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‘He left his hearts in San Francisco’

(An old look at the TV Movie)

By Alistair Hughes

[Eighth Doctor]When TSV extensively reviewed ‘Doctor Who the Television Movie’ in 1996, I was very much involved in producing artwork for that issue. Although there was a McGann cover, most of my efforts went towards Pertwee material. This was because of one of those ironic quirks of fate - the Doctor had been finally reborn to the public in a new body, just as the actor who had played my own favourite passed away. In retrospect, it was very ‘karmic’ I suppose - the ‘wheel of life’ and all that. Nevertheless, I've always regretted not offering my own thoughts on the TV Movie, as a great number of you did - so I jumped at the chance when Paul suggested that the recent re-screening presented the opportunity for a re-review.

But that's part of the problem - by its very nature, the TV Movie is possibly one of the most thoroughly discussed and dissected ‘stories’ in the programme's long history. What can I possibly offer which hasn't been well said many times before? We all know about the ‘Christ Imagery’, The ‘Spearhead meets Deadly Assassin’ plot, the effect of the Dunblane massacre on the British screening, the ratings success here and in the UK, and the sad failure in the States.

So, I'll try instead to write my original impressions, as honestly and with as little hindsight as possible, from when I first saw a converted US video recording in a university lecture theatre in May 1996. And if you think that it's impossible to be purely retrospective in light of the wealth of opinion and information to which we've all been exposed since our first viewing, you could be right. But on the other hand, I hope it won't be too difficult to join me in recalling just how powerful your own original impressions were, when you sped above the fiery globe of the planet Skaro and heard Paul McGann speak with the Doctor's voice for the very first time...

That pre-credits sequence; I won't ever forget the ‘twin hook’ of those cleverly cross-fading images (the moons becoming the inhuman eyes, becoming the captive Master) and that music! So familiar but so grand-feeling - building to a peak before becoming an orchestral, but catchy, sort of four-beat march. Who among us wasn't wearing a grin a foot wide by the time the logo appeared? The logo: Seasons 7 to 9 in Seasons 24 to 26 chrome, but why couldn't it turn 360 degrees instead of just 180? Doesn't it look a little odd receding down that time vortex back-to-front? But what a time vortex - all autumnal colours and quite an exhilarating ride!

The Ten Best things about the TV Movie

1. Paul McGann (perfect from the word go - one of the biggest tragedies ever that he had to stop here).

2. The stylish direction - fast-paced while knowing exactly where, and for how long to take a breath, clever without showing off, and lovely to look at.

3. The music. I may be in the minority, but none of my own favourite scenes would have been nearly as memorable without the accompanying soundtrack.

4. The TARDIS! Vast and gothic control and cloister rooms - the sense of wonder returns!

5. The title sequence - we could tell we were in for something special.

6. The regeneration - the ‘creepy, coming back to life’ angle is a first, and works well, counter-pointed wonderfully with glimpses of Frankenstein.

7. The effects - the Master-snake, the briefly-glimpsed new TARDIS scanner, the Doctor walking through Grace's amazing permeable glass window... (there's an astonishingly similar effect in Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace - but we saw it here first!)

8. Vworp, vworp! The glorious TARDIS materialisation which saves Chang Lee's life in the alleyway.

9. Grace - strong-willed, attractive and quick-witted, but all-too-human. An obvious screen chemistry with McGann. (Ace who?)

10. Dialogue gems - “Don't be sad, Grace, you'll do great things,” “What do you know of last chances?” “More than you!!” “I can't make your dream come true forever, but I can make it come true today” and many, many more...

The Ten Worst things about the TV Movie

1. The messy, nonsensical and gapingly-holed ‘plot’

2. The Seventh Doctor's ignominious end. (He died of unsuccessful exploratory surgery? May as well have bumped his head on the TARDIS console...)

