period exist.
Oh, sure, I know what you're thinking. I could include the development of the character in the range of spin-off novels (Such as War of the Daleks and The Eight Doctors; each, I'm sure there's been better books before and since but I haven't had time to read any of them), or the new audio adventures. I'm sorry, but get a life. I'm as open-minded as the next bloke, but if you really believe that the television stories continue into some anal-obsessive book series written by professional virgins, or some out-of-work actors standing in front of a microphone and reacting to sound effects then you're out of touch. For me the programme is the only "canon" there is, and I'm sorry if that's narrow-minded, but tough. [Okay, okay, I've had complaints - I was only joking when I wrote that bit, okay? Devil's Advocate and all that, don't take it too seriously please. And when I said "professional virgins" I didn't mean the people involved were amateurs in a work sense, I mean that they'd never done the wild thing. And if you really have to see reviews of Paul's Big Finish work, then see Audios].
Right, we've got that out of the way. So then, a 1996 $5 million TV movie?
Sadly, or, perhaps, thankfully, it was the ratings that killed any chance for this new Doctor Who. While the ratings in England, particularly for a Bank Holiday Monday, were fantastic, the ratings in America were not so impressive. Achieving only a 5.5 rating and 9 share (whatever the hell that means), it reached just joint 75th for the most-watched programmes that week. As the film was a co-production with America, this killed any hope of another film or series stone dead. Still, British fans can be comforted by the fact that, for one rainy night in May, Doctor Who was watched by 9.08 million people and was the fifteenth most popular programme that week.
The rather over-obvious homages/influences the telemovie had have been widely reported, down to both Terminator films and The X-Files. There's also the gorging on Doctor Who's own history, and the rather unsubtle religious symbolism. However, the whole regeneration sequence, including the Frankenstein homage, also seems to be directly based on a series of scenes from Mad Max.
Okay, first of all, Paul McGann. While Patrick Troughton is almost inarguably the finest actor to have played the Doctor, it must be noted that McGann more than stands as one of the best. It's also weird to remember that whereas some of the others, such as Colin Baker, played the Doctor as a part, rather than themselves, Paul is the only one to play it with a different accent. Apparently earlier takes where he says to the Master "Come 'ead, soft lar, I'll do yer yer scally fer nickin' me Tarrrrdissss, like" were unused. The strain using an accent must put on a performance isn't noticeable here (though Paul does seem to have slight trouble with some of the ponderous technobabble), and he gives perhaps the best debut performance since Troughton. Who knows what he could have done given a real chance? However, the character of the Doctor is one of the most lightweight yet seen. While it's debatable that the darker Doctors of the eighties weren't as successful, it's disappointing to see that the production team have gone back to the plot device of the sonic screwdriver, and the surface-layer action adventure of the Pertwee years. Although there are some nice Doctor-ish moments (McGann setting off a fire alarm with a "liven things up" is something the mighty Trout could have said), generally it's one long stretch of exposition for the poor guy, and as a result his performance becomes less substantial every time you see it.
Which is unfortunate as Eric Roberts is well aware of his duty as the Master. Okay, some may not like the idea of a muscle-bound American Master who goes around kicking the crap out of people. I personally didn't like the way the fey original had the power of hypnotism, but this one just gobbed over people. However, for an American Master, Roberts is absolutely the best possible choice we could have got. His understanding of the character leads him to play on the fact that he's got a new accent ("It took me a minute with the walking and talking"), and to correct Grace's grammar (The line "As well as you" was reportedly a Roberts rehearsal ad-lib). Most of all, Eric is the only thing in the movie that is genuinely funny. While the rest of the humour throughout is that of a US production looking in on English customs from the outside, Roberts gives us fully the "English alien in an American's body" to poke fun at the US. He parodies Wayne's World ("Yes way!") and grows amusingly bored by Chang Lee's overenthusiastic diction. ("You kill me!" "You want me to kill you?" "No... no, I mean, er, you make me laugh, man, you're a funny guy." "I'm glad one of us is amused.") As camp as it's humanly possible to be, Roberts takes the performance right to the edge without ever going over. Absolutely superb, and the real star of the film.
