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Re-evaluating the TV Movie

By Edwin Patterson

Doctor Who has undergone a radical transformation every decade of its life. From the sixties to the seventies the show suddenly went from a black and white monster-of-the-week story to an action reality-based seventies drama. With the eighties came the technobabble and sparkle of JNT's vision of Doctor Who, changing from the vastly popular slapstick of Williams' season 17. But these are still in essence Doctor Who, with all the elements that make it the show we love. Has the nineties version managed to follow this historic trend and become a true representation of contemporary Doctor Who?

[Eighth Doctor]

Firstly, it must be established that this is not the same Doctor Who we left with the Doctor and Ace walking through a field in Perivale in 1989. As with every other show (even Star Trek) the elements have to change with the times, as established above, and in this respect the movie has attempted to do this. So the real question is - is this new version Doctor Who? Well, there are elements that are easily identifiable as Doctor Who. The Seventh Doctor is an obvious example, characterised within the realms that his character could have become if season 27 had been produced. As is the Master who seems to resemble the corrupt Time Lord we last saw in Survival. Even the TARDIS is recognisable, as it is not within any stretch of the imagination that this 'Dark Doctor' would remodel the TARDIS more like his character (if the New Adventures are anything to go by), and given that the console room is not seen after Battlefield, it is quite conceivable. In fact all the superficial elements are there: The police box, regeneration, an old foe, and corridors. And the absence of some of these elements does not obscure the picture that this is visually Doctor Who - even without a hum and roundels, a TARDIS is a TARDIS is a TARDIS, as the old saying goes. This all goes to show that while helping the visual identity of show, these elements are not what makes Doctor Who, Doctor Who.

So what is? As Terrance Dicks points out, Doctor Who is first and foremost a character drama and secondarily a science fiction story about a Time Lord travelling through time and space. Even in the low points of the show (such as Battlefield) the characters interact believably with one another in the pseudo-setting of story involving the viewer in the action. This is where the movie fails. We show no empathy for Grace or even Chang-Lee's death as the situation is so unbelievable and the characters motivations so two dimensional, that even the special effects are not enough to convince a viewer that these characters truly believe they are in a TARDIS and are fighting to save the world. In fact believable character interaction between all parties, even the Doctor, never truly occurs, the closest it comes is that marvellous scene with Grace and the Doctor in the park, but even this fails because the Doctor kissing Grace is completely (and I mean completely) out of character. The situations in the movie are so unrealistic that we are confused as to exactly what is happening by the end of the movie (Imagine what the ordinary public must have felt).

Perhaps this is just Doctor Who changing with the times. Well, no. Howe, Stammers and Walker point out that Doctor Who is a show that reflects the public's viewing tastes of the times. This is clearly seen from the shows inception with the historical dramas following the success of the adventures of Sir Lancelot and Robin Hood. The show moved from these to the Monster era of Troughton, the action of the James Bond-ish Pertwee stories and the gothic horror of early Tom Baker. Even JNT's era could be said to reflect the times with the gadgetry and science so reminiscent of the microchip revolution of the early eighties. The movie does not follow this trend. If you examine any successful drama currently in production such as the hugely popular X-Files, ER and even Deep Space Nine they are all character dramas with understated special effects and tight flowing plot-lines. These shows are everything Who used to be, but has lost in its current incarnation. Indeed the movie with its spectacular special effects, huge sets and larger than life characters reflect an outdated vision of Who dating back to the ambitions of JNT in the mid eighties.

Doctor Who has undoubtedly lost its roots. It has become what many fans feared in the early nineties - A police box and a Time Lord but not truly Doctor Who.

This item appeared in TSV 49 (November 1996).

Index nodes: TV Movie