Doctor Who: The Movie
Paul McGann’s debut as The Doctor
By Steven Harris
Paul McGann’s debut and, outside of novelizations and audio books, his only outing as the Doctor, was first screened on UK television on 27th May 1996, some six and a half years since the series had been cancelled by the BBC. Although American money was involved and although the action takes place in an American setting (actually filmed in Canada), the BBC were still part of the production, unlike the Peter Cushing movies of the 1960s. For this reason, then, McGann is included in the overarching narrative of the show, his place as the 8th Doctor therefore canonically assured.
The script was written by a British screenwriter, Matthew Jacobs, whose father Anthony had once appeared in the William Hartnell story, The Gunfighters. Directing was Geoffrey Sax, also British and a veteran of various drama serials. So, UK team at the helm, a British actor cast in the lead role and, even better, the 7th Doctor, Sylvester McCoy, was more than happy to return to film some early scenes allowing for a proper onscreen regeneration. The anticipation for the film was immense, a fledgling internet community of Whovians began to salivate at the prospect of a successful relaunch of the show on the back of this movie.
The film opens with a McGann voiceover relating how the Daleks have tried his old nemesis, the Master, on Skaro, for ‘evil crimes’ and executed him. Let’s pause right there, shall we? The Daleks, you say, setting up a trial? Not just pointing their weapons at someone and opting for immediate extermination? Incongruous. Not quite in keeping with the narrative of the show. Never mind, a small matter, let’s not allow a nerdy detail to spoil our enjoyment this early on.
The Master has requested that his ashes be taken back to Gallifrey, the home planet of the Timelords, by none other than his greatest enemy, The Doctor. Sorry, going to have to stop again there. Er, Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor was no mug. He would have smelled a rat right away, surely? No? Okay, on to the titles then.
The graphics and theme music are impressive, the former looking as though there has actually been thought as well as money put into them and the music, performed as it is by a full orchestra, sounds weighty although a tad slow.
Our first proper glimpse of the Doctor is of McCoy on board the Tardis, carrying an urn which he locks away with his sonic screwdriver inside a clasped casket for extra safe-keeping. Maybe he does suspect something after all. Not too suspicious, though, as he then plonks himself in a lovely old armchair, listens to an old record on an old record deck, whilst sipping tea and reading H.G Wells’ old classic The Time Machine. The record sticks, replaying the word ‘time’ over and over again and the casket containing the Master’s remains shakes, then breaks open. Something escapes, a sort of oozing yucky something, and it heads for the Tardis console. A display flashes up that an emergency landing is being initiated and we see a view of Earth.
The next scene is of Chinatown in, we later discover, San Francisco. Three youths are being chased by some people in a black car. The youths climb a fence and then fire on the car with handguns. The car disappears and the boys think they have escaped only to come face to face with four triad types who are all brandishing machine guns. Only one youth survives the initial gunfire. He is cornered and about to be mown down too when the Tardis materialises between him and the gunmen. They shoot anyway, hitting the Doctor several times when he emerges from the craft a moment or two later. Their car returns and the gunmen scarper.
The young man pops out in a somewhat bemused state from behind the Tardis and checks that his friends are indeed dead before turning his attention to the Doctor who is groaning on the floor. Behind them something yucky and oozing is seeping out through the Tardis keyhole. The youth tells the Doctor not to worry and that “Chang Lee will get you an ambulance.” The ambulance then arrives almost instantly. Chang Lee has not phoned for it so one can only assume that the paramedics in San Francisco operate via telepathy.
In the ambulance a burly paramedic asks Chang Lee to fill out the Doctor’s details on a form. Lee puts the name down as John Smith which just so happens to be a pseudonym the Doctor has indeed used on many occasions and which would be resurrected when the series finally returned a decade later. We also learn from the form-filling that the date is December 30th 1999. Presumably somewhere across America Prince is preparing to party like it is tomorrow.
The Doctor is rushed into surgery while the oozy yucky stuff takes on a snake-like form and slides into the paramedic’s uniform when no-one is in the ambulance. There is an almost carbon copy of the 3rd Doctor regeneration scene in which a nurse does a double take at his x-ray as she sees two hearts. The echo is further compounded by a doctor (a medical one not the Timelord one) saying it must be a double exposure. They are more concerned about their patient’s heart rate and call in cardiology.
Dr. Grace Holloway, cardiologist on call, is at the opera, watching a production of Madame Butterfly, when she gets the beep on her pager. She apologises to her boyfriend and rushes out. Still in her elegant ball gown we next see her scrubbing up for surgery at the hospital while a nurse holds a phone to her ear so she can speak to the irate boyfriend. He threatens to move out…again.
