Friday, November 22, 2013

Retroactive Review: The 1996 Made for TV Doctor Who Movie (Starring Paul McGann as the 8th Doctor)


With the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special fast approaching, (Saturday at 2:50!) Whovian pandemonium and nostalgia is at an all time high, with the BBC and Moffat feeding the flames of fandom with short mini episodes being released online, teasing the two hour long special. Most notable of these thus far has been “The Night of the Doctor,” which was released last week to much acclaim and excitement. “Spoilers,” as River would say: the episode featured the return of the oft neglected Eighth Doctor, portrayed by Paul McGann, and his subsequent death and choice to regenerate as John Hurt’s “War Doctor.” This came as a great surprise to most of the Whovian community, as McGann had stated previously that he was not involved in the Anniversary proceedings, and more importantly, he has not appeared on film as the Doctor since his one-off made for TV movie in 1996 (though he has played the Eighth Doctor in numerous audio recordings and other mediums over the years.) This was due to the much maligned response the film has garnered over the years, and the fact that the movie was not successful enough to jumpstart the series again after its debut, as it was supposed to.

Given the regenerated attention McGann’s Doctor has recently received, with some even demanding more material staring the Eighth incarnation, I thought it would be an appropriate time to revisit his tenure as the Doctor by watching and reviewing, albeit around a decade or two delinquent, the 1996 Doctor Who movie. More spoilers abound, which may be preferable to watching the whole sordid tale.

The film starts off well enough, with a familiar theme and intro, followed by a bit of exposition by McGann, setting the stage for the story, telling us about the death of the Doctor’s nemesis, the Master. He states that Timelords are given 13 regenerations and that the Master had used all of his, with the last one being taken away after a trial for his crimes on Skaro, where subsequently, the Doctor is charged to transport his remains to Gallifrey. We first find the Doctor in his Seventh form, famously portrayed by a surprisingly well aged Sylvester McCoy. He places the Master’s remains in a small chest and locks it with his sonic screwdriver, which marks the only time it’s used in the whole movie. He then turns to relaxing in an easy chair whilst simultaneously listening to a record, reading H.G. Wells’s “The Time Machine,” drinking tea, and eating jelly babies. It is from this point on that things begin to go awry, not just for the Doctor, but for the film in general. The Master’s “soul” or “essence,” if you will, breaks out of the seemingly ceramic chest that encases it, slithering out in the form of a slimy, translucent snake. The serpent then attacks the main console of the TARDIS, sending it careening out of control to land on Earth, in a San Franciscan back alley.

It is strongly emphasized throughout the movie that the Doctor lands on earth and has his subsequent adventures on December 31st, 1999; because, despite the insistence of Buzzfeed and other such sites that the 90s were a blissfully perfect time that warrants constant devotion to dreamlike reminiscence and nostalgia for the time, (granted it was pretty fun) the truth remains that 90s plots were often where originality went to die and where established characters became unrecognizable. We were obsessed with the upcoming new Millennium and the potential doom that we assumed came with it, (no wonder this generation thinks the world’s going to end every couple months) and we wanted all our characters to be edgy, futuristic, violent, and cool. Thus, for a time, we ended up with an electric blue Superman, an armored Batman that kills, “Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd  Century” complete with cyborg Watson, and everything, including the Blues Brothers, labeled with the prefix or suffix 2000. This mentality seemed strongest in the United States, and shines through clearly throughout the film, beginning with the Doctor’s first steps upon the soil of Earth/America. Apparently, the TARDIS landed in the middle of an Asian gang war, or more appropriately, an attempted execution, (we are never given proper context) as it lands between a group of gang members’ machine gun bullets and young ne’er do well, Chang Lee. Despite the sound of bullets raining down on the door of the TARDIS, the Doctor decides to simply walk out the front and lock the door behind him. At this point, he is riddled with bullets, and drops cartoonishly to the ground to begin a slow, painful death, thus marking an undeservedly ignoble and undignified end for Sylvester McCoy and the Seventh Doctor.

