“The TV Movie”
Transporting the remains of his nemesis The Master back to their home planet of Gallifrey, The Doctor is suddenly plunged into a fight for his life that will lead to rebirth – and confrontation – for them both.
DISCLAIMER: This review is going to be a little longer than we usually go for on RTW. It’s a movie, after all, so there’s more to discuss.
Imagine for a moment that you’re a child again. It’s Christmas Day, you lazily wipe the sleep away from your eyes as you go running down the stairs to find a sack plump with presents beneath the Christmas tree. Eagerly you reach inside only to discover that, rather than multiple gifts, there’s just one single present. It’s huge though and wrapped in your favourite seasonal paper and you think that you know what it is, so your excitement levels remain high. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, you hungrily tare the paper away, your anticipation rising with each new layer that you remove. And then you discover that beneath the colourful paper there is only an empty cardboard box with the words “Fooled you!” written in biro hundreds of times. And your heart breaks, your head bows and Christmas loses all of its magic. Forever.
That was how Doctor Who fans everywhere must have felt in May 1996 after they witnessed what was lazily titled “The TV Movie”. It had been several years since the show’s cancellation and the promise of a return for The Doctor seemed like a Christmas gift from the gods. Could this be the starting point for a complete Who revival? It could well have been and it was later revealed that “The TV Movie” was something of a backdoor pilot designed to bring the series back to TV screens. With the always enjoyable Paul McGann cast in the lead role and a torch-passing cameo for Seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy, this should’ve been the moment when Doctor Who was reborn. Instead, it got the series shelved for another 8 years.
Our story begins with The Doctor on his way back from Skaro, home planet of the Daleks. He’s picked up the remains of The Master, who has been tried and executed there, in order to return them to Gallifrey. Take a moment here to let that information sink in. Did you notice anything amiss? Yes? Well, that’s probably because there are several things very much amiss. It’s indicative of the stunningly dumb writing in “The TV Movie” that it manages to have three major plot holes within the opening minutes of the story. First of all, why would the Daleks bother with a trial for anybody, let alone The Master? Secondly, why would The Doctor risk his life setting foot on the planet of his sworn enemies for the sake of a man who is nothing less than his arch rival? And thirdly, in perhaps the biggest plot hole of this entire debacle, how is any of this actually happening when Skaro was destroyed in “Remembrance Of The Daleks”?! Did the writers even watch a single episode of Doctor Who before they regurgitated this crap?
Things manage go from bad to worse as the TARDIS’ flight path is tampered with by The Master in the form of a gelatinous computer animated snake. Wait, wasn’t he dead a moment ago? Yes, but now he’s a snake. Best just go with it. The TARDIS crashes to Earth on New Year’s Eve, 1999, in San Francisco. The Doctor decides to step outside for a spot of fresh air, rather than attempt to locate the cause of the timing malfunction or begin searching for Master Snake. I remember very well reading about this moment in Doctor Who Magazine before the movie was originally shown; they described it as “The Doctor bursts through the TARDIS’ double doors into a hail of gunfire.” That sounded pretty exciting to me as a 13 year old and a badass way for the Seventh Doctor to check out. But what actually happens is this; The Doctor casually strolls out of the TARDIS, taking the time to turn around and lock the doors (because, you know, safety first) before turning back to face a comedy double-take from a street gang who then proceed to fire three shots into The Doctor’s chest. Cue Sylvester McCoy pratfall and the gang high tailing it out of there. Bravo, Doctor Who Magazine. Truly you captured the very essence of that scene.
The street gang had been pursuing a boy named Chang Lee, who was hidden by the TARDIS as it materialised in the street. The Doctor is taken to a local hospital after Lee phones for the paramedics, telling the ambulance driver (Eric Roberts) that he knows The Doctor. Obviously he doesn’t, he just wants to find out if fleeing a crime scene in an ambulance will hold up in court. At the hospital we’re introduced to The Doctor’s companion for this adventure, Doctor Grace Holloway (played by Daphne Ashbrook). Her relationship with The Doctor gets off to a glowing start when she manages to botch the operation to save his life and subsequently kill him. On a scale of companion competence even Adric scores higher than this.
