FEATURE FRIDAY: Doctor Who (1996)

Suffering from TARDIS-related withdrawal symptoms? Already yearning for the 50th Anniversary Special? Well Jen and Becky have decided to do what they can to help by devoting the entire bank holiday weekend to Doctor Who. First up, Becky's look back at the 1996 TV movie, starring Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor.

Please note, this post will contain spoilers for The Name of the Doctor and also some speculation as a result of this episode. You have been warned!

The first attempt at reviving Doctor Who since its series run ended in 1989, the 1996 version of Doctor Who, starring Paul McGann as the titular Time Lord, was TV movie designed to lead the way into a new, American-produced series. First of all, thank heavens that didn't happen. Second of all, it also isn't wholly terrible and does actually provide a good connecting point in between Classic Who and the current iteration we all know, love and continually shout at. Also, with the ending of The Name of the Doctor sparking all kinds of theories, we've got a feeling here at Assorted Buffery Towers, that Paul McGann's Doctor may somehow be important to the inclusion of Mr Hurt.

Opening with a rather ominous narration from incumbent Doctor McGann, we find out that The Master, rogue Time Lord and general bad 'un, has been tried by the Daleks on Skaro and executed, his remains to be escorted back to Gallifrey by the Doctor. Never a good move that and naturally things go awry and the TARDIS crash lands in San Francisco in 1999 in the middle of a gang war. The Master's liquid snake form escapes the TARDIS and the Doctor is shot and taken to a nearby hospital. 

Of course a man with two hearts does not go unnoticed and his apparent death on the surgery table leads to Dr Grace Holloway (Daphne Ashbrook) asking some awkward questions. One delayed regeneration later, an amnesiac Doctor, now in the form of McGann and in some natty Victorian threads, teams up with a bemused Grace to work out who he is. This startling realisation of his identity returns to him as The Master, now in the form of Eric Roberts, has opened the Eye of Harmony, the power centre of the TARDIS, which spells potential disaster for life, the universe and everything.

Like the most recent iterations of Who, it is action-packed from start to finish and though it begins a relatively calm manner, the narrative soon escalates in to the fast-paced adventure so common in the newer episodes. However, tonally it is all over the place, possibly as a result of its mixed heritage status as an American production of a British property. The shift into a noir style science fiction show in contrast to the quirkiness and whimsy that characterises Who jars and none more so than in between scenes. The quieter ones tend to reflect the eccentricities of the Doctor - his shoes comment with Grace made me giggle - but this doesn't segue well into scenes involving the Action Doctor (no, not the Scott Pilgrim one). 

As a result, the various supporting cast members struggle to hit the right notes depending on what tone the scene is aiming for. Roberts in particular struggles where to pitch his version of The Master, going from T-1000 to Ming the Merciless in just a few short scenes (check out the threads). It doesn't help that John Simm's Master has proved to be an excellent incarnation of the Doctor's nemesis, one who understood the mania and darkness in the character much better. Whereas Simm offered a grim reflection up to the Eleventh Doctor, Roberts chomps through TARDIS scenery and wears funny contact lenses. Menacing isn't the word I'd use to describe him.

Ashbrook's Grace fares a little better, approaching the Doctor with some refreshing cynicism rather than the wide-eyed adoring acceptance that tends to characterise the newer companions. The exchanges between her and McGann strike the right tone throughout the film and provide a solid heart at the centre of it. Not that their relationship was without controversy with the much-discussed kissing that takes place between the two of them. Now with the Doctor locking lips with seemingly every companion bar Rory, it doesn't seem so outlandish, but it must be remembered that prior to this, it was something the Doctor simply didn't do. The new, sexualised tone of Doctor Who began here and arguably, has been a little detrimental to the Doctor's relationship with his companions.

And so we get to McGann. This is his only televised appearance as the Gallifreyan wanderer though he has starred in many fantastic radio productions as the Eighth Doctor. He is the real highlight of this TV movie and though I'm thankful this never did go to a series, it is a shame that we haven't seen more of him on screen. He captures the eccentricities, the humour and the more serious aspects of the Doctor well and copes admirably with the tonal shifts that at times required him to be both Action Doctor and quiet intellectual. He is also granted a good arc over the episode and the amnesiac Doctor idea proves to be a really good device that not only gives existing fans something to root for, but allowing new viewers to get in on the action too. It strips the Doctor of the things that define him (the TARDIS, the sonic screwdriver - thankfully not used as a fix-everything device) and we can watch him claw it back.

