“I’m half-human, on my mother’s side.”
Ladies and gentlemen, meet the eighth Doctor.
Why eight? With the exception of daytime soap operas and maybe The Tonight Show, no TV series has had as lengthy, varied, and at times convoluted history as Doctor Who.
Short version: The series debuted in 1962 in England and ran until 1989. Thanks to the sci-fi conceit of regeneration, the show’s hero, The Doctor, transforms into a new form — a new actor — instead of dying. This allowed the character to be played by seven different actors during the show’s original run.
Like all TV shows, Doctor Who got itself cancelled in 1989, after a run of seven doctors, but interest in the series didn’t end there. A number of folks on both sides of the pond were fans and wanted to bring the show back. In 1996, after years of back-and-forth negotiations, the Fox Network and BBC co-produced a Doctor Who TV movie, introducing an eighth Doctor, in the hopes that it would be the first step toward a new series.
The TV movie got itty-bitty, teeny-weeny ratings, and the series pickup never happened. Flash forward to 2005, when a new group brought life the series, and a ninth Doctor on the BBC, leading to a whole new era of popularity.
But what about that 1996 TV movie? Although considered a failure by the suits, it has — for better or worse — been accepted as canon by the new series. While it has a sometimes dubious reputation among fans, Doctor Who: The Movie has been established as a permanent part of The Doctor’s continuity. Today, the unthinkable has happened, and the eighth Doctor’s one and only appearance on screen has finally arrived on DVD.
The Doctor (Sylvester McCoy, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey) is a time traveler, who has been assigned to bring the remains of his enemy the Master (Eric Roberts, The Dark Knight) back to his home world. Something goes wrong, as the Master’s remains spring to life and the Doctor’s time machine, the TARDIS, arrives on Earth in San Francisco; December 31, 1999. Things go from bad to worse, when the Doctor is shot, and then regenerates into a new form (Paul McGann, Alien3).
The Master is on the loose, with a plan to conquer the Earth by using the TARDIS against him. The Doctor’s memory is messed up, thanks to fallout from his regeneration, so he relies help from surgeon Grace Halloway (Daphne Ashbrook, The O.C.), and streetwise tough guy Chang Lee (Yee Jee Tso, Hollow Man 2). As the Y2K clock ticks down to midnight, can the Doctor come to his senses and stop the Master once and for all?
There are two ways to view Doctor Who: The Movie. One is as a stand-alone, made-for-TV sci-fi movie from the 1990s. In that context, it’s nothing but cheesy schlock, and you’re better off watching something you’ll actually enjoy. The other way is in the context of the overall Doctor Who franchise. In that context, with the help of the seeming endless extras on this two-disc set, this movie becomes a fascinating time capsule of The Doctor in the ’90s.
First things first: The movie. It’s a par for the course Doctor Who adventure. The Doctor ends up on Earth in the midst of millennium hysteria. He regenerates, meets some new companions, battles the Master, and moves on. On to where, we don’t know, but he moves on. There’s a lot of fun to be had, but there are also more than a few “WTF” moments — like any other Doctor Who adventure, really. The only difference is when we, the viewers, bring our own context into it. Unlike his peers, the eighth Doctor never had a run of episodes following this first appearance. We never got to see him in the distant past, we never got to see him on other worlds, and we never got to see him confront the Daleks. Our entire opinion of the eighth Doctor comes from this one appearance.
As fans can already tell you, a regeneration episode is normally not any given Doctor’s best appearance. The Doctor is usually disoriented following the regeneration as he — and, by extension, the audience — gets used to his new persona. That’s the case here, as the Doctor spends the first hour in an amnesiac daze, only “waking up” later on, to finally start acting like the Time Lord we all know and love. It’s in the movie’s second hour that McGann really shines, adopting the Doctor’s combined quirkiness and do-goodishness in equal measures. Here the Doctor is off on an adventure with the fate of the world at stake, and he’s enjoying every minute of it — well, except for when The Master tortures him by putting that weird machine on his head, but saving the world can’t all be a good time. It’s during the first hour when McGann stumbles, struggling with amnesia and shouting “Who…am…I?!?” with outrageous zeal. Another out-of-place quirk is that this version of The Doctor can see a person’s future upon meeting him or her for the first time. Clearly, this was done to establish him as a time traveler, because we see very little time travel in this episode. I doesn’t quite work, though, and makes him look more like a crazy psychic. Note that Sylvester McCoy’s extended cameo as the seventh Doctor is quite good, bringing some great dramatic intensity to his final few scenes.
