Left My Hearts in San Francisco…
In May of 1996, after a 7 year drought of Doctor Who (which was last broadcast in the US on PBS), I was set to enjoy an all-new Doctor Who adventure. This would be a single TV-movie, acting as a pilot episode, which would air in the US on the Fox TV network. Well, as luck would have it, the movie aired on the same night as the much-ballyhooed “Roseanne” series’ finale, which sucked up US TV ratings like a Hoover vac. Oh, and of course, I had to work that night as well, but I had my handy-dandy VCR record “Doctor Who: The TV-Movie” (in hi-fi stereo, no less—so fancy). The next day, after a refreshing swim in my old apartment complex’s pool, I sat down to watch the new Who. After becoming re-addicted to the series years earlier, I was psyched for its return.
Note: Sure enough, Roseanne’s big finale spelled doom for the Doctor’s US debut; and while the movie was a ratings hit in the Doctor’s UK home turf with the BBC, it performed dismally in the US, thus ensuring this UK/US/Canadian coproduced film never went to series.
Not-too jarringly set in Vancouver-for-San Francisco, the 95 minute movie that followed was a decided mix bag. Paced more like an episode of “21 Jump Street” than “Doctor Who,” it was also shot in the style (and color palette) of a wannabe James Cameron flick (“Terminator” homages all over the place). There were also some very odd continuity missteps, such as the Daleks holding a trial (?) and allowing their mortal foe, the Doctor, to take the Master’s cremated remains back to Gallifrey (say what now…?). We also saw the Doctor casually quipping that he’s “half-human, on (his) mother’s side.” Odd continuity notwithstanding, I tried to embrace the movie as a soft-reboot of the show, slightly rejiggered for American sensibilities. The presence of 7th Doctor Sylvester McCoy’s appearance in the first act also helped make the transition a teensy bit smoother as well.
Note: The weird new continuity of the TV-movie (the Daleks’ trial of the Master, etc) almost felt as if writer Matthew Jacobs had only a passing familiarity with Doctor Who; he knew of the show’s elements, such as Gallifrey, the Master, Skaro, Daleks, etc. but not how those elements fit together.
The TV-movie was directed by Geoffrey Sax, and more importantly, it was executive produced by Steven Spielberg-groomed TV producer Philip David Segal (seaQuest DSV, Earth II), who was born in England but raised in the US, which should’ve (in theory) given him valuable insight as a showrunner for this UK/US/Canadian coproduction. There’s a definite vibe of by proxy-Spielbergian TV influence as well; for example, the opening titles give Ron Grainer’s classic Doctor Who theme a bombastic symphonic overhaul–making it sound more like unused music from Spielberg’s own “Amazing Stories.” Doctor Who is inherently British–despite the fact that it was first conceived of by Canadian producer Sydney Newman. While an Americanized remake is a curious notion to explore in a one-off TV-movie, I was relieved when the series reverted fully to the BBC nine years later, after this odd coproduction with Fox.
If nothing else, this singular soft-reboot of the series would make for an interesting ride in the TARDIS. I would later come to appreciate the movie for its accomplishments, rather than just its glaring deficits…
“Doctor Who: The TV Movie” (1996).
The movie opens in space, with (eventual) star Paul McGann narrating as the Doctor, telling the audience that his longtime nemesis, The Master (at this point, an anonymous double in a wideshot) has been sentenced to death by (unseen) Daleks. The Daleks–mortal foes of the Doctor–have inexplicably requested the Doctor to take the Master’s liquified remains back to the Time Lord home world of Gallifrey. As the Doctor narrates, he should never have granted their ‘request’…
Note: Okay, sooo much wrong with that opening narration. First off, the Daleks are mortal foes of the Time Lords, specifically the Doctor. Secondly, Skaro was, at this point, destroyed in the last years of Sylvester McCoy’s run by the Hand of Omega (“Remembrance of the Daleks”). Third, since when does the Doctor trust the Daleks, let alone vise versa? I was scratching my head as I listened, because it sounded like writer Matthew Jacobs had no idea what relationships these characters had with each other… it was like seeing the Imperial stormtroopers hosting a Sunday brunch for the Rebel Alliance. With that, I was forced to accept this as a soft-reboot of the series, and I tentatively accepted it on that basis.
