|(Doctor Who Story No. 160, starring Paul McGann
and Sylvester McCoy)
DVD Extras now include:
It was with some surprise that the opening "Doctor Who" logo returned to a slightly shinier version of the one from the early Jon Pertwee years.... and because of that the entire line of classic Doctor Who DVD's now sports this logo as well. Weird, but not an entirely objectionable choice. Doctor Who fans have become accustomed to some of the fanciest special-effects-laden single-continuous-shot title sequences on television, and this movie continued the tradition very nicely.
The TARDIS interior is so different in this film, it's almost unrecognizable, and many interior shots went by before I realized where the Doctor was supposed to be at the beginning of the story. It's the iconic hexagonal console that sparks recognition, arguably the best part of this new design. The rest of the "console room" is all a bit too big, too dark, and too similar to a living room for my tastes. A lot of what we see here belongs elsewhere in the maze of rooms and corridors that the TARDIS should have, with white walls and yellow roundels as the common element tying everything together. Of course you'll hire keen new designers eager to leave their mark on the show - so give them alien cities, distant planets, and foreign spaceships that they can go to town on, while leaving the established aesthetic as is. As for the scanner screen, you can't beat a full sized wall screen with the picture keyed in, as we had in seasons 14 through 25... although what we get here is probably more an imitation of the computer monitors built directly into the most recent previous consoles. But laptops and TV's hanging from the ceiling really should be outlawed in TARDIS console rooms, no matter what they're trying to show.
The Original McCoyThe film's biggest claim to legitimacy in the Doctor Who canon is probably the fact that it heavily features Sylvester McCoy's already-established Doctor during the opening act. I must admit that this more than anything else got me immediately on side with the film when I first saw it. McCoy seems to have had more time and more takes to create his performance here, and as a result seems a bit more polished than usual. Is it true that McCoy only agreed to do this movie if his role was of a decent length? It does feel as though a role designed for five minutes was artificially stretched out to about 20, with McCoy's Doctor spending far too much time unconscious and/or helpless. It's the "Man of Sleep" problem all over again. If only the script could have given him some decently worthwhile things to do while he was on screen....
Voiceover narration from Paul McGann during McCoy's segments is actually a good thing, particularly had the plan for this movie as a "backdoor pilot" worked out. New fans getting hooked on a McGann series could then come back to this pilot, and hear their familiar Doctor in the first person identifying himself with the McCoy version of the character. Nice.
Neighbouring DimensionsWith the story being set in San Francisco, yet shot in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, it begins to share a similar feel and production style as some of the Fox Network's other 1990's sci-fi shows, namely "Sliders" and "The X-Files", while borrowing some of their recurring guest stars. Michael David Simms can often be seen amongst panels of government officials that Mulder and Scully have to report to, while here he seems keen to create another conspiracy of silence at Grace's hospital. You'll have to be a little more sharp-eyed to spot John Novak behind the surgical mask he is hidden behind during most of his performance, while he plays the surgeon that calls in heart specialist Grace and works closely with her to try to save the seventh Doctor. Novak plays lawyer Ross J. Kelley on "Sliders", appearing in its pilot episode and its season two opener "Into the Mystic". More deserving of a credit in the opening sequence is actor William Sasso, who is also on hand here receiving a better portion of the camera's focus and injecting considerable humour into this movie with his creative comic timing, as he often did as recurring hotel receptionist Gomez Calhoun across a variety of worlds on seasons one and two of "Sliders". Sasso did a hilarious turn in "Je Souhaite" late in the seventh season of "The X-Files", and more recently recreated the performance of Curly Howard in a remake of "The Three Stooges". Here, Sasso has the distinction of playing the last character to encounter the seventh Doctor, as well as the first to encounter the eighth, and he has a good amount of fun with the opportunity.
Most prominent of all in this film is Yee Jee Tso, who also plays the character of "Wing" in "Sliders - The Pilot Episode" and "Fever". Despite his character's questionable background here, Yee Jee Tso quickly makes Lee a character that you easily want to root for, and one whose role and final fate is not so easy to predict as the story unfolds. I do, however, think it was a bit of an oversight to have Lee become so concerned about the Doctor's welfare in their first scene, without also having him being equally concerned about both of his other two friends first.
The TARDIS's first materialization is also unnecessarily confusing, with the camera angle and some brand new unnecessary extra special effects making it look as though Lee is getting "time-rammed". When a similar thing happened in "The Keeper of Traken" (story no. 115), it was seen to be fatal, and quite painful. A different angle is called for here, to show that the TARDIS is landing safely in front of Lee, protecting him instead of killing him, after which the audience can go with the triumphant, holy mood that the music induces here.