Finally, Grace is okay, though her demographic-led performance is irritating. Don't mistake me, I'm no virgin fanboy, but the Doctor doesn't travel the universe snogging women. This isn't because he's gay, or because he's biologically programmed not to. (The Loom, my bottom!) It's long been established that the Doctor has procreated, at least once. (Er.... he has a granddaughter?) However, the reason why the Doctor doesn't do the snogging bit is that he simply doesn't have the time. Why snog whinging women when you have the whole universe to explore? Such things are mudane when you can visit any planet in existence. The Doctor follows the developing tradition of the loner in 60's British television: The Prisoner, Adam Adamant Lives!, Maigret, etc. If the American market wanted a character that had romantic affiliations every week then they should have chosen a different model. Like their obsession with making aliens half-human (Okay, maybe the Master was looking at Grace's retina through the eye of harmony, and when the Doctor said he was half-human he was joking, okay?), it's radically changing the concept so that ultimately it bears no relation to the original artefact. Why not just invent a brand new series if you care so little for the source text? Grace also gets the series' only swear word ("crap") and gets to snog the Master as well. Much better is Yee Jee Tso as the likeable Chang Lee, a first for the minority-ignoring Doctor Who: an Asian companion.
The plot of the TV Movie is the biggest problem; it's conceptually flawed. Just look at the figures. The greatest audience that ever tuned in to a McCoy episode was 6.6 million. The TV Movie was watched by over two million more people than that, almost a 25% audience increase. Now, there's no guarantee that that core 6.6 million was the same audience, and during the seven-year hiatus a whole new audience could have been born and grown to watch the new pilot. At least 40% of Who's audience are minors - I mean, how old were you when you first saw the series?
The point I'm making is that the use of regeneration was a narrative device to explain the difference between lead actors. As the series had been off the screens for the greater part of a decade and, at best, only 75% of its audience would have seen the prior series beforehand, the usage of regeneration should not have been an issue. Don't get me wrong, as a fan I was pleased that the movie decided to link in with the series (even though it's "Based on the original series broadcast on the BBC" credit could have acted as a get-out clause anyway) and was delighted to see Sylvester had agreed to help tie up continuity. But then again I've watched Doctor Who for at least 23 years. Imagine watching a series for the very first time and being introduced to a lead actor. Then, ten minutes in, you're told that the lead actor isn't the man you're going to be watching and actually he's dead, to be played by someone else. The film makes the same mistake that was being made in Doctor Who from 1983 onwards: an excessive need for continuity. Look at the need for the Master to be involved and the way in which he's dispatched. If they were going to bring back a villain only to kill him off it seems a bit pointless doing it in the first place. Or perhaps they should have invented their own villain that did not require a backstory.
Other elements are nice homages and don't detract, such as a shot of Tom Baker's scarf in a locker, or Chang Lee writing the Doctor's name as "John Smith". If you're in the know, it's a wry smile. If you're not, it doesn't distract or vex - you simply don't notice it's there. The perfect in-joke. Other shots, such as the Tardis read-out showing "Rassillon Era" are classic examples of the series taking its own hoky mythology too seriously and alienating non-anoraks. And of course, while the direction for the story is well above average, it does contain that peculiar Americanism: the overstated ironic juxtaposition. The idea that the Doctor would regenerate at the exact same time as Frankenstein was playing is bad enough, but then the whole thing's tinged with little moments, such as the Doctor reading H.G.Well's "The Time Machine", or the record In A Dream getting stuck on the word "time". Okay, you could bring up the fact that McCoy always used to (less obviously, mind) read books with the word "Doctor" in the title. And here's an anorak observation: wouldn't the Doctor's taste in music change with his new persona? Why would he be listening to the same record? Okay, forget I said that one.
The actual plot itself involves, briefly, the Daleks. We've no idea who the Daleks are, we don't even see them (though we do hear their very silly voices) and when the Doctor refers to them later it's a "a-ha!" for 50% of the viewers, an annoyance to the other 50%. This then takes in an element used in The Deadly Assassin: The Eye Of Harmony. Okay, yes, the continuity used here is flawed, though can be explained away. But what really worries is why they used it in the first place. The idea of a intangible menace is fine, but would a casual audience really understand or appreciate what the eye is? More importantly, would they understand what the Tardis is? This is yet another great error: for a perfect pilot episode, watch An Unearthly Child which fully develops the mystery and takes us from the mudanity of a police box to the inside. This pilot takes us from the inside to the police box. The wrong way round, surely? In fact, maybe they should have changed the police box (at least until another time when it could be explained) as no-one in modern society has a clue what one actually is. The glib way the transdimensional nature of the ship is explained by Grace is disrespectful to anyone watching and yet another strike against the show for anyone but the most hardened Who fan. In terms of context and achievement, this could possibly be the most continuity-obsessed Doctor Who story ever.