The TARDIS carries the locked urn with the Master’s cremated remains, as “In a Dream” plays on an antiquated gramophone. Meanwhile, the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy at this point), relaxes to a cuppa tea and some jelly babies (the 4th Doctor’s snack of choice) while reading a copy of, appropriately enough, H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine” (his previous self actually met a young Wells in “Timelash”). Beyond the Doctor’s notice, a clear liquid tentacle squeezes itself out of the urn, through a hole in the lock…the serpentine-like fluid tentacle is, somehow, the Master’s essence escaping. Soon, the needle on the gramophone begins to repeatedly skip–and the alarm klaxon on the TARDIS rings. Readouts warn that a “timing malfunction” has occurred, and the Doctor is forced to make an emergency stop at Earth, on December 30, 1999–two days before the end of the 20th century, and the eve of a new millennium.
Note: James Cameron homage alert; the clear tentacle looks like a cheap, made-for-TV version of the water tentacle from Cameron’s “The Abyss” (1989). How the ‘dead’ Master was able to escape from his urn, let alone assume a gelatinous serpentine shape, is never explained at all.
In Chinatown, San Francisco, the TARDIS materializes in a dirty back alley, as two rival Asian-American gangs are involved in a deadly shooting war. Not even momentarily fazed by the arrival of the mysterious blue police box right in front of their eyes, the young gang members spray the Doctor with a hail of gunfire the moment he steps outside. Hit by several bullets, the Doctor immediately collapses. One of the gang members, a young man named Chang Lee (Yee Jee Tso), feels responsible, and stays by the Doctor’s side as the other gang members flee to save their own asses. A panicked Doctor briefly regains consciousness long enough to see the Master’s ‘tentacle’ slip through the TARDIS’ front door keyhole, and he screams “he’s escaping.” Lee looks over to the Doctor’s line of sight, as the tentacle has seemingly disappeared into the alley’s trash. Lee calls for an ambulance and stays with the Doctor as he’s transported to a nearby hospital for emergency surgery. One of the ambulance’s attending paramedics, Bruce (Eric Roberts), tries to get information about the Doctor from Lee, who admits he barely knew him. Lee unwittingly uses the Doctor’s old alias–John Smith–while filling out medical paperwork (which would more likely be filled out at a hospital–not on an ambulance). They arrive at the hospital, and the disoriented, terrified Doctor is taken into surgery as Lee, still feeling responsible, remains in the waiting room.
Note: Very bizarre that the sight of the TARDIS materializing right before their very eyes didn’t seem to faze the gang members at all. I don’t care how jaded or cynical they are, the sight of a mysterious, trans-dimensional blue box suddenly appearing out of nowhere would at least give them a moment’s pause, no matter the circumstances. It’s a very unnatural reaction.
Enjoying a live performance of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” with her stiff boyfriend, Dr. Grace Holloway (Daphne Ashbrook) is moved to tears from the music. Naturally, her pager beeps, and she scurries off to answer it, much to the irritation of her clearly dickish fiancé. Grace is a heart surgeon, and she is on call. Rushing to the hospital in a lavish, turquoise evening gown, she is quickly prepped for surgery on the Doctor. Demanding to see his x-rays, she is stunned at the sight of the Time Lord’s twin hearts! Assuming the x-ray to be a double-exposure, she has no time to order another set before she is rushed into surgery. The Doctor reacts very badly to the anesthetic–it’s poisonous to him–and he screams in horror as he’s cut open while still semi-conscious. He tries desperately to warn Grace that he is not human, and that her primitive attempts at surgery will kill him. Believing the Doctor to be little more than a hallucinating hobo, she does her best to calm him. A catheter probe into the Doctor’s chest reveals that he does, indeed, have a bi-pulmonary circulatory system–the multiple heartbeats she heard were not echoes. Unfortunately, the trauma of the surgery combined with the poisonous anesthetic kills the Doctor, and he flatlines. Grace is heartsick. With her surgical scrubs off, Grace is still wearing her ballgown from the opera as she goes to speak with Lee, assuming him to be kin. Lee cons Grace by pretending to be a distant relative, just before he grabs a paper bag of the Doctor’s personal effects–including the key to the TARDIS and his sonic screwdriver–and flees the hospital. Adding insult to injury, Grace’s fiancé has broken up with her as well, because… um, he feels her career as a heart surgeon isn’t as important as his damn opera tickets (??).
