Doctor Doctor Who Guide

The time is ripe for reappraising the 1996 TVM. It's no longer our Last Hope For The Future, but no less importantly it's no longer The End. Doctor Who survived, thanks to Russell T. Davies. These days, the TVM is that oddity from 1996 that writes out Sylvester McCoy between Survival and Rose. We can fit it into a greater context and hopefully see it more level-headedly.

I always kinda liked it, but watching it in sequence with its neighbouring Who stories was an eye-opener. It's not very good, is it? There's a lot to like in the production, but the script is bollocks. In fact it's the most incoherent gibberish ever to get through the Doctor Who TV production process, which is no small claim. The first half-hour is an extended epilogue to the McCoy era, albeit a charming one, with the real story only beginning once the Doctor and the Master have their new bodies. The Doctor decides he needs a MacGuffin (the beryllium clock - WHY???) and the world gets destroyed and saved by screenwriter whim. I nearly said technobbable, but we're not even given that much. Matthew Jacobs has some strange ideas about time machines, but what's more thought them so self-explanatory that justification was unnecessary. You'd have to tie your brain in knots to explain what happened. It's not beyond the wit of fan, but I'd sooner try to rationalise UNIT dating.

Russell T. Davies had a go at redeeming it in Boom Town and The Parting of the Ways, though.

It's interesting in a continuity context. Some of the 8th Doctor's traits were foreshadowed under Cartmel. The 7th Doctor mentions his family in Curse of Fenric and leaves notes for himself in Battlefield, which although it's a much lesser cheat could be seen as leading up to the TVM's (mis)use of time travel. Furthermore, McGann's kisses now seem to lead in to the Eccleston era, e.g. The Doctor Dances. The TVM even has our last mention of Gallifrey before the Time War, in a respectful homage that's a more fitting farewell than the messy Trial of a Time Lord.

However the Master being tried and executed on Skaro, to be taken back to Gallifrey? Huh? Whassat? Russell T. Davies's Time War can be interpolated into Dalek stories from Genesis onwards, and the TVM adds a further perspective to that. Dunno what it means, though!

Despite everything, I'm still fond of the TVM. It cares about its characters and works its little socks off to give them snappy scenes and a good joke or two. Its heart is in the right place, even if its brain isn't. "Half-human" indeed. It's amiable and good-natured. Most importantly, it feels like the work of someone who loves Doctor Who, rather than someone who thinks the show was a bit crap and needed more ass-kicking and macho one-liners.

It gets the Doctor right. He's compassionate, whimsical and Doctorish, with some wonderful moments ("I'll shoot myself" or "these shoes: they fit perfectly"). Back in 1996 we were full of praise for Paul McGann, but I'm inclined to give more credit to the script. The actor's having fun, but I came away with a stronger impression of Matthew Jacobs's Doctor than I did of the actor's. Probably McGann's most distinctive moment is the bit near the end where he's showing off at the TARDIS console. Curiously his performance spoke to me more of the Earth Arc Doctor than the "hello birds, hello sky" congenital idiot of the early 8DAs. His cold, pale eyes make him feel remote and distant. I'm thinking particularly of his unreadable expression as he looks back at Grace from the TARDIS doors before disappearing at the end.

In contrast, Sylvester McCoy gets hung out to dry! Lunatics have called it his best performance as the Doctor. Bollocks is it. The script gives him nothing to play with. There's nothing wrong with him here and McCoy gets to demonstrate his forte of physical acting, but it could be seen as a flaw that this movie's lead character is almost entirely passive and silent until he dies. Eccleston's first two minutes in the role gave him more to do.

Daphne Ashbrook holds the film together as Grace. If she hadn't been so strong and vivid, this would have been well-nigh unwatchable. Yee Jee Tso is also fun, but for me the star of the show is Eric Roberts. He may be camping it up somewhat, but how exactly is that inappropriate for the Master? Don't try to tell me that Roger Delgado and Anthony Ainley were never tongue-in-cheek. I might have liked this Master to be scarier, e.g. when killing Chang Lee, but Roberts is clearly having a ball and he's always fun to watch. He has charm and wit, which are important. I love his ad-libs and comedy byplay in the ambulance, for instance. His banter with Chang Lee always makes me chuckle.

Seriously, the Roberts Master may have his critics but things could have been much worse. Consider his shades. Sunglasses are great if you want to look imposing and impassive (e.g. the Terminator), but fortunately Roberts chose to play against them instead of relying on them. Imagine the Master being played as an American Schwarzenegger wannabe in black leather and shades, then shudder. I also enjoy watching the Master's gradual disintegration, from "I had trouble with the walking and the talking" all the way to becoming Dracula destroyed by sunlight. As an aside, no classic series story ever painted him more clearly as the anti-Doctor, with their personal stories paralleled at every point (resurrected together, acquiring new companions together, etc.).

On a production level, obviously the TVM is stunning. The "Oh My God" console room is still my all-time favourite, beating the Eccleston version by virtue of being so damn beautiful. Geoffrey Sax's direction is wonderful, with at least one sequence (the Doctor's regeneration intercut with clips from James Whale's 1931 Frankenstein and scored with a heartbeat) that's worth the entry price all by itself. Ooooh, that's good. Admittedly I cringe at Fat Comedy Guy's "Oh My God" shortly afterwards, but you can't have everything.

The incidental music is terrific all round, in fact. In what's surely a first for the show, three people get an "Incidental Music" credit. At its best it complements the visuals as well as anything we'd ever seen, though I'm not wild about the new arrangement of the theme music. It sounds nice and I like the twinkly piano bit, but it treats Ron Grainer's original as just another tune to be scored for an orchestra. The results are too melodious. It's just another American TV theme, not haunting or wailing. The trumpet section needs shooting, and as for the very end of the closing titles...

Interestingly not only do all four lead characters die and get reborn, but so does the whole world! You can't accuse them of not following through on their theme of resurrection and rebirth.

I like the resonances and ironies in the story. For example it's not bullets that kill the 7th Doctor, but simply being an alien among humans. I enjoy the religious imagery too. The kisses make me roll my eyes, but they don't matter. In 1996 Doctor Who fell into the hands of Americans and the results may not have been perfect, but Jean-Marc Lofficier's The Nth Doctor showed that things could have been much, much worse. It's a bit stupid, but charming.

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