Nov 23, 2013

[Movies] Doctor Who (1996)

Today is the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, which is pretty much the longest-running science fiction TV show to-date. In yesterday's review post, I regretting not having found the time to watch the 1996 TV movie in time to schedule as a Friday post. But of course one thing led to another and between then and now, I was able to squeeze in some time to watch it together with my partner, Tobie. And we managed it just in time to properly wrap up Doctor Who Week!

And man, it was amazing and horrible at the same time.

The movie remains rather important in Whovian lore given this is pretty much the bridge between the Classic era of Doctor Who and the 2005 revival of the franchise. Sure, it was a weird TV movie that was really a backdoor pilot for a potential US Doctor Who series (that thankfully never happened). And yes, the movie really does carry a lot of the character traits of an American TV movie (throw in a B anywhere you like there). But until The Night of the Doctor mini-episode that acts as the prequel to the 50th anniversary special The Day of the Doctor episode, this has been pretty much the only filmed adventure of the 8th Doctor.

Synopsis: Doctor Who was a 1996 TV movie developed as a co-production between the BBC, Universal Studios and 20th Century Fox. It was the first major attempt to revive Doctor Who after the original TV series has been suspended back in 1989.

The movie starts with a narration that reveals that the Master - the longtime nemesis of the Doctor, has been tried on Skaro and found guilty of a number of evil crimes. Given his death at the hands of the Daleks, there is no further need to fulfill his sentence. But he did have a last wish - for his enemy, the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy), to bring his remains back to their home planet of Gallifrey. And this is where the story really begins, with the Doctor enjoying a book as the TARDIS transports him home.

But somehow the Master's remains form into some sort of sentient ooze and manage to break free of the container where they had been placed. The ooze then forces the TARDIS to crashland and they up in San Francisco's Chinatown area. The TARDIS accidentally saves the life of one Chang Lee (Yee Jee Tso), but also manages to get the Doctor shot by the gang pursuing Chang. Chang is able to get him brought to a hospital where cardiologist Grace Holloway (Daphne Ashbrook) attempts to operate on the Doctor without knowing he's not human.

Eventually McCoy regenerates into Paul McGann, but what is really jarring is that the essence of the Master eventually takes over the body of ambulance driver Bruce, as played by Eric Roberts. I'll say that again - ERIC ROBERTS.

Call me biased, but Eric Roberts has become one of those actors that act as a clear sign that you're in a bad movie. He's a total B-movie addict for one reason or another and many times he plays cheesy, hammy villains. Yes, the Master does have a history of being cheesy and hammy in his past incarnations, but there's nothing about Eric Roberts that really conveys the notion of Master to me. And true enough, he was a rather weird villain whose main goal was to find the Doctor and take over his body - or something like that.

To be fair, Grace Holloway was certainly depicted in a manner that made her a potentially interesting companion. We first meet her enjoying an opera and she then goes on to perform surgery while still wearing her dress, one that appears to have quite a bit of volume. Those little details certainly add a lot to her character, plus she seems to get quite a number of kisses from our dear Doctor.

I don't understand the whole bit about the Doctor being half-human either. And the whole bit about needing a human retinal pattern to open the Eye of Harmony. Let's just let the rest of the internet continue to debate those tidbits, shall we?

And while the movie was a collaboration across studios (and pretty much nations), the movie does feel distinctly American. I suppose we have director Geoffrey Sax and writer Matthew Jacobs somehow to blame, but both are in fact British. I guess it's things like having MADtv's Will Sasso involved and other weird bits that just made things feel a bit off.

But more importantly the plotting of the whole thing just felt bad. The Master was a rather pointless character who just picked up his old obsession of trying to extend his life by stealing regenerations. The threat to the world was tied to the TARDIS and somehow needed an atomic clock. There was a big gala conveniently celebrating the unveiling of such a clock but I don't think people would really go to that trouble for a clock. And I don't know why we had to drag Chang Lee around so much. I really didn't see why he had to continue on as a notable character in this movie.

The movie has its flaws, a cheap death for the Seventh Doctor and not enough time to really define who the Eighth Doctor was meant to be. His adventures would be further explored in other media like books and audio plays, but this movie doesn't really give us much of a taste of who he is beyond the fact that he kissed his companion a lot. Oh you dog you.

The Doctor Who movie wasn't a strong enough vehicle to launch a full television series, but it certainly fills a unique niche in the history of the franchise. I just really wish we didn't have to see Eric Roberts in a Time Lord outfit. Beyond that, the movie rates 2 times that the Seventh Doctor tries to convince the doctors that operating on him that he's an alien out of a possible 5.

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