Doctor Who: The Movie

Paul McGann as Doctor Who

I had mixed feelings about this made-for-TV movie when it first aired in 1996.

On the one hand, it was the first new Doctor Who since the original long-running series had finally been cancelled in 1989. I’d stopped watching it by then anyway, but had fond memories of the Doctors I’d watched growing up and would have liked to see the show come back again.

On the other hand, the movie was made by Fox TV in cooperation with the BBC and Universal Studios with the prospect of introducing a new version of the series in America.

While a few British series have been successfully adapted into US versions, the odds are against it. What made the UK show successful is more often altered out of recognition to suit US television standards, or simply doesn’t translate from one country to the other. For example, there have been at least two attempts to transplant Fawlty Towers, both of which crashed and burned. The science fiction/time travel element of Doctor Who might survive, but much of the charm and whimsy of the character would be lost.

So I watched it with a certain amount of hope and trepidation.  And it was okay. I liked Paul McGann’s Doctor, but there were a couple of things in the story that really irritated me.

The movie received good ratings when it aired on the BBC, but not so great on Fox. There was no new series at that time; Doctor Who would have to wait until 2005 to return to television.

I thought little more about this movie for 20-plus years unless I had some reason to list actors who played the Doctor. But since I’ve been viewing and writing reviews of old Doctor Who episodes recently, I thought I’d give it another look.

It’s not as disappointing as I remembered it being in 1996. Viewing it again after 15 years of modern Who, I can see it as the transition between the old and new series. One of the things I disliked about it still bothers me. The other… well, the Doctor does that all the time these days and I’ve gotten used to it.

The movie begins with a voice speaking over images of computer-animated planets and ominous looking snake’s eyes:

“It was on the planet Skaro that my old enemy the Master was finally put on trial. They say he listened calmly as his list of evil crimes was read and sentence passed. Then he made his last–and I thought somewhat curious–request: he demanded that I, the Doctor, a rival time Lord, should take his remains back to our home planet of Gallifrey.”

Daleks, unseen and not otherwise featuring in this film, are heard to shriek “Exterminate! Exterminate!” before the imprisoned and bound figure of the Master is reduced to a pile of ash.

I might have said that it was nice of them to give him a trial and a last request before getting around to the zapping, but the Doctor’s voice continues:

“It was a request they should never have granted.”

The Master isn’t going to let a little set-back like being burnt to a crisp keep him down for long.

Paul McGann is speaking during this voiceover, not Sylvester McCoy, so we can assume the Doctor is telling the tale after these events have concluded rather than introducing us to the situation in the next scene. (McGann and McCoy are the only British actors in this movie, by the way; it’s set in San Francisco but mostly filmed in Vancouver, so the others are either American or Canadian.)

7th Doctor

The old theme music has more of a military march beat and the Tardis exterior has been updated, but neither is altered out of recognition.

The interior of the Tardis, however, has undergone its very first impressive redesign now that there’s a big enough budget for it. If it weren’t for the hexagonal central console amidst a ring of metal girders, you wouldn’t guess that the comfy furnished room where we first see the 7th Doctor in his control room. The familiar white rondel-covered walls are replaced with bookshelves, and the ceiling can display a starfield. And there’s an armchair, in which the Doctor settles down after he’s locked the urn that contains the Master’s ashes into a decorative box.

A few little in-jokes are placed around the room for the old show’s viewers, such as the 900-year diary and the glass bowl full of jelly-babies. Just the fact that they have McCoy, who was the final Doctor before the series ended, to do this is a reassuring indication that the film’s producers intended to carry on with Doctor Who as it was previously known rather than make a complete break from it. Also, it gives the 7th Doctor closure.

The Master's spiritWhile the  Doctor listens to some light jazz, reads HG Welles’ The Time Machine, and enjoys a nice cup of tea, the evil lifeforce of the Master in the form of a transparent cobra-like creature escapes from its box.

