Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Doctor Who (The TV Movie)

Chapter The Third, where Sisyphus completes one Doctor's entire televisual era earlier than expected.

The Master attempts to take over the Doctor's life using the power source from the TARDIS, risking the destruction of planet Earth. The Doctor defeats him with hindrance from cardiologist Grace - who causes his seventh regeneration with a botched operation - and gun-toting gang member Chang Lee. On New Year's Eve 1999. In the US of A (i.e. Canada).

Another Sunday night 'Songs of Praise time' watch with all the family (my better half being the least willing viewer this time, who shared her attention with social media throughout). I'm worried what kind of Mesmer job I've done on my children, saturating them with Doctor Who fandom for all their young lives so far, because they yet again sat still and quiet throughout the full 85 minutes. My youngest, a girl, was very happy and clapped at the end, saying "they're kissing again!" of the Doctor and Grace's second snog with all the fireworks. That bit was clearly made for three-year-old girls. In ascending order of age, they voted it "Good", "Great" and "Awesome".

Eldest son put on his pedantic hat a bit more for this one, but - you know - it is the TV movie.  Questions included: how does the Master get into the Doctor's TARDIS without a key? Why can you see the night sky from inside the TARDIS in the cloister room? Is that guy dead (of the morgue attendant once he'd taken his pratfall on seeing the resurrected Doctor)?

Questions that occurred within my pedantic hat included: who lights all the millions of candles in the TARDIS control room? Was the sacrilegious line "Now I know what it feels like to be God" from the 1931 Frankenstein blanked out especially for its use in Doctor Who, or was it always shown like that on US television? How can Brian, Grace's ex, get someone to help him move all his stuff, including the sofa, out of their house so quickly? Who's the protagonist?

First-time round:
It's easy to forget now that Doctor Who is a going concern, how exciting it all was. Fans anticipated this more, I think, even than the next episode shown nine years later. In 2005, everyone knew there was to be at least one series; in 1996, there was one shot at the prize, a long shot - yes - but a possibility. The old series was still relatively recent, its 30th anniversary hoopla fresh in the mind. If all went well, it would be back for good, and we'd have loads of episodes every year, made on US TV budgets

In the weeks leading up to broadcast, I read all the previews and teaser articles in the Radio Times and Doctor Who Magazine, I read the special tie-in magazine that Panini brought out (at least until I realised it spoilered the whole plot, then I just looked at the pictures). I bought the video, which for some reason was out first, but I kept it unopened until after the broadcast on TV.

Strictly speaking, my first glimpse was of the scene of the Doctor and Grace stealing a chip from an atomic clock, which was on screen in the shop where I bought the video. But I couldn't really concentrate as I was sticking my fingers in my ears and saying "la,la,la, not listening". Why didn't I wait and buy it afterwards, if I wasn't going to watch it?  Why was it necessary to own, hold and even - when nobody was looking - caress a solid object to represent this new hope? These are valid questions. At least I didn't queue up at midnight to purchase it the very second it came out, as some reportedly did.

On transmission evening, I was at my mother-in-law's watching with my better half. We had both recently moved out of our parental homes and were living together in a studio flat, but it only had a black-and-white TV as we were saving pennies on the licence fee. I took the advantage of a Whitsun bank holiday visit to see the TV movie - and later on the first episode of Cold Lazarus  - in colour.  Two hotly anticipated chunks of UK science fiction in one night; both turned out to be flawed admittedly, but that night it seemed like an embarrassment of riches, not just an embarrassment.

The first thing that leaps out and hammers you over the head is the visual flair injected by Geoffrey Sax as director, with lots of imaginative segues and inter-cutting. It might be a bit too much really - a swirling vortex cross-fades into a fish's eye at one point, for no real reason - and starts to give one the impression that he's jazzing things up to deflect attention from the mediocrity of the material. There's a big dollop of Christian imagery too, and it's not a good fit: Christ was resurrected like the Doctor, yes, but not with a completely different persona. With the aforementioned visual comparisons of Christ's rebirth to Frankenstein as well as Doctor Who, it could almost be offensive, except the TV movie is trying so hard not to offend anyone.

Direction of the performers is less effective: Eric Roberts is the best thing in it, hamming it up just enough, but McGann is inconsistent. When he's good he's very good, and in a series I've no doubt he would have ironed out the kinks. Sylvester McCoy's performance is weirdly mannered, and seems nothing like the Doctor as he'd played him in the 1980s, which defeats the object of bringing him back.

