Home : Archive : TSV 51-60 : TSV 56 : Review

Doctor Who “The Sensational Feature Length Film”

Reviewed by Brad Schmidt

“Life is wasted on the living!”

After almost three years, the irony of that immortal statement, uttered with such perfection by Eric Roberts, can be fully brought home. Doctor Who had never died. Interest was kept alive in numerous ways - videos, novels, magazines - and yet fandom still wanted more. We received exactly what we asked for in May 1996, when Paul McGann starred as the Doctor in a feature-length television film. And it was brilliant, however nothing came of it. Were we impatient? Were we greedy?

“I was dead too long this time.”

Perhaps the answer - and the final analysis of the story - is a parallel to the real life situation. It was a shock for the Doctor to regenerate in the United States of America instead of in Great Britain or inside the TARDIS, and it was a shock for us to see him do so. But at the same time, in reality, it was a shock to see him regenerated at all - and the overseas location only served to emphasise how mainstream television had evolved so much since Doctor Who's glory days. New Who, whilst much desired, was perhaps out of place in the mid-nineties, the society of which was content to associate with Doctor Who's latter-day replacement The X Files.

Whatever the reason for the feature-length film's failure to launch a new series (a new television series, at least), there is now no point in dwelling on it. In this, the programme's 35th anniversary year, it is time to celebrate the show and in particular the show's future - a future that originated in the film, creating a lovable new Doctor to travel the Universe and enthrall fans once more.

“I... am... the Doctor!”

The finest aspect of this adventure - and quite rightly so - is the Doctor himself. Played to utter perfection by Paul McGann, the Doctor seems quite content to be both preoccupied with a task at hand and lost in philosophy in the same moment, a task quite impossible but yet convincingly achieved. In only a few moments he is unmistakably the renowned Time Lord, from his confronting Doctor Grace Holloway (“Puccini! We've met before!”) to struggling with his nemesis the Master (“You want dominion over the living - yet all you do is kill!”). This new Doctor is a breath of fresh air, innocent and purged of his predecessor's stagnancy despite the heavy continuity blanketing the production.

“The Master is a rival Time Lord...”

This continuity, given more precedence than the plot, is the only flaw in an otherwise perfect production. The plot is confusing even to Doctor Who fans, let alone the indifferent viewer. However, Geoffrey Sax directs the production with such liquidity that the exact plot details are discarded in the rush to save the world. The immobile viewer is left breathless as the Doctor and Grace speed through the streets of San Francisco by car, ambulance or motorcycle - or even TARDIS, while Daphne Ashbrook conveys a frightening urgency in portraying Grace's despair in attempting to activate the time machine.

“Doctor Grace Holloway, and guest.”

The supporting cast could not have contributed stronger performances. Doctor Grace Holloway, played wonderfully by Ashbrook, was far more convincing than one would expect for a female supporting character in an action film for the Nineties. Endowed with familiar hopes and fears of real life - she cries during a dramatic performance and “finally meets the right guy”... but there's a catch - Grace isn't perfect, and is totally understandable. She even kills the Doctor, and still manages to attract his advances!

This romantic overture between the two characters does not take the lead ahead of story development, which makes this theme all the more believable. Indeed, numerous reports through the years from the various attempts at producing a feature film indicated the Doctor would be far more hormonally-orientated than ever before, so it's only in Doctor Who's favour that this is just a passing interest against the horrifying consequences of the Master's influence.

“Is he like the Devil?”

The Master is more menacing than he has been for decades. Gone is the comic book Anthony Ainley portrayal, sniggering constantly; here we are faced with an evil creature past all vestige of humanity, desperate for life. Eric Roberts is quite disturbing in his role, and is all the more so because he is effortlessly convincing.

Blatantly apparent is the religious imagery in the story. The enshrouded Doctor falling to his knees is the most obvious; in addition there are the biblical references with the Master as a snake, the crown of thorns and the Doctor's half-humanity - from “his mother's side”. And unknown at the time, but perhaps it could have been expected, was the mystery surrounding the film's - and its publicity's - conclusion. The religious metaphor continues, as we now faithfully wait - but there is little clue as to when the next resurrection will take place.

In addition, there is more subtle and amusing imagery - the TARDIS materializes in a junkyard, the sign behind it bearing an English motif (“Visit London!”), and a long multi-coloured scarf the Doctor declines to sport. And amusingly, the only complaint about this imagery is from the fans - how many of the general public complained that the film was too continuity-conscious because of the appearance of a multi-century diary or tool kit?! These little aspects of the film are there for us to enjoy, not abhor, and are totally superfluous to the production.

“I came back to life before your eyes!”

Despite the fact this is an American production, it is thankful the Doctor was played by a British actor (but it should not be essential - the acting alone should determine the Doctor's authenticity). It is the same show we last saw in 1989. It is genuine Doctor Who, the absence since Survival making us forget how much mystery the show has lost back then anyway. It's not that the film is not mysterious, it is that we know too much about the show, be it 1989 or 1996. That's the only drawback in continuing the series now - there is far too much continuity to acknowledge if one plans to acknowledge it at all.

In retrospect, looking back across the both fairly small and unbelievably long space since its debut, Doctor Who was an extraordinary success, and is still amazingly captivating. It is certainly one of my most cherished stories and memories of the series - and was a brave attempt at introducing the show to the audiences of today. In his final four words, the Doctor sums up the heartfelt sigh felt across the world of fandom as the license to produce the show reverted completely back to the BBC.

“Oh no - not again!”

This item appeared in TSV 56 (October 1998).

Index nodes: TV Movie/"Doctor Who"