Tag Archives: the Master

Unholy rites, unwarranted slights and The Dæmons (1971)

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I’ve got another potential DVD box set for you. It’s called Doctor Who – Unholy Rites. Contained within, The Dæmons, The Masque of Mandragora, Image of the Fendahl, The Stones of Blood and K9 and Company. It’s a collection jam packed with chanting men in robes, pagan temples (above and underground), sinister rituals and would-be human sacrifice. If we squint, we might even find a place for The Awakening, which although being more secular than the others, still includes an malign influence festering underneath a church. And let’s face it,  you can shoehorn that story into any old box set, eh, Earth Story?

Everything I know about occultism I’ve learned from Doctor Who. Apparently, it’s very popular in rural English villages. There’s often a handy group of superstitious yokels ready to help out and indulge in some cosplay. The deity they worship will be an alien of some kind, whose influence can be traced throughout history. They talk a lot about sacrificing a companion, but never quite get around to it. And when people start dying, you don’t want to be one of those robed extras; they’re always the first to go.

Plus the Doctor will be on hand to debunk the whole thing and point out that there’s a good scientific explanation for everything. Just before he waves his magic wand (sonic screwdriver, he prefers), invokes a magic incantations (technobabble, to you and me) and disappears into thin air in his Police Box shaped spaceship. I know, right? Who’d be dumb enough to believe in magic?

*****

Anyway, to the The Dæmons. And to a question it poses which is far more important than whether science trumps magic. It is this: why does sweet, spunky little companion Jo (Katy Manning) put up with this condescending boor of a Doctor (Jon Pertwee)?

Over the course of five episodes, he accuses her of wasting his time, calls her a ‘reasonably intelligent young lady’ but with ‘absurd ideas’, berates her for misreading a map, accuses her of fussing (after she’s just helped him recover from being frozen stiff), smugly points out that she can’t speak Latin, is exasperated when she doesn’t understand e=mc squared, and berates her for calling the Brigadier’s plan idiotic – when he did exactly that just seconds before.

What really takes the biscuit is his reaction after Jo offers to give up her life so that the Doctor might live.

DOCTOR: Well, by a ridiculous and foolhardy act of self-sacrifice, Jo here has managed to save us.

Well, you might call it ridiculous and foolhardy. Others might call it brave and compassionate.

DOCTOR: You see, Azal couldn’t face an act as irrational and as illogical as her being prepared to give up her life for me.

I’m right with him there, mate. She must have been remembering how much she liked you from previous stories, because there’s no indication in this one why she should feel so strongly about you.

DOCTOR: Look, Jo, why don’t you go and get out of that ridiculous garb?

On this planet, we say ‘thank you’. You big velvety jerk.

*****

Jo’s altruistic offer to save the Doctor is a big problem at the end this story. But let’s start at the other beginning.

It’s got a cracking first episode. Beautifully put together. I love the way that the framing structure of the television broadcasts and their countdown to the opening of the barrow delivers the exposition subtly, while also serving to gradually draw the Doctor into the story. Supporting characters like batty Miss Hawthorne (Damaris Hayman) and grumpy old Professor Horner (Robin Wentworth) (of Which University) can be introduced with ease. The Master (Roger Delgado) appears at just the right point in the episode to up the ante. And in the second half, the Doctor’s attempts to get to the barrow hit just enough problems so that everything coincides nicely as big rock is pulled aside, all icy hell breaks loose. Cue credits, job done nicely.

It’s got a reasonably entertaining middle. Lots of running around, with much for UNIT lads Yates (Richard Franklin) and Benton (John Levene) to do, including wear some garish civvies. There are plenty of good set pieces, like the helicopter chase, Benton’s run-in with the invisible forces in the cavern and the attack of the morris dancers (a great unmade Doctor Who story, there). Walking statue Bok (Stanley Mason) is a novel although never entirely convincing monster. And the Master gets a great moment when trying to smooth talk the townspeople, by proving he knows all their secrets. “And you, Mr Grenville,” he purrs. “Has your wife come back from her sisters’ yet? Will she ever come back, do you suppose?” “And who are those muscular young men I see cutting your hedge every Thursday morning?”, I keep wanting him to say, but he never does.

