Doctor Who (1996) by Paul Driscoll (and Doctor Who, the-book-of-the-movie, by Gary Russell)

I missed the broadcast of Doctor Who: The Movie (as we now call it) in 1996, because I was fighting an election campaign at the time. I ought to feel grateful to the 95.9% of voters who supported other candidates in the election and liberated me to follow my subsequent career; but for some reason I hold the 4.1% who did vote for me a little closer to my heart. I did not see it until ten and a half years later, when I wrote:

It really did take me until last night to get around to watching, for the first time, the 1996 Doctor Who TV movie. I think it looks fantastic. The inside of the Tardis, especially, but also the other scenes, hospital, party, city, the policeman riding his motorbike into the Tardis, the lot. The final scenes with the Master, the Doctor and the Eye of Harmony are impossible to look away from. I think it sounds good as well. The arrangement of the theme tune is the only one to take serious liberties with the original and get away with it. (Apart from the original 1963 version, the only good opening music for the TV series is the present one. Though the opening titles for the Tom Baker era are the best of the classic series.)

There is, of course huge violence to continuity which can only really be dealt with by assuming that the post-regeneration Doctor and body-transferring Master were deluded in their statements. There is really no way the Doctor can be half-human. We suspect that Gallifreyans and humans can mate (see Leela’s departure, and the follow-up in Lungbarrow), but the Doctor has made so many remarks over the years about his own separateness and difference from humanity that I must assume he doesn’t mean what his eighth incarnation says. Also the Eye of Harmony was on Gallifrey on the Tardis as far as I remember. (Though Wikipedia has some heroic retconning on this topic.) 

But in general I come down in favour. I think McGann, Ashbrook and Roberts are great. I also liked the links to continuity both forward and back – McCoy’s appearance for the first twenty minutes, McGann’s fondling a scarf as he decides what to wear; but also of course (a point that was new to me) the Doctor looking through Grace’s letterbox, a scene repeated by the Ninth Doctor and Rose in the very next episode (nine years later). Sure, the plot was just a bit threadbare, and the revival of the dead companions at the end a bit silly (if repeated for Captain Jack in The Parting of the Ways); and I can see why this did not lead to a revival of the series’ fortunes. But it is far from embarrassing.

When I came to it again at the very end of my 2009-2011 rewatch, I wrote:

And last but not quite least, forward another three years to The TV Movie. It actually has a lot of good points – the repeated motif of eyes, a lot of the business of the Doctor explaining himself to himself as well as to the rest of the world, the comedy moments mixed with SFnal horror. Daphne Ashbrook is channelling all of the female Classic Who companions, with added snogging (and in fairness a much more complicated love life than most companions arrive with); Eric Roberts is I think rather good with the somewhat two-dimensional character he is given, though of course it’s difficult for Old Who fans to accept a Master without either a beard or poached-egg eyes. The script tears big holes in continuity about the Doctor’s genetic heritage and the location of the Eye of Harmony, but I think it does make sense in its own terms (apart from the reset button that allows the dead companions to be resurrected); however, it just doesn’t lead on to great things in the way that An Unearthly Child did thirty-three years before.

Knowing what we do now about Who since 2005, The TV Movie feels like a dead end in continuity, though I was surprised by the number of elements have been first properly seen here and carried through to New Who – including some of the musical themes, which are very close to some of Murray Gold’s work. But of course that is the narrow TV viewer’s perspective; the Eighth Doctor continuity goes on in comics, books and audios, in three separate streams, all rooted in these 85 minutes of movie.

McGann, once he has regained his memory and before he gets tied up, is a rather good Doctor; he combines a wizardly young fogey with a bit of an air of surprise and almost annoyance that the world is not quite as he would wish it to be. He is at his best with Daphne Ashbrook, and fans of McGann’s audio performances will remember that the high points there tend to come with interaction with India Fisher’s Charley Pollard and Sheridan Smith’s Lucie Miller. Whereas the more alien Doctors of Old Who were alien because they were hiding their nature from us, the Eighth Doctor doesn’t even fully know himself. It would have been nice to have had more of him.

Watching it again, it annoyed me a bit more. The pacing is generally off, and it’s difficult to imagine how this could have developed into a successful TV series (as indeed it didn’t). All power to McGann, however, a very nice chap in real life.

