Sunday, January 16, 2011

Postclassical Who - The TV Movie (1996)

Where better to start a completely one-sided discussion of the merits of Doctor Who following the original run's "indefinite hiatus" in 1989 than with a look at the TV Movie and potential pilot created by the BBC and Fox in 1996? Of course I could start immediately with "Rose", but I'd like to be able to have a greater breadth of content with which to compare different eras of the program. I daresay the TV Movie hardly counts as an era, but in terms of 90s Who, with the exception of the rather unmentionable Dimensions in Time, it's all we've got.
First of all, I like the TV Movie. I figure that maybe when it was first released people probably didn't, and it does have a few oddities when compared to the original run. The TARDIS interior looks absolutely nothing like the classic series console room, the Daleks sound ridiculous, the Doctor kisses someone (heaven forbid), he's allegedly half-human, and the Master doesn't even have a beard!
But in all seriousness I can cope with any of these problems. The TARDIS interior may be totally different but it's pretty damn cool, and I guess if you really want to stretch the friendship you can say it's evocative of the alternative console room the Fourth Doctor used for a while. I suppose I can't make an excuse for the Daleks, but I can mention that in some (by no means the majority) but some of the classic series Dalek stories they sounded pretty bad too. Then again they're not exactly prominent; they don't even actually appear in the Execution Scene. Speaking of which, let's sidetrack about the opening!
The opening titles and the execution scene are extremely cool. Skaro (whichever one of those three planets it is) looks awesome, and even though the restraining device the Master is being held in looks utterly absurd I like to think that it's the Ainley Master in there. Presumably the Daleks are still annoyed about what happened during Frontier in Space. I notice that the direction involves a lot of transitions between similar looking objects; there's definitely a technical term for that and in this instance the Master's eye is equivocated with the top of his cage. This is done pretty nicely throughout, such as with '58' over the x-ray and a number of other occasions. To talk further about the intro, I love the orchestrated version of the theme with the focus on the Middle Eight; with that sweeping vista of Skaro it sounds bad ass. The time vortex looks cool too; I know this is reading far too much into things but the transposition of the swirlies over the starry vista of space reinforces the transdimensional nature of the Time Vortex and other pretentious crap. It looks cool. The credit text is a little bland and the way we see the words 'Doctor Who' backwards as the camera pans through looks silly and makes no sense but the mid-90s CGI is nice and there's a very good, perhaps slightly unjustified, sense of epicness conveyed. All right, the meteorites in the time vortex look crap.
I suppose the thing that makes the TV Movie so good in hindsight is how much continuity it maintains and how much fan-pleasing potential it has. Sure, it may not be the best way to pitch a show to a new audience, but there's a big list of good stuff in here for fans: Sylvester McCoy returns as the Seventh Doctor and we get to see his conclusion, plus a question-mark free costume, Rassilon gets mentioned on a screen, there are Gallifreyan symbols everywhere, the twelve regeneration limit is mentioned, the two hearts are in there, the Master wears Time Lord robes, the TARDIS is still a Police Box, there are jelly babies, there's the Sonic Screwdriver, there's the Eye of Harmony even though it's meant to be a thing on Gallifrey, not in the TARDIS, Gallifrey's mentioned, Skaro is mentioned, the Daleks go 'Exterminate!' and the Fourth Doctor's scarf has a cameo. Now a cynical person could argue that this bogs down an already mediocre narrative with the encumberance of the complicated and contradictory continuity of a very long and inconsistent prior series, and that cynical person would probably be right, but even that cynical person would, if they were a fan of Doctor Who now, have to say that seeing all these classic series references is pretty cool.
Moving on, of course it is ridiculous that the Doctor gets introduced, killed off, and changes into a completely different person. That's absurd for a pilot. It's great to see the transition from Seventh to Eighth though, and only a shame that Sylvester McCoy gets so little dialogue, although his desperate pleas on the operating table "I'm not human! I'm not like you!" are cracking. Then we get Paul McGann or, as he will occasionally be referred to, 'P McG' or 'Paul "The Man" McGann' who is completely awesome as the Eighth Doctor. I enjoy the quirk of his knowing snippets of people's futures and even though his Oscar Wilde-ish hair and costume, along with the new TARDIS interior, reinforce the Jules Verne style Golden Age of Science Fiction feel, I don't see this as being really a problem. He makes the Doctor seem very warm, very funny and very alien, a man who can get along with humans but is different from them.
The kiss! Oh no! The Doctor kisses Grace! This probably is a bit off, but well... let me justify this one. For a start, they are only ever closed mouth kisses. There's definitely no 'implied tongue'. I think that's rather in the favour of these kisses if nothing else. It's funny to think that this chap who was a little balding gent a few hours ago is now kissing the attractive human but I guess that was just the kind of break the Doctor had been looking for after being a dark and manipulative schemer for so long. You feel like the Eighth Doctor is taking a bit of a new lease on life.
The bit where he walks through the plate glass is cool.
Now onto the subject of the Master. A lot of people have a problem with this incarnation of the Master but personally I don't really mind. I like it that he never laughs and seems very caught up in his own world with no heed for the opinions of others - a complete egomaniac like that portrayed by Ainley, but much less amused at himself. Of course the smoke snake thing he uses to possess Bruce makes absolutely no sense and has no justification but then again he's survived inexplicably before - what on Earth happened between Planet of Fire and The Mark of the Rani, for instance? Who knows. There is probably some novel to explain it.
The actual plot is, of course, utter rubbish. What's a 'Timing Malfunction'? Why does the Doctor really need the clock component? Does the Eye of Harmony etc reinforce that idea very much present in the New Series that the TARDIS is some kind of God Machine that can really do anything if it's in the right mood? Listen to Hartnell or Troughton complaining about the fluid links and it seems completely mechanical but now it can swap bodies or bring people back to life in the right circumstances. The resurrection of Grace and Chang Lee is a complete cop out and they probably shouldn't have died in the first place but there you go. At least it's reasonably tasteful - the Doctor only mentioning what a "sentimental old thing this TARDIS is" and that's that. The final confrontation goes for far too long as well, and the Eight Doctor is tied into that chair with his eyes held open for an excessive length of time, but that is made up for by some good scenes earlier, such as the Doctor bursting out of the morgue with apparent superhuman postregenerative strength and the bit where he threatens to shoot himself with the bike cop's gun. Grace is kind of annoying but Chang Lee sort of works in a weird way, writing the Doctor's name as John Smith for instance - another good reference - and I think all around the acting is top quality stuff. Setting the story in 1999 is tactfully underplayed and the time travel jokes are done well.
I think the worst thing is that this never got picked up for a series - it's by no means perfect but McGann is excellent as the Eighth Doctor, the new TARDIS is very nice and it does establish itself within the continuity very well. Such as it is one must rely on a wealth of supporting material for further adventures of the Eighth Doctor but at least there was no decade since the 60s in which there was no Doctor Who even if it would be a nine year wait for the program to return again.
Oh, and the half-human thing? Well... um... that was a trick. He sounds so facetious when he mentions it to the Professor at the clock unveiling! He just didn't want the Master getting into the Eye! Good enough for ya?

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