On this day, the 23rd of November, in 1963, the longest-running and most successful science-fiction television series ever, Doctor Who, first aired on BBC One in the United Kingdom. Since then, the rogue Time Lord has gone through numerous incarnations, travelled throughout the entirety of the past, present, and the future, and is widely celebrated as one of the most iconic and recognisable mainstream cultural icons in the world.
Air Date: 12 May 1996
UK Distributor: BBC One
Original Network: CITV
Stars: Paul McGann, Eric Roberts, Daphne Ashbrook, Yee Jee Tso, and Sylvester McCoy
In 1963, Sydney Newman, the Head of Drama at the BBC, commissioned the creation of an educational science-fiction show to fill a gap in the BBC’s schedule, something that would appeal to be children and adults alike. Staff writer Cecil Webber created a brief outline for the show, then known as Dr. Who, but it took a collaborative effort for this concept to be shaped into the debut episode, ‘An Unearthly Child’ (Hussein, 1963). Though the assassination of President John F. Kennedy overshadowed this debut, it fared somewhat better when rerun and the series shot to success with the second episode, which introduced the Doctor’s (Various, but played by William Hartnell at the time) long-running enemies, the Daleks. While Doctor Who reached mainstream popularity during Tom Baker’s time in the role, the show was cancelled in 1989 due to waning interest and a series of unpopular regenerations for the title character (who was then played by McCoy) but continued on in print, such as books and magazines.
In the mid-nineties, however, producer Philip Segal negotiated a revival of the series, which was originally going to be a complete, American-made and set reboot until writer Matthew Jacobs persuaded the filmmakers to tie it into the existing continuity. Many actors audition for the title role, some of whom would go on to play the Doctor years later, before Paul McGann was cast but, while McGann’s performance was received rather well, the feature-length episode failed to find an audience or impress in the United Kingdom and, especially, in the United States. While the film was largely glossed over when the show was eventually revived in 2005, McGann’s Doctor was actually one of the longest-running incarnations of the character, the first official Doctor I actually saw onscreen, and made a welcome return in the ‘Night of the Doctor’ (Hayes, 2013) special as part of the show’s fiftieth anniversary.
Whilst returning to Gallifrey with the remains of his old nemesis, the Master (Gordon Tipple), the Doctor’s (McCoy) TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space) is damaged and is fatally wounded upon making an emergency landing in San Francisco on the eve of the million. After regenerating into his eighth incarnation (McGann), the Doctor suffers from amnesia while the Master assumes possesses a new body (Robert) and plots to steal the Doctor’s remaining regenerations and destroy the Earth in the process.
If you’ve never seen Doctor Who before, Doctor Who: The Movie is quite a daunting first experience in many ways; obviously, these days, with Doctor Who still running on the regular and access to the show being far easier, it’s highly unlikely that anyone would begin their Doctor Who experience with this feature-length pilot but, back in the day, that’s basically what happened for me. As I mentioned above, Doctor Who wasn’t on television when I was a kid so my exposure to the show came from the many novelisations my Dad owned, a number of videogames and audio books, and the two, largely unrelated films starring Peter Cushing. Thankfully, this was enough for me to understand the basic concept of the TARDIS and the relationship between the Doctor and the Master but, considering how long the show had been off television and the fact that the pilot was made for an all-new audience (and generation), Doctor Who: The Movie chooses to spread exposition regarding its concept throughout its runtime, which can be a bit daunting. The film picks up with the Seventh Doctor, “nearing the end of [his] life”, transporting the remains of his old nemesis, the Master, from Skaro and to Gallifrey; however, these opening scenes are narrated by McGann’s Eighth Doctor which is a bit of an odd choice and it almost feels like the film should have opened with the Doctor’s emergency landing on Earth and then incorporated more in-depth flashbacks, narrated by McGann as he relates his story to Doctor Grace Holloway (Ashbrook).