Grace instructs a minion to put Madame Butterfly on a CD player and prepares to operate with Puccini as backing music. The Doctor wakes on the table and insists he is not human and they must not proceed. They sedate him. Before he goes out cold he mutters “Timing malfunction”. Once she has a camera thing inside her patient Grace gets confused by the internal geography. She inserts a probe (US terminology? Possibly a ‘stent’ in the UK?) which induces a massive seizure. The electric zappy paddles do not revive the patient who is declared dead.
Having checked the Doctor’s x-ray, Grace is fairly certain it is not a double exposure and that he actually had two hearts, which would account for her getting lost inside. His stuff is turned over in a paper bag to Chang Lee whom she quickly realises does not know the patient at all. He grabs the stuff and runs.
Night time in the paramedic’s house and his wife is fed up with his snoring in bed. Neither of them are aware that an oozing yucky thing is emerging from his uniform. Meanwhile the Doctor’s body is wheeled into the morgue by a large chap who chats with a colleague about the costume party coming up later that night – it is now the early hours of 31st December. As the Doctor is popped into a human fridge the snake/Master/yuck thing seeps into the paramedic’s body.
The large mortician is spending the graveyard shift (pun intended) by watching an old movie on television: Dr. Frankenstein is attempting to animate the creature he has created. Wonder if there might be any parallels with the Doctor’s regeneration? Guess we’ll have to watch on and see, eh?
The regeneration that seasoned Whovians knew was coming begins with McCoy’s face scrunging and gurning into various shapes while static electricity fills the fridge. Suddenly he is McCoy no more but McGann. Flash to Frankenstein’s creation who is shown to be slightly twitchy in the finger department as it comes to life. Flash back to the Doctor who is also a bit twitchy in the finger department. “It’s alive!” shouts Dr. Frankenstein and then McGann sits up.
The large mortician hears banging and goes to see the fridge door being smashed open and a Timelord surprise coming his way, all wrapped up in a shroud in a Jesusy manner. The large mortician faints. The Doctor wanders off into an empty corridor, absently humming Puccini to himself, and ends up in a disused ward or a basement where we get the obligatory post regeneration mirror scene. He repeatedly asks “Who am I?”, his voice rising in volume and pitch each time. As the Doctor stretches his arms out in a further Christ analogy we also see the flickering image of the Master taking control of the paramedic’s body. In contrast his countenance is demonic and he froths at the mouth.
The camera skips about for a bit, first showing us Grace asleep on a couch in her office with a morning sun streaming in through the cracks in the blinds. Then we get the 8th Doctor emulating the 3rd by rummaging around in hospital lockers for clothing (something the 11th will also do in fourteen years’ time). He eventually settles for a frock coat which was to have been part of a fancy dress costume – Wild Bill Hickok. Then we see Chang Lee checking out the contents of the bag he stole from Grace – a sonic screwdriver, a yoyo, a fob watch and the Tardis key. The Master is awake and has designs on the Doctor’s body as the one he is occupying will not last very long. Long enough for him to kill the paramedic’s wife, though. Gosh he is evil, isn’t he? Grace and the large mortician are arguing about the disappearance of the Doctor’s body which she assumes is a case of bodysnatching, just to round off the Frankenstein’s creature parallels.
The Doctor is actually sitting fully dressed apart from bare feet in the hospital waiting room. After a contretemps with her boss who destroys the ‘double exposure’ x-ray to remove all evidence that the Doctor was ever a patient and to protect the hospital from accusations of negligence, Grace quits and is next seen pushing a trolley of personal belongings out towards the lift. The Doctor sidles into the elevator behind her and says “Puccini!” He is sure he knows her but still cannot remember who he is. Having jumped into the back seat of her car he proceeds to pull out the missing probe that Grace lost inside his previous body. He yells at her that he has two hearts and she decides to take him home. Like you do when a nutjob in a Wild West frockcoat but no shoes, who has two hearts and pulls out a piece of surgical equipment that was initially inserted into an entirely different man invites himself into your car and shouts “Drive!”
Back at the hospital the Master learns that the Doctor’s body is missing and that his belongings have been given to “the Asian child” as he calls Chang Lee. Grace and the Doctor have reached her place by now. Her boyfriend actually has moved out and taken much of the furniture with him. A lithograph by DaVinci is on the wall. The Doctor mentions meeting him and Puccini (separately) and Grace calls him a name-dropper. She also rebuts his claim that you can travel in time and seems reasonably convinced that while he may have two hearts he is also somewhat insane.
Chang Lee enters the Tardis and does the usual double take, having to come outside again to check that he is not seeing things, that the outside really is just a funny box thing while the inside is a massive place. The Master, who apparently does not need a key to get in, is already inside and spins Lee a yarn about the Doctor having stolen the Master’s body and all of his things, including the Tardis.