Oddly, the Brig is sidelined, kept outside the main action by a heat barrier until a diathermic heat exchanger (that’s science, you know) can be lashed up by Osgood the First (Alec Linstead). He never gets to meet the mighty Azal (Stephen Thorne) or catch more than a glimpse of the Master. The Doctor too, keeps getting his appointment with the climax delayed. Sometimes by various plot misfortunes, but partly because he takes time out in Episode Three to run the world’s worst PowerPoint presentation on horned beasts throughout the ages.

So anyway, the middle’s fine. But it’s got a terrible ending. After much running around, the Doctor and the Master finally meet in the cavern, with UNIT reunited outside to do battle with Bok. The Doctor’s diathermic wotsit blew up and as he was planning to use that against Azal (who has now grown to enormous size, but somehow doesn’t bump his head on the cavern’s roof), he now has to improvise desperately. The scene is set. That’s when after a brief war of words, Jo offers her life in place of the Doctor’s and Azal goes all purple and blows up.

It makes no sense. Azal is, we’ve been told, an immensely powerful being. He crafted humanity’s progress throughout the ages. Now he meets one pretty blonde girl and is so confused he can no longer function? (Well, it’s happened to the best of us, I suppose.)

My point is though, that endings are hard. They’ve got to be obvious in hindsight, but unsuspected until then. They have to make logical sense, but not able to be pre-guessed. They can’t be coincidental and they can’t cheat. They’ve got to be consistent with the story’s themes. They’ve got to be novel. They can’t be signposted too early. And they can’t just be, “oh, I’m so confused, I think I’ll just give in and blow up a church.”

Think back to that opening episode and how right they got that. Imagine if the final episode worked just as well. For whatever reason, things didn’t fall quite so neatly into place. It shows that telling stories is a science, but telling them well requires an unpredictable element, something we might call… magic.

LINK TO The Husbands of River Song: Hmm, Doctors with red jackets and snowy, voluminous hair?

NEXT TIME… This, sir, is protracted murder! No, it’s just The Savages.

Moments, memories and The End of Time (2010)

Moment 1: When The End of Time Part Two was shown, there was a plaintive update from one of my Facebook friends. She just said:

“I don’t want you to go either.”

***

Back in the here and now, I’m thinking of what to say about The End of Time. It’s too obvious, I think, to talk about how this is all about Tennant and showrunner Russell T Davies leaving the show. It might be interesting to talk about how this is a story about veterans being dragged back into war. Or it might be interesting to talk about some of Davies’ favourite tropes: prophesies, people turned into super beings, things which are ‘lost‘ and things which ‘return’.

But I keep coming back to Tennant and what it means to have him leave the series. On one hand, The End of Time is a vehicle for that departure, certainly one that celebrates and honours him too. So far, so every regeneration story.

Except that Tennant is not just any Doctor. He’s the one who spearheaded the show’s growth in popularity in the noughties. He’s the one who attracted a sizeable female audience to the program, including Mrs Spandrell. He’s the only Doctor to rival the mighty Tom Baker’s claim to being everyone’s favourite Doctor. So Tennant leaving is huge and risky.

I don’t want you to go either, said my Facebook friend. Not just because she’ll miss his handsome face. But also because of an unspoken fear, that things will never be the same again.

***

Moment 2: At the Sydney Opera House for the Symphonic Spectacular (oh.. so much fun) in 2012. There’s a hero piece which features each Doctor’s regeneration, on a giant screen while an orchestra plays. Each Doctor gets their applause, with a spike for Tom Baker.

Eventually, David Tennant, and the place goes nuts. Matt Smith’s the incumbent Doctor at this stage. But it’s clear that Ten rules that room.

****

What is it that makes a room full of Who fans, young and old, new and classic, dragging along their mums, their kids and their long suffering spouses, go nuts for a big screen full of David Tennant regenerating? Why does he get the biggest, longest cheer? What endears him to them so?

