Writer: Matthew Jacobs
Director: Geoffrey Sax
Cast: Paul McGann (Eighth Doctor), Daphne Ashbrook (Grace Holloway), Yee Jee Tso (Chang Lee), Eric Roberts (Bruce/The Master), Sylvester McCoy (Seventh Doctor), John Novak (Salinger), Michael David Simms (Dr. Swift), Catherine Lough (Wheeler), Dolores Drake (Curtis), Will Sasso (Pete), Jeremy Radick (Gareth), Eliza Roberts (Miranda), Gordon Tipple (The Old Master)
Reaching the end of his Seventh incarnation, the Doctor is charged with returning the remains of the Master to Gallifrey. However, the Master is not dead and causes a timing malfunction in the Doctor’s TARDIS, bringing the action to San Francisco in 1999. The Seventh Doctor is shot by a street gant and regenerates after his biology confuses his surgeon, Grace Holloway, while the Master takes over another body. Recruiting Chang Lee to his side, the Master aims to get control over the Doctor’s body by using the Eye of Harmony. Meanwhile, the new Doctor needs to find a beryllium atomic clock to aid him to stop the Master…
It is perhaps surprising that an American TV company would have wanted to take a chance on Doctor Who in the years post-cancellation in 1989. However, American TV producer Philip Segal was so keen that he spent a considerable amount of time trying to get the BBC to agree to an American version, finally getting approval in 1994.
The production was held up by various other factors, with the TV movie eventually being picked up by Fox, with the BBC having appointed a producer, Jo Wright, to look after their interests. Wright would have various input in the project, at one point expressing a preference for Tom Baker to return as the Doctor, and also putting forward the notion that if Sylvester McCoy returned, he should not speak in the episode, as McCoy’s tenure was still firmly associated with the show’s decline in the BBC. Additionally, the BBC also vetoed the idea of bringing back Ace as the Seventh Doctor’s companion, something Segal was apparently keen on.
Actors who auditioned for the role of the Eighth Doctor included Rowan Atkinson, Paul McGann’s brother, Mark, Tim McInnery, Anthony Head and Liam Cunningham, and Peter Capaldi was invited to audition, but declined as he did not feel that he would get the part. I’m sure I’ve also heard that Christopher Eccleston was also invited to audition, but also declined. Paul McGann, best known at the time for his roles in The Monocled Mutineer and Withnail and I was cast as the Doctor, with Sylvester McCoy returning for the transition. This was apparently due to McCoy wishing to pass over the role properly to his successor.
Despite strong viewing figures in the UK, it struggled in the US, going up against Roseanne. Fox decided not to take up the option of a series, and so McGann’s run would be limited to just one screen outing. In 2001, he returned to the part for Big Finish productions, and has continued to play the part to the present day, fleshing out the adventures of the Eighth Doctor. In 2013, McGann finally got to film his regeneration in the online and red button extra, The Night of the Doctor being released ahead of The Day of the Doctor.
Seen through a modern lens, the TV Movie is actually not as terrible as received fan wisdom would tell us. Amongst other things, it has a fantastic production value, some great central performances and looks familiar as being Doctor Who to an audience who have been brought up on the modern era of the show. On the other side, it does have Eric Roberts as the Master, and some fairly big plot holes. A massive talking point at the time was that the Doctor kissed his companion – something that doesn’t seem so much of a big deal today, as the Doctor has now been seen to have over 20 on-screen kisses, and I believe that the first companion not to kiss the Doctor since McGann is the recently departed Bill Potts.
On to one of the strongest parts of the episode: Paul McGann as the Doctor. McGann is a fantastic choice to play the Time Lord, and nothing encapsulates this better than the infamous shoes scene. He immediately commands any scene he appears in, which makes it understandable why some fans want McGann to return on screen. Really, the fact that the story gives him short of an hour of screen time is nothing short of baffling – perhaps it was overconfidence that the series would be a success and a series would follow to show the best of the young actor. I am all in favour of continuity and the fact that Sylvester McCoy returns at the beginning is great, but it does feel with hindsight that it detracts a bit from McGann. I like the ordinary nature of the Seventh Doctor’s death though, as I enjoy the irony of a man who was always a couple of steps ahead of his adversaries being struck down by a stray bullet due to not checking the TARDIS scanner. The regeneration scene, intercut with scenes from 1931’s Frankenstein, is also fantastic, although the “WHO AM I?!?” scene is a bit over the top.
The Doctor: Wait, I remember! I’m with my father, we’re lying back in the grass, it’s a warm Gallifreyan night…
The Doctor: Gallifrey. Yes, this must be where I live. Now, where is that?
Grace: I’ve never heard of it. What do you remember?
The Doctor: A meteor storm. The sky above us was dancing with lights. Purple, green, brilliant yellow. Yes!
The Doctor: These shoes! They fit perfectly!
The other strength of the episode is the performance of Daphne Ashbrook as Grace. She is recognisable to a present day audience as more similar to the modern series companions, such as Rose and Martha. She is a very strong character, and the two main actors have such superb chemistry together that it allows you to overlook some of the story’s deficiencies.
Speaking of the deficiencies, we come onto Eric Roberts’ performance as the Master. This is a much-maligned performance in fan circles, when, in reality, the majority of his performance could be seen as quite menacing, especially when compared to John Simm’s performance in The End of Time. However, the last act, when he is in the Time Lord robes in the Eye of Harmony chamber, he starts chewing the scenery. There are scenes where he is great though, like when the Master has just taken over Bruce’s body, or when he’s at the hospital asking about what’s happened to the Doctor’s body. I don’t think the costume he wears for the majority is terrible, but he does just look like a Terminator rip-off. It’ll be intriguing to see what Big Finish do with this incarnation of the Master when he appears in The Diaries of River Song Volume 5.
I always dress for the occasion.
The biggest issue I have with the TV Movie are the plot holes in the story. For instance, it bugs me that it is never explained how the Master gets into the TARDIS. I appreciate that the production was troubled, and the eventual production was extremely rushed – they were supposed to have a 30 day shoot, but this was cut down to 25 days to save money – and there were various scripts floating around. To be honest, we should be grateful we got the story we did, as earlier drafts involved a more family affair, with the Master and the Doctor revealed to be half-brothers, and the story around Ulysses, the Doctor’s father and Borussa being the Doctor’s grandfather. Looking at it, the half-human line suddenly doesn’t seem so bad…
Oh, and that TARDIS set is gorgeous. Absolutely gorgeous.
Verdict: A good fun but flawed romp, recognisable to fans of the modern series. McGann is the strongest part of the story, and it is a shame not to see more of him on screen. 7/10
Best Quote: The Doctor: I love humans. Always seeing patterns in things that aren’t there.
Best Moment: Either the shoes scene, or the regeneration sequence.