The second paragraph of The-Book-Of-The-Movie, by Gary Russell, is:

For Dr Grace Holloway, still dressed in her now crumpled ballgown, it began drearily. She woke up and heaved her face up off her desk and tried to massage some life into her right cheek. It had taken the full weight of her sleeping head all night, and she imagined that someone could jab a needle right through it and she would still not feel a thing.

When I first read it in 2007, I wrote:

This was the novel of the TV movie, written by Gary Russell (two of whose other Who novels I have read; I liked one of them). Not really a lot to say about this; he has stuck fairly closely to the script, padding out the introduction a bit more, wisely not expanding on the Doctor’s demi-humanity. I see that I found the visuals and the acting particularly attractive in the broadcast version of the story, and inevitably those get lost in the transfer to the printed page. But it’s basically OK.

Actually I liked it a bit more this time around, perhaps because I re-read it so close to re-watching the original version of the story. A lot of the incidental characters are given significantly more back-story. The Doctor himself comes over as a bit more of an enigma, which was possibly wise. I’ve also read enough Who spinoff fiction now to realise that Russell is among the best of the writers in the stable. You can get it here.

Paul Driscoll’s monograph on The Movie is one of the longest so far in the Black Archive series, featuring an introduction by Matthew Jacobs and a long interview with him as an appendix. Jacobs loves it.

I am compelled and intrigued by patterns Paul can see that were never intended, and delighted by the patterns he has seen that so few people have ever spotted that were absolutely intended. / Intended or not, his observations are always valid and entertaining. This is without doubt the most thorough and complete analysis of the TV movie I have ever read – and there have been quite a few. If I had any idea what I was writing in 1995-6 was going to be analysed this deeply, I might never have started!

The introductory chapter, “Anxious Voices in the Wilderness”, frames the TV movie in the context of the times, not just the hiatus in Doctor Who production but the uncertain international situation.

The second chapter, “He’s Back, But It’s About How”, looks at the extent to which the TV movie does (and doesn’t) rely on Doctor Who continuity,

The third chapter, “Coming to America: Refining the Britishness of Doctor Who”, looks in depth at the extent to which the Doctor’s Britishness, and the show’s British roots, shaped the story. The BBC were much more involved in the scripting process than I had realised. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

As the most extreme example of the two cultures combining in Doctor Who, The Movie sheds much light on how Britishness is defined and mediated through the programme, as well as the effects of globalisation and Americanisation on the character of the show. Yet despite the movie’s explicit privileging of Britishness, Danny Nicol’s 2018 dissertation on Britishness in Doctor Who as a whole lacks any notable references to the production or story2. One possible explanation for this odd omission is that Nicol excludes from his study any elements of British culture that he considers to be non-political, such as the emotional restraint conveyed by the term ‘stiff British upper lip’3. The Movie prioritises the personal over the social. Structural or societal evils such as repressive governments or greedy multinational corporations, so often the focus of the Doctor’s ire, are entirely absent from the story. However, by Nicol’s own admission, ‘Britishness’ as a term is intrinsically political and the lack of political and social engagement in the script of The Movie is in itself a political act. Besides which, as we shall argue, the Britishness of the Doctor in the movie runs far deeper than his English accent and fondness for tea.
2 Nicol, Danny, Doctor Who: A British Alien? (2018).
3 Nicol, A British Alien, p31.

The fourth chapter, “Who Am I? Reimagining the Doctor for a New Audience” looks at the McGann Doctor’s literary roots in Frankenstein, Christ, superheroes including Batman, the Beast of Beauty and the Beast, Byronic heroes, Wild Bill Hickock and the operas Turandot and Madame Butterfly.

The fifth chapter, “The Doctor’s Nemesis”, looks not only at the Roberts Master but at the character before and since in terms of various villainous literary archetypes.

The sixth chapter, “How Well Do These Shoes Really Fit?”, looks at the continuities and discontinuities between The Movie and both old and new televised Who, starting with a strong comparison of the plot with that of The Deadly Assassin.

An appendix looks at audience reception of the movie as revealed from an online survey, and another appendix, as mentioned previously, interviews the writer Matthew Jacobs.

It’s a book that focuses very much on the script rather than on the production (except where the latter affected the former), but I still enjoyed it a lot. You can get it here.

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | The Face of Evil (27) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | Full Circle (15)
5th Doctor: Black Orchid (8)
6th Doctor: The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25)
Other Doctor: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) | Love & Monsters (28) | Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (29) | The God Complex (9)
12th Doctor: Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)