As for the others, Grace and Chang Lee join Lady Christina De Sousa, Kamelion, and that peppy chick from futuristic version of Big Brother in the category of companions who never actually became companions. A lot of thought clearly went into the creation of Grace’s character. The first time we see Grace, she’s at the opera, a single tear flowing down her cheek. She’s then called to the hospital to perform emergency surgery, and we see her rushing through the crowded hospital corridor in her fancy opera gown. What does this say about her? That she doesn’t fit in her own time, not unlike the Doctor. She’s incredibly intelligent and, after a while, more than willing to go along with Doctor’s crazy concepts and ideas. She’s enthusiastic to be out saving the world, not unlike he is. During the course of this movie, she loses both her job and her boyfriend. With nothing left to lose, she’s primed to join the Doctor on his adventures. Chang Lee is less developed, but the potential is there for a great character. He actually sides with The Master at first, despite The Master’s blaringly obvious evilness. Why would Chang Lee do so? Because here’s a young guy living on the streets in a life of violence. When the TARDIS drops into his life, he sees an opportunity to better his life, even if he’s not sure how. Like so many other aspects of this movie, it’s easy to look at Chang Lee and wonder just where his character might have gone, and how he might have matured.
Eric Roberts portrays The Master in full-on “Look how evil I am” mode, though his villainous plan is unclear. He wants to destroy The Doctor, that much we get, but beyond that his motivations are muddled. He wants to live longer, but he also wants to…rule the Earth? Destroy the Earth? Either way, he’s Mr. Generic Baddie. This isn’t necessarily Roberts’ fault, as history has shown The Master to be a difficult character for Doctor Who writers to “get.” Roberts does bring a little bit of humor to the role, though, which is welcome.
For further positives, the movie features a beautifully designed TARDIS interior, made to serve as both a high-tech control room and a comfy living room. The whole thing moves along at a quick pace with some big set pieces, including a zippy motorcycle chase and an elaborate New Year’s Eve party. We get plenty of continuity nods for fans, including references to planets like Gallifrey and Skaro, as well as some surprising unintentional continuity, with references to Vincent Van Gogh and Richard Nixon, both of whom the eleventh Doctor would eventually run into.
Sadly, there are negatives as well. As mentioned, The Master’s big plan doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and we never really get a sense of what he wants. For newcomers, the exposition is rushed through awfully quick, so if you aren’t already familiar with The Doctor is, his TARDIS, and such, you’ll be lost; that is unless you pay close attention to that one scene where all the exposition is delivered in rapid-fire dialogue. This will be a deal-killer for many viewers, considering the goal of Doctor Who: The Movie was to introduce the Doctor and his world to first-timers.
The negatives don’t end there. The movie has two other big sticklers which have perturbed Doctor Who fans over the years, and will likely continue to perturb them for generations to come. First, the kiss. Prior to this movie, The Doctor was primarily asexual, showing no interest in romance or sex (though there was that business with him having a granddaughter, and I still say there was some sexual tension between him and Romana). The big kiss has become less controversial thanks to the new series, in which it seems like he can’t stop kissing everyone.
The other big stickler — the really big one — is that twice during the movie, The Doctor claims to be half-human. To my knowledge, this odd bit of information has never been seriously dealt with since. Where did this come from? Why was it introduced? Where were the creators going with this? A hint can be seen in the audition footage on this DVD set, in which the Doctor is shocked to learn his mother was human. Other bonus features allege that further adventures of the eighth Doctor would have had him searching for his long lost parents. As it stands now, “half-human” is a descriptor belonging solely to the eighth Doctor. The various spin-off fiction that followed this movie during “The Wilderness Years” (more on that below) made half-hearted attempts to explain this by mining old episodes for anything that might be a reference to it, by trying to convince everyone The Doctor was lying in an attempt to trick The Master, or by all kinds of sci-fi temporal technobabble. Others have taken a more metaphorical approach, arguing that “half-human” doesn’t necessarily refer to his biology but how he makes connections and cares about the humans, as opposed to the rest of the uppity, self-serving Time Lords. More disgruntled fans have used the “half-human” thing as an argument in favor of not considering the movie an official part of Doctor Who lore, but lore it is. No matter how you look at it or try to explain it, “half-human” is the eighth Doctor’s “thing,” and there’s no going back to change it now.
For non-fans who aren’t brining prior context of the show’s history with them, Doctor Who: The Movie will be a hell of a lot of cheese. There’s also no shortage of nitpicks to be had. Just a few examples:
* To prove to Grace that disaster is imminent, The Doctor presses his hand and then his whole body through a plane of glass. Neat effect, but I have to wonder, if glass everywhere in the world is becoming unstable, wouldn’t a lot more people notice?
* The Doctor has all his possessions stolen at the beginning of the movie, but later does his classic “Would you like a Jelly Baby?” gag. Points for using “Jelly Baby” instead of “Jellybean,” but where did he get them from if all his stuff was stolen?
* Grace’s boyfriend moves out, taking all of his stuff with him, except for a pair of shoes, which The Doctor is able to borrow at a convenient moment?
