Reviewed: Doctor Who The TV Movie – A False Start?

As I get older, I find myself getting rather nostalgic about the 1990s. It was the decade where my social life was superb! I worked in the West End of London where me and my pals frequented the theatres, clubs, pubs, and – even though I’m not particularly a fan – paid a fair few visits to Page’s Bar in Westminster. For those who don’t know, Page’s Bar was the only officially licenced Star Trek pub in the world; Saturday night was Star Trek night! And they had the Doctor Who pinball table opposite the The Next Generation one. So there! 

What the 1990s lacked was any regular and new television Doctor Who. There was Dimensions in Time and The Curse of Fatal Death, but they weren’t serious, and we had a few special programmes for the 30th anniversary (who remembers the anorak!), a repeat showing of Planet of the Daleks, including black and white episodes, on prime-time BBC One; and Alan Yentob’s teasing statements, Yentob being the controller of BBC One in the early part of the decade.

Representations of the British sci-fi/fantasy genre were very thin on the ground: only Crime Traveller, Bugs, and Invasion: Earth were there to fly the flag. Cue shouts from the back of “Red Dwarf” and “Goodnight Sweetheart”. Hmmm… Okay, add them in, but they were sitcoms first and foremost.

Not Exactly on Life Support 

Even though televisual Doctor Who had effectively died during the previous decade, it refused to die in the public’s hearts – hence the affection during the 30th anniversary – and fans just refused to give up on it. Actually, neither did the BBC really: let’s face it, Auntie Beeb were raking it in with VHS and New Adventures/Missing Adventures book sales. They just weren’t prepared to make it themselves. But at least an attempt was made. Hence a co-production with BBC Worldwide, Twentieth Century Fox and Vancouver, in Canada. Thus, we have one entry for the 1990s: Doctor Who the Movie (also known unofficially as The Enemy Within). 

The actual process of how Doctor Who: The Movie ended up on our television screens, through producer Philip Segal’s efforts, is quite well documented so I’m not going to linger there, but needless to say when the show returned to our screens on Monday 27th May 1996, it arrived with somewhat of a fanfare and excitement, even bagging the coveted cover of the Radio Times. Paul McGann is the Eighth Doctor.

Things were tempered in the Who world due to the sad passing of Jon Pertwee, seven days before transmission, to whom The Movie was dedicated. 

If memory serves me correctly, some bright spark at BBC Video released the VHS of The Movie the week before its UK television debut (although it had already aired in the US). I can only assume that this was to maximise sales as people like me couldn’t help themselves and bought the video rather than wait for the actual transmission date. Could this, therefore, be the first official Doctor Who that was straight to video? Or was it simply that the HMV Shop in London’s Oxford Street put them on display a week too early?

Those of us around at the time, prior to the release/transmission, may remember the terrible incident at Dunblane primary school, in Scotland. This was when a single gunman – I shall not name – shot and killed 16 children and one teacher. Due to the shock and sensitivity of this incident, it was announced that cuts would be made to The Movie as there were sequences of gun-fire. These cuts have been put back in with subsequent releases, but it was a difficult call as some of those scenes were essential to the plot.

But What of the Actual Movie?  

Doctor Who: The Movie is a film of two halves (apologies for the football cliché). It starts with the events leading up to and including the regeneration of not only the Doctor, but of the Master taking over the body of the unfortunate ambulance driver, Bruce (a gloriously over the top Eric Roberts). We are introduced to gang member Chang Lee (Yee Jee Tso), who was part of the gunfight in which the Seventh Doctor was shot and Dr. Grace Holloway (Daphne Ashbrook) who accidentally delivers the coup de grace to the Doctor’s seventh incarnation. The Doctor is also given shoes. 

The second part is where the Master wants to find and steal the Doctor’s remaining regenerations and to find the Doctor he opens the TARDIS’ Eye of Harmony (see later) which, if not closed, will pull the Earth through it. To stop this happening, the Doctor needs to find a beryllium clock to repair the TARDIS, one of which is being presented that night, at the start of the new millennium.

Things That Weren’t Quite Right 

Let’s get the negative stuff out of the way first…  

Many scenes did cause fandom to do a lot of frantic arm waving (no change there then).

Number one was the very first scene where the Doctor tells us that the Master has been put on trial by Smurf-sounding Daleks on Skaro. Daleks putting the Master on trial… hmmm. Presumably, the Daleks were being held back for a later episode of the series-that-never-happened as we were shown Skaro, but the Daleks were kept in the shadows. With those voices, would they have been blue?

