The Untitled 1996 Paul McGann
TV Movie

DVD NTSC
Region 1
Special Edition


for North
America
DVD PAL
Region 2
Special Edition

"Revisitations 1"
Box Set
for the U.K.
VHS: PAL only!
PAL
(Doctor Who Story No. 160, starring Paul McGann and Sylvester McCoy)
  • written by Matthew Jacobs
  • directed by Geoffrey Sax
  • produced by Peter V. Ware
  • music by John Debney, John Sponsler, & Louis Febre
  • 1 TV movie @ approx. 90 minutes on NTSC broadcast and original film speed,
    now 86 minutes on DVD after PAL frame-rate conversions.
Story: Charged with taking the Master's remains back to Gallifrey, the Doctor makes an emergency landing in San Francisco on December 30, 1999 and is forced to regenerate. The Master too takes a new corporeal form, and the two run headlong into a confrontation that could split the world apart at the dawn of the new millennium....

DVD Extras now include:

  • Audio commentary by Paul McGann (The Eighth Doctor), Sylvester McCoy (The Seventh Doctor), and moderator Nicholas Briggs.
  • Audio commentary by director Geoffrey Sax.
  • "The Seven Year Hitch" making-of documentary (54 min.) with executive producer Philip Segal, writer Matthew Jacobs,
    BBC executives Alan Yentob, Jo Wright, Peter Cregeen, and alternate director Graeme Harper.
  • Fox TV's 1996 Electronic Press Kit (15 min.) with featurette and interviews
  • Philip Segal's Tour of the TARDIS Set (3 min.)
  • Behind the Scenes featurette (5 min.)
  • "The Doctor's Strange Love" featurette (17 min.) on fans' grudging acceptance of this version of Doctor Who.
  • "The Wilderness Years" (23 min.) featurette on Doctor Who in alternate media (novels, etc.) after its 1989 cancellation...
  • Photo Gallery (4 min.)
  • Isolated Music Score by John Debney and Co.
  • Four full length source music tracks
  • Pop-up Production Note Subtitles
  • Paul McGann audition (7 min.)
  • Visual Effects Tests (3 min.) including Amblin's 1994 Spider Dalek
  • Alternate Takes (1 min.)
  • "Who Peter 1989-2009" featurette (27 min.) examining the relationship between "Doctor Who" and the children's program "Blue Peter".
    This is Part Two of a series begun on the DVD for "The Horns of Nimon" (story no. 108)
  • Eighth Doctor in comics featurette (20 min.)
  • "Tomorrow's Times" Eighth Doctor media coverage featurette (11 min.)
  • Easter Eggs (11 min.)

In-Depth Analysis Review

by Martin Izsak

WARNING: This review contains "SPOILERS", and is intended for those who have already seen the program. To avoid the spoilers, read the Buyers' Guide version instead.


It was a strange thing indeed to see such lavish, American-style production values bestowed on a Doctor Who script that had lost its way so badly. The story swings its pendulum a bit too much towards its unsuccessful attempt to cater to new viewers and pilot a continuing show to a new network, while offering very little of consequence to Doctor Who's already considerable and devoted long-time audience, including a proper title for this particular adventure. It also goes out of its way to waste screen time paying homage to as many old gothic horror films as possible, and ends up feeling like a less inspired, less successful, Earthbound remake of "The Deadly Assassin" (story no. 88). This version makes a laughable mockery of any sense of scientific credibility, while also unnecessarily dragging in a lot of past Doctor Who lore and similarly messing up all that pseudo-science as well. At least the unique production values helped give this movie a fair roster of redeeming points to balance things, and make the end result something that is still enjoyable....


The visually spectacular opening sequence is good at capturing viewer attention and roping one into the story. Even here though, the devoted viewer will notice the show's past getting messed up. The mere existence of the planet Skaro may confuse some, while at the very least the question of when in Skaro's history this is supposed to be taking place deserves an answer that this movie never attempts to address. More importantly, in their tiny off-screen vocal cameo, the Daleks are without motivation for the bizarre things that they are said to do. Why put the Master on trial instead of shooting him on sight, as though they had any respect for the law of any humanoid species? Worse, what reason could they possibly have for letting their no. 1 enemy, the Doctor, pleasantly make off with the remains? Good reasons could of course be created in science-fiction, but since this film is ultimately about other things and they only want to cover these events in a short voice-over, they should do this in a way that doesn't beg for a whole new arc for old familiar characters. Replacing Skaro and the Daleks with a planet and population that we've never heard of on the show before would have easily given the writer/producers the creative freedom they wanted to exercise, increased the scope of the show, and just simply have made more sense all around.