The Doctor is forced to land the Tardis to deal with the emergency–but unfortunately, he lands in a back street of San Francisco’s Chinatown in the middle of a shoot-out between two rival gangs. The minute he steps out of the Tardis, he gets caught in a hail of bullets.

Most of the gang members flee, but one youth named Chang Lee (Yee Jee Tso) takes the time to phone for an ambulance and, claiming to be a friend of the injured John Doe, gets hold of the personal effects taken from his pockets as they’re on their way to the hospital. It’s here in the ambulance that we learn the date this story is set: December 30, 1999, three years into the future. 2000 is just a few hours away.

Unnoticed by anyone, the transparent snake hides itself in a jacket belonging to the ambulance EMT (Eric Roberts) and goes along for the ride.

At the hospital, the medical staff do their best to treat the injured man, but repeated X-rays of his chest show the same double image: it looks like the patient has two hearts. Must be a flaw in the film or the machine. Since the case is critical, they call in their best thoracic surgeon, Dr. “Amazing” Grace Holloway.

Grace (Daphne Ashbrook) is enjoying an evening at the opera with Madame Butterfly when her pager goes off. Being a dedicated physician, she ignores her date’s protests and comes straight to the hospital without changing, giving us the striking image of her arrival in a lovely evening gown with matching wrap, gloves, and shoes.

Grace Holloway

The Doctor is at this point semi-conscious and objects to the intended surgery, knowing that their ignorance will probably kill him. He struggles even after he’s anesthetized, but eventually he’s out cold and Dr. Holloway attempts to conduct top-of-the-line exploratory surgery on his heart using an arterial probe with a tiny camera–but she quickly loses her way since the Doctor’s cardiac anatomy is nothing like a human’s. He convulses and dies.

His body is taken to the hospital morgue, where two comic attendants discuss their plans for New Year’s Eve. They’re going to attend a costume party. They shove the body into cold storage, and the one who remains on duty settles down to watch a late-night movie–the original Universal Frankenstein.

Meanwhile, the ambulance EMT is sleeping, snoring loudly, and keeping his wife awake (played by Eric Roberts’ actual wife). The snake-thing slithers out of the jacket, which has been thrown over a chair in their bedroom. It glides across the floor to possess the sleeping man by leaping into his open mouth. At least the snoring stops.

Back at the morgue, the Doctor is also acquiring a new body. Even with the movie’s better budget, it’s not a great regeneration; McCoy pulls a few faces, there’s a bit of glowing light and superimposition, and the 7th Doctor becomes the 8th.

Mirror Doctors Kneeling Doctor

The editing in the next sequence is noteworthy, even if the symbolism is somewhat heavy-handed and confusing.  A series of quick cuts take us back and forth between the Master gaining possession of his new body and the dazed and confused Doctor, wrapped in a sheet, bursting out of the cold storage locker to frighten the morgue attendant. The Doctor’s imagery is very evocative of Christ’s resurrection–but since there are also cuts to the climatic “It’s alive! Alive” scene of Frankenstein on the morgue TV, with some of the Doctor’s first movements on awakening mimicking the monster’s, I’m not sure what the director was trying to imply with this.

After the morgue attendant has fainted, the shrouded Doctor wanders until he comes to an unused rehabilitation room, and some better symbolism. He sees his new face for the first time reflected in eight mirrors–representing his eight selves to date. But the Doctor, who always has trouble with regenerating, not only doesn’t recognize the face, but doesn’t remember who he is or what’s happened to him.

Kneeling while lightning flashes outside, he cries out, “Who am I?”

The next morning, December 31, the Master is up bright and early. When he tells the EMT’s wife that his name is now “Master,” she thinks her husband’s playing a kinky game and is up for it–but unfortunately for the poor woman, that’s not at all what he has in mind. His one object is to locate the Doctor.