Note: Some effective body-horror moments as the helpless, vulnerable Doctor (more vulnerable than we’ve yet seen him to this point) wakes up screaming on the operating table as he is cut open (!). Sylvester McCoy really sells both the horror and helplessness of the Doctor’s predicament.
Later, after his toes are tagged, the Doctor’s body is taken to the morgue, as an attendant outside the room watches “The Bride of Frankenstein” on TV to kill the hours. Once again homaging the time-travel of James Cameron’s “Terminator” movies, arc of electricity spark around the Doctor’s corpse, as his face begins to face from Sylvester McCoy to Paul McGann. Waking up on a slab in the morgue, the Doctor takes a nearby white shroud to cover his naked, vulnerable self as Jesus-length locks fall around his new face. The image of the Doctor as Christ figure is a bit overdone, and we quickly get our answer to how an American-made Doctor Who regeneration would be handled–with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Screams of “It’s alive–alive!” come from the TV as the attendant is terrified to witness the reborn Doctor somehow smashing down the metal morgue door (in his allegedly weakened state…). The disoriented, amnesiac Time Lord has absolutely no idea who he is, or what he is doing there.
Note: Paul McGann plays the new 8th Doctor with a genuine vulnerability rarely seen in the other incarnations of the character. Even after he’s recovered from the trauma of his regeneration, his vulnerability in a hostile, greedy 20th century North America resonates throughout his being. His delivery is also softer and less over-the-top than previous incarnations of the character as well (looking at you, Colin Baker). In some ways, McGann’s Doctor reminds me a bit of Peter Davison’s incarnation. The 8th Doctor’s Jesus-length hair was–according to McGann–a very uncomfortable wig that he was forced to wear throughout shooting, as his own hair was deemed too short for this mellower version of the character. McGann’s eventual successor, Christopher Eccleston, would be famous for his Doctor’s Roman hairstyle.
The scene of the Doctor’s regeneration is intercut with the resurrection of his old foe, the Master. The gelatinous serpent has snuck a ride inside the jacket of paramedic Bruce, who is snoring loudly, much to the dismay of his still-awake wife (played by Eliza Roberts–real-life wife of Eric Roberts). Bruce’s snoring is halted as the Master’s unexplained tentacle-snake thing (?) pours down Bruce’s wide-open mouth, effectively killing him, and reanimating his corpse. As Eliza finally dozes off, the Master is reborn in Bruce’s carcass–however temporarily. Meat-puppet Bruce/Master’s eyes now have a bright green, diamond-pupil, serpentine gaze. The next morning, Eliza is mortified to realize that her snake-eyed husband has been possessed by an alien entity, and she is presumably killed offscreen…
Note: Once again, the Christlike resurrection of the Doctor in the morgue, complete with Jesus-locks and funeral shroud, is juxtaposed with the resurrection of “the Devil,” the Master, who slithers from his serpentine ooze into a human host–much as the Snake first corrupted Eve in the Garden of Eden. This Americanization of Doctor Who is not subtle at all in its imagery and allegory.