The Doctor is trying on a pair of shoes that Grace’s boyfriend neglected to take with him when he gutted the place. They go for a walk and he remembers that he is from Gallifrey but then distracts himself by getting all excited about how well the shoes fit. The Master is meanwhile promising Chang Lee bags of gold dust if he will help him get the Doctor’s body back. The pair enter the Cloister Room of the Tardis which looks so Gothic that several CGI bats fly towards the camera. The Master uses Lee to open the Eye of Harmony. Now hang on right there. This is the same Eye of Harmony that is actually on Gallifrey, that is the source of the time-travelling power harnessed by the Timelords? So how can the Eye of Harmony be inside the Tardis. Is this another scripting error in which one classical term has been replaced with another? Do they actually mean the ‘heart of the Tardis’? I expect so. Ignore it and move on.
As the Eye of Harmony opens (I know, I know, move on I said) the Doctor feels something is wrong. This is a curiously precognitive and potentially telepathic Doctor which, as the 11th might say, is new. This information does help him remember who he is, though. “I am the Doctor!” he declares and snogs Grace on the mouth place.
Oh dear, here comes another of those unpleasant nerd moments. The Master claims that the Doctor is half human. Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. Just like Cushing’s non-canonical version being a human who is called ‘Who’, I can barely describe how wrong this is for the entire premise of the character. So just take it from me that I think this is wrong, wrong, wrongly wrong, and we will say no more about it. Half human! Stupid Hollywood thinking. Yargh!
And another wrongness compounds the half-human thing (sorry, did I mention it again, That’s the last time, honest). Suddenly the Doctor now knows that the Earth is in peril. Ok, fair enough, the Eye of Harmony (wrong, but shush) has been opened and will suck the entire planet into itself. I can buy that. The real Eye of Harmony is a black hole so yeah, I’ll suspend disbelief enough to imagine that if there is a temporal/spatial link between the Gallifreyan Eye of Harmony and the Doctor’s Tardis then the Earth could be sucked towards the event horizon. But why at exactly midnight on the evening of December 31st 1999? Why that exact sedond? This is what the Doctor claims. How would he know? How could he predict so accurately? And why would the timescale of this potential catastrophe run parallel to the arbitrary, human-concocted concept of Earth time? By all means try to set up tension within the narrative but this is the sort of shoddy thinking a five year old will see through from behind the goddamn sofa!
Take six Valium and breathe deeply. That’s better. So Grace thinks the Doctor has properly flipped (maybe she is wondering about the precise timing of this projected disaster too?) and he has to walk through her lounge window to prove to her that weird shit is already happening. Strange phenomena are being reported on the television news and the newsreader speculates some rational cause. “I love humans,” says the Doctor, “Always seeing patterns in things that aren’t there.” (True that)
The only thing that will help the Doctor prevent this terrible event from occurring is a beryllium clock. Next item on the news? An atomic clock, beryllium based, which is being unveiled at precisely midnight at the San Francisco Institute of Technological Advancement and Research. Well what a coincidence. And Grace just happens to be a member and has tickets set aside for the New Years’ Eve party.
The Master arrives at Grace’s house as he was able to see where the Doctor was through some Eye of Harmony chicanery (after the other implausible stuff I just went with this bit). He is still in the paramedic’s body so the Doctor has no idea who he is (even though Timelords always claim to be able to recognise one another, whatever transformations they have undergone). A slip of the sunglasses in the back of the ambulance enables the Doctor to spot his enemy, however, and he and Grace manage to escape. Before they do so the Master spews some oozy yuck stuff onto Grace’s wrist. Like, gross, dude.
A little light relief with a motorcycle cop and a bag of jelly babies ensues before the Doctor and Grace steal his bike and blast away into the night with the Master in pursuit, Chang Lee at the wheel of the ambulance. There is some dreadful and pointless dialogue from Grace during this bike ride and I won’t dignify it with a quotation. They arrive at the Institute and, with a little skulduggery manage to get to the back of the clock and pinch a tiny thing that will enable the Doctor to sort out the Tardis and avert disaster.
The Master and his little friend arrive. The Doctor hits the fire alarm, to cause a distraction and then he and Grace escape from an upper floor using the old Die Hard fire hose as a rope trick. Now they know what a TV dinner feels like. Oh no, that was a different bit. They leap back on the bike and head for the Tardis.