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.

Composer John Debney, who appears to have leaned on his two colleagues John Sponsler and Louis Febre quite heavily during this project, creates a wonderful, grand, filmic score for this adventure - easily one of the highlights of the story. I particularly like the theme that Debney and Febre composed for the relationship between Grace and the Doctor, which receives many great and varied renditions throughout the film. However, if there's any criticism to be made on the story's music, it will be on the one portion that we're already familiar with - the main Doctor Who theme. Bluntly, it isn't a good choice to try to do it using plain orchestral sounds only, which manage a very ordinary and lifeless rendition of the main bassline and phrases. An added quick piano riff provides a little creative relief at one point, thankfully. Perhaps it is best for such a rendition to start with the heroic-sounding interlude, which translates more easily onto orchestral sounds than the eerie, endlessly journeying verses, although it makes for a very strange main theme rendition. Still, it fires off the right anchors for the long-term viewer, and also helps draw one in.
Music by John Debney,
John Sponsler, & Louis Febre

A hefty portion of the score is available on:
Audio CD - Doctor Who -
Debney / Sponsler / Febre
JDCD 005

More info

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 McCoy

The 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 Dimensions

With 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.


Of course, the regeneration is predictable and inevitable in this story. As much as I'd love to see as much of Sylvester McCoy as possible, I think that once he gets shot, you know that's it for him, and you're just waiting for the transformation to be completed and get on to seeing the new Doctor tackle the main issue of this adventure. But, idiotically, we spend way too much time just being medically gross about it. The Doctor's alien nature is a given to the older fans, and we learn nothing new in the hospital sequences. Even for newer viewers, there are more economical and enjoyable ways of delivering the same information, ways that won't turn sensible, surgically squeamish viewers off of the new program entirely.

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 Success

It 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.


And like all his predecessors before him, Paul McGann proves that he's got what it takes to make a decent Doctor, particularly as he takes on the challenges in the third quarter of the film. As this culminates in his entrance into the TARDIS and we see him operating the console, trying to solve the crisis at hand, we know we truly have our Doctor tackling his unique brand of sci-fi adventure again.


The Eye of Redundancy

Then 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.


The energy of the film hopefully plasters over such obvious shortcomings, and the story manages a truly enjoyable coda. Even with all its faults, the characters somehow manage to become endearing and rise above the problems. I wasn't too keen on this pilot movie, but I was ready to invest in the continuing adventures of the eighth Doctor, with or without Daphne Ashbrook's Grace and/or Yee Jee Tso's Lee, who both looked like they could make excellent companions. A continuing Paul McGann series might have helped make this movie be better accepted, but as a one-off deal on its own, it has settled into the reputation of being a rather pointless, delaying bump on the road instead.

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...)


Best Story:

  • The Curse of Fenric
  • Remembrance of the Daleks
  • The Greatest Show in the Galaxy

  • Survival
  • Dragonfire

  • Silver Nemesis
  • Battlefield
  • The Untitled 1996 Paul McGann TV Movie
  • Time and the Rani
  • Delta and the Bannermen

  • The Happiness Patrol
  • Ghost Light
  • Paradise Towers


This story is now more widely available on DVD:
DVD NTSC Region 1
Special Edition
for the North American market:
in the U.S.
in Canada
DVD PAL Region 2
Special Edition
for the U.K.
"Revisitations 1" Box Set
bundling it with
"The Talons of Weng-Chiang"
and "The Caves of Androzani"
VHS: PAL only!
PAL for the U.K.

Older U.K. single story release (with far fewer special features):
DVD PAL Region 2
for the U.K.

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Read the In-depth Analysis Review for the next story: "Rose"



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