In a scene taken straight from “The Terminator, a black jacketed, sunglasses-wearing Master goes to the window of the hospital’s receptionist, who assumes he is still the paramedic, Bruce. Creating a story about transferring the old man to another hospital, he learns that the Doctor didn’t make it. The receptionist notices a fingernail seemingly rotting off of Bruce’s hand. Before she can say anything about the nail, ‘Bruce’ asks about “the Asian child” who was with the Doctor. The receptionist snorts, thinking he’s making a sick joke. She mentions the boy took off from the hospital with the old man’s personal effects last night. The Master then realizes Lee might be headed for the TARDIS with the Doctor’s stolen key…
Note: Eric Roberts plays the Master as a foppish Beelzebub with a Terminator makeover. I have to admit, his line delivery of “Yes … the Asian child” is disturbingly funny. While I wouldn’t say Roberts’ Master is one of the better interpretations of the character (Roger Delgado and Michelle Gomez tie for first in my book), it’s a very interesting take, all the same. Eric Roberts’ deliberate, effete American accent is rather fitting for an effete villain inhabiting a reanimated American corpse.
Meanwhile, the Doctor has made his way to the locker room of the hospital, where he rummages through the staff’s clothing, looking for some permanent clothing. Since many of the staffers are preparing for a big New Year’s Eve costume gala, he finds some very strange outfits–including a very long multicolored scarf (the 4th Doctor), and an 18th century Englishman’s garb that he finds more or less suitable. Unable to find shoes to cover his bare, toe-tagged feet, he eventually makes his way to an elevator where he runs into Grace, whom he recognizes as the woman who tried to save his life. That recognition elates him, and he presses her for information about himself. Thinking he’s insane, she rushes on to the parking lot, having just resigned from the hospital staff, after the administrator destroyed all evidence of the mysterious transient patient with two hearts. Later, in the parking garage, the Doctor stows aboard Grace’s SUV. Removing the remains of her catheter probe from his body, he manages to convince her that he is, somehow, the same man who died on her operating table the previous night. Grace, like so many companions before her, is about to enter a very strange new world…
Note: Kudos to Daphne Ashbrook, who embraces the Mary Tyler Moore-ish Grace with an American extroversion that fits nicely with this more introverted 8th Doctor. Had this TV-movie pilot gone to a new Doctor Who series, I could’ve easily imagined Doctor and doctor going on many adventures together. While the 8th Doctor’s adventures would eventually continue with the BBC-sanctioned Big Finish audio dramas, the character of Dr. Grace Holloway was not allowed to participate, due to a unique licensing glitch of this UK/US coproduction. While not technically the first MD to join the Doctor (UNIT physician Harry Sullivan), Grace was the first woman doctor to travel in the TARDIS (sorry once again, Martha Jones…).
Elsewhere in San Francisco, Lee makes his way back to the alley where he first saw the TARDIS. Of course, the blue alien police box is right where the Doctor left it. Rummaging through the bag of the Doctor’s personal items, he pulls out a sonic screwdriver (something the Doctor hadn’t used for several incarnations) and the TARDIS’ key–which he then uses to open the door. Once inside, he is awed by the cavernous, gothic interior of the Gallifreyan spacetime machine. Taking it all in, Lee is surprised to see “Bruce” the ambulance driver, who then tells the impressionable, materialistic young Lee that he is not Bruce. Eventually gaining the impressionable Lee’s trust, the Master unspools a series of lies about the Doctor–that he is a wanted fugitive who has lived as some of the most dastardly beings in history, including Genghis Khan (“No way!” “Yes, way”). Seducing Lee with bags of the Doctor’s gold dust, the Master tells him that the Doctor has stolen his body (and its remaining lifetimes), and that all he wants is the opportunity to reclaim what is rightfully his. The Master promises that Lee will be a well-rewarded partner on his quest, which will begin by opening the “Eye of Harmony”, which will allow the Master to swap bodies with the Doctor. The Eye is a Gallifreyan power source, which, if recklessly used, could destabilize the planet’s molecular structure. Since the Doctor is “half-human” (wut???), it takes a human retina scan to unlock the large, hemispherical aperture leading to the Eye–something the Master’s current snake eyes are unable to do. All-too human Lee is then forced to open the Eye, which immediately sends waves of rippling energy out into the world…
Note: The movie’s revelation about the Doctor being “half-human on his mother’s side” is, like many other new bits of continuity, dropped from nowhere. Nothing in the Doctor’s prior history ever suggested this, other than his unique fondness for Earth and its human inhabitants. It can be argued that this explains his affection for Earthlings, but that’s so literal. Later Doctor Who history would recant this revelation by simply never bringing it up again. In fact, the latest Doctor Who episodes featuring Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor have rewritten the Doctor’s mythology once again, making her a unique alien who first brought regenerative properties to the people of Gallifrey many centuries earlier–she is now the prototype for all the Time Lords of Gallifrey. Personally, I’ve always preferred the Doctor to be just a rogue Time Lord, nothing more grandiose than that. But the Doctor’s story is so malleable that I’m sure there’s a writer out there who might someday reconcile the current, non-Gallifreyan Doctor with the TV-movie’s half-human/half-Gallifreyan Doctor.