Number two was the kiss between the Doctor and Grace. It didn’t bother me as it clearly wasn’t sexual, but I had friends – not particularly fans but casual viewers – telling me afterwards how outrageous that was. I wonder how they felt nine years later?

Number three – you all know what’s coming – the revelation that the Doctor is half human. This was probably the biggest talking point at the time. But, as far as I was concerned, it was merely a throwaway line to signal the programme’s Britishness: “I suppose I am on my mother’s side”. Then again, game-changing throwaway lines have become somewhat back in fashion under Chris Chibnall. How many grandmothers?

Lastly, number four which was the biggest break from established continuity: that there was an Eye of Harmony inside the TARDIS. Before this, it was established that the Eye was held on Gallifrey. Now, it seemed that each Time-Space Ship contained one. Maybe a mini-Eye? They’d come back to it in Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS (2013).

But then, the gang members who shot the Doctor were never brought to book either. Moving on!

What the Movie Did Get Right 

Just for a bit of balance, let’s have a few positives.

The Movie contains the most sumptuous TARDIS interior to date. In a break from the brightly lit white walls and roundels, we are given one that is gothic and epic and more reminiscent of HG Wells. It just oozes atmosphere with wooden panels, ornate staircases, and stone arches, all decked out with curtains, torches, books, and more candles than you can shake a sonic screwdriver at. And that gorgeous console.

Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor is superb and I make no secret that I rate him among the best: the mix of a friendly, dashing, and adventurous demeanour coupled with a vulnerability and an image that harked all the way back to William Hartnell seemed to gel perfectly. Yes, I’m biased.

It does take quite a while for him to appear, however; just under 22 minutes. But of course, this is to make room for Sylvester McCoy to provide a regeneration and continuity with the BBC series. This is clearly not a reboot, thankfully, as this so easily could have been; sending our canon-obsessiveness into overdrive to try and accommodate it all.

There are sequences that are quite gritty. The shooting scene is pretty full-on; the surgery scene is pretty harrowing, surpassing anything one might find in Holby City or Casualty; the humour of the mortuary attendants is gloriously gallows; and the kicking that the Master gives the Doctor wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of The Sweeney!   

The Curse of the Pilot 

The Movie was a pilot for a potential series which, as we know, didn’t get the required ratings in the US and thus didn’t get taken up. Such a pity as, although as entertaining as Doctor Who: The Movie was, it did still suffer a little. But then so do most pilots, in that it has to spend much of its time setting up the premise before it can get to the story. There would have been better episodes to come, I’ve no doubt.

Thus, McGann’s wonderful Eighth Doctor just got the single full outing – which wasn’t even all his – and then got tossed in the bin.

Despite this, in the subsequent years after Doctor Who: The Movie aired, there was quite a bit of Eighth Doctor around in various guises: the Radio Times strip by Lee Sullivan; the Doctor Who Magazine comic strip; and the glorious BBC books range.

Finding a Home in Big Finish  

But most importantly, Big Finish brought McGann back to reprise the Eighth Doctor for their Doctor Who audio series. Consider this: when Storm Warning was released in 2001, Paul McGann was still the current incumbent as no other official incarnation had superseded him. “TARDIS manual! TARDIS manual! TARDIS manual! You’re not here, are you?!”

There were a couple of changes: the ‘half human’ aspect was quietly dropped, along with the Doctor’s ability to know the fate of everyone he meets. 

A Trip of a Lifetime 

McGann may only have a brief television presence – well, two really as his incarnation was book-ended by the mini-episode Night of the Doctor, providing his regeneration into the War Doctor – but the subsequent popularity via the audio medium has meant that the Eighth Doctor has definitely cemented his place in the Doctor Who universe and is hugely popular. 

I would have dearly loved a full McGann television series. However, I do wonder if the series had happened, would Big Finish have been able to launch when they did, a mere three years after The Movie aired? A successful US TV series tends to run for a few seasons. Could BF have been able to obtain the rights while a US series was still current? 

It has to be argued that BF have delivered a Doctor Who which is often superior to the television version and the Eighth Doctor’s adventures ranging among the best (that bias again). Therefore, if it came to a choice, would I take a probable short-lived television series instead of the last 18 years of Eighth’s adventures on audio? Actually, no. I wouldn’t. Big Finish every time.

There is also the notion that had a McGann series been made, would Doctor Who have been relaunched on BBC One in 2005? We’ll never know.

But I am still a little irked that McGann was ignored at the time Christopher Eccleston took on the role, but the Eighth Doctor has gone from strength to strength in Big Finish’s audios – legitimised by Night of the Doctor – and for this fan it means that has been ‘a trip of a lifetime’.

NEXT: Clinging to the skin of this tiny little world.