Time appears to be in flux, as the plot moves unnaturally slow over the next couple minutes as we are introduced to Dr. Grace Holloway, the Doctor’s companion/make out buddy for this adventure, and hospital worker Pete, portrayed by a young Will Sasso, who chews the scenery and hams it up bigger than he did in “The Three Stooges.” Dr. Holloway, (who could be considered the first “Doctor’s Doctor” prior to Martha) attempts to save the Doctor from dying in surgery, but fails due to the Doctor having two hearts.

As the Seventh Doctor, (who’s labeled as John Smith, which was a nice little touch) lies on a cold hard slab, he begins to regenerate, which starts with a blue light on Sylvester McCoy’s face as he does his best “funny faces to make babies laugh” bit, and grows into a mild quickening that’s paralleled with footage of the birth of Frankenstein’s Monster in a black and white film Will Sasso’s watching in the other room, culminating with a delirious Doctor, fresh out the regeneration oven, denting and breaking down a steel door (because apparently he has super strength now) before wandering around a stormy hospital looking like an escaped mental patient, until he comes upon a room filled with broken mirrors, where he catches his shattered reflection and shudders at the sight, before screaming to the heavens with pain and conviction “Who am I?”

With the exception of Will Sasso’s inane inclusion in the scene, I found this overall to be the best part of the film. In all incarnations prior to this, when a Doctor regenerated, he would instantly seem to know who he was and what he was like, without any issue. Later, with David Tennant and Matt Smith as Ten and Eleven respectively, we see an inkling of what it’s like to regenerate/be born again into essentially a new person, with Ten pondering, upon his rebirth, about what kind of man he’s regenerated into (he eventually deduces “lucky.”)  Eleven then demonstrates what it’s like to be in a new body by showcasing a sense of childlike whimsy and wonderment, and the joy of everything being fresh and new with his recently acquired body, whether it’s the hair on his head or the way food tastes. In comparison, Eight’s transformation emphasized the “Who?” in Doctor Who, as he personified the experience of being born again; that sense of fear and confusion, of not knowing who or what you were, which paralleled perfectly with the Frankenstein allusions that coincided with the scene. What ultimately made the scene work was how passionate and raw McGann performed it. The way he shouted “Who am I?” although clearly commentary on his character’s current state of amnesia, also seemed to evoke a greater meaning, as if he was asking the universe what his role in it was and why he even existed; questions many can relate to.


Sadly, things generally deteriorate rather quickly from this point on. We have a nice scene directly after the regeneration, as the Doctor acquires his new outfit, and goes through some of his old belongings, such as his old scarf, yo-yo, jelly babies, etc. but that’s pretty much it. Snake spirit Master enters the body of Eric Roberts, and begins dressing like a cross between Dr. Strange and Ming the Merciless as he tries to then take over the Doctor’s body using the TARDIS’s “Eye of Harmony,” whose full use would make Earth implode. It goes on like this in a clich├ęd action movie manner, with motorcycle racing, sneaking into a fancy gala to steal technology, and the generic doomsday device that’s easily defeated (in this instance, Dr. Grace Holloway hot wire’s the TARDIS to make it start, thus stopping the machine.)

All in all, I must concur with the notion that this movie is overall pretty terrible, (There is little to practically no travel through space and/or time, and did I mention the Doctor is apparently half human, and that his TARDIS interior looks like a gothic castle/church combo?) and I would not recommend people sitting down to watch the whole thing. However, the regeneration scene was pretty great, and although he’s not given much to work with, Paul McGann does a bang up job as the Eighth Doctor, and his work at the very least deserves to be seen in some small capacity, such as watching clips of the movie online. This movie certainly didn’t wow me by any means, however, it did convince me that Paul McGann was given a raw deal with the script for this movie, and certainly deserves another chance to be the fantastic Doctor we know he could be; thus I’m aligning myself with the others who clamor for more filmed content of him as Eight. Whether it be full length episodes or more mini-episodes posted online, I’d now be one of the first in line to see anything with him as the Doctor (with the exception of this movie.)