Back at Grace’s condo, Grace is aghast to learn that her former beau has not only left her, but he’s taken all of his possessions with him–including much of their shared furniture. Finding temporary sanctuary at Grace’s condo, the Doctor is able to slowly put together the puzzling pieces of his life. The Doctor listens as the opera-loving Grace soothes her frayed nerves by playing a CD of Puccini, whom the Doctor remembers knowing personally. Not sure whether her new guest is joking or delusional (or both), Grace humors him. Fitting the Doctor with a pair of her ex’s shoes for his bare feet, the Doctor then dashes outside as his true identity flashes back to him—he finally remembers that he is the Doctor! This revelation so elates him that he grabs Grace in an overjoyed kiss–which the recently heartbroken heart surgeon begs him to repeat. Their joy is short-lived as the Doctor notices reality around them is beginning to destabilize–and he realizes that the Master has somehow unlocked the Eye of Harmony–which also allows the Master to see through the Doctor’s eyes! Closing his eyes to shut him out, the Doctor begins to babble on about the end of the world. A nervous Grace begins to feel suckered. She then calls for an ambulance to have his admittedly unique, but clearly crazy man locked up. To further illustrate his point, the Doctor walks through her solid glass front door like so much fog, and she realizes she might be losing her mind as well. She then orders an ambulance for two.
Note: The scenes of Grace and the Doctor getting a little breathing room to work out the pieces of their shattered lives together are delightful; they remind me less of the innumerable James Cameron references everywhere else in this movie, and more like Nicholas Meyer’s whimsical “Time After Time”(1979). The Doctor’s joyous kissing of Grace also opens a door to future Doctors having less chaste relationships with future companions down the road.
The ambulance arrives and it is the Master, posing as meat-puppet paramedic Bruce, with Lee driving. Thanks to the Eye of Harmony, the Master was able to overhear Grace’s address during her call, and they responded accordingly. Picking up Grace and the Doctor, the Doctor begs Grace to take them to a dedication ceremony for the city’s new beryllium-powered atomic clock, which is supposed to go live at midnight, during the event’s New Year’s Eve costume gala. As a member of the board of trustees, Grace has admittance to the event, and the Doctor asks to arrive as her plus-one, hoping to steal the atomic clock’s beryllium to repair the TARDIS’ compromised power source. Before long, their ambulance is stuck in heavy traffic, and the Master lets his true nature slip–prompting a terrified Grace and the Doctor to flee on foot, but not before the Master can spit some acidic slime on Grace’s arm–which we later learn is used to remotely control his victims. The Doctor and Grace escape, stealing a highway patrolman’s motorcycle in order to arrive at the atomic clock costume gala before midnight. Lee, realizing they’re in an ambulance, puts on the siren and gives chase via the sidewalks and roadway shoulders (another James Cameron alert–the chase between the police motorcycle and the ambulance feels very “Terminator 2”-ish).
