“I love humans. Always seeing patterns in things that aren’t there.” – The Doctor
And finally we arrive to what I consider the close of the classic era. It was supposed to be a start of new era actually—a back door pilot to a new series—but it didn’t work out and we would have to wait until 2005 for that to actually happen. Given the problems with this movie and especially the behind the scenes drama, it is probably for the best. The partnership with Fox Network is rumored to have almost had us end up with an entirely Americanized version of Doctor Who—with the personality of the Doctor and even the premise of the whole show totally changed. In the end, we just ended up with an uninspiring story with many nods to the past and several new clunky bits thrown in, but it at least kept the franchise alive and on the right path.
Despite it being a weak storyline, I think they did end up keeping the continuity of the Doctor and the essentials of what makes the Doctor ‘The Doctor’ intact. They even put in Sylvester McCoy which was a joy for us fans getting to see him one last time in the role no matter how much it may have confused first-time viewers. (He even gets quite a dramatic death scene complete with a couple of jump scares.) Paul McGann then arrives in a regeneration scene in which the Frankenstein and Christological motifs are a bit too heavy-handed and overdramatic. (“Who! Am! I!?”) Once he gets going, however, I think McGann does a fairly good job capturing the balance between the madcap oddness and quick insight of the Doctor despite only getting one televised shot at the role.** By far my favorite moment in this regard is when the Doctor grabs the police officer’s gun and demands he give over his motorcycle—whilst pointing at himself. Of course, the Doctor wouldn’t threaten anyone with a gun directly!
Because they had a budget to spend, the movie does get to do things with effects and direction that the original series never could have tried. There are some amazingly artistic shots—the fall of bullet casings as the gang shoots at Chang Lee, the reflection of the emergency sign in the puddle, and the much-remembered slow motion shot of Grace running down the hospital corridor in flowing opera gown (though it honestly adds nothing to the story overall nor the personality of her character.) I guess they ran out of money by the end, however, because the 1999 “end of the world” effects are really quite lacking.
As far as the history of the program, the movie purposefully ticks off a ton of boxes: the sonic screwdriver, the 900 year diary, jelly babies, a yoyo, the cloister bell, the Doctor reading the Time Machine, the Seal of Rassilon, the Time Lord collar, two hearts, the John Smith alias, the TARDIS key, name-dropping. It doesn’t quite make sense why the Daleks get a mention as the court executioners of the Master (huh?) nor why he has weird characteristics like snake eyes and spitting a venomous gel as part of his resurrection. (I wish that had invoked him having tapped into the power of the Mara or something like that to explain the serpentine form.) Unfortunately, the Master is also portrayed rather inconsistently by Eric Roberts. At one point he seems like the Terminator, another like a mob boss, and another like a flamboyant villain. Then again, we can always consider that he’s gone mad (again) since he technically died after passing all his regenerations (again). His delivery of the line about ‘the Asian Child’ evokes Anthony Ainley the best.
The new ‘companions’—Grace and Chang Lee (once he realizes the Master’s treachery) are a little off-putting, one too bland and the other a bit ditzy. They really don’t seem to fit their character profiles of hardened street criminal and brilliant doctor. (Grace just reminds me of Peri with her constant sighing and corny wisecracks.) It’s hard to get really attached to either of them. This is a shame because the storyline is also rather weak and thus doesn’t make up for the lack of characters. In the end, everything just gets resolved by Grace jump-starting the TARDIS, the Master tripping over his robes, and the Doctor not doing much at all. Then there’s the quasi-magical resurrection of the characters from the dead for some unexplained reason. (One assumes because they are in temporal orbit?) It’s just not very satisfying over all. But at least it was fun and exciting at the time to think that there was new Who available on the screen.
Best (or worst) unsettling moment:
The return of the Master in a harsh new guise does lead to some unnerving moments like his brutal killing of his host’s wife and Chang Lee. Then there is the total gruesomeness of his rotting body (the fingernail scene!)
It was so wonderful to see McGann make his surprise appearance in the brief clip from “The Night of the Doctor”. (But I am still very upset that they didn’t make it ‘official’ by making it the start of an actual episode instead of just a web extra) By that time, he had been voicing the Eighth Doctor for many years in audio stories so he had a good grasp of what his Doctor’s personality should be especially as he transitioned into being a war-wearied version of his former self. Also kudos for them bringing back the Sisterhood of Karn.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of silly excesses in this story once it gets going. There are ridiculous characters and broad slapstick jokes (the unexplained cop with no brakes driving through the TARDIS!!?) and even some surprising innuendo totally out of place in early Doctor Who. They try to make the design of the TARDIS way to grand and throw in the Eye of Harmony and powering of the ship in a way totally unrelated to the past. They have the Doctor seem to know details of the future lives of every human he meets which does not at all fit with what we know of his character. These out of place additions take fans right out of the story. They couldn’t even give it a proper title. And it’s really best we not even mention the whole ‘half human’ fiasco…