PossessionThe Doctor is still at the hospital. He’s rummaged through the staff lockers at the hospital to steal some clothes–as he’s done before and will again. Since several people are storing their New Year’s Eve costumes at work, he’s had a choice of a cowboy outfit, a Nixon mask, a very long scarf like Tom Baker’s, and an Edwardian-style velveteen jacket with a speckled waistcoat and floppy tie. He picks the latter (perhaps intentionally echoing Jon Pertwee’s 3rd Doctor; although costume choices would have been made long before, Pertwee passed on around the time this aired in the UK). No shoes, so he sits in the hospital corridor barefoot with his toe-tag still on, until he recognizes Grace and follows her.

Dr. Holloway is not having a good day. On top of inexplicably losing a patient last night, she’s learned that the dead patient’s body has disappeared from the morgue, and when she tries to look into the reasons for the death, her boss destroys the X-rays and wants her to forget about it since it only makes the hospital look bad. She ends up quitting. Also, her boyfriend broke up with her over the phone.

So the last thing she needs is a man she’s never seen before getting into the elevator with her, standing too close, and saying that he knows her. Can she tell him who he is? He remembers the surgery the night before, and that she continued listening to Madame Butterfly on the operating room tape deck (The “Un Bel Di” aria from that opera becomes “their” song).

Since he doesn’t look at all like the man she operated on–whom she thinks is dead anyway–she dismisses him as a complete nut-job. Until he follows her out to her car and pulls the filament for the probe out of his chest. They left that in? That’s enough to convince her that he is at least the same man.

Grace takes the Doctor home to find that her jerk of a boyfriend has not only moved out but taken the furniture with him. On the plus side, he’s left a pair of shoes that fit the Doctor perfectly. While she checks and confirms that this peculiar man has two hearts and no kind of blood she recognizes, he name-drops Puccini and da Vinci.

Key No way! Yes way!

The Doctor’s possessions are meanwhile still in the possession of Chang Lee: a yoyo, a bag of jelly-babies, a sonic screwdriver, and the Tardis key. Not just the Yale key, but a spade-shaped thing with a symbol made up of circles connected by lines engraved on it.

Chang Lee takes this to the Tardis, which is behind a police crime-scene yellow tape. There’s a mural encouraging travel to the UK on the wall behind it, so I assume people think it’s part of that display. Chang Lee uses the key, and gets to be the first person in this story to see that the Tardis is bigger on the inside.

But he’s not the only person to duck under the police tape today. The Master is already there inside the Tardis. Chang Lee recognizes him as the ambulance guy, but since his eyes still have slitted pupils like a snake’s, it’s easy enough to convince the boy that this is an alien only using the human body on a temporary basis.

For the Master won’t get to keep this body he’s hijacked. It’s decaying already around the fingertips and he has to get a better one quickly–and the Doctor’s nice new one will do very well.

First, he gets Chang Lee on his side by telling the boy how the Doctor stole the Tardis and his regenerations from him and will use them to commit “unspeakable crimes,” just like when he was Genghis Khan (“No way!” “Yes, way.”).

Once Chang Lee agrees to help him, the Master rewards his new sidekick with some gold dust left over from the last time the Doctor had to destroy some cybermen and takes the boy into the Cloister Room.

The Cloister Room

The Cloister Room is much more impressive than it was the last time I saw it in “Logopolis”. It’s vaulted like the interior of a cathedral with a starry view of the universe overhead and a grand staircase leading up to a gallery. At the center of the room sits the Eye of Harmony–the heart of the Tardis and the Key to everything, and it’s what the Master is really interested in.

He gets Chang Lee to open the Eye by using his own eye, so they can see where the Doctor is now… and the Master learns something more. The Doctor’s retinal scan shows him that the Doctor has human eyes. “He’s half human,” says the Master, understanding why the Eye would open for Chang Lee but not for him (I assume he tried it before we and Chang Lee came in).

This “half human” explanation for the Doctor’s attachment to Earth is the one thing I really hated in this movie, and still do. Hints at it resurface once in a while in New Who, but fortunately it never goes anywhere and I hope it never does.

