15 May 2016

The Time When the TV Movie arrived

While we can now put the TV Movie into perspective the fact remains that in 1996 there was a lot of excitement amongst fans and the media about the apparent return of the show. We’d been waiting more than six years for something concrete after a string of rumours and vague statements from the BBC and others. However in May 1996 it arrived..... 
The UK Premiere! 
There was a swish premiere of the TV Movie at BAFTA in London on 23 May 1996 with two screenings and here’s an actual account written at the time by Neil Hutchings who was there.
“So there we are, at BAFTA, lurking outside like sad fans. I’m gazing across the road, probably distracted by the traffic lights changing when someone says; “That was him. He’s very short.” It seems Paul McGann sneaked inside before our very eyes (or not in my case). “Was he wearing his wig?” I wonder. “No but he’s wearing a nice blue suit.” Rumour has it that Sylvester McCoy is also on the premises but I didn’t see him either. Wouldn’t make a very good reporter would I? It’s only 8.10 and the screening isn’t due to start until 9.30 so it is decided to have a bite to eat. When we return to BAFTA the other 196 ticket holders appear to have arrived and formed what I understand is known as a queue, a phenomenon invented in Wiltshire in the early 80s. TV cameras have arrived to take pictures of the queue and some days later I am informed that I have made a non -speaking standing still appearance on Newsround. Hoorah!

Doors were due to open at 9.00 and we took our position by some bags of refuse which smelt of fish. 9.00 came and went, various people in suits clutching the Doctor Who Movie Special vacated the building with expressions of vague discontent. We assumed they had been subject to the 6.30 screening possibly against their will. We were by this stage in common with most of the queue almost uncontrollably excited. We had to try very hard not to jump up and down. Luckily we managed to contain ourselves and by 9.15 the doors were opened and we were beckoned inside. We made our way to the BAFTA cinema. Taking our seats I think none of us could quite believe a) that we were actually going to see some new Doctor Who and b) we were going to see it almost first. The minutes ticked agonisingly on and at last 9.30 arrived when TV’s Andrew Beech took to the stage and introduced Doctor Who Magazine editor Gary Gillat who introduced the film. I felt nervous, rather apprehensive about what I was about to see…
First of all, in order to prolong the agony, a BBC Video trailer which depicted all the Doctor’s regenerations culminating in a bit of the closing moments from Survival. This seemed appropriate. And then…. It started.
At the time of writing I have only seen the film once, it’s not yet out on video and for the first time in years I have been unable to rewind and savour the episode again, something I can’t wait to do. You will have seen it, of course, and formed your own view but I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did at the special preview. I was captivated from start to finish. It took me a few minutes to adjust to the very different style of production and the subdued character of the seventh Doctor but I was soon engrossed in the action and not at all bothered by the modifications made to the Doctor Who myth. Shivers down the spine at the grand orchestral theme and the TARDIS spinning to and from the camera. Amazement at the stunning new interior of the TARDIS. Tangible anticipation as the Doctor steps from the ship (we all knew what was going to happen after all) and then how strange to see the Doctor in a realistically depicted hospital, more like an episode of Chicago Hope, complete with the black humour of operating catastrophes in full view of the top brass.

The film’s humour hit just the right note, enhancing the tension and provoking several big laughs from the audience, notably the morgue attendant and the police motorbike entering the TARDIS. An audience of 200 fans naturally fully appreciated all the in-jokes- the scarf, “John Smith”, jelly babies. It is gratifying that the Doctor now has a ledge on his console on which to balance a cup of tea! I enjoyed the handling of the regeneration and the subsequent scenes- as soon as we saw Paul McGann staggering through the hospital in his shroud- “WHO AM I?” – I knew he was going to be superb. Once Paul was in his full costume and frantically trying to persuade Grace of his credentials (as far as he knew them), his witty, mischievous and thoroughly convincing performance assured me that we were watching the Doctor.
It was a clever and amusing idea to bring the two characters together with a romantic song and then introduce doubt into Grace’s mind with the Doctor’s breathless talk of Daleks, Time Lords and the TARDIS. Her understandable disbelief provided a neat way of dramatically imparting further background information. I would take issue with Philip Segal’s comments suggesting that his Doctor Who would not be camp; Eric Roberts clearly relished the opportunity to dress up in an outrageous costume for no readily apparent reason, performing something akin to a `twirl` as he stops at the top of his showbiz staircase. His character and performance was contrasted with sufficient drama and nastiness however to ensure that the lighter moments worked effectively.
Some people at the preview expressed some dissatisfaction with the film’s storyline, particularly its ending, where Grace and Chang Lee are magically revived from apparent death; nobody seemed entirely sure how this came about. Still, there’s nothing like a happy ending, eh? 
Plot inconsistencies aside, I sincerely hope the new film is a huge worldwide success; the care and attention lavished on it is quite evident and it is a thrilling and entertaining piece of TV. I was greatly looking forward to the return of Doctor Who and I was not disappointed. Doctor Who deserves to take it’s rightful place as the original and best of all sci-fi shows- and it’s much more fun!

The Midnight Opening! 
The TV movie was also the only sell through Doctor Who release to appear in the shops prior to broadcast and the only to be granted a midnight opening and I went to the Liverpool one. 
The Midnight opening was prevalent during the Nineties when major albums, videos or games would go on sale from midnight presumably on the assumption that people could not wait more than a few minutes to view, listen or play them. These events died out once online shopping allowed you to purchase things 24 hours a day. The TV movie midnight opening in Liverpool took place at HMV’s shop in the centre of town and by around 11.15pm a smallish queue had assembled. The trick with these things is to try and look as nonchalant as possible as passers by- in all likelihood not Doctor Who fans- will wonder what is going on. The last thing you want is to be picked out and asked what all this is about. Inside the shop the assistants faffed about in that way only shop assistants can - walking about looking busy, moving things from one place to another and occasionally wandering past the frontage with a box as if to make us jealous. 