Regardless, the Master’s essence (little more than a slimy, snake-like glob) causes the TARDIS’s central console to malfunction and forces the Doctor to make an emergency landing on Earth, where he is immediately gunned down by a gang of gun-toting thugs who are chasing rebellious youth Chang Lee (Tso). Though a wannabe thug himself (and seeking to steal the Doctor’s belongings), Lee gets the Doctor to an ambulance, and a hospital, but Grace inadvertently kills him when his two hearts throw off their equipment and his alien physiology causes her trouble during her attempts to calm his erratic heartbeat. Thus ends the inauspicious seventh incarnation of the Doctor; there’s not a massive amount for McCoy to do except look horrified, get shot, and lie motionless in the hospital morgue but it’s nice to see him back in the role and to connect the pilot to the continuity of the series. The anaesthesia and being locked in the freezing morgue delays the Doctor’s regeneration into his eight incarnation and, as a result, when he dramatically rises from the dead (a scene cleverly juxtaposed with the creation of the Monster (Karloff) in Frankenstein (Whale, 1931)), he suffers from amnesia and wanders around San Francisco with fragmented memories. These led him to Grace and, having been confused by the Doctor’s physiology, she puts aside his wild demeanour and ravings in order to solve the mystery of her unusual patient.
Grace, a well respected and highly skilled cardiologist, is baffled at having lost her mysterious patient literally right in the middle of a break-up with her long-term boyfriend due to her commitment to her job. Initially, she believes the Eighth Doctor is insane but is captivated by his charisma and mystery; however, he quickly proves his claims of the impending destruction of the Earth and his status as an alien Time Lord when he offers irrefutable proof. A charismatic, impulsive, and energetic incarnation of the Doctor, the Eighth Doctor is excitable, insightful, and very action-orientated, leaping on a police motorcycle and relying far more on his uncanny knowledge of the future to sway others to his whim rather than relying on his gadgets. Passionate, emotional, and effortlessly charming, his joy at the restoration of his memories leads him to unexpectedly kiss Grace, an action she finds very agreeable and encourages more of, leading to an explicit romantic attracting between the two. I remember, at the time, people hated this and it seemed like all anyone could talk about was how the Doctor would never do this so it really rubbed me up the wrong way when subsequent Doctors ran around snogging and falling in love with their companions and all anyone did was praise it.
Rather than the Daleks or the Cybermen, the Doctor’s antagonist is, of course, the Master; after being executed by the Daleks (sadly never seen onscreen), the Master is reduced to a snake-like creature and possess the body of Bruce, the paramedic who brought the Seventh Doctor to the hospital. Possessing superhuman strength and able to hypnotise others with his snake-like eyes, the Master is also able to spit venom at his victims and carries himself with an ostentatious, flamboyant arrogance. He’s easily able to persuade Lee to assist him in locating the Doctor with promises of gold dust and appealing to his greed, giving him access to the TARDIS and the Eye of Harmony located deep within it. Given that the Master has used up all thirteen of his regenerations and is only able to possess others, he plots to steal the Doctor’s remaining regenerations using the Eye of Harmony, a miniature black hole that powers the TARDIS and enables it to travel through space and time. However, the Eye being open weakens the fabric of reality and threatens to turn the Earth inside out on New Year’s Eve, 1999; the impending destruction of the planet leads to Lee opposing the Master and he, and Grace, pay the price for this insubordination. A remorseless killer, the Master wishes only to take what he wants, manipulate others, and have dominion over the living and it is his obsession with immortality that causes his downfall as the Doctor is able to force him into the Eye of Harmony and even perform a trick generally unheard of in Doctor Who by restoring Grace and Lee through the power of the TARDIS. Indeed, time in Doctor Who: The Movie is far more fluid and malleable than it’s usually presented in the show (“fixed point in time” my ass!), meaning that the Doctor can rewind time to prevent the destruction of the Earth and undo the Master’s actions even while they’re inside the TARDIS and even bring back the dead, which I don’t believe is something ever done in quite the same way in the show normally or else the Doctor would have surely brought back numerous companions in the same way.
