Review: Doctor Who
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The US Sci-Fi Channel will rerun the Doctor Who TV movie on Sunday, July 15th, the first American screening since its premiere on the Fox Network five years ago.

In 1996, after seven long years of waiting, Doctor Who fans were finally given a new chapter in the Doctor's life with a big-budget TV movie only to find it full of continuity gaffs, lame attempts at humor, and smoke and explosions masquerading as a climax instead of drama. In other words everything they'd known and loved about Doctor Who for the previous 33 years. And for the most part, I thought the movie was pretty good.

And barring another attempt on the big screen any time soon (the BBC keeps hinting it might), this certainly was as good as Doctor Who was ever going to look on television, with $6 million spent for 90 minutes of story. As a weekly TV series a more realistic budget would necessarily result in more down-to-earth (perhaps literally) stories, but that limitation never bothered the old series either. Here we had massive set pieces, crowd scenes that were truly crowded, durable sets that looked like they had been in use for ages, and special effects to match. All this would have been for naught though if there had been no story. Perhaps producer Philip Segal indulged the fans a bit too much in the first half hour of the movie with continuity references aplenty (80s producer John Nathan-Turner must be proud), but I saw this as the Doctor Who equivalent of Star Trek: The Motion Picture with all those shots going around the "Enterprise" as a paean to loyal fans who waited all those years for a comeback.

Once things truly got underway in the movie we had a dashing new Doctor (Paul McGann, virtually unknown in the U.S. but in the UK best known for the cult movie Withnail & I), plucky companion (Daphne Ashbrook), and the latest version of the Master (Eric Roberts) ready to wreck havoc. McGann's Doctor established himself as someone who didn't hold a grudge (after all, it was Grace who accidentally killed him) and quickly demonstrated his ties to Earth. This was my one bone to pick with the movie, the whole "I'm half human" business. Not because it grievously violated continuity (heck, I think the whole concept of the Valeyard -- "an amalgam of the Doctor's evil bits squeezed between his 12th and 13th regeneration" -- to be much more of a wheeze) but because it seemed so unnecessary. Here, the concept of the Doctor being a half-breed only served to annoy long-time fans while reminding new viewers that they'd seen this same concept before and better (on numerous Star Trek episodes). What it in fact pointed out was the plot device of the Eye of Harmony was not very well thought-out. The Doctor hadn't been able to open it in 700 years, yet the Master figured it out in two minutes -- all he needed was a convenient human being. Who made this stuff up? The Eye of Harmony seemed to stand in for every bit of "technobabble" Doctor Who had ever indulged in, being able to not only destroy the Earth (and the Doctor), but bring people back to life. But the Doctor didn't even know how it worked! The "half human" gimmick seemed like an afterthought to cover up a bad plot device.

Other nitpicks would be the ability of the Master (or any Time Lord) to be able to concentrate their life force into a gooey snake in order to possess someone. But I'll allow for the fact the Master might have picked up that trick somewhere on his travels (or there's something about the Doctor we don't yet know about).

But show me a perfect episode of Doctor Who and I'll show you something that hasn't been filmed yet. The pluses more than outweighed the minuses, and the biggest has to have been the casting of Paul McGann. While all three of J.N.T.'s choices of 1980s Doctors (Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy) had their moments, they didn't have that magical ability to at least make bad stories watchable that, for example, Patrick Troughton or Tom Baker did. Based on what I'd seen in the movie, I would have gladly followed McGann (if he'd been given a chance) to the end of the universe or even the dreaded sequel to "The Horns of Nimon" knowing at the core of each story there would be a Doctor who was passionate, energetic, and most of all, fun. Much as I liked most of Sylvester McCoy's era, his Doctor was starting to get me down. He was too dark and knew far more than he should have. I prefer the Doctor to discover things at the same time as the audience does. Best of all, McGann seemed to really embrace life, and if that meant smooching a few girls along the way (hey, in his position I would have too), then so much the better.

As I said at the beginning, Doctor Who has nearly always relied on the last-minute escape-from-peril finale as a lot of smoke and explosions, and the TV Movie didn't divert from that formula. For me though the highlight of the movie was the whole escape from the Institute, from the descent down the firehose, to the motorcycle ride back to the TARDIS. Those few minutes to me crystallized what I'd loved so much about Doctor Who all those years: the adventures of this clever alien whose witty style of execution was unique on television.

And overall this is what I saw in the FOX TV movie pilot. Other nice touches included good casting of the "small" parts (the Nurse at the hospital, and Professor Wagg were particular stand-outs), the Doctor's inability to stop meddling even though he knows he shouldn't (the basis for the entire series, no?), and the "Visit London" sign the TARDIS materializes in front of. These, plus strong performances by all the leads, had fans hopeful that a new series of adventures were on their way. Alas, poor ratings on FOX killed any plans for another comeback (though the screening in Britain on the BBC achieved respectable viewing figures). Curiously, ever since its initial broadcast on FOX in 1996, it has never been shown in the U.S. since, or even released on home video. At least this showing on the Sci-Fi Channel will rectify that situation for those Americans who missed it originally.

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