Note: In previous Doctor Who lore, we’ve seen the Master use hypnosis to control his subjects, but now he vomits a gelatinous slime onto people to control them (or presumably kill them?). This is yet another in a long string of previously unseen, non-canonical abilities introduced in this movie. Can all Time Lords do this, or is it only the Master? Why is the Master so different from other Time Lords? If the Doctor is half-human, could the Master be half-something else…? None of this is explored in any depth, so if you’re watching this movie seeking answers, you’re just outta luck. It is what it is, for better or worse.
Arriving at the clock dedication costume gala, the Doctor and Grace bluff their way through security, and manage to gain access to the atomic clock’s beryllium–with the Doctor dropping future fortune readings to random strangers (yet another previously unseen ability). Stealing the beryllium, the Doctor and Grace start on their way out–until they come upon a group of Master-slimed, zombified security guards, frozen in place. The party erupts into chaos as the Master-controlled security guards try to stop them. Beating a retreat, they jump back on the police motorcycle, and race back to the TARDIS. Another police motorcycle is in pursuit. Arriving well ahead of the pursuing CHiP, the Doctor tries to figure out admittance to his own TARDIS, since Lee has the key. Grace reminds him that sometimes people keep a spare key lying around their front door, which prompts the Doctor to remember that he leaves a spare right above the TARDIS’ door frame. Finding it, he then opens the TARDIS doors. Their pursuing police bike then arrives in the alleyway and roars straight into the open TARDIS—before quickly turning around and roaring right back out! With their pursuer not coming back, Grace and the Doctor enter, and she is amazed by the mix of gothic architecture and “low tech”; the Doctor laughably corrects her, noting that his Type 40 TARDIS is far beyond any science humans can yet understand. He gives her a shorthand about how to repair the TARDIS’ power source, and with the heart of the beryllium atomic clock they successfully close the Eye of Harmony. But then Grace’s eyes turn black, as she falls under the influence of the Master’s previous sliming! She then knocks the Doctor unconscious with the control staff to the Eye of Harmony…
Note: The motorcycle gag of driving in and then out of the open TARDIS reminds me of a scene in 2013’s “Day of the Doctor,” which saw Matt Smith’s 12th Doctor ride a motorcycle straight into the TARDIS’ open doors as well, not to mention up the side of a building with an “anti-grav” modification. Doctor 10 would also ride a really mean motor scooter in “The Idiot Lantern.” As a former motorcycle rider myself, I certainly don’t mind a bit of biking in my Doctor Who.
The Doctor awakens to find that he is chained above the Eye of Harmony with a “Clockwork Orange”-style ocular harness atop his head, which will force him to keep his half-human eyes open to reopen the Eye. The Master is now dressed in full Time Lord regalia, with the rich red robes, golden embellishments, and the customary high collars of Gallifreyan aristocracy. With Grace and Lee as his slaves, the Master intends to use the Eye to steal the Doctor’s body for his own–thus giving himself the Doctor’s remaining lifetimes. Making an impassioned plea to Lee, the Doctor is able to get through to the young gangster…
Lee then breaks free of the Master’s influence–refusing to aid in his opening the Eye. Despite his courage, Lee is murdered by the Master, who breaks the young man’s neck in a fall. Using Grace to open the Eye for him, the Master must first relinquish his hold on her–since her currently blackened corneas would be unable to open the human-coded Eye’s sensors. Unable to stop the Master, Grace is forced to reopen the Eye of Harmony, allowing the Master to slowly steal the Doctor’s life-force and, once again, cause the atomic structure of Earth to slowly destabilize.
