Friday, November 1, 2013

A Doctor A Week: Paul McGann: Doctor Who The Movie

11 weeks. 11 Doctors. 11 stories. Right up to the fiftieth anniversary, Russel will be reviewing one story a week for each Doctor. He will try and relate each story to a larger picture and how it relates to each period. He will occasionally make fun of them. But he will try and show you what a varied and brilliant history the show has. As well as overcoming his own prejducies about certain periods in the shows history. Each review will have spoilers and will assume a certain level of knowledge about the story in question.

Poor Paul McGann. One story, and then unceremoniously dumped as the Doctor was once again sentenced to years in the doldrums before his eventual resurrection in the form of Christopher Ecclestone (Every planet has a North). His one and only outing makes choosing this week’s story relatively easy, as McGann only had one spot as the Doctor when the Americans attempted to bring the show back in 1996 after it had been off air following McCoy’s final story in 1988.

There were a lot of concerns about the revamped show. The rumour mill had it being completely revamped, including a subplot where Rassilon accompanied the Doctor on a search for his own father. Luckily for all concerned, what we actually got was a revamped TARDIS and an increased effects budget.

Oh, yes, and a script that would prove a little divisive, mostly because it just wasn’t strong enough (but also because, shock, gasp, the Doctor dared kiss a human being).

There’s a lot to like in McGann’s only outing. The TARDIS looks spectacular for a start, and its great to have Sylvester McCoy appearing - if only for a few moments - to hand over the baton. The regeneration scene is fine (well, after the unceremonious shooting of McCoy), and Grace and Chang Lee make for interesting companions (Chang Lee in particular gets a nice moral ambiguity seeing as how, for most of the show, he’s working with The Master after falling for the resurrected Time Lord’s frankly terrible lies). And while Eric Roberts isn’t exactly the Master we’ve come to know, he’s got a nice line in threatening physical presence with just a touch of camp (“I always drezzzz for the occasion”).

The problems come from the fact that much of the 90 minute running time feels rushed. The opening sequence which is all tell and don’t show looks like it was done at the last second (and never mind the terrible Dalek voices) and it feels like we’re missing a lot of logical steps, especially at the end where there’s a lot of mumbled rubbish about treating the TARDIS like resetting an alarm clock (That’s all well and good, but you can’t reset an alarm clock without knowing which buttons to press and what time to set it to, so how does Grace manage this?). On top of this there’s the question of why the Master spits venom, and exactly how the miraculous resurrection of Chang Lee and Grace occurs.

But on the whole, the production is pulled off with a lot of verve and some style, especially for the mid nineties. The great side by side moment of the regeneration with someone watching Frankenstein in the morgue is very well handled, although it is then followed by the whole Doctor Jesus moment in the mysteriously abandoned wing of this well funded San Francisco hospital. Paul McGann makes us believe even the silliest moments of the movie with his wide eyed performance (he would have been spectacular in the role had he continued; a more innocent Doctor, perhaps, but suitably alien) and that TARDIS interior is absolutely beautiful.

The story itself is nonsense. The Master mysteriously escapes from a locked box while his remains are being transported by the Doctor to Gallifrey, and then he somehow takes over a human body (conveniently changing its DNA, hence the whole malarkey about the TARDIS responding to humans but not to anyone possessed by the Master) and proceeds to try and take the Doctor’s body so he can be a full time lord again. In order to do this he opens the eye of Harmony (now located at the heart of the TARDIS) and sets about sucking the whole of reality into a black hole. As usual he hasn’t thought this through. If reality is sucked into the hole, then there would be nothing left at all, including the Master and all his new regenerations. Its the kind of loose, melodramatic plotting that would become a feature of the show again during the later Davis years: big threat, unravels when examined too closely.

Anyway, its all breathless fun for the most part They overdo Doctor Jesus at the start (something Davis would return to in the Tennant years) but once McGann gets into Grace’s ex-boyfriend’s new shoes he’s perfect. There is of course the whole matter of the Doctor kissing Grace which caused a storm at the time but seems very very innocent, now. Grace herself is good, although her romantic attraction to the Doctor is again overplayed and weakens an otherwise very strong character who couldn’t be more different to the traditional image of a “companion” for the Doctor as perceived at the time. Its also nice that she makes the decision not to travel with him at the end.

But none of its strong enough. The movie was supposed to be a backdoor pilot for a full series. But the serious plot holes and inconsistencies weakened the project. Its a shame, because no matter what else you think about the movie, you can’t deny that for ninety minutes, Paul McGann was the Doctor. A performance so strong that it made this one off project an official part of Doctor Who continuity.


- It is a bit of an anti-climactic regeneration for a Doctor who had been so dark and manipulative as McCoy. Although I like the fact that its not the bullets that kill him, but someone trying to save his life.

- Chang Lee tries to steal the doc’s belongings, gets involved with gangs and hangs out with the Master. Yet he’s still a decent guy at heart. There’s a nice moral complexity to him (moral complexity for a mainstream nineties TV show, of course) that makes him rather endearing.

- Lots and lot of fanwank about jelly babies and so forth. Although I do like him finding Baker’s scarf in a Doctor’s locker for no apparent reason.

- “Half human on my mother’s side”. Once again an example of how every creative teams gets to just make stuff up. Although it could be a joke. Its never mentioned again.

- The cops are rubbish in this version of San Francisco. Even though the Doctor takes the cops gun and threatens to shoot himself if the cop doesn’t give him the bike, he has plenty of time to subdue the Doctor and Grace after they drop the gun and spend ages faffing about on the bike.

- Okay, I still laugh at the police bike going into the TARDIS and then turning round to come out again. Its an obvious joke but very funny. Although why don’t the cop’s brakes work? That is a question that has bothered me for years.

- “Think alarm clock”. Really, don’t think. Because none of the climax has any kind of dramatic or narrative sense. Lots of sound and fury signifying nothing and probably the weakest part of the movie.

- That said, love McGann’s Clockwork Orange headgear.

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