Sunday, 13 December 2009
Doctor Who: The TV Movie (1996)
“I was with Puccini before he died.”
This one starts with narration and has a lot of that Gallifreyan symbol in it, but it’s no Deadly Assassin. In fact it’s an extremely weird experience watching it now, when its ‘90s-ness is finally beginning to date.
So the Daleks are putting the Master on trial and putting him to death. Best not to think too hard about this. Then they release the body to their mortal enemy, the Doctor. Best not to think about this either. Or the Dalek voices, which are mercifully drowned out.
The opening titles are completely devoid of character, as is the theme tune. From the perspective of today it just looks like a standard ‘90s sci-fi title sequence, and along with the bland orchestral theme it starts out feeling more like an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation than Doctor Who. And that’s not a compliment, coming from me!
The awkwardness continues. The first few minutes consist, as Charlie Brooker might say, of the viewer being constantly being smashed in the face by continuity references, yet what is glaringly absent is any kind of quick and early introduction to the show for the American audience. Incredibly, we’re shown the inside of the TARDIS with no actual explanation of what it is until a long way in.
Still, the TARDIS interior looks great, very retro, with lots of clocks everywhere, an old library and a generally Victorian feel pretty much symbolised by the Doctor’s reading material, The Time Machine. In the context of the Marathon this feels like a continuation of the running gag with the Doctor’s reading material from Dragonfire and Remembrance of the Daleks but, of course, it can’t be! And Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor, travelling alone, is much better dressed than we’ve ever seen him before. In fact, for the first time since The Horns of Nimon we have a total absence of question marks and this, at least, is one thing worth cheering about. I wonder how much time has passed since Survival?
The escape of the Master from the casket gets the plot started, and we cut to San Francisco’s Chinatown in a very well directed scene which pans out from a close-up of a fish’s eye to encompass the sense of a whole story. The story as a whole is extremely well shot, dull though some of the design choices may be.
There’s a shootout, the Doctor fails to check the scanner and is gunned down, and gang member Chang Lee takes him to hospital. We’re introduced to Grace Holloway, watching Madame Butterfly with her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend, as she’s summoned to operate on him. This is all well and good, but it’s a very odd way to begin the story for someone who’s never seen the show before, such as the main part of the target audience.
Things start to get very Spearhead From Space at this point, although I like the fact that the Doctor’s two hearts are dismissed as a double exposure. And it’s a nice touch that the Doctor’s injuries are not that serious and it is in fact Grace operating on his heart(s) that kills him!
The scenes with Pete in the morgue are brilliant, and probably the best thing about the story. The counterpointing of the Doctor’s regeneration with scenes from James Whale’s superb 1931 Frankenstein is genius. The regeneration itself, though, is a little underwhelming, and the morphing effect doesn’t really work; it’s obvious where they locked the camera and switched actors. And the implied Christ symbolism of the regenerated Doctor emerging from the morgue in his robe is extremely pretentious.
Chang Lee rifles through the Doctor’s belongings; the sonic screwdriver is back, as is the yo yo. Meanwhile, there’s a chillingly effective scene as the Master wakes up in the body of ambulance driver, Bruce, and casually kills Bruce’s unnamed wife. The Master may look and sound different, but his fundamental underlying character is the same, driven by an unrelenting urge to survive alongside the same old obsession with the Doctor. And Eric Roberts is superb in the role.
The introduction to the TARDIS which should have occurred at the beginning finally takes place as Chang Lee enters the TARDIS, to be met with the Master and his smooth lies. We see the Cloister Room, which now looks very different, like a cathedral, complete with bats(!), and which for some reason has the Eye of Harmony, literally an eye, right in the middle. Apparently this powers the TARDIS and has other vague magical powers, none of which makes any sense at all in the wake of The Deadly Assassin. And then, just to push the wrongness even further, we’re told for no particular reason that the Doctor is half human. What?
Meanwhile, there’s a much better scene going on between the Doctor and Grace, in which Paul McGann excels. And is very Scouse, far more so than I remembered. He finally remembers who he is, speaking of his father and “the warm Gallifreyan night”. And then the kiss happens. Finally, an acknowledgement that the Doctor’s not some kind of eunuch! It’s quite comical, looking back, to see how controversial this was at the time.
The Doctor declares the electronic thingummy inside San Francisco’s atomic clock to be this story’s McGuffin, while Grace denounces him to the psychiatric unit behind his back. The upshot of this is the Doctor, Grace, and the Master posing as Bruce all riding in the ambulance, each having a radically different agenda. Only when the Master suddenly goes CGI does Grace finally accept the Doctor is telling the literal truth.
After a scene which means Grace will probably be put away for a long time after the events of the story, the Doctor and Grace are racing towards the atomic clock on a police motorbike, while the Master gets his best moment ever (“THIS… IS… AN… AMBULANCE!!!” But the Master and Chang Lee get there first. Unfortunately, there then follows a lot of embarrassing scenes in which the Doctor seems to know about the personal futures of everybody he meets for some reason. Worse, he further underlines that he’s half-human “on his mother’s side”. And describes the TARDIS chameleon circuit as a “cloaking device”. Grrr.
But still there’s good stuff alongside the chaff. I love the fact that the Doctor keeps a spare TARDIS key just above the “p”. And the police motorbike riding into and out of the TARDIS is a deservedly iconic moment.
The climax has the master triumphant, and dreeeessed for the occasion in his robes, while Grace is possessed and the Doctor is doing his Christ thing again, only this time crossed with Alex from A Clockwork Orange. Oh, and the half-human thing gets mentioned yet again, forcing us to conclude that it must, sadly, be true as everyone seems to be suddenly making such a big thing of it.
All this is juxtaposed with scenes at the atomic clock as partygoers wait for the New Year and the year 2000. How ironic; this professor bloke has built a clock able to measure time with absolute accuracy, yet he’s got the start of the millennium a whole year out.
The ending is disappointing, presenting the Doctor as rather passive for the supposed hero of the show, and words simply fail me at the Doctor’s apparently turning back time to bring Grace and Chang Lee back to life. So, that’ll be no more sense of threat ever again, then. Still, I like the very end where Grace subverts the tropes of the programme by asking the Doctor to come with her.
Frustratingly, there’s actually quite a lot that’s right with this; it’s well shot, well acted and contains lots of good set pieces. But the cheat ending, the tiresome Christ symbolism, the inevitable awkwardness of having the actor playing the lead suddenly change 21 minutes in, and worst of all the story’s failure to work as an introduction, mean that sadly this has to be considered a failure, and we’re probably lucky that it never led to a series. 2/5.