A bit of a quickie today in that it only encompasses a single 90-minute television presentation in 1996, but a very, very important one in the annals of Doctor Who. In 1989, as we discussed last time, the BBC cancelled Doctor Who, with the intention to bring it back in a few years’ time once it had “rested.” Or so they said. In the interim, the time and space exploits of the Seventh Doctor and Ace continued in comic strips and a series of novels called the New Adventures, in which all manner of writers took a turn or two at delving into the Doctor’s continuing journey. Writers like Russell T. Davies, Mark Gatiss, and Paul Cornell, all of whom would go on to write for the new series (or bring it back, in Russell’s case) wrote novels in this range.
These novels, by and large, became much more grown up and were catered toward the fans who’d stuck out the series and were now, more than likely, teenagers and not the younger children the show was geared more toward. Ace became a woman and seemed to sleep with quite a few dudes, but she was also being groomed to become a Time Lord herself, in accordance with Andrew Cartmel’s so-called “master plan.” The canonical nature of these books is irrelevant, because none of it’s ever really mentioned again and a couple were actually reworked to be part of the new series.
Elsewhere, however, plans were being hatched to relaunch the series on television, and not in the stupid “Dimensions in Time” format it took in 1993 for Children in Need. I’d never tell you to watch it because it’s awful, but you CAN watch it if you type it into various search platforms. But you’re a fool if you do, seriously.
Anyway, the fact that Doctor Who returned in any kind of proper format at all was due to the tireless work of producer Philip Segal. For years, he’d been trying to mount an American version of Doctor Who, but the Fox Network, the only network that showed the slightest bit of interest, was only prepared to make a single television movie. It was Segal’s hope that such a production could be used as a backdoor pilot whose staggering success stateside could be used to persuade Fox to greenlight a proper series. Did this happen? Well, don’t lets get ahead of ourselves. First they had to make the thing. In order to get the proper funding for the shoot, and to obtain the rights to use the character in the first place, the production needed some outside assistance, and in the end was a co-production between Fox TV, the BBC, and Universal Television. Since the Beeb owned the series, they wanted to ensure the character remained British (and good for ‘em).
Among the slew of names being bandied about, whether seriously or just fictitiously, for the role were Tim Curry, Eric Idle, Billy Connolly, Michael Palin, Jonathan Pryce, and Anthony Stewart Head. Apparently, all of them said no or were unavailable and eventually the part went to Paul McGann, a young actor best known for playing the role of “I” in the 1989 film Withnail & I.
Segal hired Matthew Jacobs, a British writer and huge fan of the series, to pen the telemovie. It was intended that this movie follow directly on from the TV show, to ensure fans would recognize it as “real” Doctor Who, and to that end, the story begins with Seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy so that we could see a regeneration. A novel idea, but when we spend 20 minutes of the whole run time with a Doctor who ultimately isn’t going to be around for awhile, it seems like a bit of a waste of time. Get to the McGann, I say! But that’s not how it happened.
The story begins with the Eighth Doctor narrating that his arch-nemesis the Master had been captured and sent to Skaro (!) to stand trial for “a list of evil crimes.” After he is convicted by the Daleks (!), he is sentenced to execution, but the miraculously kindhearted mutated killing machines allow the Master a request, which is to have his remains to be returned to Gallifrey by his old enemy, the Doctor. It’s baffling, really.
The TARDIS hits some kind of turbulence, and the box containing the Master’s remains to fall over and break, allowing the oozy Master-remnants to escape and seep into the TARDIS control, causing it to make an emergency landing in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the last days of 1999. Almost immediately, he’s gunned down by Chinese American gang members. One of them, Chang Lee, picks his pocket before the ambulance arrives.
A surgeon, Dr. Grace Holloway (Daphne Ashbrook) is called away from the opera to operate on this strange man who apparently has two hearts. Despite him pleading for her not to use a sedative on him, she does and he goes into a coma. The Master goo, meanwhile, has infected the ambulance driver (Eric Roberts) and possesses him. The Doctor, seriously hours later, begins to regenerate.
The Eighth Doctor doesn’t know who he is for awhile, but he finds Grace and tries to convince her of things. The Master, meanwhile, wants to harness the Eye of Harmony inside the TARDIS, but only a human can look into it (!) and since the Doctor’s half human (!!!!), he needs him to do it. And New Year’s Eve comes into play also.
Honestly, I’ve seen this thing several times and I still don’t know exactly what happens. But, it kind of doesn’t matter. The TV Movie is sort of a glorious mess. It’s a hodgepodge of old ideas and new (batshit) ones that fans have more or less swept under the rug, especially the bit about the Doctor and his Earth lineage. Nobody wants to talk about that, and you can’t really blame them. The Doctor also kisses Grace, which a lot of fans also dislike, but I’m less irritated by this. The Doctor just regenerated and wants to get cozy with a cute redhead; I get it.
Still, what IS important about this movie is that it kept the notion of Doctor Who on TV alive. And it also gave Russell T. Davies and company ideas about what to do and what not to do when updating and rebooting it in 2005. The lack of a visible regeneration and not being immediately hampered with the history of the show are very clear examples of how, at least in its outset, the new series learned from the TV movie.
Before that, though, were 8 years more wilderness. McGann was the official current Doctor as far as the BBC were concerned but it was mainly just in book and comic strip form. In 2001, he began doing Big Finish audio dramas which he has done ever since. Even though he has, to date, only appeared on television as the character once, there are now more Eighth Doctor adventures in audio than there are television stories of most of the other Doctors. So there.
Did I say this would be a quickie? Jeepers. Join me next time when we’ll talk about the new series, in some fashion.