Tennant was not widely known before Doctor Who. When he took it on, the role seemed to fit him like a glove. Perhaps because as a childhood fan he’d spent so much time preparing for the part. For male fans, he seems like one of us, the one who actually got to fulfil his boyish fantasies about playing the Doctor.

Oddly enough, this inspires no jealousy. Instead, we cheer him on. How could you not? He’s too bloody good, like that kid you played football with, who went on to play for (insert name of impressively grand football team here), while you gave up and went home to eat biscuits.

For female fans (who like boys, and for boys who like boys) he’s clearly a dish, and funny and charming to boot. But he’s the first Doctor to take an interest in girls. To want to court girls, and to acknowledge that girls like him. He’s the first Doctor it seems possible to date. Likes to dress up, likes a bit of a laugh. And he’s a bit damaged, but not so much that he’s cruel or nasty. Just a bit sad now and then. Plus brave and daring… What’s not to fall in love with?

That’s why an opera house full of people cry out for Ten. Because he’s got something for everyone.

****

Moment 3: Watching late series 3 on broadcast with Mrs Spandrell. I can’t remember which ep, but there’s a swagger in the Doctor’s step.

ME: Tennant’s changed since his first year, but I can’t quite work out how.

Mrs Spandrell thinks for a moment.

MRS: Before, he didn’t know he was sexy. Now he does. And he’s loving it.

****

When The Waters of Mars ended with the Doctor realising the folly of his attempt to cheat history, it was unclear to me what his final line of “No!” meant. Perhaps, I thought, it was uttered in defiance of the laws of time and he’d keep on with his meddling ways. Then I had a great idea for what Tennant’s finale might be about.

I thought that Tennant might be playing a Doctor gone bad, one who had continued to indulge his newfound power for changing events, but had now left Earth a twisted mess of timelines. He’d be left to rule over the chaos, a moody, unpredictable despot. In an attempt to defeat him and set time to rights, the Master is resurrected to bring down the Doctor, thereby reversing the familiar roles of good and bay guy.

Of course it wasn’t to be. But it would have a interesting end to the Tenth Doctor, who ended up too big for his dusty old sandshoes. Because the hubris he displayed in The Waters of Mars would have been thoroughly answered for. As would have that broader arrogance which had developed in the Doctor throughout his tenure. That swaggering brashness. The Tenth Doctor started out as a chic geek, but throughout the years he became sexy and he knew it. And there’s still a hint of that ego in The End of Time.

About which more after…

***

Moment 4: Dinner out with Mrs Spandrell and a old friend who’s an avid watcher, but not quite a fan, of Doctor Who. Somehow, the conversation turns to David Tennant and his departure from the show and specifically the 10min+ sequence where he visits all his former companions. Indulgent, says our friend. Gushy, says Mrs Spandrell. They are in agreement. Self serving, shmaltzy… and then the entrees arrive.

***

It’s an epic story this. The Master (John Simm) on full tilt, turning a whole planet into duplicates of himself in the ultimate ego trip (don’t ask how they’re going to reproduce). The return of Gallifrey and of Rassilon (Timothy Dalton), leaving no scenery unchewed. A dogfight with spaceships and missiles. And the Doctor falling from the sky, crashing into a building and um, somehow surviving.

The end for Ten, when it comes, is the cleverest thing in the story. Poor old Wilf (Bernard Cribbins) tapping meekly on that glass door, making good on the much threatened “he will knock four times” warning, as smart a misdirection as the show has ever got away with. Before he saves his life, the Doctor’s furious. He wants to live. “I could do so much more!” he yells, but he’s forfeited that right. His hubris is what’s brought him down. He has to die, and the regeneration starts.

But then there’s the long goodbye. Nearly 15 minutes of it, visiting companions past, seeing who got married to this and who nearly got run over by that and who he can pimp out to the other. Schmaltzy and indulgent, yes. If this were the Davison era, we’d make do with a sepia flashback sequence. If it was the Pertwee era, we’d just unsentimentally roll back and mix. But this is the Tennant era, so it’s bold, brash and just that little bit full of itself. So it kind of works.

Then the TARDIS catches fire, and new Doctor arrives, screaming like a newborn. Things are never the same again.

LINK TO Face the RavenThe faux death of a regular, again.

