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Book Review

Book Cover

Doctor Who
The TV Movie (Paperback)


Author: Gary Russell
Publisher: BBC Books
224 pages
RRP: UK £7.99, US $10.99, Cdn $16.99
ISBN: 978 1 78594 531 1
Publication Date: 11 March 2021

It’s December 1999, and strange things are happening as the new millennium nears. A British police box appears from nowhere in San Francisco’s Chinatown and the mysterious man inside it is shot down in the street. Despite the best efforts of Dr Grace Holloway, the man dies and another stranger appears, claiming to be the same person in a different body: a wanderer in time and space known only as the Doctor. But the Doctor is not the only alien in San Francisco. His deadly adversary the Master is murdering his way through the city and has taken control of the TARDIS. The Master is desperate to take the Doctor’s newly regenerated body for himself, and if the Doctor does not capitulate, it will literally cost him the Earth – and every last life on it…

I have a lot of time for the Doctor Who TV movie (as you might be able to tell from the verbosity of my review of the original DVD release), and I have a similar degree of affection for Gary Russell’s novelisation of it. 1996 was an exciting time to be a Who fan – getting to experience not only a new Doctor, in the form of Paul McGann, but also the first new television episode in more than six years. Little did we know that we would have to wait for almost a decade before the show returned to our screens on a more regular basis.

The book, originally entitled The Novel of the Film or simply Doctor Who, depending on whether you looked at the spine or the front cover, made it to the shelves on 16 May 1996 – several days before the 22 May VHS rush release and the BBC1 transmission on 27 May. However, I resisted the urge to take a sneak peek before I had seen the story on video.

Because it was based on a less than final draft of Matthew Jacobs’s script, the novelisation contains many deviations from the screen version, including the Doctor’s reaction to his (at the time controversial) kiss with his sort-of companion, Dr Grace Holloway, and the concluding TARDIS scene. Unlike on TV, Grace and Chang Lee are not killed and subsequently brought back to life via time travel. The latter change is definitely for the better, as the temporal resurrection that occurs on screen is terribly corny and goes against the usual ethos of the show. In some cases, it is unclear whether the differences originate from the script that Russell was referring to, or from the novelist’s own imagination. One element that certainly comes from the script is the Master’s last will and testament, which was originally spoken by Gordon Tipple as the old Master over the pre-titles sequence but ultimately replaced by a voice-over performed by Paul McGann. One addition that is definitely an embellishment by Russell is a reference to the church in Cheldon Bonniface, a village visited in a couple of New Adventures novels penned by Paul Cornell.

The plot remains a rehash of ideas from Spearhead from Space (the hospital scenes involving the newly regenerated, two-hearted, amnesiac Doctor) and The Deadly Assassin (the Master seeking to renew himself by means of the Eye of Harmony), but the book addresses several questions that the broadcast episode fails to answer. These include how Lee knows Bruce’s name (in the novelisation, a policeman introduces him), why the Doctor fails to recognise the new Master even though he ‘saw’ him in the TARDIS earlier on (he doesn’t literally see his enemy, but rather senses his presence), and where the Eighth Doctor gets his jelly babies from (he finds them in his predecessor’s straw hat, which becomes a recurring motif symbolising the Time Lord’s past). The prose also expands upon the “child’s dream” that made Grace want to become a physician.

Without doubt the most substantial addition is a prologue featuring the Seventh Doctor, which gives him a bit more to do and a few more (and more in-character) lines of speech than he was afforded on screen. During this sequence, we learn that the bored and lonely Time Lord reconfigured the interior of his vessel quite recently (an assertion subsequently contradicted by the New Adventures novel Lungbarrow and several Big Finish audio dramas) and witness how he becomes aware of the Master’s last request (something else that is difficult to reconcile with the closing pages of Lungbarrow – though I have had a go, here).

This 2021 edition is a slightly updated version of The Novel of the Film. Much of the text reads as before, but Russell has taken the opportunity to correct a few factual errors and visual descriptions that he would have got right in the first place had he had more time and access to more photographic reference for the costumes, characters and sets. He also restores several allusions to the programme’s past that were removed from the first edition, including more detail of the Doctor’s trip to Skaro and explicit references to his former travelling companions Ace and Romana. At least one section is brand new and not from the author’s initial draft – a mention of Ace having founded A Charitable Earth. I’m not sure how I feel about such tinkering. Part of me is pleased that the narrative is now more closely aligned with series continuity, but another part of me thinks that the text as originally published should stand or fall on its own merits.

Since the publishers have gone to the trouble of changing both the content and the title of this work, I wonder why they didn’t go one stage further and give it a more imaginative moniker. Though The TV Movie is how the 1996 telefilm is usually referred to, it’s a strange name for a novel. Why not, as the earliest Target books often did, come up with something more exciting? Producer Philip Segal offered the designation Enemy Within, but my own suggestions would be The Eye of Destruction (a phrase spoken by Grace during the course of the adventure), Timing Malfunction (an error message displayed on the TARDIS screen) or A Matter of Time.

In spite of my few reservations, The Novel of the Film / The TV Movie / whatever you want to call it remains, just like the feature-length episode on which it is based, a flawed but very enjoyable escapade.


Richard McGinlay

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