The Case for…The TV Movie

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Guest writer Adam James Cuthbert makes the case for the 1996 Doctor Who TV movie. Is really that bad?

The TV Movie is a curiosity within the fandom. It had been six years since the show had last been broadcast, and by that time Doctor Who had spawned a legacy of novels continuing the adventures of the Seventh Doctor and Ace. The show had become an institution for new writers to develop their talents, sharing their love for a show they recalled from childhood, including Russell T Davies, Mark Gatiss, and Paul Cornell. Generations of children grew up in these ‘Wilderness Years’.

So it was a surprise when the BBC announced a pilot episode for a proposed new series of Doctor Who would be broadcast on the 27th May 1996. It would be a continuation of the classic series. Sylvester McCoy would reprise his role of the Seventh Doctor for the regeneration into the new Doctor, Paul McGann (Withnail & I, The Rainbow).

The TV Movie is not my first episode of Doctor Who. Like many others, it all began for me in 2005. I was introduced to the broader history of the show by a friend in high school who asked me where I started. I told him and he haughtily remarked that his first episode was the aforementioned TV Movie at the age of five.

To this day, I am intrigued by this period of Doctor Who perhaps more than any other. When the pilot episode failed to get the ratings for an American-produced spin-off series hosted by FOX, the BBC turned to their novel range, launching the Eighth Doctor Adventures (EDAs) with Terrance Dicks’ “The Eight Doctors”. Concurrently, the comic strips in Doctor Who Magazine changed to portray the Eighth Doctor from his appearance in the TV Movie.

One thing that strikes me is how little we grasp the personality of the Eighth Doctor in the TV Movie. He is a blank canvas. We have only a sense of his boyish enthusiasm, eccentricity, profound wisdom and knowledge. He is not a full-rounded character. But that is no fault on Paul McGann’s part. Stepping into someone else’s shoes – quite literally – is a difficult task.

The characterisation of the Eighth Doctor was left to be developed in the parallel novel and comic strip ranges. This was followed by the Big Finish audio dramas beginning in 2001. Imperceptibly, the character of the Eighth Doctor was filled in: a darker, passionate, all-too-human portrayal of the Doctor was reflected in the twisted, convoluted narratives unravelling in the novels. The comic strips hewed closer to Paul McGann’s performance in the TV Movie. They embodied the crucial understanding of change that comes intrinsically with the show and the role of the Doctor. They exploited the liberty of the comic medium to convey panoramic alien worlds in exotic colours, not affected by the budgetary constraints of studio drama. This was an imaginative time for Doctor Who that flourished in the genius and creativity of authors Lawrence Miles, Lance Parkin, Trevor Baxendale, and Scott Gray, amongst others.

Matthew Jacobs’ movie script is solid, even if the dialogue is at times uninspired, but it is always tight, coherent, and brims with enthusiasm and excitement at the opportunity to write for a regeneration of the show – on an unprecedented scale of accomplishment. Unfortunately, he finds himself tying up continuity and often gets it wrong.

While Grace Holloway (played by the charming Daphne Ashbrook) is an interesting character with clear, relatable dreams and goals, much has to be said for the Doctor and the Master. Eric Roberts is entertaining, but the camp value and the stock evilness of the character injure an understated performance. He has none of the debonair eloquence or dimension of Peter Pratt, Geoffrey Beevers, or even John Simm in hindsight. The Master is an aristocratic figure in many respects: beneath the veneer of sophistication and fierce intelligence lies a tormented creature of darkness and despair. The parallel regenerations of the Doctor and the Master do not hint where other stories have that “in many ways [they] share the same mind”.

The Doctor is painfully enshrouded by Christ-like imagery: he is accompanied in his regeneration by a white shroud, and later wears a crown of thorns as he faces his apparent death. I am still confused as to why they would be such a dilapidated, derelict room in a professional hospital. Do shattered mirrors and broken pipes flowing with water habitually occupy hospital wings? It is overdramatic. However, it can be seen as another reflection of the show’s status at the time: its fate hinges on the pilot’s success.

Finally, Geoffrey Sax (Christopher and His Kind) directs with undervalued flair. The rotating camera shot as the Doctor wanders the abandoned hospital corridors in subdued amber-tinted lights, or the POV shot simulating the Master-morphant as it slithers across the room, are just a couple of examples of the stylistic – and unique – use of visual techniques. The atmosphere is cinematic. The production is glossy yet never feels meretricious.

Ultimately, the TV Movie stands on its own. It represents a time of historical change for the show, a time for rebirth yet remains true to its quintessentially British (and studio-bound) origins. It beautifully embodies the show’s regenerative qualities, and has only improved with age.