Time for a little more humour. Another motorcycle cop has been in pursuit of them, apparently, and enters the Tardis at full throttle while they wait outside. A moment or two later he returns and vanishes into the night. The Doctor must have enjoyed this so much he stored it in his memory to re-enact and impress Clara during The Bells of Saint John. Inside the Cloister Bell is ringing. Bad news. The Eye of Harmony has been open too long. Although the Doctor fits the clock part to the wiring they are going to have to go back in time to before the Eye was opened. Only problem is, there is not enough power to do so. Not without jump-starting from the Eye itself which will require Grace to do fiddly wiring stuff in the console room while the Doctor does Eye of Harmony stuff.
Good plan. Oh no, bad plan. That yuck spewed from the Master has spread into Grace’s system and he now hypnotically controls her. We know this because her eyes go blacker than Willow’s when she is all witchy in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Oh, and the Master has arrived and sort of told us anyway.
The Master, pausing only to change into a very camp outfit, hooks the Doctor up to a device that looks part torture chamber apparatus and part Chameleon Arch (see Human Nature). This, in conjunction with a beaming beam from the Eye of Harmony, will transfer all of the Doctor’s remaining regenerations to the Master. Chang Lee learns that the Master has been lying to him and refuses to open the Eye again. So the Master breaks his neck and kills him. Grace can do it instead except she will need to be released from his possession in order for her eyes to appear human enough (confused? I am and I’ve watched it lots).
We get shots of a party back at the hospital and the approach of midnight at the Institute. Grace opens the Eye, under duress, and the Master positions himself to benefit from the blinky winky beam. In doing so he becomes immobilised so the Doctor yells at Grace to go and finish what they were doing before they were so rudely interrupted. She pulls a bunch of wires from beneath the Tardis console and appears to know which ones to link together.
The weather outside is stormy, lightning flashing and portents of doom all around. The countdown to midnight is being clocked off at the hospital party and the institute. Grace plugs in the final lead just as midnight strikes and the Tardis is thrown back in time but it seems as though the Earth has been sucked out of existence anyway. The Master cannot draw the Doctor’s lives now, though, and is weakening, according to the nice Timelord. Grace frees the Doctor but is then pushed over a balcony to her death by the evil Timelord.
Fight, fight, fight! Master and Doctor engage in a final confrontation which eventually sees the Master sucked into the Eye of Harmony and melt like a wicked witch. The Doctor tenderly places the bodies of Grace and Chang Lee on a shiny floor and the Tardis decides to sprinkle them with golden dusty stuff and bring them back to life. Sentimental old girl.
The Doctor sets the console to head for 31st December once again and we see the countdowns begin once more. This time the world is not sucked out of existence. Yay! There are fireworks and shouts of “Happy New Year!” and the Millennium Bug doesn’t cause planes to fall out of the sky or anything so all is good.
And so the goodbyes. The Doctor tells Chang Lee to keep the bags of gold dust he was given by the Master and Grace is offered a stint as companion proper. She declines but they have another snog and some cliché Hollywood fireworks go off right above their heads as they do so.
Back in the Tardis the 8th Doctor tinkers under the console awhile before settling back into his armchair with a cup of tea, the same old record playing on the same old record deck and the same old book to hand. Once more the record sticks on the word “time” and the Doctor moans “Oh no, not again!” before it’s all over.
What to say, then, about McGann’s sole outing onscreen? In many ways he was a precursor of the younger, sexier (sexual) Doctors to come when the show finally did return in 2005. And he is charming enough, madcap enough and able to technobabble well enough to indicate that he would have made a good Doctor if the film had led to an earlier revival. In the UK the viewing figures were very good (9.1 million), that being where the hardcore fanbase existed, of course. In the States it fared less well which was crucial in the decision not to pursue the project further.
The writer, Matthew Jacobs was clearly a fan with all those nods to past regenerations. Specifically Jacobs would appear to be a 4th Doctor fan as the design of the sonic screwdriver approximated that of Tom Baker, and the Yoyo and the jelly babies are very Tom. But half human? (I know, I said I wouldn’t mention it again, sorry). The Eye of Harmony either incongruously placed in the Tardis or poorly explained. The gaffes with the ambulance, with the precise timing of the imminent devastation of the Earth? These were not only poor for a Doctor Who script, they would jar and ruin the suspension of disbelief of an audience of any drama programme. It’s not as though the thing was rushed or on a low budget.
Maybe things would have improved had the movie been considered more of a success across the Atlantic. Maybe further McGann adventures would have been less prone to gaffes and discontinuities. We will never know. In the long run it is better that the show did not recommence properly until 2005 as that way it is now solely a BBC show and has been helmed by properly geeky aficionados in Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat. Yes I would have liked to have seen more of Paul McGann as the Doctor but not at the expense of destroying the meta-narrative of the show or of falling into substandard Hollywoodised schlock. A promising Doctor not given a decent crack at the whip, That’s pretty much a consensus, isn’t it?