While out walking through a park with Grace, the Doctor’s memories have begun to come back. He remembers that he’s from Gallifrey and interestingly mentions his father, which I don’t think he ever has otherwise (and since he’ll later say that his mother was human, can we conclude that Daddy Who was a sort of Time Lord Captain Kirk cruising around space and time picking up alien women?).

The Doctor is locked out The Doctor swaps the Tardis for a blue Police motorcycle

When the Eye of Harmony opens, the Doctor recalls everything. He knows who he is, and he’s so happy about it that he kisses Grace. Even though she thinks he’s some sort of crazy medical anomaly, this is when she really starts to like him.

This overt romance was the other thing I really disliked about this movie when I first saw it. It just didn’t seem right. Classic-era Doctors, no matter how attractive, didn’t go around kissing people. But since the final episode of Chris Eccleston’s run, the Doctors have become kissing fools. What was shocking then is no big deal today–although I still find Grace Holloway’s transition from regarding the Doctor as a lunatic to considering him boyfriend material a bit abrupt.

The Doctor immediately knows that the Master is there in the Tardis and has opened the Eye of Harmony, and wants his body (Get in line behind Grace and Uncle Monty, sir). He tries to tell Grace about the Tardis and Gallifrey and the Daleks. He explains to her that if he looks into the open Eye of Harmony, it will destroy him. He must close it and get the Master off this planet before it (the planet) ceases to exist.

They have until midnight, and it’s already after dark. He urgently needs access to a beryllium clock.

Atomic clock

All of this only convinces Grace that he’s a complete psychotic.

She runs back to her house to lock him out while she phones for an ambulance. The Doctor demonstrates to her that the Earth’s molecular structure is already decaying by walking through a plate-glass window, which sort of oozes and melts around him instead of shattering.

Oddly enough, that doesn’t convince her that what he’s saying is true. Nor does seeing TV news reports of unprecedented high tides and other phenomena, but the news also has a feature on a new, super-sophisticated and accurate atomic clock that’s about to be activated at midnight. The Doctor realizes that that’s where he needs to go to get the beryllium, but the ambulance Grace has phoned for arrives just then.

Guess who the EMT is.

Up to this point, the Master has been menacingly strolling around like the Terminator in his leather jacket and mirrored sunglasses to hide his eyes. He first show glints of a sense of humor with Chang Lee, and he’s very funny in this scene in the back of the ambulance as he sympathetically listens to Grace describe her patient’s mental condition and helpfully supplies psychiatric terms.

It isn’t until the Doctor snatches off his sunglasses to reveal his snake-eyes that either the Doctor or Grace is aware that there’s something weird about this man. The Master also spits a bit of paralyzing venom at Grace, and that’s what finally seems to convince her that the Doctor isn’t crazy.

They jump out of ambulance when it gets caught in traffic jam caused by a crashed truck carrying livestock (chickens all over the road!). The Doctor hijacks a police motorcycle, and Grace comes along.

Stealing beryllium The Doctor and Grace escape

“I finally meet the right guy, and he’s from another planet!” she exclaims as they zip along the streets of San Francisco with the ambulance in pursuit. Which, as I noted above, seems rather sudden to me since she thought he was a psychotic freak only a few minutes ago. But at least she’s having a good time as they race to save the world, and that’s essential to being a good Doctor’s companion.

This chase scene is something that, at the time, would have been seen as a standard element of American action-adventure type TV and films and not very British. But it has become commonplace on modern Who.

When they get to the Institute for Technological Advancement & Research (ITAR) where the atomic clock is, there’s a big and fancy New Year’s Eve party in progress. Fortunately, Grace is a board member for ITAR so she and her date can walk right.

