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Why It Took 25 Years to Unspoil the 1996 Doctor Who TV Movie

Is that even what it’s called? I think it’s just called Doctor Who. So why don’t we call it Doctor Who? I suppose because we’d get Doctor Who mixed up with Doctor Who. Just to clarify the episode of Doctor Who called Doctor Who. This intro would work a lot better if the DWC style guide didn’t insist we italicise episode titles but not programme titles.

Anyhoo, some people insist it is called Enemy Within. In actual fact, that was just proposed as a title by producer Philip Segal for the TV movie at a fan convention. In which case we should call Delta and the Bannermen, ‘Oh, no, not that embarrassing pile of sh!t’ because that’s what Andrew Cartmel called it at Shangri-La Fest in Llandudno in 1993. (All right, he didn’t. Not out loud, anyway…)

How about we use the title from the VHS release in Finland: 1999 Maailman Tuho, which – roughly translated – is 1999 Destruction of the World? Which sounds a bit apocalyptic. And rather confuses the ending, which takes place in the year 2000 with the world mercifully still in-tact. Or maybe the Czech VHS title which translates as Battle with Time or Fighting Time. Not sure which is more correct, but the original Czech is Boj S Časem. And it has a rather unusual tie-in soundtrack album (look away, Jamie!).

In French, it’s Le Seigneur du Temps: Docteur Who – Le Film/The Lord of Time: Doctor Who – The Movie. It’s worth watching the first 30 seconds of the French version to hear the unconvincing gallic Daleks cry, ‘Extermination! Extermination!’ Just maybe don’t click on the links below (Jamie! What did I tell you? Oh my word!). The Brazil VHS shortens it to O Senhor do Tempo, which sounds more like a Cornetto advert to me… (Anyone born before 1980 is singing this in their heads right now.)

But, as ever, I digress… So what spoiled (spoilt?) The 1996 Doctor Who TV Movie (TNNSDWTVM)? Apart from the — lack of — title? Well here’s a thing or two (three, actually).

Firstly it was The Doctor Who Movie Special (TDWMS) from the chaps that brought you Doctor Who Magazine (DWM). Excited kids seeing the mag on the shelves at WHSmith must have spent hours scouring through Time Out to see when it was showing at their local multiplex. (Dear DWM editorial team in 1996, you probably should have qualified it with the letters ‘TV’ on the cover before ‘Movie’. Yes, I know I’m right. No need to thank me.)

But what was worse was the content. The special was released a week-or-so before the ‘Movie’ was on TV (yes, TV, DWM). I did indeed purchase a copy from WHSmith and at the tender age of 21, going on 22, so well past the magazine’s younger demographic, and took it home to read from cover to cover. In between fascinating facts about past Doctor Who (note the lack of italics) such as: ‘In his seventh body, the Doctor became an arch plotter’ (which makes it sound like he designed curved entrance ways). Or an interview and profile of new Eighth Doctor Paul McGann, the writer of which suggests that the hoped-for ‘younger readership’ may have seen the actor in Withnail and I or Alien3. A younger, traumatised recreational drug-using readership, presumably.

Quite why the editorial team (hello again, still no thank you? No, fine, I said there was no need) thought that the new audience needed an info dump of 26-years worth of back history including the Valeyard’s real identity, a Voc Robot, the Fendahleen, and Eric Roberts declaring, ‘I inject people with my evilness!’ (which reads like an anagram of what John Barrowman used to get up to on the Doctor Who set). But that was not the worst crime of TDWMS.

No. I realised by about page nine, that they were taking readers through THE ENTIRE PLOT of TNNSDWTVM including how the Seventh Doctor meets his demise, how he regenerates, all the main characters and incidents are exposed… If I’d made it through to page 29, I’d have found out how the Eighth Doctor defeats the Master, saves Grace, kisses her (including a picture), and flies off in the TARDIS on his own. So I was partially spoiled already. Half spoiled. On my mother’s side.

