The Scoop: 1996 NR, directed by Geoffrey Sax and starring Paul McGann, Eric Roberts, Daphne Ashbrook
Tagline: He’s Back… And It’s About Time
Summary Capsule: The Eighth Doctor’s one and only screen adventure pits him against the Master and bad 90s fashion
Justin’s Rating: Geronimoo
Justin’s Review: The 1996 Doctor Who TV movie is a curious bridge between the old and new. While Doctor Who is all the rage in geek circles these days thanks to the successful 2005 reboot, things looked far less rosy at the end of the 80s. The show started in 1963 and quickly developed a strong following as one of Britain’s most signature franchises. Using a concept known as “regeneration,” the actor playing the Doctor could be replaced by a new one upon that Doctor’s death, ensuring the continuation of the series for almost three full decades (and seven actors). But by the late 80s, the franchise was in trouble: Ratings were down, the sixth Doctor was poorly received, the budget was slashed, and BBC execs didn’t much care for the show. Doctor Who was cancelled in 1989 while the BBC began to examine ways for it to return.
The years dragged by as the creators and license-holders looked for possible solutions. This led to the creation of a TV movie as a possible “backdoor pilot” — a one-off show that could become a pilot if the network decided to make it so. Thus, Doctor Who temporarily became an American product, being produced by Fox and taking place in San Francisco. The movie did OK, all things considered, but it failed to trigger a new series.
As a current Doctor Who fan, it’s really fascinating to go back to this film and see it from a modern perspective. It’s not an amazing piece of work, I’ll get that right out in front. If you know Fox TV movies or Fox TV shows from the 90s, you pretty much have a good grounding of what to expect here. Everything’s just slightly cheesy and incredibly 90s (Eric Roberts goes slicked back hair, sunglasses at night, and trenchcoat for most of the production), the writing has several eyeroll-inducing lines, and the commercial breaks are pretty obvious even when it’s stitched together for a complete movie. Yet there’s something worth watching here.
For starters, the new TARDIS is one of the coolest I’ve seen on the show, modern series included. It’s got a neat steampunk/gothic look to it, and it’s a shame that it was only used this one time. Then there’s the historical occasion of seeing the seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) in his final appearance before he becomes the eighth Doctor (Paul McGann). And the special effects for 1996 aren’t wholly awful.
The movie begins with the Daleks executing the Master (a bad Time Lord), and the Doctor is tasked with carrying his remains back to their homeworld. But the Master’s remains escape (um… how?) and cause the TARDIS to crash (um… double how?) and the Doctor is instantly shot by gang members the second he steps out of the phone booth. The resulting hospital trauma kills him, triggering a regeneration into his next iteration, while the Master possesses a dude’s body and tries to find the Doctor to steal his remaining lives.
If it was a pilot, I’m glad this wasn’t picked up. The Doctor isn’t given much time to be an actual character — he spends over half the movie in either his previous body or with amnesia — and when he does come to his senses, he just yells “NOO!” a lot and is ineffective. Then there are the fan-vexing elements of his supposed half-human heritage and a strong romantic subplot with his companion Grace (a doctor who performs heart surgery right after going to the opera). Only at the very end is there any time travel at all, and it’s pretty underwhelming.
One kind of feels bad that McGann got the least amount of screen time of all of the Doctors to establish himself. But I feel a little worse for me that this could’ve been a much better production. Oh well, at least the franchise saga had a happy ending during the next decade, it’s just a shame that the 90s were a dry spell for Whovians everywhere.
- The hospital sets used for this film were also used by the producers of the TV series The X-Files.
- The Daleks are heard but not seen in the beginning
- Snake eyes! They can do anything! Is this guy a vampire?
- Tom Hanks, Harrison Ford and Jim Carrey were all considered for the eighth Doctor
- Christopher Eccleston, who would later play the Ninth Doctor in Doctor Who, was offered the role of the Eighth Doctor but declined.
- When the Doctor rifles through a locker looking for clothes, we see him momentarily admiring a long scarf. This is a reference to the costume worn by the fourth Doctor, Tom Baker.
- The first Doctor Who story ever to be filmed outside Europe
- The TARDIS set cost $1 million to build
- The book that The Doctor sits down to read at the beginning and the end of the movie is “The Time Machine” by H.G. Wells.
- This is the first time the Doctor is shown kissing a woman.
Grace: I finally meet the right guy, and he’s from another planet.
The Master: That’s why there’s no time to waste.
The Doctor: But time to change.
The Master: [now wearing traditional Time Lord clothing] I always dress for the occasion.
The Doctor: I love humans. They always see patterns in things that aren’t there.
The Doctor: Grace, I came back to life. *I* held back death. Look, I can’t make your dream come true forever, but I can make it come true *today.*
Grace: This looks pretty low tech.
The Doctor: Low tech? Grace, this is a type 40 TARDIS, able to take you to any planet in the universe and to any date in that planet’s existence. Temporal physics.
If you liked this movie, try these:
- Any of the Doctor Who episodes, especially the new series (2005-present)