3. Sylv's dying scream. (Once more with feeling, please, Mr. McCoy.)

4. Eric Roberts' ‘evil’ laugh as he spies on the Doctor and Grace. (It actually made Anthony Ainley sound good!)

5. The TARDIS has a cloaking device? Whatever next - “Cryons off the starboard bow?”

6. The Doctor is half-human? I don't have too much of a problem with this, but why bother? And as for regenerating into other species...

7. The morgue attendant's fainting scene - a little too slapstick, maybe?

8. Grace and Chang Lee tritely coming back to life (well who doesn't in this film?)

9. Not seeing other incarnations of the Doctor in the Eye of Harmony hologram. (What a wasted opportunity.)

10. OK, I'm struggling... Did I mention the plot?

I've scarcely caught my breath before we're shown where most of the $8 million has gone - the TARDIS control room! So wonderfully roomy and gloomy, with all the bells and whistles!

Sylv's on - I don't know about that long hair, makes him look a little... depraved? And that distorting mirror we first see him reflected in, that makes him look like David McCallum! (My wife Rose is asking me why McCoy didn't do the opening narration, I wonder if this confuses anyone else...) The song he's listening to emphasises the different format of this story. The programme itself was never big on lyrics - but then things get creepy very quickly. A rupturing music box, and a tea cup with its own whirlpool, suddenly springing into the air and crashing to the ground in slow motion - this is class!

Sylv attempts to regain control of the TARDIS with great energy and concentration, underpinned with humour - his best scene for me. Urgent music, quick, darting movements - like it or not, I'm completely caught up in this...

Then it's American accents, gunfire and squealing tyres, but I'm resigned to the fact that this was only to be expected. Just as I feel at my most alienated, I'm catapulted back into the narrative by a single, wonderfully familiar noise. What an entrance! That mysterious wind, rising from nowhere, blowing litter around - the thugs, lowering their guns, looking around disconcertedly as a blue shape gradually forms in front of their eyes and the air fills with the glorious sound of the TARDIS engines! YES! This is what we're all here for! A materialising police box is still a miracle, even in the 1990s.

Sylv is spun around and dropped by a shot in the shoulder, providing a moment of stillness to contrast with all the frantic activity of the last few minutes. You can sense the Fanboy thrill in the air as the puddle by Chang Lee's foot suddenly congeals and slithers away. This surely bodes ill!

Presently, Grace appears, attractive and strong-looking, but with an appealing ‘scattiness’ too. Now she's operating on the Doctor. “It's ER,” I think to myself, and smugly note the first major American influence - hospital/surgery drama. But the operation is going wrong and once again the direction and use of music draws me in. Geoffrey Sax can really crank up that tension... but then Sylv sits up and screams. I sincerely hope this was supposed to be an intentionally funny tension-relieving device, because otherwise he's just ruined the scene. Anyway, the Doctor is dead! (“Yeah, right”, we all think). By now I'm dying to see the regeneration, I've always wanted to see this done with state of the art technology. But first, it's the most visceral scene yet - Eric Roberts swallows a giant gummy snake! Actually, the fully formed, translucent cobra strikes me as a little overdone (the amorphous, vaguely snake-like shape was much more effective) but the swallowing is a great effect. (“C-o-o-l!” we all enthuse...) At last - the regeneration! The morgue, the feeling of anticipation, the intercutting with Universal's Frankenstein: perfect so far. But - oh no! Sylv's pulling silly faces and ruining it again! Lightning and x-ray effects - and suddenly he's Paul McGann! Hang on - at what point did that actually happen? Where's the lingering and self-indulgent ‘morphing’ scene? (It was only later that I came to appreciate that this eerie motion-control sequence is far more complex and subtle than a simple morph.) But the new Doctor sitting bolt upright with the slit of light falling across his open eyes is brilliant - this is so exciting!

“Who - am -Iiiii!!!” the Doctor screams to the stormy heavens from a derelict ward room, his arms slowly dropping the shroud around his bare shoulders like the wings of a fallen angel. “‘Who’ am I’ is not a question, I think to myself, but an affirmation of identity, a triumphant birth cry. McGann's only been on a couple of minutes and he IS Who!

