Right, wrong and the TV Movie (1996)

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You remember the one-off Doctor Who story with Paul McGann, right? I mean, how could you forget? Although it’s nearly 20 years since it broke the first of the great Doctor Who droughts. (20 years! Feeling old?) Starring McGann as a dashing new Doctor and Sylvester McCoy as the tactlessly named ‘Old Doctor’, it is many, many things.

It’s Doctor Who‘s only brush with being produced in North America. It’s the only bona fide TV adventure for the eighth Doctor. It’s the series’ first story with a decent budget and the first to give the Doctor a snog. And for many people, it’s a failure; a half-baked pilot which couldn’t deliver a much longed for revival.

But first things first: what’s it called? No one thought to give it an individual title. When producer Philip Segal gave us one after the fact, we never really took to it. Purists simply call it Doctor Who, quietly ignoring that every other story is also called Doctor Who but then they all have the decency to have other names. The DVD is called Doctor Who: The Movie, which it is, I suppose, if you ignore the sudden stalling of the action every so often where commercial breaks were inserted. Fans tend to call it The TV Movie which means this is the only story to be known by its descriptor, unless you like to eschew Mission to the Unknown for Dalek Cutaway, in which case I fear you may need a little more poetry in your soul.

Call it what you will, there has been much time to rake over the TVM‘s failings. Barely an aspect of it, bar McGann’s vital and tantalising Doctor, have escaped criticism. Looking back on it now, I think many of these sins would have been forgiven or just overlooked if a full series had eventuated. But because one didn’t, we’ve sought blame in the TVM. Too confusing, too schmaltzy and over all just too American. But I think that reading neglects how much it gets right.

It gets Doctor Who‘s mix of action and humour right. It keeps the fundamentals: Time Lord, police box, race against time, saving planet Earth from an alien threat. There’s a smart, sassy sidekick. And through it all, Paul McGann seemingly innately knowing how to play the Doctor. His big Doctory moments, like enthusing about new shoes and threatening to shoot himself to prove a point stand out of the story like beacons. It’s in these moments that the audience is reassured that they’re watching the same program as was on air from ’63 through ’89.

Then there’s a set of things which feel ‘sort of right’. Claiming the Doctor is half human feels like something misremembered from a casual viewing of the show in childhood. It’s never bothered me, though it annoys some fans no end and has been ignored by new Who altogether. The Master, as played with Hollywood-level sneering by Eric Roberts, is either an harsher modern interpretation of the original or a unnecessary transformation of the character into a gangster-style baddie. Take your pick, but generally speaking, Roberts makes it work and adds a level of genuine menace which is reminiscent of the old series. Then there’s the tendency of the Doctor to want to hint at knowledge of people’s future, which could be an endearing character trait of Dr 8, or could be completely out of character depending on your point of view.

Then there’s the stuff which really doesn’t feel like Who as we know it at all. Like a gunfight between rival street gangs. Which wouldn’t make the cut in old or new Who. Then there’s the frankly ill advised car/motorcycle chase in the middle act, which has no Who precedent, unless we compare it to its Wacky Races style predecessor in Planet of the Spiders Part Two, and let’s not. And of course, the kisses (two, both rather chaste) between the Doctor and companion for a night Grace Holloway (Daphne Ashbrook) which at the time felt sacrilegious, but post 2005 such behaviour has become de rigeur.

But gosh dang it, it looks great. Even 20 years on, the art direction is really impressive and that TARDIS console room’s a thing of beauty. And the CGI effectshave held up remarkably well. To finally see Doctor Who with the resources to match its big ideas was a revelation at the time, and still makes this fan’s heart beat a little faster. Director Geoffrey Sax doesn’t get mentioned often enough either; he goes for a highly stylised approach which knits the whole thing together. Often he’s looking for circles to emphasise – the eye of a dead fish, a magnifying glass or a clock counting down to midnight. His cameras often swoop or slide into a close up, and he often favours a comic strip style tilt. He never misses a chance to cut rapidly between the Doctor and the Master to underline their similarities.

Which is because he gets that this is a story about two titans falling to Earth to battle it out. It’s hardly the most compelling plot because it sidelines the audience. Our identification figures are spectators not participants in the drama. And although this story has a great start (the first half hour or so up to the point where Grace and the Doctor leave the hospital is actually very taut, compelling stuff), it loses focus when we start to get into the Doctor v Master stuff. And all that guff about the atomic clock. It suddenly becomes much less engaging.

There’s also the strong correlation between the Doctor and Jesus Christ. This Doctor doesn’t just regenerate, he dies and comes back to life. In fact he even gets placed in a tomb, and although he doesn’t slide a big rock aside, he does punch down a steel door from the inside. Dressed in a shroud and with the long locks of an Easter Sunday movie Jesus, his enemy takes on the form of a serpent (“This Master,” Grace asks at one stage. “He’s like the Devil?”) In his cathedral like Cloister Room, he’s adorned with a crown-of-thorns headpiece. He even performs a miracle by bringing his two human sidekicks back to life with some golden sparkles, in what is another bum note for the show; Old Who had its faults, but it never cheated its audience like that.

But despite its highs and lows, the TVM has endured. Perhaps we could have ignored it if it hadn’t featured that regeneration from McCoy to McGann. Segal was advised not to include McCoy, and plenty of people have pointed out that including him means it takes too long for the story to get to our star. But without McCoy, the show would have no direct lineage to the series of old. It could have been quietly overlooked, like the Peter Cushing movies often are, because they don’t fit into the show’s continuity. Forever more a mere curio.

But in 2013, we saw the TVM‘s legacy, when it finally got a sequel. The Night of the Doctor‘s a six minute wonder which showed us the end of the eighth Doctor’s life, and with the TVM it bookends his Doctordom. Paul McGann returned, with better hair, a better costume and a better script and not looking much older either. Oh how we squeed. Because we got to see him change into John Hurt. Once again, the TVM and the eighth Doctor are legitimised by regeneration. It’s part of the whole mad story of the Doctor. It’s canon. It may be nameless, it may even be widely unloved, but it’s never been forgotten.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: Early on in the episode it’s claimed that (CAR HORNS BLAZE). Do they? Or do they blare? (In fact, the subtitles take a very lax interpretation of the lines as actually said, as if someone couldn’t be bothered typing them out accurately.)

LINK to Voyage of the Damned. Both are set in the festive season, from Christmas to New Year.

NEXT TIME: The circle must be broken, and so we land on the Planet of the Ood.

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