The queue swelled as midnight neared and it became increasingly frustrating to be shut outside when inside the video screens were clearly playing promotional clips of the actual movie. Look- it’s Paul McGann dressed like a Victorian gent. Meanwhile as if the whole thing wasn’t embarrassing enough, a local radio reporter showed up, portable mic in hand to interview people. Of course he didn’t head for anyone looking vaguely sensible, instead he homed in on the fan dressed as a Venom Grub. Ok, I’m kidding as there were thankfully no costume wearers that night but our reporter did seem to be doing his best to find odd people rather than, say, us.  There was a security guard inside who looked increasingly nervous as midnight approached perhaps thinking we would all turn into monsters when the clock struck twelve.
The trouble with queuing is that the longer you do so the more anticipation builds so come the midnight hour I was expecting maybe fireworks, bugles, a minor Royal. Even a sparkler? Nope. The doors were winched up and we entered in an orderly, British fashion. Turns out most of the shop is fenced off and the absolutely only thing we can buy is the TV Movie. You pick it up, stare bedazzled at the silver logo, pay for it and, er, that’s it. It was only upon leaving the shop we realised that the buses were finished and it would be a taxi fare home.
The silly thing is I never played the video till the next night so I could just have picked it up the following lunchtime. I did get a nice metal badge though.

Censorship! Yes, the TV Movie was censored in the UK and it was a while before you could get the full version. Apparently 59 seconds were cut, mostly of the gun battle in Chinatown in which Chang Lee’s mates was killed. Later the bit in the Cloister Room where Lee’s neck is seen being twisted was also sliced out. It’s all in the DVD version of course but back in 1996 this cut caused a right old stink. 
The Americans saw it first! Oh maaaaan. To be the absolute first fans to see this broadcast you would have to had flown on over to the US of A where it debuted on 12 May. Unless you were fannish enough to buy the video or get to the premiere the wider UK viewership had to wait until 27 May for a broadcast. 
Baz and Tel didn’t like it! No, sir, they did not. Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks took what was initially a bold and singular stance upon seeing the TV Movie declaring afterwards they didn’t care much for it. And then went off for a fish supper which they probably preferred. Oddly enough as time went on more and more people seemed to agree with them. 
But the kids did!Shortly after transmission perennial kids news programme Newsround conducted a phone poll asking its young viewers if they thought there should be a series. A whopping 96% said there should.

Bidding Adieu! 
One of the interesting spin offs from the whole thing was Bidding Adieu a video release produced by BBV featuring Sylvester McCoy in  Vancouver as he films his last ever scenes as the Doctor
It is definitely not a behind the scenes documentary. Save for the occasional shot of the TARDIS in the street, there is no behind the scenes footage as such but it’s a very interesting excursion. It’s a bit like the video diaries that David Tennant and co would later do for the modern series. As well as McCoy the video features Paul McGann, Anneke Wills and Daphne Ashbrook. It is however the outgoing Doctor who gets the lion’s share of screen time and if you’ve ever seen him interviewed you’ll know that his chatty amiable style is also thoughtful and analytical. So as he flies out to Canada, arrives and finds his trailer (with the sign `Old Doctor` on the side) we’re in lively company. The largely unseen and unheard interviewer incidentally is Mark Gattis, nowadays more famous than any of the participants of this video!
During the course of the fifty minute feature, McCoy talks about his tenure as the Doctor and the way he was treated by the BBC as well as his somewhat tragic childhood. That he does most of this in a big patchwork coat only slightly less garish than Colin Baker’s costume perhaps emphasises his flippant attitude to life. He does drop the occasional nugget (he says that McGann has signed for six `films`) but mostly it’s more about his thoughts and observations. He is very complimentary about the way he’s being treated even if the circumstances under which he was persuaded to appear seem slightly shady. He says he was originally offered a much longer time in the movie but once he signed, that was reduced. Still he seems on the whole glad to be there claiming the six year gap since he last played the role means he doesn’t have the usual baggage an outgoing Doctor might carry.

Paul McGann on the other hand – drinking constantly from a glass of wine and considerably more Scouse than his Doctor- seems a little nervy about what it is he has taken on. “It’s a top posting” he says of the role while confessing he’s having a laugh yet also seems un-concerned if it doesn’t go to a series. 
Indeed everyone seems to rate that prospect quite low which contrasts sharply with the bullish public statements at the time. McGann also mentions the kiss with Grace; “an American kiss- no tonsil tickling!”  Old friends, the two Mcs are easy in each other’s company and it would be a long time before we saw McGann so publicly relaxed about Doctor Who. Elsewhere there is time for McCoy to go up a snowy mountain and also visit Anneke Wills who ran a shop in Vancouver at the time. She offers a wider perspective on the series and how it follows you round, something that McGann later considers declaring the idea of going to a convention “makes my flesh creep”. Bidding Adieu turns out to be an unusual and fascinating snapshot of a moment in time leaving you with the afterthought that Sylvester McCoy is even more interesting as a person than he is as the Doctor.

It failed!  
Though the TV Movie got an impressive 9 million viewers in the UK, it’s haul of only 5.6 million in the US was not enough to allow it to graduate to a series. This despite it being the largest Stateside ratings a Doctor Who episode ever had. So in a relatively short time it became apparent that this was not going to fly and that poor old Paul McGann was destined to be the shortest running Doctor ever.
Next time: The TV Movie re-assessed which is a grand way of saying I’m going to re-watch it and see what I think.

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