So, in their respective corners, we now have a new Doctor and Master. Even at this first viewing, I reflect that this movie appears to have distilled (or ‘dumbed-down’) the ingredients of ‘Doctor Who’ into a ‘guy in the white hat versus the guy in the black hat’ scenario. This seems partially due to a requirement to give Eric Roberts a part to get his teeth into, but I feel the Master's significance has been (and still is being) over-emphasised simply to conveniently fulfil this archetypal ‘evil nemesis’ role.

Anyway, a brief, peaceful morning view of San Francisco (‘the calm before the storm’, I think) leads to the Doctor and Grace finally meeting. Her “Oh no, I don't need this...” reaction as the Doctor innocently invades her personal space is humorous and convincing, as is McGann's confused but determined pursuit. I'm already convinced that they have good screen chemistry. After pulling the surgical probe out of his chest with a wet popping sound, the Doctor finally gets an invitation back to Grace's flat (the lengths you have to go to for this woman!) Once there, it seems strange to hear the Doctor use a word like ‘boyfriend’ but his line “Don't be sad, Grace, you'll do great things” is magical, as is his enthusiastic description of the meteor shower as they walk in the park together. Then he answers his own question from the previous night (“I am... the Doctor!”) and kisses her! We've all read about this, but there's still a ripple of incredulity through the audience. Fans will probably debate this one scene for years to come; as for myself, I think it's rather nice.

Meanwhile, on letting himself into the TARDIS, Chang Lee is startled by the Master in Bruce the deceased ambulance driver's body. “I am not Bruce,” Eric Roberts intones solemnly. (This reminds me irresistibly of the similarly-entitled song which Rick Springfield released in 1984, when people kept confusing him with the then career-peaking Bruce Springsteen.)

The Master shows his new pal the cloister room - a magical shot with two bats wheeling towards us, from cathedral-like beams framing the starry heavens beyond. A room with a view, indeed! And then - oh no, we are struck by the curse of Spock! Our favourite Time Lord is half-human? Homo sapiens must be the labradors of the galaxy, cross-breeding with everything that moves! Somehow, I take even this in my stride, but suspect this surely unnecessary detail is a signal that the script is about to veer off course. Sure enough, the Eye of Harmony novelty easter egg is now open, making everything go wonky, including the plot. I wonder if Grace bothers to lock her door when she and the Doctor leave her flat, considering he has just demonstrated that anyone can walk through her windows. A long, measured look passes between the Doctor and Master when the evil Time Lord comes to pick them up in an ambulance. But it's OK, the Doctor obviously recognises him... Oh, no he doesn't...

A truly great scene soon follows when the Doctor holds a highway patrolman at bay with the policeman's own pistol, but not in the way that any other hero we could mention ever would: “Now stay back, or I'll shoot myself!” It's moments like this which define the Doctor for me, and make being a fan worthwhile. A car chase ensues, and I smugly note major American influence No. 2. (Starsky and Hutch?) Now we're at a millennium party, all gold and silver balloons, apparently because the Doctor needs an atomic clock, or something. An impressive crowd scene, it's hard to believe that all these people aren't real guests at a real party.

Later, it's welcome shades of Indiana Jones as the Doctor and Grace leave the building, abseiling onto the roof of a Police car, and running hand-in-hand to safety. What a guy!

Back at the TARDIS, the biggest laugh of the night occurs when a pursuing highway patrolman drives his motorcycle through the open police box doors, then straight back out again, zooming off in terror. Once inside, Grace's reaction reminds me very much of the ‘used universe’ principle of Star Wars. Luke Skywalker called the impressive (to the audience, at least) Millennium Falcon a “piece of junk”, and Grace appraises the TARDIS as “Pretty low tech”...