Daphne Ashbrook gives it all she's got as Grace, fighting against the character arc as written. It's all over the place: she is given consistent physical evidence not only that the Doctor is an alien but also that's he the same person she saw as a corpse the night before, albeit with a different face. But she still thinks he must have escaped from a psych ward. When he suddenly regains his memory and they kiss, she asks for another smacker despite thinking he was a fruitcake minutes before and thinking he's a dangerous psychotic moments later. The story seems to be setting her up to stay on as the new companion, robbing her of job, boyfriend, and furniture, but then she just... doesn't. There's a hackneyed but still great shot towards the end of the Doctor, backed up by Grace and Chang Lee, descending a staircase in the TARDIS - our new heroes. But instead of them flying off to new adventure, they go home and return to their old lives.

Lots of the plot doesn't make any sense. The Doctor at many points seems to have both precognitive and telepathic ability; maybe the idea is to suggest he's visited the future of this city and these characters before, but the knowledge he has is too detailed and obscure. The Master can turn his disintegrated remains into a snake creature, but how? The TARDIS's Eye of Harmony can't be opened unless you look into a beam of light with a human retina pattern, but why? The Doctor says he can turn into a different creature, but only when he dies. Really?!

The ending has come in for lots of flak too, but perhaps somewhat unduly. Yes, Grace gets very lucky jump-starting the TARDIS despite the Doctor never having a chance to finish explaining how to do this; then it travels back in time saving the Earth somehow. The problem was originally caused by the TARDIS though, so I don't think it breaks any cardinal rules having it provide the solution too. Grace and Chang Lee are brought back to life by energy from the Eye of Harmony, which can cause howls of derision from the more cynical viewer, but this is the one bit that actually does make sense - we've been told all along that its energy can be used to bring new life. Literally sprinkling fairy dust over the scene was probably excessive, mind you.

Watching again, though, I was struck by the fact that there's an island of greatness in the middle of this muddle. From the point where the Master turns up at Grace's house up to the moment they step inside the TARDIS, it really hits its stride: the Master correcting Grace's grammar, "Now, would you stand aside before I shoot myself", the chase scene, escaping the Master using a fire hose. It crackles with energy, and everyone looks like they're having tremendous fun.
Like Partners in Crime, Doctor Who (The TV Movie) is primarily a Doctor versus villain story, without much of a monster, excepting the odd bit of CGI globbiness. They both take place in a roughly contemporary urban setting.  The villain's plan causes weight loss (the Doctor loses 20 pounds in 20 minutes because of the Eye of Harmony doing, erm, something).

Deeper Thoughts:
Paul McGann doesn't count. Discuss. Well, of course he does, but to me the TV Movie itself doesn't feel like Doctor Who. A bold assertion about the programme that has the flexible format to go anywhere and do anything, but it's something I just feel. I'd never examined exactly why until now, and I have a theory. It's not about tone. There isn't really anything elsewhere in Who like the gang shoot-outs or frightening operations depicted here, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't be. This is the TV Movie doing the sampling that Doctor Who has always done: it's a bit cop show, it's a bit ER, it's a bit X-Files. That's not any different from riffing on, say, monster movies, literary tales, or Aliens. And it's not because it doesn't make much sense; heaven knows, that's true of many another story before and since.

Let's play continuity bingo. (Honestly, let's - it will help.) Like the post-2005 new series, the TV movie also had to carefully deliver 26 years of accumulated backstory to its viewers. How did each pace themselves in their first mention of some specific concepts:

  • Time Lords; New Series: 2nd episode (The End of The World); TV Movie: 22 seconds.
  • The Daleks; New Series: 6th episode (Dalek); TV Movie: 29 seconds.
  • The planet Gallifrey; New Series: 28th episode (The Runaway Bride); TV Movie: 27 seconds.
  • The Master; New Series: 39th episode (Utopia); TV Movie: 6 seconds.
  • The limit of thirteen lives for a Time Lord; New Series: 90th episode (Time of the Doctor); TV Movie: 1 minute 48 seconds.
OK, the TV Movie was a lot shorter; the makers wanted to throw a few bones to the fans, but then they also didn't want to frighten off the newcomers. This leads to the introduction of a Hollywood staple, the over-explanatory voiceover, to a script that already didn't leave much to the imagination. Result: there is zero mystery. And this is why it doesn't feel like Doctor Who.

All Doctor Who stories strive to have some mystery. It's usually the focus of the old episode one: what's going on in this new place we've landed?  Lately, for brevity, it might only last the duration of the pre-credits sequence, but there's always something. But not here: we're told from the off what's going to happen, who's the good guy, who's the bad guy and we watch an action film play out where they have a bit of a scrap. Easily fixed too: just start with the Doctor being rushed to hospital. Explain all the necessary backstory including the Master's escape in the TARDIS later as the Doctor regains his memory, and maybe have Chang Lee join the dots of the shooting by relating it to the Master or to Grace. Immediately, the audience is kept guessing, and no one needs to take an info-dump all over us in the first two minutes of the story.

Life's too short for me to do a fan edit, though, rest assured...

In Summary:
A curate's egg, in all senses of the term: good bits, bad bits, and we euphemistically wanted to pretend it was better than it was.

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