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Savant Region 2 Guest Review:

Doctor Who: The Movie

Doctor Who: The Movie
BBC Worldwide Ltd
1996 / Colour / 1:37 / 85m. / PAL Region 2
Starring Paul McGann, Eric Roberts, Daphne Ashbrook, Sylvester McCoy, Yee Jee Tso, John Novak, Michael David Simms
Cinematography Glen MacPherson
Production Designer Richard Hudolin
Art Direction Bridget McGuire
Film Editor Patrick Lussier
Original Music John Debney and John Sponsler & Louis Serbe
Written by Matthew Jacobs
Produced by Peter V. Ware
Directed by Geoffrey Sax

Reviewed by Lee Broughton

To the uninitiated, it may appear complicated but the basic premise of Doctor Who has always been quite simple. The Doctor is a Time Lord, a member of a race of super-intelligent, human-like aliens who inhabit the planet Gallifrey. Having discovered the secret of time travel, the Time Lords use their powers to simply observe events taking place throughout the Universe, following a strict policy of non-intervention. Each Time Lord has the power to regenerate up to twelve times. This means that, should they become mortally wounded, they can effect a transmogrification process that results in a completely new body and, quite often, new personality traits too. Bored with life on Gallifrey, the Doctor stole a TARDIS (time machine) and began his adventures through time and space, fearlessly and selflessly assisting anybody who needed his help in their struggle against evil or malevolent forces. Haunted by the constant threat of capture and punishment by the Time Lords, the Doctor was forced to keep moving, often to unplanned or unknown destinations due to the TARDIS's faulty directional mechanism. The TARDIS's chameleon circuit (a type of cloaking device) was also faulty and the time machine's external appearance became stuck, at some point, in the form of an old British police telephone box. Hence, anybody entering the TARDIS is shocked by the discovery that its interior is actually infinitely bigger than its exterior suggests.

When the curtain finally came down on Doctor Who in December 1989, the programme had enjoyed 26 years as the UK's best loved Sci Fi show. Sometimes hampered by budget constraints, production values had fluctuated over the years but the British public's solid affection for the character of the Doctor, and the gusto, commitment and enthusiasm displayed by the show's cast and crew, had ensured that the odd wobbly set or dodgy special effect hadn't spoiled the party. But the appearance of hi-tech, big budget, US Sci Fi shows, like Star Trek: The Next Generation, suddenly resulted in unnecessary and unfair comparisons being made by TV executives and media pundits alike, resulting in the BBC controversially bringing the Doctor's adventures to a premature end. Seven years later, a surprise deal was struck between the BBC and Universal Television: a deal that would finally give the world the chance to see just how Doctor Who might look given the benefits of a big budget makeover.


When the dreaded Master is captured and executed by the Daleks, the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) is called upon to transport his arch enemy's remains to Gallifrey for burial. Although he has used up all of his regenerations, the Master's evil psyche lives on in the form of a snakelike ectoplasmic goo and, by invading the TARDIS's internal circuitry, it manages to damage the timing mechanism and force the time machine to effect an emergency landing in San Francisco, dateline 30/12/1999. Stepping from the TARDIS, the Doctor walks straight into a street gang gunfight which results in a trip to the local hospital and the eventual need for him to regenerate. Reluctantly aided by Dr Grace Holloway (Daphne Ashbrook), the new Doctor (Paul McGann) struggles to find his bearings and an atomic clock, which he needs to repair the TARDIS's timing mechanism. The Master takes possession of a temporary host body, Bruce (Eric Roberts) and, with the help of a young gang member, Chang Lee (Yee Jee Tso), sets about opening the TARDIS's power source, the Eye of Harmony. Opening the Eye will allow the Master to steal the Doctor's body and his remaining regenerations. But unleashing the Eye's immense power will also result in the planet Earth being sucked into oblivion at the stroke of 12 midnight on New Years Eve.

Executive producer Philip Segal, a Brit working in the US, had been trying to secure a return for the Doctor, via a UK/US collaborative effort, for several years. One early attempt, while he was working at Amblin Entertainment, resulted in the appearance of several erroneous press reports which claimed that Steven Spielberg was preparing to direct a Doctor Who movie! Against the odds, Segal eventually managed to formulate a proposition that met with the many and varied requirements stipulated by the BBC, BBC Worldwide, Universal TV and Fox TV. Adherence to those requirements resulted in Doctor Who: The Movie working as a good introduction to the Doctor, for the benefit of new US viewers, while simultaneously retaining the true spirit, and being a reasonably seamless continuation, of the original British TV series. No mean feat.

The feature was always going to be a bittersweet affair in that, to welcome a new Doctor, we first have to say goodbye to the old one. Sylvester McCoy had been a popular Doctor and the sequences leading up to his Doctor's initial wounding and eventual passing are particularly tragic and disturbing. So much so that both the BBC and the British Board of Film Classification elected to trim both sequences for television broadcast and video release in the UK.