NEXT TIME: Best news all day. It’s Resurrection of the Daleks.

Super heroes, super villains and Utopia/The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords (2007)

Each of the first few years of new Who resurrected a classic adversary from the series’ past. Year one: Daleks. Year two: Cybermen. In retrospect, it seems obvious that year three’s returnee should be the Master. But it didn’t feel like that at the time.

Because there’s always been an ambivalence about the Master. Sometimes he’s a dark yet fascinating mirror image of the Doctor. Sometimes he’s a plug and play villain with a penchant for theatrics and over complication. It would not have been inconceivable for new Who to leave him buried in the time war.

But as the new show’s third year progressed, there became something increasingly heroic about the Doctor. I mean that in the sense of him being a super hero.

With David Tennant in the title role, he becomes a man with super powers. He can grow back severed limbs. He can go for a mental stroll through people’s minds. He can expel radiation into his shoe. And of course he can disguise himself as a human. In Utopia and The Sound of Drums there are loads of shots of him running around to save the day, coat flapping in the breeze like a cape, sidekicks running slightly behind. You half expect him to fly.

The Master says that he was resurrected as the ultimate warrior for the time war. But in production terms, he was resurrected for exactly the same reason that Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks created him in the first place. By series 3, the Doctor’s a super hero and so he needs a super villain.

****

Showrunner Russell T Davies would have been well aware of the mixed feelings around bringing the Master back. So he does exactly what he did with the Daleks and the Cybermen; he renovates him.

In the Master’s case, the first challenge is to cast a brilliant actor in the lead role, someone who can provide a gravitas to the role and improve its respectability, in the same way the casting of Christopher Eccleston had done in year one. But this year, Davies went one better than finding a top class actor for the role; he found two.

The first is Derek Jacobi. As Professor Yana, he’s a kindly, doddery old soul. As the short-lived version of the Master, he’s a raging beast, freshly awoken and hungry. His fury is palpable from the moment he turns on his horrified assistant Chantho (Chipo Chung) who’s just pulled a gun on him. “Now I can say I was provoked,” he says chillingly, although he’s clearly a man who answers to no one for his actions. He rails against her stupidity and leaving him trapped for years. Just before he zaps his insectoid helper with a live cable, he hisses out the words that many suspected but few dared to definitely guess until he said them out loud: “I… Am… The Master!” Electrifying. Still one of new Who’s best moments.

It’s a sign of how well Doctor Who was doing in 2007 that it could book Sir Derek Jacobi for one episode, have him play the Master for a few minutes, then burn right through him. But in only a few minutes he brings something new to this most familiar of characters- a seething resentment for the years he’s lost. This is a Master who feels hard done by. And when he regenerates, it’s not just a matter of life-saving expedience, it’s an act motivated by jealousy. “If the Doctor can be young and strong, so can I!” he declares. And in a flash of light, he looks like John Simm.

If Jacobi’s Master’s defining characteristic is anger, Simm’s is an ongoing delight at his own cleverness. He’s so pleased with his evil plan to take over the world, that he can’t help laughing, dancing and clapping his hands in joy. He’s a jokey, jovial madman. Davies has said that his aim was to make the Master as charming and charismatic as Tennant’s crowd pleasing Doctor and he got it spot on. Simm proves to be the first guest star of the new series who gives a performance which outshines the Doctor.

In The Sound of Drums, the Master is an entertaining bad guy, one you can’t help but like. In Last of the Time Lords, he becomes a hateful despot; a mass murderer, a bully, a torturer and a wife beater. In a series first, we get to see the consequences of the Master winning, and they’re not pretty. It’s clever of Davies, because one of the weaknesses of old Master schemes in which he threatened to take over the Earth – stories like The Claws of Axos and The Sea Devils, specifically mentioned here – was the nagging doubt about how a nutbag like him would manage to dominate an entire planet on his own. The answer given here is by totalitarianism on a grand scale. He’s Kim Jong Il but with killer floating globes from outer space.