The pairing of McGann and Roberts symbolises pretty much everything slightly off about this production; the clash of the old with the new. Just look at the picture on the right to see the marked contrast between the two of them; Roberts looks like he's just walked off the set of a cool 90s action film whilst McGann's wandered in from a quaint British period drama. I know its probably meant to highlight the differences between the two characters, but it never quite works, especially as the Master is supposed to be a darker version of the Doctor. Referring back to John Simm, he was always seen in a suit, like his Tenth Doctor counterpart, David Tennant. It highlighted the parallel and their relationship worked better as a result. Like the two actors, it doesn't seem to be working from the same script, never quite sure whether to produce something dark and edgy, or embrace the quirky and the light-hearted whimsy.

However, whilst McGann performs admirably amidst the production, writer Matthew Jacobs take a few liberties with the source material and offers some interesting and nerdbaiting continuity shifts. The Eye of Harmony, for instance, is supposed to be on Gallifrey (as established in The Deadly Assassin episode in 1976) and not in the heart of the TARDIS. This has since been reworked into the mythos of the current show via the novelisations and fan speculation, but still sticks out a bit like a Sontaran at a peace conference. It also notably cameoed in this year's Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS. Nevertheless, it still demonstrates a certain cavalier attitude to the material that permeates the film, but it is nothing compared to the one that crops up just a few minutes later.

I am, of course, referring to the moment in which The Master reveals that the Doctor is in fact... half human. Now it has been a few years since I last viewed this particular instalment of Doctor Who (I've become much more enthused about it as a show since then) and I had somehow completely managed to erase this particular bit from memory. Because it is stupid. Very stupid. In fact, it is so stupid that it caused me to accidentally choke on the coffee I happened to be drinking at the time in the realisation of how stupid it was. As you can probably tell, I wasn't impressed.

This is primarily because, aside from a plot contrivance, there was little reason for this to actually happen in the episode. Essentially, this entire re-writing of the character exists so that the finale can have two humans in peril in it and are both given something to do, even though the presence of the Master ensures they're in peril and they could have been given something else to do. Could you imagine a revelation like that happening in current Doctor Who? The wrath of Whovians would be so fierce, internet wouldn't be a safe place to go for weeks.

It also smacks of an attempt to make the Doctor more palatable to new audiences; he's half human, so we can totally relate to him now! Except that isn't really the point is it? We love the Doctor precisely because he isn't human, because he possess all of these quirks, this intelligence, this unabashed love of what he does, tinged with the darkness of the responsibility that comes with it. He offers a portal for us as an audience to view humanity in a different light; he is a lens through which we see ourselves . To add this half-human aspect into his character simply doesn't make any sense and takes you right out of the ensuing drama. And that, primarily is the reason that I thanked the heavens that this show didn't get picked up for a series right at the beginning of this post.

It's a good thing because it means we would probably never have got the new run of Who and, flawed and infuriating though it may be, it is also compulsive viewing with a reverence for that which came before. In some ways, this Doctor Who possesses that as well; there are a lot of little affectionate nods to old incarnations, but not interminably so (like say, Star Into Darkness - no I'm not over it yet). My personal favourite is the repeated appearance of jelly babies and McGann's small grin whenever he took out the sweetie bag. It's a neat way of tying in the Eighth Doctor to the wider history of the show.

Speaking of which, I mentioned at the beginning that this article that there would be a little bit of speculation to finish it off. Now, we know from the closing scenes of the last episode that John Hurt is playing the Doctor and the Eleventh Doctor outright states that he is viewing a version of himself but one that did something so heinous he had to renounce the name of Doctor. Now, we all know that there is one Big Bad Thing that the Doctor did, occurring in between McGann's Doctor and Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor; The Time War. Reportedly his only solution, the Doctor committed a near genocidal act that destroyed both the Daleks and the Time Lords. Now, crucially, we never actually saw McGann regenerate into Eccleston. Could this be the loophole through which Moffat has enthusiastically leaped for the 50th Anniversary Special? McGann has also been remarkably cagey about whether he is returning...

Now Den of Geek have produced this excellent rundown of several theories and include some really rather wonderful spoof Introducing John Hurt pictures. They and their commenters know far more about this than I do and I found their article fascinating. The above paragraph is simply my rather simplistic view of where John Hurt is going to fit in, but they've got various theories going on. It's a great read. 

But, returning to the matter in hand, I enjoyed my trip back in time to this particular incarnation of Who and it does form an excellent midpoint between the two major Who generations. Yes the continuity is a little off and it is tonally as scattered as the Cyberman guarding the Pandorica, but it is a lot of fun whilst its on. McGann proves to be the real highlight and I do hope that he gets to return to the TARDIS on screen at least one more time.

- Becky

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