Getting the beryllium from the clock is a little more tricky, but pick-pocketing a secretary badge from the scientist in charge and distracting a nice young man named Gareth with a jelly-baby does the trick. The Doctor knows about Gareth’s importance in the future and offers him some advice on an upcoming exam. Then there’s getting out of the building past the Master and his new  friend; this involves setting off a fire alarm to cause a distraction and climbing down from the roof via a firehouse like Peter O’Toole in My Favorite Year.

They dash back to the motorcycle and race across the city to the Tardis.

Grace is impressed by the Tardis’s vast interior, but not amazed. “Interdimensional transference” she concludes. “That would explain the spatial displacement we experienced as we passed over the threshold.”).

No matter what you think of the rest of the movie, you have to admit that this new Tardis interior is fabulous

The Cloister bell is ringing a warning as they enter.

The Doctor pops the beryllium tube in at the console, and the Eye of Harmony begins to close. So everything’s fine, right? End of movie?

Nope. The Doctor can see via the starfield screen above that the molecular structure of the solar system is still decaying and there’s literally no future. Disaster on a universal scale is imminent. The Eye has been open too long.

The Doctor is about to show Grace what to do to try and fix this problem–it’s like setting an alarm clock–when more terrible complications crop up.

The Master is there, totally camp now that he’s changed into traditional Time Lord robes, and still determined to open the Eye and get the Doctor’s body. Grace is possessed.  The Doctor’s put into in Clockw0rk-Orangesque restraints. And there’s less than 5 minutes to midnight.

The film’s direction and editing are very good. I notice a lot of shots that show some imagination and more than one interesting quick-cut sequence. The Doctor’s regeneration scene was one example. Here’s another at the film’s climax, cutting between the struggle in the Tardis,  the fancy party at ITAR, the hospital costume party, and the news announcers on television. Everybody but the Doctor et al are counting down to midnight and the end of everything.  5… 4… 3… 2…

Is it Happy New Year or the End?

Camp Master The Tardis team that never was

Watching this again, I can see one other timey-wimey trick at the end that I don’t care for (is that something the Doctor can only do for people who happen to be inside the Tardis, or when the Eye is open?), but overall I’ve enjoyed this. While I’m happy to find it’s better than I recalled it being, that also makes me a little sad at glimpsing the 8th Doctor in action with a Tardis team that never was.  

The BBC has embraced this movie as part of their Doctor Who, at least as far as  the DVD, released in 2010, goes; the packaging and discs style is the same as the DVDs for the classic Who series, and the extras are similar in type, including the usual informative info-text and commentary. There are also two features: one has three modern Who fans watching the movie and giving their opinions on it–which are very much like my own, except that they don’t like the opening sequence with the 7th Doctor in the Tardis and all the little in-jokes. The other, a making-of documentary titled “The Seven Year Hitch,” is primarily the story of Executive Producer Philip Segal’s long and complicated struggle to get this movie made after the original series ended and to put the Doctor ever so briefly back on the air.

We have Segal to thank for the 8th Doctor, who never did get his own series, but has enjoyed a number of adventures on Big Finish audio over the years. I know that this Doctor has met with his granddaughter Susan, and even encountered River Song. But as far as I’m aware, he’s never run into Dr. Grace Holloway again.

Kissing Doctor

Note: This was not the only Fox TV movie made around this time and set at the then-future date of New Year’s Eve 1999. Alien Nation: Millennium, one of the film follow-ups to the short-lived 1989 series, also ends at midnight as 2000 begins, with a couple kissing while fireworks go off in the background behind them. Coincidentally, both couples consisted of one human, and one alien person with two hearts.


Author: Kathryn L Ramage

Kathryn L. Ramage has a B.A. and M.A. in English lit and has been writing for as long as she can remember. She lives in Maryland with three calico cats named after the Brontë sisters. In addition to being the author of numerous short stories, reviews, essays, and period mystery novellas, she is also the author of a series of fantasy novels set in a dukedom called the Northlands on an alternate Earth whose history has diverged from ours somewhere during the medieval period.