****

Such an epic plan requires a reset switch of epic proportions. Best not to stop to think about Martha (Freema Agyeman) travelling the world solo and spreading her story to get the world’s population to pray to the Doctor at a specific time. Best also not to look too lingeringly at those closely framed shots of a few extras, attempting to show a planet full of people chanting “Doctor”. Best also not to think about how the Doctor uses the psychic energy to restore himself from a stunted, wizened elf to a flying, laser beam resistant super being, complete with a new costume. Well, he is a super hero these days.

All that’s just window dressing though. I think the cleverest part of the story is how in defeat, the Master finds a way to wound the Doctor. Throughout the story, the Doctor’s been explaining to the Master that they are the only Time Lords left, pleading that they only have each other. In a funny way, the Doctor longs for them to be together, in a way that the Master clearly doesn’t give two hoots about. When the Doctor talks mournfully of Gallifrey burning, all the Master can do is marvel at the idea of its destruction, almost lustfully.

So it makes perfect sense that the Doctor wants to forgive the Master for his heinous crimes, because he wants them to coexist. Perhaps even cohabitate, as the Doctor suggests as the Master’s captured. The Doctor’s so desperate not to be the last of the Time Lords he’ll save the Master and let him move in. But when he’s shot, the Master finds that by deliberately letting himself die, he’s denying the Doctor the thing he most wants: companionship. “I win!” he smiles as he dies. For him, it’s always been a contest. For the Doctor, a rescue mission.

It ends with the Doctor burning his old frenemy’s body on a pyre and a red fingernailed hand salvaging a mysterious ring from the ashes. It’s a comic book style ending. But that makes sense. ‘Cos comic books are where you’ll find super heroes and super villains.

LINK TO The Stones of Blood: as per last time, the post-coital scenes.

NEXT TIME: One man’s law is another man’s crime. We’re heading Inside the Spaceship.

 

 

Transitions, technobabble and The Keeper of Traken (1981)

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The Doctor (moody, burgundy clad Tom Baker) and boy companion Adric (nerdy, mustard clad Matthew Waterhouse) can be forgiven for not being up on current affairs on planet Traken. They have, after all, just emerged from an entirely different universe when this story stirs into life. But luckily the wizened old Keeper of Traken (Denis Carey) materialises directly in the TARDIS console room to play Xbox on the scanner screen. Well, he already has the chair.

No, he’s there to show some home movies and bring our heroes up to speed with the backstory. Traken, he says, is a world of peace and harmony. Well, that’s his first problem right there. In Doctor Who, idyllic, peaceful worlds are always one step away from total mayhem. In Traken’s case, a portentous statue called Melkur has landed in the grove and become calcified by the planet’s wholesomeness. Or it might be that he clashes with everything around him. Traken’s all very art nouveau, while Melkur’s pure futurism.

The ancient Keeper is reaching the end of his reign, as indeed the fourth Doctor is reaching his. “The passing ages have taken their toll on me,” the Keeper says and the Doctor replies, “yes, I know that feeling”. The Keeper senses trouble approaching during the transition. He urges the Doctor to come to assist, which of course the Doctor makes his number one priority. Right after he’s found some old books. Then read some old books. And wittered on to Adric for a while. Jeez, I’d hate to be waiting for him to rescue me.

Meanwhile on Traken, most of the first episode has past. But we’ve met kissing Consuls Tremas (Anthony Ainely) and Kassia (Shelia Ruskin, who from her accent is quite posh but has a name which sounds like she’s from somewhere west of Wagga Wagga) on their wedding night. Tremas is a scholarly type, who wanders around, playing with electronic gadgetry and talking technobabble. Naturally enough, he and the Doctor get on famously.

Kassia, however, has developed a far less scientific obsession with Melkur. She’s a bit like one of those folk who fall in love with inanimate objects, and end up marrying chairs and clocks and the like. To be honest, the husband/wife combination is a little old fashioned: Tremas is the scientific, rational male, Kassia the passionate, corruptible female. And like Eve, she’s seduced by evil in the Grove, a verdant garden in the middle of Traken. Gardens are interesting symbols of change and fertility and it can’t be by accident that one’s at the centre of things here. It’s the growing heart of Traken, while everything around it is as clean and sterile as an antique shop.