And while the Tardis does look great on the majority of the budget, it's also completely wrong. A darker, wood-panelled ship was used before, in season fourteen, but never with car handbrakes and other low-tech devices. The idea is that it looks antiquated on the outside, but inside is state-of-the-art. Here it looks like the sort of thing Peter Cushing cobbled up in his back yard when he was Dr.Who.
The climax is especially irritating. How do Grace and Chang Lee get brought back to life? What is a state of "temporal grace"? This is the sort of annoying deus-et-machina that the genuine series never indulged in, not even in the Pertwee years. A lazy get-out device to avoid writers having to think. The next thing you know they'd build a holodeck in the Tardis and give the Doctor an American boss who tries to encourage his "human side". The other thing is that the Doctor deflects the Master's leap by shining light in his eyes. Errrrr...... how can you change direction in mid-jump? Isn't that like falling and then going back up again???
Okay, let's be fair: I do really like the logo used for the movie, one of the best ever. And, while not brilliant, the theme tune was unfairly slated as "not frightening enough". Like the theme from 1980 onwards was a trip to the launderette? And it was nice to hear the theme once more, something I thought'd never happen.
One last thing about the plot: Grace at the opera. Sophie Aldred said in an interview with Shockeye's Kitchen that she thought the only reason why Grace was in the opera dress was a cheap excuse to show off her cleavage. A valid point, perhaps. Also lame is the way they use probably the most obvious opera piece of all: Puccini's Madame Butterfly. While this does help to effectively tap into the cultured (if slightly pretentious) character of the seventh Doctor, it's also the most obvious piece they could possibly have chosen. It's like if the Doctor went to the punk era and they showed the Sex Pistols singing "God Save The Queen". Or he went to the sixties and it was The Beatles. It's the laziest choice, a cultural signifier written in short hand, with no real thought or intent given. One of my favourite bits in the movie is the part where McGann, in defeat, yells "This can't be... how it ends...!" A great moment, though, in a way, I'm glad this was how it ended. Had Doctor Who continued under this production team I dread to think what would have happened, particularly as regards...
'Humour'The "humour" in the Doctor Who movie is of course the biggest bone of contention to any fan of the series. While prolonged exposure may make you overlook the silly voices the Daleks have, or the fact that the Tardis' chameleon circuit is Americanised to a "cloaking device", there is no escaping the two single most irritating characters in the whole Who universe. And this includes Bonnie Langford. Yes, I'm talking about fat Pete, the pratt-falling dumb-ass cheap comic relief that always populates US productions. The "character" was either written by a two year old or the same guy that gave us Neelix. He's also brought to life in the OTT, "I think I'm the star of this movie" style of William Sasso. What really grates about this sort of thing is that Doctor Who had its own, unique (English) sense of humour. Only rarely would this humour fail to gel (Mindwarp, Silver Nemesis), and more often than not it could be hilarious (The Time Warrior, City of Death). The idea about taking something so essentially British and dropping in such a radically different dynamic is abominable. Again, the same question applies: why bother to make it in the first place?
However, while Pete was initially the most annoying character, he is nothing to David Hurtubise's Professor Wagg who meditates to the sound of his atomic clock. Wouldn't you love to kick him in the teeth? There are subtler jokes that aren't at first evident (such as the Tardis materialising in front of a "Visit London" billboard), and McGann's "Now would you stand aside before I shoot myself?" is a nice touch. But the idea of the Doctor making a penis gag ("See, I told you it was small" "What is it that they say?" "Yeah, they say that on my planet too") is sacrosanct.
I change my mind over this story all the time. Sometimes it seems more entertaining than others, and it is undeniably well-made. But what people who like this TV Movie are essentially saying is that they don't like Doctor Who at all. The whole template is completely different, the film is made for monetary consideration and not artistry and the dynamics are completely at odds with what all of Who was previously about. Onto this is roughly tagged the idea of The Doctor, The Master, The Tardis and one or two continuity points. The production team, rightly or wrongly, were never interested in bringing Doctor Who back to the screens, but in taking the basic character of one series and then reworking for it another. Extracting just a few basics and then inserting them into a franchise. It's called Doctor Who, it sounds like Doctor Who, and occasionally it may even feel like Doctor Who. But this is a very different fish indeed, which is why I can only award it...