Retro Review: Doctor Who – The TV Movie

"I love humans. Always seeing patterns in things that aren't there."

Synopsis: The newly regenerated Doctor takes on the Master on the turn of the millennium, 31 December 1999. The Doctor, an alien time traveller from the planet Gallifrey, is transporting the remains of his nemesis, the Master, back to their homeworld. However, the Master is not as dead as the Doctor thinks…

 

Story:

This film had its strong points and its weak points. The story is driven by a perfectly serviceable idea (the universe will be destroyed if the Eye of Harmony is left open for too long) but this is not set up early enough for it to make sense in the broader context of the film. The TV Movie had the difficult task of setting up who the Doctor is and what he can do, who the Master is, time travel and the TARDIS, as well as telling a story of good vs evil all in 90 minutes. I felt that a lot of the scenes served no purpose ie Grace being at the opera, the scenes with her and her manager and the celebration of the atomic clock scene all could have been a lot tighter and conveyed the information they were supposed to convey better. Against this, I thought that Grace (Daphne Ashbrook) was well written and that the script did a great job of showing her strength of character and independence of mind. I enjoyed the way the 8th Doctor (Paul McGann) seemed to know things about the futures of the people he met which I think deserves to be explored if not at least referenced in the TV series. Regrettably I thought that Chang Lee’s (Yee Jee Tso) rationale for agreeing to help the Master (Eric Roberts) was extremely flimsy given that the Master had threatened Lee’s life in their first meeting. It would have made more sense in my view for Lee to have been controlled on some level by the Master which was not made clear at all. There were some really nice creepy moments like when the snake form of the Master possessed Bruce and when Grace fell under the Master’s control at the film’s climax. I found the Master’s ability to spit venom which immobilised/possessed its victims intriguing. I think it must be said though that the constant jumping from viewpoint to viewpoint of the different characters really took me out of the film and made it difficult to watch. What might have been better, and what the new series of Doctor Who has mostly got right, would have been for us to see the story through one character’s eyes instead of several. It also seemed a bit of a contrived coincidence that 8 and Grace found out about the part the Doctor needed for the TARDIS on a news programme they happened to be watching, although this goes back to the threat of the Eye of Harmony not being established soon enough at the start. I have to say that I intensely disliked the scene where Grace and the hospital doctors were operating on the 7th Doctor (Sylvester McCoy). 7 was made to look a fool in his final moments and the scene was hardly a fitting farewell to one of the best Classic series Doctors. The motorbike chase felt distinctly un-Doctory, although the scene where the 8th Doctor and Grace steal the motorbike was clearly a strong influence on the scene between the 11th Doctor (Matt Smith) and Amy (Karen Gillan) in The Eleventh Hour when Amy traps the Doctor’s tie in a car door. I found the scene where the Doctor first kisses Grace after recovering his memory really awkward to watch. I felt like it would have been better if the kiss they shared at the end of the film against the backdrop of New Year’s fireworks would have been sweeter and a better payoff if that had been their first. I enjoyed Grace being the one to save the day and I thought the build up of tension (with a literal countdown to the millennium/destruction) was excellently done.

 

Acting:

This film belonged to Paul McGann. He displayed instant charisma from the first moment he sat up after regenerating. I really loved his whispering of the line “Who am I?” though I felt the shout of “WHO AM I?” immediately after was overblown. McGann displays his range in the scene with Grace at the hospital, going from worried and desperate to angry and afraid. It must be said that without McGann’s gravitas and acting ability the scene where he walks through Grace’s window and declares the planet will be turned inside out by midnight, as well as the penultimate scene where he pleads with Lee to stop helping the Master, would have fallen flat. He also gives a wide eyed innocence to the Doctor that we would not see again until David Tennant or arguably Matt Smith took the role. McGann also gets some nice Doctory exposition about time travel at the celebration scene as well as the sly yet somehow friendly hints about the personal futures of the people he meets. McGann also sells the final battle with the Master for all that it’s worth. Daphne Ashbrook is a very watchable companion/foil to the 8th Doctor, and I personally would have liked to have them have more episodes together. I felt like Yee Jee Tso’s attempt to make Chang Lee an everyman character didn’t quite work, though the actor did a good job of showing Lee’s heel face turn at the end of the film. Eric Roberts cut an imposing and charismatic figure as the Master though he was far from McGann’s equal in terms of acting ability. The scene where the Master enters in full Time Lord regalia came off as silly even though it was supposed to be dramatic, and Roberts did not give a convincing enough performance in the Master’s first scene with Lee to make it believable that they would join forces. Sylvester McCoy played the role of the 7th Doctor well enough, though the writing of his final scene as that character let him down as I have said.

 

Incidental Music:

The incidental music was absolutely phenomenal all the way through. The score for the TV Movie went from epic to subtle to romantic to creepy to shocking in a way that almost eclipses Murray Gold’s work for the new series. Of particular note is “Night Walk” the track that is played during the Doctor and Grace’s romantic moments. Also brilliant was the epic yet subtle score used when 8 and Grace escape from the celebration. It felt like the composer John Debney really understands that Doctor Who encompasses all of these emotions and moments, from the grandiose and universal to the intimate and everyday and that utterly came across in every note of the incidental music. The idea that we were witnessing potentially the end of everything that ever was or is at the film’s climax was put across superbly by the score, as was the gentle discovery of the Doctor’s two hearts by Grace in her home.

 

CGI:

The CGI was good for its time (1996). The snake creature was well realised and genuinely scary when it first entered Bruce’s body. I also really loved the scene where a police motorbike drove headlong into the TARDIS, drove around and then came back out again. I thought this was cleverly done and I would like to see more things like that done in the TV series. The CGI of the entire console room ceiling becoming the viewscreen was wonderful to see. The FX of the TARDIS landing for the first time gave the time machine’s appearance an epicness that I don’t think the new series has ever managed to. The Doctor’s regeneration from McCoy to McGann could have been better but served its purpose. The TARDIS console room we see in this film still remains my favourite console room of all time.

 

Overall:

This was a valiant attempt to reintroduce Doctor Who to an international audience. Some things in it worked while others fell flat. The TV Movie was the first episode of Doctor Who I watched so for that reason it will always have a special place in my heart. It’s easy to see where the new series has been influenced by this film. Many fans will always wonder at what could have happened if Paul McGann had had a televised series of adventures and while that probably won’t happen now Doctor Who: The TV Movie remains a clunky yet charming moment in Who history.

7.3
  • Story
    5.5
  • Acting
    7.0
  • Incidental Music
    10
  • CGI
    6.5

I'm a writer on the autistic spectrum who loves sci-fi, cosplay and poetry. I'm also an actor with Theatre of the Senses.
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