Doctor Who The Movie

Starring: Paul McGann
BBC Worldwide
Certificate: 12
Available now

The Doctor honours the last request of his old enemy, the Master, by taking his exterminated remains back to their home planet. But the Master is far from dead. The creature he has become forces the TARDIS to materialise in San Francisco, 1999, where he plans to steal the Doctor's body...

No other Who story better suits the format of DVD than this one, with its glossy production values and splendid picture quality. However, this BBC/Universal/Fox co-production has been accused, quite fairly, of possessing rather more style than substance.

Certainly the plot is slight, as evidenced by the fact that the last two minutes of the final countdown take a whole six minutes to elapse. A fusion of ideas from Spearhead from Space (the hospital scenes) and The Deadly Assassin (the Master seeking to renew himself using the powerful Eye of Harmony), the script contains holes that beg several questions. How does the Master get into the TARDIS (does he use the Doctor's spare key)? Why should the Earth end at precisely midnight (is it because the destructive influence of the Eye of Harmony takes slightly longer than three hours to achieve its full effect, having been opened since just before 9.00pm)? Is it a coincidence that this near catastrophe happens on the eve of the new millennium (or did the TARDIS home in a replacement atomic clock)? How is it that Grace (Daphne Ashbrook) and Chang Lee (Yee Jee Tso) are brought back to life (is it a side effect of travelling back through time while the Eye is open)? It's possible for the viewer to concoct answers, but then the viewer shouldn't need to.

Geoffrey Sax's energetic direction helps enormously by diverting us from the script's deficiencies and accentuating its strengths. However, since the TV movie was aimed at audiences that were not necessarily familiar with the show, the opening scene of the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) in the TARDIS was a mistake. It would have been better told in flashback after the newly regenerated Doctor (Paul McGann) has regained his memory. Just think how much more effective Chang Lee's first view of the awesome TARDIS interior sets would have been then.

Some Americanisms also prove annoying. I have no problem at all with the US setting or with the Master's new body being American, but the Doctor should have remained free of such influences. Instead, he calls his TARDIS's chameleon circuit a "cloaking device" and calls himself the "guy with two hearts" when "chap with two hearts" would have been more in character.

Eric Roberts's interpretation of the Master has come in for some stick over the years, but I believe that he hits upon just the right combination of sinister threat and camp self-mockery. His reputedly ad-libbed line with which he corrects Grace's grammar provides one of the movie's funniest moments. The actor seems to understand the tone of the show perfectly, although his interview and the director's commentary (among the special features) disagree as to whether Roberts had seen any Doctor Who previously.

Paul McGann steps into the role of the Doctor with apparent ease that belies his nerves about taking on the part. His interpretation has been likened to Tom Baker's, though I think he resembles no incarnation more than Peter Davison's: he shares the Fifth Doctor's primary characteristics of vulnerability, self-sacrifice and comparative youth. McGann also adds an excitable nature that gives his Doctor a propensity to speak without considering how insane he might sound. Daphne Ashbrook more than holds her own as his companion, Grace, providing a believable and witty performance.

The fan furore provoked by those infamous kisses exchanged by the Doctor and Grace proved to be a lot of fuss about not very much at all. Sure, we have never known the Doctor to possess romantic inclinations before this on the TV series, but then he has just regenerated. And he might have re-awakened this aspect of himself following his experiment with humanity in Paul Cornell's New Adventure, Human Nature.

The revelation about the Doctor being half-human also caused controversy, but in fact it makes a lot of sense. It explains his fondness for Earth, his rebellious streak, and the difficulties he always experiences with regeneration. Yes, this differs from what has gone before, but then such is often the case when a new creative force (in this case executive producer Philip Segal) takes the reigns. The changes of direction and style that we witness in the TV movie are no greater than those that occurred between The War Games and Spearhead from Space, between The Horns of Nimon and The Leisure Hive or between Dragonfire and Remembrance of the Daleks.

This flawed gem is backed up by a wealth of extra features, including three trailers (two from the BBC and one from Fox); contemporary interviews with the stars, Geoffrey Sax and Philip Segal; a brand new interview with Segal; a behind-the-scenes compilation; and two brief alternate scenes. The latter interview with Segal proves to be the more revealing, as he discusses his disappointments as well as his triumphs. I was surprised to learn that he regrets being compelled by Fox to cast an American as the Master and to include the aforementioned romantic elements.

A feature-length commentary by Geoffrey Sax confirms just how pivotal his role was in making the movie as exciting and comprehensible as possible. Ideas of his own, such as having the newly regenerated Doctor humming Puccini, and inter-cutting him with the Master's newly possessed body, help to lend the plot cohesion. It is also, um, interesting to hear Sax's opinion that all the Christ imagery was unintentional - what, even Grace's plainly heard reference to the "second coming"?

There are further options of playing the movie with the incidental music score isolated or with fascinating on-screen text information. The isolated music does not include songs heard in the background during the course of the film, but these are included as additional tracks, as is an instrumental version of "Auld Lang Syne", which was recorded for the movie but never used. Oddly, a few stray sound effects remain (erroneously, I presume) on the isolated soundtrack.

The on-screen text reveals, among other nuggets, details from previous drafts of the movie's script. Many of these defy logic to a far greater extent than the version we ended up with, so perhaps we should be grateful. There's another intriguing difference of opinion, this time concerning the sunglasses that Eric Roberts wore during many of his scenes. The text states that he wore them to minimise his use of uncomfortable contact lenses, whereas the director's commentary states that this is a false rumour.

It's a shame that more deleted scenes could not have been included. The old Master's original last request, performed by Gordon Tipple for the pre-credits sequence but ultimately replaced by McGann's voice-over, is described by the on-screen text but not actually featured on the DVD. The same goes for a scene in which the Master and Lee were to have been confronted by security guards just before the Master "slimed" them.

Never mind, though, because what we have here is the best collection of features on a Doctor Who disc to date. Although not the strongest story on DVD, the movie is a fresh and epic showdown between the Time Lord and his arch nemesis.

Richard McGinlay

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