I remember being really disappointed that more people didn’t enjoy Doctor Who: The Movie; it wasn’t like Doctor Who was on television at the time and, for me, something is generally better than nothing and, as a reintroduction of the character and concept, I think it works really well. The approach is, however, interesting; while I commend them for tying it into the show’s ongoing continuity and not starting fresh, I can see how new viewers would be a bit put off by the concept as it’s a little overwhelming and it walks a fine line between delivering exposition and keeping things vague (we learn a little about the TARDIS and the Time Lords but only the briefest of explanations about what these concepts mean and the history between the Doctor and the Master).
One thing I really liked about the film was the depiction of the TARDIS; bigger and more elaborate than ever thanks to the bigger budget afforded to the pilot, the TARDIS is an extravagant and heavily decorated environment full of Victorian and Gothic architecture that, even now, the show has failed to fully replicate as Doctor Who generally only focuses on the main control room. The TARDIS is also depicted as having a degree of sentience; the Master comments that the ship “likes” Lee, responding to his touch and allowing him to open doors and even the Eye of Harmony despite the presence of the Master. At the time, like most people, I was mainly aware of the Third (Jon Pertwee) and Fourth (Baker) incarnations of the Doctor so, in many ways, the Eighth Doctor was my Doctor and the Doctor of my generation. I really enjoy McGann in the role; he’s passionate and dynamic, impulsive and full of vigour and sports a fitting Victorian-era outfit. Best of all, his solution to every problem isn’t to use the damn Sonic Screwdriver and is, instead, more geared towards his unique and (as far as I can recall) sadly forgotten ability to see and relate the past, present, and future of others through his distinct insight into their lives. Something else that I believe is only an aspect of this film (or incarnation of the Doctor) is that he is, apparently, half-human; I don’t believe that this has come up before or since and, honestly, it has little bearing on the plot beyond being a shorthand to explain his affinity for the human race and, apparently, his ability pilot the TARDIS.
Honestly, it still bugs me that the Eighth Doctor isn’t a more prominent part of Doctor Who’s continuity; he had numerous adventures in books, comics, and audio dramas and it really feels like Steven Moffatt (a man whose contributions to the show I routinely call into question) missed a trick by not giving him a bigger role in ‘The Day of the Doctor’ (Hurran, 2013). I love John Hurt but the introduction of the “War Doctor” just caused too many problems and seemed like a cop out to me; I would have much preferred to see a series of specials chronicling the Eighth Doctor’s role in the Time War and decision to end the conflict between the Daleks and the Time Lords. I remember, at the time it was released, people seemed to be annoyed at how “American” the pilot was, that it had kind of perverted the quaint and cult nature of the show in some ways, but I think the additional budget did wonders for bringing the concept to life; the TARDIS has never looked better, the classic theme is the best it’s ever been, the effects and action were beyond anything seen in the show up to that point, and everything has a far bigger, grandiose feel to it. The cinematic quality of the production was also evoked when the show returned in 2005 which, again, was met was almost unanimous praise, which really annoyed me at the time as it seemed like everything people complained about in Doctor Who: The Movie was suddenly being praised and the only difference, really, was that one was produced in America and the other was produced in the UK. For me, the film, and the Eighth Doctor, will always have a special place in my heart and I’m glad that his surprise reappearance saw further interest in his portrayal of the character.
Have you ever seen Doctor Who: The Movie? If so, what did you think to it? If you saw it at the time, whether as a new or long-term fan of the show, what did you think of it? Were you put off by the “American” production of the show and the Doctor’s more passionate exploits? What did you think to McGann as the Doctor and the death of the Seventh Doctor? Would you have preferred to see the Daleks or another of the Doctor’s adversaries as the antagonists and what did you think to this incarnation of the Master? Which incarnation of the Doctor is your favourite? How are you celebrating Doctor Who Day today? Let me know your thoughts on Doctor Who and its feature-length production down in the comments.