As the process of life-force transference begins, and the Master is momentarily immobilized, Grace has just enough time to divert energy from the Eye of Harmony back into the dying TARDIS’ main power source. Remembering the shortcut lessons given to her by the Doctor earlier, the bright heart surgeon completes the repairs and the TARDIS roars back to life! She then runs back to the Eye of Harmony and frees the captive Doctor. In a rage, the Master kills Grace as well. Overcome with rage for his companions’ deaths, the now-freed Doctor attacks his arch-nemesis with a fury we’ve not yet seen between these two. During their fight, the Doctor tosses the Master directly into the Eye of Harmony and closes it…ending their centuries-long rivalry (for now, anyway…).
Note: They “Eye of Harmony” is also known in Who lore as “Rassilon’s Star” and the “Eye of Time” is the singularity at the very heart of all Gallifreyan Time Lord science and technology; every TARDIS is equipped with one, with access gained by the TARDIS’ owner (or owners–since TARDIS capsules were originally meant to be operated by a crew, not just a single Time Lord).
With the Master ‘dead’ (yeah, right) and the TARDIS’ power source fully restored, the Doctor decides to take the TARDIS back a single day in time–which releases glowing deus ex machina energy from the Eye of Harmony that magically restores Lee and Grace to life (we’ve seen worse plot contrivances in the series, old and new, so this didn’t bother me terribly much). As the two companions revive, the Doctor tells them it is December 30th once again. Grace and Lee both take a hard pass at the prospect of reliving the past two days, so the Doctor agrees to take them back to the start of the New Millennium celebrations instead–midnight of January 1st, 2000. The group exits the TARDIS as fireworks explode over San Francisco. As the Doctor and his newfound friends prepare to part company, the Doctor tells young gangster Lee to take particular care around next Christmas. Go on a vacation, leave town, just don’t be in San Francisco, he urges the young man. Lee, realizing the Doctor knows what’s in store for him, promises to heed the advice.
The Doctor and Dr. Holloway enjoy one last sweet kiss, as fireworks explode overhead. She refuses his offer to stay on as his companion, but promises they’ll see each other again. We then see the Doctor, again departing solo in the TARDIS. Once underway, the Doctor prepares a cuppa tea, reopens his copy of “The Time Machine” and settles into a comfy chair as “In a Dream” plays once again–then the gramophone begins to skip…
Note: We know the Master isn’t really dead, of course. But just how he escaped from the Eye of Harmony is any Whovian’s guess. With Paul McGann’s Doctor an official part of the Doctor Who legacy, some of the events in the TV-movie have been made canonical, while other parts have been ignored entirely, such as the Doctor’s half-human origin, or his ability to tell the futures of passing strangers, etc. Once again, there are enough authentic Doctor Who references scattered throughout the TV-movie to give it a genuine sense of legitimacy–which also makes the odd, ill-fitting new material all the more jarring. There’s the core of a good story in there, as well as some genuinely solid characters–it’s just a shame that a screenwriter with a stronger connection (or affection) with the lore of the series wasn’t allowed to have another pass at the script.
Summing It Up.
Despite making hash out of Doctor Who lore, as well as an over-reliance on American sci-fi/action movie tropes, there are some elements to this admittedly-mixed Doctor Who story that make it worthwhile. Paul McGann is perfectly cast as the disoriented, vulnerable Doctor; in some ways reminding me of the kindler, gentler Peter Davison. Eric Roberts’ Master is not exactly Roger Delgado, but he conveys an appropriately slimy villainy–his slicked back hair and sunglasses feeling very Terminator-ish. More successful is Daphne Ashbrook as the headstrong, idealistic, opera-loving physician Dr. Grace Holloway. She is genuine companion material. Yee Jee Tso as street gang member Chang Lee would’ve made for a nice enough recurring character as well, like Mickey Smith (aka “Mickey the Idiot”). There were other things the movie got right as well, such as the grandiose new TARDIS interior, which looks like an opulent gothic monastery with a retro-futuristic decor.
