Archive for January, 2011

TV review – Dr Who (1996 tv movie)

I recently watched the 1996 television movie, the proposed pilot for a relaunch as a hybrid BBC-Hollywood venture, for the first time in a few years. It was much more interesting, and much less off-putting, to watch it now after having gotten used to the new series. In fact, it now looks remarkably fitting, square in place in the Doctor’s history (the only canonical adventure for the eighth Doctor, acquittably performed by Paul McGann) as a stepping stone, a bridge between the old series and the new.

Shot on film instead of video, with the full deployment of single-camera setups and post-production work, it resembles the new series more than it resembles the old. I was quite surprised, though, to see a lot of evidence that the new series’ production team seemed to have taken a good look at it and used what it thought were good ideas, and many elements from the 1996 movie continue on in the look and feel of the new show. The Tardis interior, for one—with its warm lighting, support framework around the console, the console itself being a collection of almost steampunk clickety gadgets, and, especially, a somewhat antiquated monitor hanging from an adjustable arm above the console—seems to have greatly informed the production design of the new series, and is quite comfortable to see in this earlier form. It feels like the same Tardis we know from Eccleston through Smith.

Other bits of look and feel that have a certain continuity to them are more meta: the opening credits show the Tardis spinning and whooshing through a time tunnel, as they have since Russell T. Davies took over; likewise, the names of the stars whoosh out, slow down to pause in place, and then whoosh on past the camera. I’ve gotten so used to that in the new series it was remarkable to see that the ‘96 movie did the same thing (albeit with a terrible, cheesy choice of typeface). Several times during the show we see the Tardis whooshing in space, out over the Earth or elsewhere, in the same manner we do these days; the Tardis may dematerialize upon takeoff, but it most definitely still spins around in the physical universe as it travels.

Then there’s Sylvester McCoy. As one notable Who-blogger noted at one point, in his opinion the oddest thing about the ‘96 movie was that McCoy was in it at all. That they were starting to try to do a new thing with the series was okay with him; it was weird that they wanted to preserve the continuity to this extent. My memory was that he was barely in it: drinking a cup of tea, then getting zapped somehow I couldn’t remember, then regenerating in a hospital morgue. In fact, McCoy has quite a substantial presence for the first 15 or 20 minutes. He has only 3 lines of dialogue, so it’s mostly a silent role, but what they give him to do is interesting.

One has to think that McCoy had the option, certainly, of refusing to have anything to do with the movie. Instead, he looked at the script, and thought, Oh, well, this might actually be worth doing. Could be fun. He does get one last crack at playing the Doctor, which he wanted to do when the original run was canceled. And so, we are treated to a proper exit of one Doctor, the death of the seventh, and a proper regeneration story for another, the eighth. I say proper because it all plays out remarkably like the way regenerations have been handled in the new series. If the story took place on Christmas instead of New Year’s Eve, and set in Cardiff instead of San Francisco, by squinting at it one can here and there believe it to be a Russell T. Davies type story, with a lot of the same feel to it.

McCoy walks out of the Tardis after an emergency landing and is pelted with machine gun fire the moment he does, taking him quite by surprise. The Doctor never gets mowed down with gunfire when he pops out of the Tardis, so one can forgive him for not expecting any such thing. The bullets have missed his vital organs, but once he gets to the hospital, he’s the victim of having an alien phsyiology that human medicine simply doesn’t understand. Driven by his natural willpower, for there’s something very dangerous going on that he wants to get up and take care of, he wakes several times on the operating table, and they give him incredible doses of anesthetic. Mistaking his double-heartbeat for a badly fibrillating single heartbeat, they give him enough electrical shocks in the chest to stop both of them from beating. Once in the morgue, he finally regenerates—no thanks to the anesthetic, which nearly kept him from doing so.

After this, we are treated to the usual amount of the Doctor running around completely addled, even amnesiac, and saying dotty things that weird people out, before he finally settles down into his newest personality and gets on with it. Like I said, it’s all very familiar, especially after having seen this happen in the new series a couple of times now. It’s all well done; one wishes for slightly more humor, but it’s more authentically Doctor Who, modern Doctor Who, than I remembered. It seemed so foreign at the time, and one blamed all sorts of things on the American-tv-ness of it, but the new series has made a lot of it digestable. Even the Doctor riding a motorcycle (which isn’t that crazy, since Pertwee’s Doctor loved zooming around in vehicles), now that Matt Smith has been seen commandeering a fire engine, or kissing his Martha-Jones-like companion—she’s a medical doctor—twice (now that Tennant and Smith have had brushes with such gestures of affection themselves).

In fact, the only thing I don’t like about the ‘96 movie—really don’t like, that is—is that the Doctor isn’t the agent of saving everything from destruction at the crucial moment. He doesn’t come up with a great, brilliant plan, he doesn’t rush around doing something cool just in the nick of time. When that moment comes, he’s shackled and inactive, and can do nothing more than scream impotently; his companion has to do the magic thingy, has to somehow know how to do it—and it requires rewiring the Tardis, making it an action plausible for the Doctor to do, and quite implausible for a random woman with medical school training to do. This lack of agency is a strange way to have written the thing. They wanted to show that the woman was a capable companion, I guess, but I don’t like a Doctor who doesn’t save the universe. I wish they hadn’t done that. Makes me want to re-edit the thing just to fix that part.

As for McGann himself, he’s got a good look (a bit Willy Wonka), a pleasant face, and a very strong voice that can go low when it gets loud. His Doctor does quite a bit of shouting, but the newer Doctors do that all the time, too. He is very much playing the same fellow as all the other Doctors, and his performance fits into the continuity as a bridge as well. Watching him, I can imagine him turning into Eccleston at the end of the Time War. In fact, it’s a bit sad to see him at the end of the episode—companionless, as his new doctor-friend decides not to come with him—alone and seemingly peaceful, but destined to face the worst and most traumatic events in the Doctor’s life, that will change him and how he relates to the Universe forever. In one of those fanficcy daydreams, it seems like it’d be nice to someday see the events of the Time War, and see McGann turn into Eccleston. I guess such a thing would only ever disappoint; we’re not meant to see those events, only hear about them as (now) backstory.

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