And so on.
Remember what I said above about this two-disc set putting the movie in context? That’s where all the bonus features come into play. There are hours of extra material waiting for you to explore. It’s here this set transforms from just “the TV movie” into an comprehensive historical document, covering anything and everything having to do with Doctor Who throughout the 1990s. When folks say the McGann movie was the only Doctor seen in the ’90s, the creators of this DVD would disagree with you. Yes, you’ll learn all about the making of the movie, but learn a lot more about the state of the show during its so-called “wilderness years.”
* Two Audio Commentaries — The first is a laid-back chat track with director Geoffrey Sax, who discusses the nuts and bolts of filming the movie and his fondness for how it turned out. The second is with McGann and McCoy, who are more lighthearted about the movie, poking gentle fun at it as they watch.
* Trivia Track — This subtitle track offers more behind-the-scenes info, and is at times ridiculously detailed. Learn the exact dates each scene was filmed!
* The Seven Year Hitch — This documentary covers the long, troubled history of the movie’s pre-production. It begins with the cancellation of the series in 1989, and then tracks the various producers and all of their wheelings and dealings over the years that eventually led to the TV movie. The “star” of the documentary is producer Philip Segal, who fought like crazy to bring The Doctor to America, during a time when there was seemingly little interest in the character. Despite resistance at every turn, Segal kept the faith and eventually got the movie made. Interesting fact: Steven Spielberg was attached to produce for a short while, and one negotiation with BBC execs for a Doctor Who revival took place on the set of the Spielberg-produced SeaQuest DSV. How’s that for geeky?
* The Wilderness Years — This documentary follows what happened to the eighth Doctor after the movie didn’t become a series. With no eighth Doctor on TV every week, the tie-in novels, comic books, and audio plays became the gatekeepers of eighth Doctor, and their creators felt it was up to them to keep the Doctor’s adventures up and running. As this doc shows, they did it with passion and care. These efforts were so successful that McGann eventually returned to play the Doctor in the Big Finish radio plays, which some fans have argued are better than the TV movie that inspired them.
* Stripped for Action: The Eighth Doctor — No, this isn’t about McGann’s shirtless scene, it’s about the eighth Doctor comic books published throughout the late ’90s and early 2000s. Learn about the Cybermen’s sleek new redesign, the Doctor’s first gay companion, and a return of two more of the Doctor’s grandchildren (!).
* Who Peter (1989-2009) — This documentary takes us behind the scenes of Blue Peter, an English variety show for kids. The show did regular sketches and features about Doctor Who throughout the ’90s, telling kids, “There used to be a TV show about a time traveler and this is what it was like…” This maintained interest in the show for young viewers during the years it wasn’t on the air. Later, when Doctor Who was revived in 2005, Blue Peter was a part of it, with casts visiting each others’ sets, and sponsoring contests for fans.
* The Doctor’s Strange Love — Here we have a casual discussion about the TV movie from three of its “fans” — two comedians and a writer. They share plenty of laughs about the movie’s plot holes and cheesiness, but also make a good case for why they enjoy it. They also point out a lot of small details many viewers might miss the first time around (like those hilarious joggers in the background).
* Tomorrow’s Times: The Eighth Doctor — This doc takes us into a collection of newspaper and magazine archives, for a look at articles and reviews of the 1996 movie. Reactions from the media were mixed, to say the least, pinballing back and forth from loving it to being baffled and confused.
* Electronic Press Kit — A short 1996 promotional piece, made more for studio execs than the public, in the hopes the movie would lead to a series.
* VFX Test 1994 — What would a Dalek have looked like in 1994? According to this CGI test footage, like a big spider. Not the sort of Dalek we’re used to seeing, but pretty creepy.
* VFX Test 1996 — Special effects from the actual movie, in their rough form.
* Philip Segal’s Tour of the TARDIS — Filmed in 1996, Segal takes viewers on a tour of the new TARDIS set, showing off the little details, many of which contain references to classic episodes.
* Photo Gallery — Pics from the movie.
* Music Tracks — Enjoy isolated pieces of composer John Debney’s score.
* BBC Trailers — See how the movie was advertised in England.
* PDF Materials — Including the Radio Times listings and additional production notes.
As for the picture and sound, the full frame, 480p standard defintion visuals are bright and colorful, with no glaring defects to be seen. The Dolby 2.0 stereo isn’t nearly as booming or immersive as it could have been, but decent and clear nonetheless.
Honestly, I didn’t think we’d ever see Doctor Who: The Movie on DVD. Not only can fans rediscover it now, but the bonus features show an incredible amount of love for the oft-forgotten and sometimes-derided eighth Doctor. He never made it to series, but thanks to this release, he finally has his moment in the spotlight.