27 May 2016

Was the 1996 TV Movie any good?

Re-visiting the TV Movie twenty years on
There are few Doctor Who stories whose stock has dropped as rapidly as the TV Movie. People and fans (even me!) seemed to really like it when it was first shown but as soon as it became obvious there would be no series as a result the production got the blame which seems unfair. The Movie is, in the end, an enjoyable but not classic sort of story. Had it been just the start of a new series it would no doubt be looked upon fondly as the `Robot` of the Paul McGann era. Two decades on and we now have a lot of modern Doctor Who to compare it with so it doesn't look as good as we might have thought.

There is something not quite right about the production. At the time we imagined it was the fact that the series’ entire history had been as a studio based drama and thus didn’t translate too well into a more flexible location based shoot. The subsequent success of the modern series has debunked that theory so you have to go back to the script to find the in- built deficiencies. Just look at the opening premise for example- The Daleks put the Master on trial, exterminate him and then agree to his last request for his remains to be taken to the Time Lords by the Doctor. For fans it’s a development that would not happen, the Daleks are unlikely to be so amenable either to grant the Master a trial or last request and even if they did would they then just call up the Doctor? For newcomers it’s got nothing to latch onto – four big concepts dropped into their laps in the opening 20 seconds but what is at stake? Nothing tangible that a person who has never even heard of Doctor Who would know. Now look at the way to do it right nine years later in `Rose`. In the first few minutes, we meet a modern girl, see a department store, the lottery is mentioned and the big threat is shop window dummies coming to life. Easily identifiable icons for newcomers.

The threat that those creaking Autons in the basement deliver in `Rose` is what is missing throughout the TV Movie and poor old director Geoffrey Sax has to work very, very hard to show us anything dramatic because let’s face it a very accurate clock on New Year’s Eve is not exciting. It’s not as if the plot is unduly complex. It’s very simple- because the Eye of Harmony is opening the world will be sucked into it. OK so it’s a rubbish idea and totally out of keeping with series continuity- unless the Doctor nicked the Eye when he left Gallifrey. However even if you go with it we see no real danger because there is nothing to work with. Sax has to lather on jump cuts, reverse cuts and an orchestral miasma that would make Murray Gold blush to attempt to convey this finale because there is no monster to show. All there is is a very windy TARDIS and two oddly attired blokes throwing each other about. In those circumstances it is difficult to get excited. 

Which is a real shame because in between the opening and closing minutes, there is something delightful about the TV Movie. What it really needed to do was a more straightforward invasion story- there are plenty of templates to copy- with McGann’s full on Doctor turning up to try and save the day. Whether they used new or old monsters to invade wouldn’t matter but it would give a real threat that is sadly missing from the TV Movie. All the shouting and fighting in the TARDIS just doesn’t connect even if it makes some fictional sense.

Sax’s diligence delivers some standout visual moments- the Doctor wandering down a corridor in a shroud as the picture tilts sideways, Grace’s slow motion dash to surgery still in her ballgown with Puccini playing in the background. The regeneration sequence is the only pre-2005 one to convey just how much the act takes out of the Doctor. The final showdown between Doctor and Master is portrayed as being almost primal in nature. And while fans may carp, the scene where the Doctor remembers who he is and that those shoes fit is exquisitely choreographed and performed. Sax is the movie’s real star and it is down to him that so much of it works.

Watching again for the first time in a long time I’m struck by the nature of Paul McGann’s performance. It’s become established that whatever else you think of the movie, he is excellent throughout but I would suggest that had this gone to a series this would also be it’s `Robot` in terms of the Doctor’s performance too -strong but not perfect yet lots of potential. McGann certainly aces the lighter stuff- the Doctor’s sleight of hand, casual observations, joy of discovering something he didn’t know. You can see he’d have been a mischievous Doctor yet when required to put on the gravitas he is not as convincing. Rather like his predecessor he should be encouraged to shout as little as possible! The whole `who am I?` sequence is Sax’s only misstep because it’s melodrama does not serve McGann well. He’s an instinctively natural actor who looks more awkward with the bigger fantasy stuff. I’m sure a series would have played to his strengths and that would definitely have been an asset as a whole season of climaxes like this one would be far too much.

In 1996 Eric Roberts’ Master seemed rather crazy and violent after the skipping about, snorting and unlikely disguises of Anthony Ainley but nowadays compared to John Simm or Michelle Gomez he seems positively measured. This more savage yet camp Master is certainly something the modern series has taken on board though thankfully recent Masters do not particularly drezz so outrageously for the occasion!

One aspect that I do like – but which seemed to annoy fans at the time- is the half human revelation. This makes perfect sense when you consider how much time the Doctor spends here and the odd affinity he has with humans. Even so I suppose again it is too much information for a pilot. I suspect it may have been inserted to woo American audiences who might otherwise struggle with the idea of an alien being the hero.

The movie definitely fails to set itself up as a pilot which it was supposed to be. Both Grace and Chang Lee wander off at the end when you’re expecting them to be on the receiving end of a stirring speech about time and space travel. They had the potential to be an interesting duo- Chang Lee might have become the sort of slippery character Adric was originally intended to be while Grace’s caring nature would make her well equipped for other worlds and times.
In the end I suppose the movie is too much of a compromise being too Doctor Who for the casual viewer and not Doctor Who enough for the fans. Philip Segal’s much vaunted “kisses to the past” turn out to be more full on affairs while the attempt to use Millennial issues as a touchstone fail to fly and look very dated now. Lovely though his performance is, having Sylvester McCoy there tends to confuse new viewers rather than clarify anything. The whole thing looks good and most scenes are entertaining but it seems bogged down by a plot that never really gets going and then lurches into a confusing climax. The real shame is that we never did get to see Paul McGann give a full performance as the Doctor- had he done a series there is enough here (and more recently in the 2013 anniversary mini episode) to suggest he would have been awesome.  

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