The Ugly Docling

Review of Doctor Who: The Movie (Special Edition)

DVD Release Date: 08 Feb 11
Original Air Date: 14 May 96 (US)
Doctor/Companion:   Eight, Dr. Grace Holloway
Stars:  Paul McGann, Daphne Ashbrook
Preceding StorySurvival (Seven, Ace) - 1989
Succeeding StoryRose (Nine, Rose Tyler) - 2005
Notable Aspects:

  • Only televised story to include the Eighth Doctor
  • Doctor's first on-screen kiss
  • Bridge between Classic and Nu-Who
  • DVD:  First North American video release

There are those who think The Movie is one of the worst crimes ever committed against the Whoniverse.  I am not among them.  Despite some notably bad features, I actually really enjoy it.  Not the least of my reasons is that it's the one and only on-screen appearance of Paul McGann as the Doctor.

The made-for-tv Movie came about (in its final form) as a "back-door pilot" for a potential series re-launch.  It was to be set in the US and aimed at the US market, so the tone was somewhat "Americanized."  Among other things, it added a splash of romance (much to the horror of Old Skool Whovians), a "car" chase, and an actual American Companion (as opposed to Peri - played by Nicola Bryant, a Brit).  Not all of it worked, but there's a reason McGann continues to this day to get work as Eight in audio-dramas and other projects:  he makes a brilliant Doctor.

After learning more about the tortuous path this story took getting to the screen (see the extras, below), it's easier to understand - and even forgive - some of its flaws.  To my mind, the most notable one is the casting of Eric Roberts (that's Julia's brother, for Six Degrees of Separation buffs) as the Master.  The Powers That Be wanted an American actor as the villain of the piece, so it came down to a matter of who was acceptable to the right corporate suits (and who would take the money offered), rather than who was right for the part.  Roberts' resultant Master is campy, never more so than when he dons that quasi-Gallifreyan get-up.  The role has always been camp (just listen to Roger Delgado's muahaha! some time if you don't believe me), but this takes the biscuit.  And somehow, it's not Master-y to me at all.  Where's the "devious and overcomplicated" plot, the exceedingly clever adversary?  Mostly, he just poses and attempts (poorly) to intimidate.  At least there was some mind control and ruthless disregard for life to make him seem more Master-ful.

The other really awful bit, to my mind, is the infamous "half human" angle.  Apparently (according to some of the DVD extras), it's a holdover from Classic scripts that never made it to the screen.  I'll never understand why anyone thought that was a good idea to add into the canon, but this is one of those instances where I wholeheartedly apply River Song's Rule One ("the Doctor lies").  As far as I'm concerned, it's a non-issue - it never happened (that's my story, and I'm stickin' to it!).

On the up side, though, McGann is wonderful fun to watch.  The "who am I?" bit is rather overwrought, but otherwise he's got just the right blend of serious authority and wacky humor.  Starting out with a wicked case of post-regenerative-brain-addlement, he gradually comes into himself, gaining confidence and settling into his usual take-charge problem-solving headspace.  It's really a fairly typical regeneration story in that sense.  By the end it's easy to envision him whisking Grace off onto further adventures far from turn-of-the-millennium San Francisco, and it seems unutterably sad that Eight never appeared on screen again.

[I feel that, as an aside, I must comment on the wig McGann wore for filming.  The casting people loved the long hair he was sporting at the time he was cast (you can watch some of his audition in the extras), and made a point of including it for the character.  Much as McGann despised it ("I hated that wig.  HATED it!"), the long hair really adds to the persona.  It's too bad he'd had to cut his own hair for a soldier role before filming The Movie, as clearly real hair would have been better, but I can't fault those who felt long locks belonged on the Eighth Doctor.  It certainly adds to his appeal for those of us who appreciate male aesthetics.]

As for the DVD, it's a break-through for those of us in North America (and in Australia, for that matter).  Until now, The Movie was only available on DVD in Region 2 (Europe).  If you had a region-free player and access to a R2 disk, you could see it, but now it is available to the average North American fan.  Even better, the Special Edition is aptly named.  The 2-disc set included a slew of extras that are certainly worth watching, including a few items that were included on the 2001 R2 release.

DVD Extras (highlights)
Audio Commentary
There are two tracks available on the Special Edition: Track 1, with Director Geoffrey Sax; and Track 2, with Paul McGann (Eight) and Sylvester McCoy (Seven), moderated by Nicholas Briggs (known to Neo-Whovians as the voice of the Daleks et al.).  You can guess which one I listened to.
It was really interesting to get a British point of view on the film.  Among other things, it helped me step outside my own cultural biases a bit, and see how it really does have a more American feel than Classic Who.  The best part, though, is getting a better sense of the people behind the character, and McGann and McCoy are pleasant, clever, and humorous.
The Seven Year Hitch
As alluded to above, this near-hour-long piece follows the roller-coaster ride for executive producer Philip Segal as he attempted to get rights to Doctor Who and bring his own story to the screen.  It's a truly convoluted, incredible tale, and worth watching.
Who Peter, 1989-2009
One of the longest-running and best-loved television shows for children in Britain is Blue Peter.  Throughout its run, Blue Peter has had a special relationship with Doctor Who.  In this documentary, important production-team members examine Blue Peter's role in keeping the idea of Doctor Who alive even when it wasn't on the air both pre- and post-Movie (1989-1996; 1996-2005).
The Wilderness Years
Fans often refer to the era when new Doctor Who episodes were not being made for television as "the wilderness years."  This short documentary is a sort of tribute to the fans  and the tenacity with which they refused to let their favorite show die.  In a sense, because the Movie didn't get picked up and extended into an American series, it was just a brief interlude, marking the near-halfway point between Classic and Nu-Who.  Fans did their part during both eras of the wilderness years.
Stripped for Action - The Eighth Doctor
Doctor Who comics have a long, honorable history.  This piece gives us an inside look at what those who created comics leading up to and during Eight's tenure as the "current" Doctor did with the medium.
Tomorrow's Times - The Eighth Doctor
"Tomorrow's Times" is a fascinating little series of documentaries outlining "contemporary press coverage" of Doctor Who for the various Doctors (see The Dominators for an installment about Two).  We are treated to a reading of some very telling snippets of newspaper pieces about The Movie, giving critics' views of the American take-over of Britain's iconic program.

After it first aired, The Movie was much-maligned by fans.  Many saw the changes it made to be an affront to the program they loved.  Looking back from the modern perspective, it was really just a logical step between Classic and Nu-Who.  With time, what once seemed an unbearable blemish became a respected part of the canon in its own right.  Judged by the standard for a different species, it's not so terrible after all.



I admit it, Paul McGann is my favorite doctor. As you say, there are some serious issues with the script, but I think McGann nailed the Doctor. I wish we'd got to see more of him.

By Kerry (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

I'm not sure I can honestly say he's my favorite, but he's definitely very near the top of my list. I agree about his on-screen appearances, though - it seems like a minor tragedy that he only got 70 minutes. I keep wishing/hoping they'll bring him in as part of the 50th anniversary celebration in 2013!

By mrfranklin
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