Despite his odd new habit of revealing futures to random strangers, McGann’s Doctor still feels very much a legitimate heir to the Doctor title. In fact, McGann would revisit the role in a successful run of Big Finish Doctor Who audio dramas (I’ve only listened to one of these, but he was terrific in it). McGann would also get a bit of onscreen closure during Doctor Who’s 50th Anniversary celebrations in 2013, with a starring role in a six-minute short called “Night of the Doctor,” which sees McGann’s Doctor regenerating into the “War Doctor” (the late John Hurt). I would’ve loved to have seen a full run of McGann’s Doctor–maybe two or three seasons. Fortunately, McGann’s Doctor has seen a lot more love in the days since his debut in the uneven 1996 TV-movie.
In many ways, the TV-Movie irons out some of the rough spots between the original series and its 2005-present revival, making for a smoother bridge between classic and modern Doctor Who. It’s arguable that without some of the TV movie’s missteps from which to gain experience, the stellar 2005 revival of Doctor Who might’ve had a slightly rougher landing. One of the TV-movie’s missteps is also part of its odd-duckling charm–the US/UK/Canadian film tries so very hard to please both British and North American audience tastes. As a result, the movie ends up being neither tea nor coffee, but an entirely new brew, all its own. That new flavor can be initially off-putting, but it can also (over time) become an acquired taste as well.
Meeting the Doctors–and the TARDIS itself.
For US-based fans of Doctor Who, the “Gallifrey One” convention in Los Angeles is a godsend. I first attended Gallifrey One in 2014, and have attended more or less every year since, save for 2021, when the COVID pandemic cancelled the event. In 2014, I was fortunate enough to meet two of the stars of 1996’s Doctor Who; Paul McGann and Daphne Ashbrook. McGann was a kindly, soft-spoken man, who seemed a bit surprised by the passionate following his Doctor has accrued through his two live action appearances and the Big Finish audio dramas.
During our meet-and-greet, McGann seemed genuinely humbled by some of the names in my autograph book, particularly fellow Gallifrey One attendee Jean Marsh (“Upstairs, Downstairs,” “The Twilight Zone”). I would meet the actor again in 2017, when I got the chance to introduce him to my friend Nick. The lovely Daphne Ashbrook was a memorable meet-and-greet as well; I remember her humorous anecdote about the annoyance of working on wires to simulate zero gravity for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s “Melora.” I bought her autographed CD (“Grace Notes”), and I can vouch–she has a wonderful singing voice. A few years later at the 2018 Gallifrey One, I would finally get the chance to meet Sylvester McCoy (a charming man). We didn’t get long to chat, but it was a pleasure to finally meet one of the most underrated Doctors, as well as the costar of “The Hobbit” movies.
Another attraction at the 2014 Gallifrey One convention was a chance to get up-close and personal with the original TARDIS control console used in the 1996 TV-movie! Designed by Richard Hudolin (2003’s “Battlestar Galactica”) and lovingly restored by current owner Paul J. Salamoff, along with fellow fans Brian Uiga and Robert Mitsch.
The rich, rosewood paneling on the steampunk-looking console looked nearly factory-fresh, 18 years later (at that time). The console’s deliberately clunky analog readouts were set to the Gallifreyan “Rassilon Era” for “Argolis,” and all the lights worked, including the neon-lit time rotor (aka ‘time column’). It was almost like seeing the original 1960 “The Time Machine” prop, and it capped off a great first time at the Los Angeles Gallifrey One convention.
Where To Watch.
While modern “Doctor Who” (2005-present) is available for streaming on both BBC’s i-Player in the UK and HBOMax in the US, the 1996 TV movie (always the unwanted stepchild) is only available for purchase from Amazon.com on BluRay/DVD (prices vary). To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current COVID pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are over 675,000 as of this writing and over 4.5 million deaths worldwide, so please wear masks and get vaccinated as soon as possible to prevent infections and protect your loved ones. Take care.
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Since this column was written last year, I’ve had the chance to meet and chat with Eric Roberts (“The Master”) and his wife Eliza, who played his girlfriend in the TV movie.
See my post on CreepIEcon 2022 for details: