Classic Doctor Who: The TV Movie at 25
Mark Harrison | On 30, May 2021
Offering more than 600 Classic Doctor Who episodes broadcast between 1963 and 1996, BritBox and BBC iPlayer’s The Whoniverse are bigger on the inside. If you’ve watched all of the new series already, then why not join us as we turn on the TARDIS randomiser for a monthly primer on the adventures of the first eight Doctors…
In more than a year of doing this column about the first eight Doctors, we’ve not checked in on the Eighth Doctor that often. That’s partly because there’s really only one full-length screen adventure starring Paul McGann as the Doctor but also because that 1996 TV Movie occupies a strange space in the hinterland between 20th and 21st-century Doctor Who.
Arriving more or less slap-bang in the middle of the wilderness years between the “hiatus” that started in 1989 and the beginning of New Who in 2005, this feature-length pilot for a US-backed revival didn’t actually lead to a new series. Nevertheless, like it or loathe it, Doctor Who: The Movie provides a fascinating glimpse of what might have been if the show had come back in the 1990s.
We covered the first six Doctors’ regeneration stories in last month’s column, and this is another one. While on a mission to take the Master’s remains back to Gallifrey, the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) is fatally waylaid after an emergency TARDIS landing in San Francisco. Despite the well-intentioned efforts of cardiologist Dr Grace Holloway, (Daphne Ashbrook) he regenerates into his eighth incarnation (McGann) and has to contend with the resurrected Master (Eric Roberts) trying to destroy the Earth on New Year’s Eve 1999.
First shown on US and UK TV this month 25 years ago, The Movie is on BritBox, and although we’ve never bothered to collectively agree on a better title for it than that (“The Enemy Within” is often floated as an unofficial name) it’s absolutely part of the Doctor Who TV canon. But looking back now, how does it shake things up and how does it point the way forward?
As always, this is a spoiler-lite column, but if you haven’t got around to watching The Movie and want to go in completely cold, you’ll get the most out of this by watching it first and then coming back to read the rest of the review…
“I love humans. They always see patterns in things that aren’t there.”
As a backdoor pilot that didn’t get picked up, The Movie could easily have been written off as a one-off or a non-canon diversion like Peter Cushing’s Dalek movies, except it’s designed as a direct continuation because it brings back McCoy as the Doctor of record. McGann would not be afforded this same courtesy at the start of the 2005 series, which landed with Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor saying “Run!”
It’s one of the things that works both for and against The Movie, in that it’s a lovely tip of the Panama hat for fans, but it pushes out new viewers, who instantly have to swallow a lot of exposition about the Time Lords, Gallifrey and the 12-regeneration rule. By contrast, the new series never even acknowledged pre-Eccleston Doctors (including McGann) until Season 3’s Human Nature.
All else aside, taking half an hour to introduce your leading man is just a tad counter-intuitive, but McGann is a heck of a leading man once he arrives. Like his Withnail And I co-star, he would have been a regular on casting wishlists for a potential revival before he was cast, and with less time to sell the audience on him than any other lead in the series’ history, he utterly nails it.
Dressed up in a Wild Bill Hickok fancy-dress costume, his Eighth Doctor is funny, dashing, scatter-brained, and smart, but also a romantic figure in a way that the series proper never fully embraced until the likes of David Tennant and Matt Smith came along. More than anything else in The Movie, McGann is the reason you would look at this version of Doctor Who and think it was ready for series.
“I finally meet the right guy, and he’s from another planet.”
With its relatively standalone status, The Movie gives the Doctor a couple of standalone companions – Grace and Chinese-American gang member Chang Lee (Yee Jee Tso). When Grace meets the Doctor, it’s one of the worst days of her life, being dragged away from a date at the opera to embarrassingly botch a life-saving operation because the patient has two hearts.
The wait for McGann to emerge gives a little more room to develop Grace and the implosion of her personal and professional life around this “John Doe” patient, in a way that the classic series seldom did but the new series has almost always put first. In making a Doctor Who for the 1990s, this picks up where the BBC left off with Ace in giving us a companion who sticks up for themselves, something that the series arguably lost sight of earlier on in the 1980s.
Ashbrook’s portrayal pre-figures companions like Donna Noble (especially by the end of this one) and Martha Jones, who have their own lives to be getting on with but are compelled to go along with this mad bloke who’s turned their lives upside down – the exchange she and Eight have about being motivated by “childish dreams” is a real highlight. She also gets a jump on the new series companions by snogging him.
Lee is very much the secondary companion, who starts out trying to save the Seventh Doctor but then unwittingly spends much of the running time as the Master’s companion instead, but Tso makes a likeable tearaway, even if both he and Ashbrook are somewhat overshadowed by the central foe-mance.
“I always dress for the occasion.”
Roberts’ performance as the Master is a funny one, because it’s both reverent to his predecessors and a bit revealing of how the classic series looks in hindsight. Like Anthony Ainley’s incarnation, this Master is clinging on to life, but like Ainley, Roberts revels in the camp inscrutability of the character too. We were more than a decade from John Simm’s version of the character of this point, but we can only imagine the drums were so loud in this Master’s head that he started behaving more oddly than usual.
After possessing human ambulance driver Bruce, the Master trades his usual beard and black suit for Terminator-style sunglasses and leather, which speaks to the movie villain influence on this version. Early on, the Doctor’s regeneration takes place next to Will Sasso’s mortuary attendant watching 1931’s Frankenstein, but it’s the Master who’s most monster-like here, with his bestial eyes and abnormal strength.
At times, it’s as if he’s portrayed as something of a monster-man to make up for the lack of traditional aliens, but all the same, the Master has travelled the least distance from his last TV appearance. He’s as unreliable as ever, though, which is how some fans get around one of the more controversial changes to the series mythology – if the Master tells Lee something here, it’s probably bollocks.
In a story with a lot to do, it’s definitely simpler to use the Master (he’s like our guy, but bad) than the other top-tier Who baddy, but it doesn’t stop The Movie having a pre-titles reference to the Daleks, who are wrong-voiced and entirely off-screen. Both McGann and Roberts have subsequently faced the Daleks in audio plays produced by Big Finish instead.
A race against time
Whatever your thoughts on how it all panned out, The Movie is a labour of love through and through. Even though it starts with McCoy’s Doctor, it’s suffused with the older trappings of the Doctor like jelly babies and a Hundred-Year Diary, while outwardly trying to explain all of this to new viewers with all the enthusiasm of a die-hard fan. It flattens both in the process, but it brings enough new stuff in to round it out again.
In the end, this one-off doesn’t just stand between the old and new testament Who, but between the two stakeholders as well, and you might excuse missteps like the extended prologue or the thrilling yet incomprehensible climax as a result of the combined network notes of the BBC or Fox. The Movie was warmly received by reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic, but its scheduling opposite Roseanne, then one of the most popular sitcoms on US TV, unsurprisingly put paid to any chance of a continuation.
It’s for the best that this didn’t lead to a full US-backed series, given how good Doctor Who was when it eventually came back to BBC One, but that said, there’s no practical reason why this couldn’t have been a springboard to a series of some kind in the late 1990s. It’s got a great Doctor, decent production design (that Gothic TARDIS console room!) and its brand of fannish reverence goes without being self-serious or gritty, as so many sci-fi reboots can be.
Still, it does go to show that the series can work again after lying dormant for the first half of the 1990s. Even without its numerous charms, it’s a landmark as a reminder to some fans that canon isn’t everything or, to put it another way, Doctor Who is in the eye of the beholder, not the Eye of Harmony.
More Eighth Doctor stories available to stream
We don’t normally go in for audio on-demand on VODzilla.co, but for McGann’s 25th anniversary as the Doctor, we’ll use this section to go over some of the Eighth Doctor’s other adventures in Big Finish audio plays, which are available to buy from their website or currently available on Spotify to stream for free with ads, or ad-free with a £9.99 monthly subscription.
In the debut Eighth Doctor audio adventure, an airship on its maiden voyage is threatened by winged monsters that live in the time vortex. On board, the Doctor and Charley Pollard are stowaways, but they’re also the only chance the other passengers and the galaxy have of survival. The next story, Sword Of Orion, is also a good one, featuring the Cybermen…
The Chimes Of Midnight
In this forerunner to the New Series Christmas specials, the Eighth Doctor and Charley arrive at an Edwardian home where one of the residents is murdered every time the grandfather clock strikes. With a great ensemble cast and quotable scripts from new series writer Robert Shearman, this is one of the highlights of the Big Finish range.
Blood Of The Daleks Part 1 and Part 2
Sheridan Smith plays Lucie Miller, a young woman from the North of England who is placed in the Doctor’s care by the Time Lords. On their first adventure, they land on the imperilled human colony world of Red Rocket Rising, where a supposed rescue ship turns out to be a Dalek fleet. McGann and Smith are terrific together and this is the story to start with if you’re looking for something in the style of the post-2005 series rather than Classic Who.