Cut back to the ambulance driver heading home and we see that Master Snake has hitched a ride. And this is where we are introduced to the new incarnation of The Master in a scene that will have you gouging your eyes out with the nearest blunt instrument; Eric Roberts, lying topless on a bed, deep-throating a CGi snake. Yes, this really happened. Now I like Eric Roberts just fine but whether he missed the point of the material or was given poor direction he is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, absolutely appalling in the role of The Master. He is so god-awful, over-the-top goofy that even John Simm is shaking his head saying “Tone it down, mate. Seriously.”
Whilst The Master is busy killing the ambulance driver’s wife for no discernible reason, The Doctor begins to regenerate as he lies in the morgue. It’s a wonderfully silly bit of CGi face replacement that looks as though every bone in The Doctor’s face is made of Playdoh. The Eighth Doctor arrives wrapped in a corpse sheet and, completely devoid of any memory, wanders about the hospital raving like a madman. For some reason, this part of the hospital looks like a typhoon just hit it (again, just go with it). After stealing a fancy dress costume, The Doctor proceeds to stalk Grace to her car where he performs a neat party trick by pulling some of the leftover wiring from the operation out of his chest. Naturally, this encourages Grace to give him a lift to her home. Wait, what?
It takes The Doctor some time to convince her that he is the same man she managed to kill earlier that evening and he goes on to explain how the world will end tonight if The Master finds his TARDIS and opens the Eye Of Harmony. She takes all of this a little too well, I mean she doesn’t once attempt to flee the crazy man who pulls shit out of his chest and says he’s from outer space. Even when he walks through a window in another daft Cgi effect, Grace’s reaction doesn’t rise above a slight nervous twitch. Character development be damned! Meanwhile, The Master has recruited Chang Lee and has indeed found the TARDIS, using his new pal to open the Eye Of Harmony.
What follows is barely worth going into any detail on; The Doctor and Grace steal an atomic clock in order to use it to repair the TARDIS. The Master uses his super effective spit technique to control Grace. There’s a confrontation in the TARDIS, featuring The Master killing Chang Lee and later Grace, attempting to use The Doctor to open the Eye for good so he can steal The Doctor’s regenerations, Grace fixing the TARDIS and freezing time long enough for The Doctor to push The Master into the Eye leading to time reverting and bringing Chang Lee and Grace back to life. And it all ends with The Doctor kissing Grace in a moment that had virginal Doctor Who fans squirming with discomfort. For the rest of us, it was just The Doctor getting some sugar. No biggie.
Summation then? The TV Movie is shit; the plot makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, the attempts to link past Doctor Who lore into the story fall flat on their arse by merit of being utter bollocks and at no point are we given a story truly worthy of The Doctor’s adventures. On top of that, the supporting cast is appalling and only McCoy and McGann really save this from being a total train wreck. With that said, there’s no getting around the fact that McGann isn’t given enough time here to actually develop his Doctor. He spends most of his time on screen confused about who the hell he is whilst showing just enough flare and charm to win the audience over. A full series could have had better writing, better acting and given us the opportunity to get to know the Eighth Doctor but, thanks to this total turkey of a movie, that never came to pass. Instead we would have to wait until 2005 when Russell T Davies revived the show with Christopher Eccleston manning the TARDIS.
Sadly, the Eighth Doctor’s first outing is little more than a collage of terrible ideas, poor writing and miscast supporting actors. In spite of being hobbled by a script that required him to have no identity for the majority of the film, McGann proved to be charming in the role and in his continuing audio adventures he has gone on to become an excellent Doctor. His recent return to the TV show in the excellent mini-episode “The Night Of The Doctor” was not only cause for much rejoicing amongst Whovians, but also a chance for McGann to deliver a tour de force performance. All of which only emphasises the fact that McGann deserved better than “The TV Movie” in the first place. And so did the fans. 3/10
Written and edited by Richey Hackett