New boy Paul McGann, perhaps best known for his roles in Bruce Robinson's Withnail and I and David Fincher's Alien 3, slipped comfortably into the role, looking a little like a younger version of the 4th Doctor (Tom Baker) while showing flashes of the effervescent giddiness associated with the 2nd Doctor (Patrick Troughton). The Doctor often had a liking for Victorian or Edwardian frock coats, frilly shirts and cravats and McGann's Doctor follows that tradition, electing to appropriate a Wild Bill Hickock fancy dress outfit. Since the Doctor's personality takes a while to settle down after undergoing the regeneration process, nobody would judge any Doctor on the strength of his first adventure. That said, there's more than enough evidence here to suggest that McGann had the measure of the role and could have been a great Doctor. His Doctor has since enjoyed several literary adventures and McGann is still regarded as being the current Doctor by fans of the show. I hope that he gets the chance to reprise the role on film again some time soon.

Eric Roberts is very good as the Master. Originally played by Roger Delgado, the Master is also a renegade Time Lord but he uses his powers to effect acts of unspeakable evil. Roberts assumes postures and delivers his dialogue in ways that make it easy to imagine that Delgado's Master could be possessing Bruce's body. Unfortunately, he cranks up the campness just a little too much at the end, when the Master appears in a traditional, Gallifreyan, ceremonial outfit. Daphne Ashbrook is good as Dr Grace Holloway, who makes a good companion for the Doctor and Yee Jee Tso is effective as Chang Lee, the young hoodlum who is taken in by the charms of the wily Master.

Director Geoffrey Sax had previously been associated with British TV shows like The New Statesman and working on Doctor Who: The Movie was something of a departure for him. Not that you would notice: the show is well directed and edited, featuring some great shots and camera moves and, considering its primary function as an 'introductory' vehicle, is well paced. The Doctor's regeneration is particularly well handled: while a morgue attendant watches James Whale's Frankenstein on a flickering portable TV, clever editing allows the reawakening of the Doctor to mirror the reanimation of Boris Karloff's Monster. And the movie is littered with little references to the original TV series that are fun to spot.

Over the years, Doctor Who had continually proved that there is more to good Sci Fi than a big budget and blockbuster special effects, but it is a real treat to find some fantastic special effects and some impressive set designs present here. The TARDIS's control room, featuring Victorian iron support girders and retro-techno looking flight controls, is particularly impressive. A kind of nod to the technology imagined by Jules Verne. The lighting effects are noticeably good too, while the general look of the show opts for the projection of a darker hue, using the same subdued and sombre shades of green, blue and grey that were used as background colours in TV shows like The X Files and features like Peter Hyams's The Relic.

Sadly, not all Doctor Who fans were entirely happy with the film. Some couldn't handle the scene where the Doctor kisses Grace but, in its defence, it's pretty innocent stuff, born out of a moment of dizzy exuberance more than anything else. Others criticised the sequence where the Doctor commandeers a police motorcycle in his attempt to shake off the pursuing Master, but surely they remembered that the 3rd Doctor (Jon Pertwee) had employed the use of all manner of high speed motor vehicles during his adventures on Earth? Granted, the script could have been a little tighter but, given the pressures that Philip Segal was under and having read about the content of some of the early script proposals (via the disc's onscreen information text feature), I reckon things turned out just as well as they could. It is a shame that the fearsome Daleks could only be heard, and not seen, in the film's short prologue. And, when the Eye of Harmony is first opened, it only displays holographic representations of McCoy's and McGann's Doctor: to have actually seen holographic representations of all of the Doctor's previous incarnations (as was originally planned) would have been a nice touch. The film was a ratings success in the UK but did not attract enough viewers in the US, where it went head to head with episodes of established shows like Roseanne and Third Rock from the Sun. This resulted in Universal TV/Fox TV declining to take up their option of producing a Doctor Who TV series proper. A real shame.

As with all of the BBC's PAL Region 2 Doctor Who DVDs, the Doctor Who Restoration Team have worked hard on the presentation of the feature and a multitude of quality extras have been provided, too. One behind the scenes featurette acts as a tour of the set of the TARDIS's control room, revealing much detail that was missing from the final film. And a recent interview with Philip Segal is very illuminating. The positive reactions that the Doctor Who DVD's have received thus far proves that there is still a huge amount of interest in the Time Lord. Let's hope that Doctor Who: The Movie doesn't prove to be his final celluloid adventure.

For more information about the Doctor, visit the BBC's official Doctor Who web page.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Doctor Who: The Movie rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Director's commentary, four page booklet, two BBC trailers, three featurettes: tour of the TARDIS set, Fox TV promo & a compilation of behind the scenes footage, 'raw' cast and crew interview footage, recent Philip Segal interview, isolated music score, photo gallery, two alternate scenes, onscreen information text, four complete audio versions of songs featured in the film and subtitles.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 15, 2001

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Text © Copyright 2007 Lee Broughton
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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