I hid the spoilery mag until I bought it on video (more on that in a bit) and then… I didn’t need to know the plot because I could just watch it. Great, that’s £1.99 I’ll never see again.

About a week later (Wednesday 22 May to be precise), I scuttled down to WHSmith to buy the — pre-broadcast release — VHS of TNNSDWTVM (which came with an exclusive set of six postcards in WHSmith, doncha know) after work. I took TDWMS with me to see if I could get £1.99 off the RRP but they told me to, you know, get stuffed or whatever. And I brought it home to watch. Forgetting that it was my brother’s 24th birthday. He opened all his crappy (probably) presents, while I clutched this gleaming (silver foil-effect logo) video cassette, itching to put it on — in the VHS player, not open up the cover and parade around using it as a hat.

We then went out with my parents for a drink. I brought the VHS with me. My brother insisted it was his birthday and we shouldn’t watch it that night. My dad, knowing my obsession, knew the likelihood of me getting through the evening without watching it was slim to impossible, said, “Oh, go on, let him watch it. He’ll only be miserable if you don’t. Plus he’ll have to take it off his head.”

So we went home and did just that. It was a request they should never have granted. My brother tutted and moaned through 85 excruciating minutes. You can imagine what it was like when Pete the morgue sitter exclaims, “Party on!” Or when the Master says, “I always drezzzz for the occasion.” It was a long hour and twenty five minutes, I can tell you. I think I sneaked in a second watch while my brother was out a few days later. But it was as if the moans, sighs, and ridicule were a commentary track. When the night of transmission came five days later, I didn’t watch it.

Later that week, I had a phone call from a friend in America. A girl that I rather liked and would have hoped to have had a Grace-and-fireworks moment with. She said, “Oh my god, I couldn’t watch it. I turned it off after a few seconds.” I quickly changed the subject, “Have I told you about my new hat…?”

In the intervening years, I would occasionally attempt a viewing: when it came out on DVD, then DVD again, then the Blu-ray. But always with the memories of that Wednesday night in 1996. Up until recently, the last time I watched it was around another Doctor Who-loving friend’s house. We’d got together, six of us, to watch a new series episode. The cocktails, wine, and beer were flowing. At around 11pm, he put TNNSDWTVM on and we drank and chatted, occasionally looking up to laugh at the morgue scene or that camp-as-Christmas Master. I don’t usually watch Doctor Who to laugh at it, but we did. And it was wrong. Not as wrong as the hat, but still wrong.

I didn’t know it was 25 years since TNNSDWTVM was broadcast this year. As a family, me, my wife, and my son (age 9) and daughter (age 6) enjoy Doctor Who nights on Fridays. We’d just finished all the new Whos from Eccleston to Whittaker but they still wanted to carry on. It was about a month ago and (for reasons I won’t go into here) we were living away from our home in temporary accommodation. I’d brought with us a limited selection of things to watch including TNNSDWTVM on Blu-ray. I kept making suggestions of things we could view instead and eventually looked on the shelf and offered it to them. They agreed. My wife, who had only seen it on that boozy night, was unconvinced. But they were very keen.

So I put it on [insert hat joke here] and we watched it projected onto the living room wall. The kids watching for the first time. And me, for the first time through their eyes. They loved it. They laughed at the Master and Pete, thought McGann was brilliant (I always did), and my daughter hid when the Master turned into a snake and when he killed Bruce’s wife. They even laughed-out-loud when Grace says, “He’s, er, he’s British!” And said, “No, he isn’t!” whenever the Doctor claimed he was half-human. Bless you, my children…

It’s only taken 25 years but I’d watch it again tomorrow. Only, the kids want the second half of City of Death next. It’s never going to be perfect, or voted in a top ten list but it’s another great Doctor Who story and the only full-screen adventure of one of the very best Doctors. If you haven’t seen it in a while, stick it on with your kids (borrow some if needed). And if you don’t enjoy it, I’ll eat my, um…

Peter Shaw

Why It Took 25 Years to Unspoil the 1996 Doctor Who TV Movie

by Peter Shaw time to read: 6 min
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