In story terms, the Grove’s polar opposite is the sterile but gaudy Source, a device which seems to hold Traken together, although exactly how we’re never told. The Keeper, apparently uses it to ‘organise the whole Traken Union’ and the Doctor says it has ‘limitless organising capacity refined to a single frame’. Who knows what that means? It must be more than just a nifty spreadsheet, but its significance is hard to grasp. Particularly when it looks like an oversize light fitting with fairy floss whizzing around inside it. Because we never get a decent explanation as to what it does, we never get a sense of what the consequences are of it being destroyed. ‘We can destroy Melkur,’ Adric says very seriously to Nyssa (Sarah Sutton, on debut) at one stage. ‘But only by completely destroying the Source.’ Wow, we might even care if we had the faintest idea what it did.

(Young Adric, by the way, is undergoing a change. He’s got a greater share of the plot now, since fellow TARDIS travellers Romana and K9 have left. But this means he suddenly picks up a level of scientific genius left behind by those braniacs. He’s able to deduce that there’s another TARDIS on Traken by looking at some gadget and muttering about Fourier analyses. He follows the Doctor’s brief bafflegab about nixing the Source so well that he can singlehandedly construct the device to do the job. Well, not quite singlehandedly; he has Nyssa to help. So typical of Adric. Left alone with a girl in the TARDIS and all he wants to do is play with his Meccano set.)

All the meaningless faux technical talk really puts the brakes on what’s a better than average Doctor Who story, with far better than average design work. For all the textbook Who imagery like the glowing eyed statue stalking the gloomy court, suffocating necklaces and black gloved villains watching events from the shadows, there’s an equal amount of blathery chat about fold back flow inducers, energy signatures and warp crossovers. It’s an odd mix of science manual and theatre, and I’d take the latter any day.

This collision of ideas is on display in the story’s climax, when Melkur’s grasp on the Keepership is broken, and a Shakespearean tempest is unleashed. Amidst all the sound and fury, the Doctor and Adric struggle to restore the natural order of things… by punching a number into a machine. By any measure, entering your PIN into a Trakenite ATM is no dramatic climax to a story.

Anyway, it all ends up OK, with the Doctor defeating his old enemy the Master (he was the Melkur all along!) and winning through to save the planet, the Keepership and the whole Traken Union from destruction. The successful end of an epic battle with some epic frocks. The future of Traken is assured.

Well, at least for the next three episodes, after which it will be casually destroyed by a big black stain. Well, you win some, you lose some.

*****

This story’s LINK to our last Random, Earthshock, is worth a bit of attention. Both feature the shock reveal of an old enemy. It’s a trick that comes to characterise 1980s Who, but it starts on Traken. The show had brought back old enemies in unexpected ways before – your Frontier in Space, your Deadly Assassin – but here the return of the Master feels like a showcase moment.

The Master, played with delicate menace by the silky voiced Geoffrey Beevers, lurks inside the Melkur, in fact his TARDIS. He’s in his decrepit state we witnessed in The Deadly Assassin, and that in itself says something about the series’ newfound love for continuity, heralded by producer John Nathan-Turner. He could have ignored the backstory, and simply bought the Master back in full bodily form. Yes, it would have disregarded the notion that the Master had run out of regenerations, but the series had performed more brazen u-turns than that in the past.

But the Master’s reappearance went down well with fans, and so Nathan-Turner repeated it the following year with the Cybermen in Earthshock. And found lots of excuses to bring back other old enemies, though never again with the same revelatory impact. New Who‘s not immune to that tactic. Far from it; there’s rarely been a post 2005 series without some familiar monstrous faces from the old days returning.

But as Nathan-Turner found, it’s a well you can only go back to so many times. Right now, I struggle to see which of the big, classic foes are left in the toybox for new Who to pull out. I think this opens the door for a few B graders to make come back. And if the Macra and the Zygons and the Sisterhood of flippin’ Karn can all be pushed back into service, I see no reason why the Melkur can’t one day ride again.

NEXT TIME… Dreams within dreams and sweet Papa Chrimbo. Every Christmas is Last Christmas.

 

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.