I get a genuine shock when she becomes possessed and knocks the Doctor unconscious, letting the bad guys in. I realise that I've been so caught up in events that I really did think it was going to end with our heroes returning to the TARDIS. I must be very undiscerning because, in my then current state of mind, I would probably have been satisfied with that! But no, the Doctor, and the plot, are in very dire straits indeed. Chained up and left hanging, he's only got his accent to fight with. Even at this original screening, the framing of the desperate exchange between the two Time Lords, with only half of their faces seen in extreme close-up, strikes me as stylish and effective. (In fact, I've tried to emulate this technique in my upcoming Eighth Doctor strip for the next issue of TSV.) The Doctor succeeds in talking Chang Lee around, which gets the ‘Asian child's’ neck broken for him. “Why could this never have happened to Adric?” I yearn. Now the Master is triumphantly sapping the Doctor's lives, and it's up to Grace to save us all. Just a minute - up to Grace? I thought this was called ‘Doctor Who’?

The following succession of images - the party, stretching travel brochure shots, the Master thrashing his head from side-to-side, a storm wrecking San Francisco (which the party-goers somehow fail to notice) is as confusing as the storyline. But a feeling of rising desperation is certainly imparted, and perhaps this is what matters. I'm on the edge of my seat, desperate for the Doctor to stop hanging around and DO something! Isn't it time he started winning? At last, the TARDIS is moving back in time and Grace (again) is releasing the Doctor to kick some butt. About time, too! Oh - but the Master's just killed her, and she certainly hits the deck with a crash! Finally the Doctor is fighting back, kicking Eric away and getting rid of all that silly silverware. On reflection, perhaps he should have kept it on as protection, when the Master proceeds to literally administer a ‘good kicking’. That's gotta hurt - perhaps we'd all imagined such a showdown between these two adversaries in our own movie scripts (come on, we probably all had one) but perhaps nothing quite this violent! Now the Master is attempting to insert the Doctor into the Eye of Harmony, while inexplicably ranting in a throaty ‘possessed’ sort of voice. Some nifty footwork from young McGann sees Roberts hitting the wall again, however - imagine falling for that one a second time! Eventually it's the Master who takes the plunge into the Eye (but didn't this actually rejuvenate him in The Deadly Assassin?) A poetic and well-edited shot follows, of McGann carrying Grace's body up a flight of stairs. (I have to wonder if the cutting is to save him having to bear Daphne Ashbrook's weight for the full distance?) Sadly, the sparkly effect which brings Grace and Chang Lee back to life looks like ‘fairy dust’ (perhaps they've been restored by all the children in the world loudly shouting that they believe in the Doctor's companions) and Chang Lee's line “Doctor, I've got your things...“ makes me wince. (It would make the Time Lord wince too, I'm sure!) At this point, it occurs to me that all four lead characters have died and been reborn, surely unique in movie history?

McGann's characterisation seems to assume a firmer and more assured quality as our heroes walk down the steps together, particularly when he emphatically dismisses the existence of ghosts. I wonder if this is the eighth Doctor's stabilised persona emerging at last. Similarly, his thumping the TARDIS console to get it started seems to cement him in the role as the new ‘captain of the ship’.

Then it's goodbyes in the new millennium San Francisco. The Doctor's use of the word ‘vacation’ when farewelling Lee jars almost as badly as his earlier sin of referring to the TARDIS chameleon circuit as a ‘cloaking device’. Amidst a fresh burst of fireworks, we witness the ‘second snogging’. There's a fresh stirring of outrage from the audience - “this is SAD,” someone mutters. The perverse side of me delights in their discomfort. However, it can't have been that good a kiss, because Grace turns down the Doctor's invitation to join him, so it's a last lingering look before he enters the TARDIS and disappears from her life. The closing punch-line: “Oh no, not again...” seems a little forced, but generally I've had a thoroughly entertaining time. As the credits roll I reflect upon the enormous amount of analysis to which these 90 minutes will no doubt be subjected, but feel certain that acceptance of Paul McGann will be pretty universal. “I can hardly wait for the new series,” I think to myself...

This item appeared in TSV 58 (September 1999).

Index nodes: TV Movie/"Doctor Who"