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…
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.
Wait, I remember! I’m with my father, we’re lying back in the grass, it’s a warm Gallifreyan night…
Gallifrey. Yes, this must be where I live. Now, where is that?
I’ve never heard of it. What do you remember?
A meteor storm. The sky above us was dancing with lights. Purple, green, brilliant yellow. Yes!
These shoes! They fit perfectly!The Eighth Doctor and Grace Holloway
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 Master
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
Cast: Paul McGann (Eighth Doctor), Daphne Ashbrook (Grace Holloway), Yee Jee Tso (Chang Lee), Eric Roberts (Bruce/The Master), Sylvester McCoy (Seventh Doctor – credited as The Old 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)
Writer: Matthew Jacobs
Director: Geoffrey Sax
Broadcast Dates: 14 May 1996 (USA), 27 May 1996 (UK).
Behind the Scenes
- American television producer and fan Philip Segal spent a lot of time attempting to get the rights to make an American version of Doctor Who, eventually getting approval in 1994. There were various delays to production and Fox eventually took over.
- The BBC appointed a producer, Jo Wright to look after their interests in the production. Among their input to production, they emphasised that they wished for Tom Baker to reprise the role as the Doctor and being reluctant to bring Sylvester McCoy back for a regeneration scene as his Doctor was inherently linked the show’s demise in the eyes of the BBC. They also vetoed bringing back Sophie Aldred as Ace, something both Segal and McCoy were keen on.
- Despite strong viewing figures in the UK, the TV Movie struggled in the US as it went up opposite Roseanne and Fox ultimately did not option a series. McGann would return to the role for Big Finish in 2001, and would later get the chance to film a regeneration scene in 2013 as part of the build-up to The Day of the Doctor.
- Jon Pertwee died a few days after the US broadcast of the TV Movie. The UK broadcast version carried a dedication to the actor who played the Third Doctor.
- Actors who auditioned for the part of the Doctor included Rowan Atkinson (who played the Doctor in the Comic Relief parody The Curse of Fatal Death), Paul McGann’s brother Mark, Anthony Head (School Reunion), John Sessions (Mummy on the Orient Express) and Tim McInnery (Planet of the Ood).
- Both Christopher Eccleston and Peter Capaldi were invited to audition for the part of the Doctor, however, both declined the opportunity. Both actors would play incarnations of the Doctor in the revived series.
- Due to Fox owning the rights to the original characters (most notably Grace and Chang Lee), these characters have not been able to be used by Big Finish. Both Daphne Ashbrook and Yee Jee Tso have played alternate roles for audio plays.
- Daphne Ashbrook appeared in The Next Life as Perfection, as well as playing Captain Ruth Matheson in The Screaming Skull and Companion Chronicles Tales from the Vault, Mastermind and The Tactics of Defeat.
- Yee Jee Tso appeared in Real Time as Doctor Reece Goddard, Excelis Decays as Major Jai Brant and as Warrant Officer Charlie Sato in Tales from the Vault and Mastermind.
Either the shoes scene, or the regeneration sequence.
I love humans. Always seeing patterns in things that aren’t there.The Eighth Doctor