The Master perhaps does deserve more scrutiny than he gets, largely because there aren't any characters here who are on the ball enough to notice and explore what he has been through. The greenish, reptilian (feline?) look to his eyes suggests that maybe he never did get over what was happening to him in the previous story, "Survival" (story no. 159). Most importantly of all, what is it that enables him to become such a capable snake-like animated blob of gelatin that can easily take over a human body, but yet needs to go to unbelievable lengths to take over a fellow Gallifreyan? Does any of this have to do with the "lingering powers of the Keepership" that helped him claim his previous, slightly unnatural incarnation? Too bad none of this was properly explored. This second quarter of the film in particular really does seem to be trying too hard to recreate a kind of "unholy rebirth trauma" that the filmmakers have seen in other gothic films, with the sequence of McGann's Doctor wandering through some dilapidated and inexplicably half-destroyed section of the morgue/hospital, intercut with bits of the Master, being a prime example of this wasted effort and energy. As I've said for first stories for most other Doctors, it always seems to be a big mistake to spend time on "regeneration trauma", and is always a much better idea to get your new Doctor up and running and doing the explorer/investigator/hero beats that define this show, as this is what will sell him and his show to the new audiences one might hope to pick up with each new Doctor. Paul McGann's movie is one more adventure in the canon that didn't get it quickly enough.
When all is said and done though, the actual scene of regeneration itself is good, and is another highlight of the story.
"Who Am I?"The first challenge for McGann's Doctor appears to be amnesia, which I actually thought had the potential to be a really good device to allow him to be the primary explorer discovering the nuts and bolts of his character, his heritage, and his vehicle... ideally while taking his first walk back into his TARDIS and going through all of the objects he normally carries around in his pockets. But rather idiotically we get nothing of the sort. The amnesia beats continue to delay us getting to McGann's Doctor getting on the ball and tackling the main issues of the adventure, while giving us nothing of value.... and then all the things that the amnesia made him forget are suddenly downloaded onto the audience in an undramatic babbling rush of dialogue which we could have had much earlier. Amnesia turns out to be an idea that was completely wasted in this script.
Meanwhile, Lee is given the job of discovering the TARDIS and the Doctor's pocket objects, and initiating new audiences along with him. Of course, he has no one to talk to about these things, until the Master inexplicably appears in the TARDIS and starts feeding a lot of misinformation to new viewers unobstructed. Ugghh! So far from ideal. At least there is some humorous entertainment value in the exchanges here, but it's likely that only the devoted viewers will get it, while new ones are simply confused. How did the Master get in here anyway? If he used the spare key above the "P", why would he put it back? Too much is at stake inside the TARDIS in this adventure for it to make any sense for the Doctor to start keeping a spare key up there.
Speaking of the Doctor's personal belongings, the sonic screwdriver is back for the first time since "The Visitation" (story no. 120), and remains welcome due to its use remaining subtle and logical. Nice. This is the way it should appear in the program, although I admit that I had forgotten that it was in this movie.
Third Quarter SuccessIt really is only the third quarter of this film that successfully recreates the atmosphere of adventure that Doctor Who succeeded with in its previous 26 years on television, and gives our protagonists proper challenges to tackle. It is here that our Doctor and companion Grace form a duo and work together to accomplish a goal in the location in which they find themselves, while the Master actually begins to work as an antagonistic force trying to defeat them, and they get to interact with a few guest characters. The goal itself is still quite hokey - stealing a piece of an atomic clock to repair the TARDIS, but at least this dovetails nicely into the whole focus on the countdown to the New Millennium.
Daphne Ashbrook's character of Dr. Grace works well enough as companions go, but probably won't rise too high on any fan's list of favourites from just her first outing here, and it's not likely she'll get a chance at a second outing anymore either. She seems to be most akin to Nicola Bryant's Peri, in terms of the frequency and style with which she gets distracted and flustered, in addition to having a scientific background. Of course, American pronunciation of staple Doctor Who terms heightens this comparison as well. Even though the hand she had in finishing off the seventh Doctor doesn't help make her endearing, I'd still sooner watch continuing adventures with her, with or without romantic involvement, than with the upcoming companion Rose.
And it seemed it was a big controversial thing at the time when the Doctor had a scene where he kissed his companion, as a great number of loyal fans wanted to stay attached to the impression that this was not something that an alien like him would do. Get over it. The man's had a granddaughter already; it's not like this kind of thing hasn't been implied before. My reaction was much like Sir Ian Chesterton's when he found out the Doctor had "accidentally" got engaged back in "The Aztecs" (story no. 6). In other words, just chuckle, wink, and say "Congratulations, you old slyboots!"
I'm not too impressed with the dynamics of the gun play between the Doctor, Grace, and the policeman standing beside his motorcycle. This scene changes its mind too often regarding what it is really about, and the Doctor is usually much better at rising above the use of guns altogether.
I will admit that I liked the idea of the Doctor being half-human, another tidbit of information that was actually new for this story. This very neatly explains why he is so different in his character and motivations from just about every other Gallifreyan we've ever seen, and also why he ends up involved in more adventures on Earth than anywhere else. Although the continuing show may have decided to ignore this bit, in my mind, it's still true - and may yet come in useful should he need to regenerate more than twelve times....
Eric Roberts has his hands full trying to make his own version of the Master work. As written, his dialogue seems well suited for the elegance and charm of Anthony Ainley's version of the character, or even Roger Delgado's, yet the production team end up giving him more of an Arnold Schwarzenegger / Terminator look, and when this is combined with the American blue-collar background of his paramedic alter-ego Bruce, it's just not the Master as we fans would want to see him again. An even more bizarre question is WHY the production team would try to bring the Master back for this adventure without properly contracting a new actor into the role long-term, or just re-using Anthony Ainley again. If you only intend to use Roberts as a one-off performer for this movie, invent a new one-off villain to challenge the Doctor for Roberts to play, and let him make the role his own.
Here the Master is without his own TARDIS, often one of the highlights of his involvement in a story, and he truly doesn't get defined in this tale in ways that would match up with his previous appearances. Neither does he get defined in new ways that make much sense to the long-term fan who already knows him. What we really have here is a brand new enemy, with brand new abilities and limitations, and he deserves his own name. That established, Eric Roberts does a good job playing said villain, giving him some good nuances, and a lot of moments of both humour and creepiness, and managing to form a believable partnership with Lee.
The Eye of RedundancyThen the rug gets pulled out from under us yet again, and we witness our new Doctor playing nearly the entire last quarter of the adventure from one of the most physically confining versions of the prisoner dynamic that we've ever seen, without even the ability for him to charm us with facial expressions or gestures. Who came up with this bone-headed idea for a concluding act? Most of the concluding moves end up going to Grace, while the Doctor is a helpless ninny. He does manage to get in the very last, final fix, but it's quite a minor bit of tidying up after all that Grace has had to manage.
The final act is also where the script is at its most nonsensical with respect to both actual science and previously established Doctor Who lore. First, there is the Eye of Harmony, which was defined as a black hole at the center of the Doctor's home planet Gallifrey back in "The Deadly Assassin" (story no. 88). What the hell is it now doing at the center of the Doctor's TARDIS? Does that now mean that every other traveling Time Lord has one at the center of his or her TARDIS? And what sense does it make for the Gallifreyans to design the thing such that it responds to human beings and not themselves?
On another level, you have to wonder why the writer would choose to put this gothic "villain's lair" for the final confrontation with its threatening device of destruction in the center of the Doctor's own regular vehicle. The "villain's lair" staple of action/adventure stories deserves to be out in the world somewhere, or at the very least at the center of the Master's TARDIS, otherwise it's baggage that the hero will be lugging around with him for the rest of the projected new series, not to mention retroactively buggering up 26 years of prior continuity. In short, from its purpose to its look, this device REALLY doesn't belong in the TARDIS. This is probably the story's most fundamental flaw, trying to create a central conflict solely out of old Doctor Who lore and old devices, threatening to make the show disappear into its own tailpipe.
With regard to time, atomic clocks and all, the story messes with a lot of other nonsense that most people won't be able to make any sense of. Does "temporal orbit" make any sense to anyone? It looks like the writer is trying to turn the TARDIS into the "rewind machine" commonly fantasized about in American science-fiction circles, which is not how it operates.... but even more bizarre is the assertion that moving the exterior real-world interface back to a previous moment in time will somehow rewind the events in the interior of the TARDIS, which is in its own dimension. Then again, perhaps there is some kind of precedent for this demonstrated in the last episode of "Mawdryn Undead" (story no. 126), which at least added a bit of extra technobabble to make that occurrence more credible. The version here is all done with an excess of cinematic, climactic energy, but little thought. Ultimately, I don't think the audience is pulled along with these ideas, since this conclusion is making up its own pseudo-science and conventions and mechanisms at the last minute, doing whatever it pleases. With all members of the audience, new or old, not really knowing what magical options are possible or not for these characters in this film, the struggle becomes quite ill-defined, and it's hard to feel any cleverness rising from the solutions.
And the final moments and situation of the Doctor/Master conflict really do echo those of "The Deadly Assassin" much too closely, without having as convincing a setting to support them. The Doctor's offer of lending the Master a hand doesn't seem at all serious either. With the Master ready to grab on to anything and everything at that point, the Doctor conveniently keeps his hand out of reach, looking like a frightened, hypocritical wimp.
It does remain an interesting spectacle of what might have been, sporting the unique production values that it does. If anything is to be learned in terms of writing for this show though, I think the movie emphasizes how important it is to base new adventures on new subject matter, instead of disappearing into the lore that's been done before just to get it all wrong and irritate your current fan base, while confusing new audiences to no end.
The Complete Sylvester McCoy Era Story Rankings:(partly just to have something to be able to compare McGann's one adventure to...)
This story is now more widely available on DVD:
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