Reviewing Who – Doctor Who: The Movie

Doctor: Paul McGann

Companion: Daphne Ashbrook

Script writer: Matthew Jacobs

Producer: Peter V. Ware

Executive producers: Philip David Segal, Alex Beaton and Jo Wright

Director: Geoffrey Sax

Originally aired: 27th May 1996

Take a deep breath, everybody, this is a LONG one.

On the planet Skaro the Master is finally brought to trial for his many lifetimes of destruction and is sentenced to a permanent death. That it is the Daleks, of all people, who are judging anybody for war crimes, is an audacious irony that immediately smacks down a few preconceptions. They are even willing to grant him a last request; that the Doctor should bring his remains home to Gallifrey.

The Doctor is, sensibly, deeply suspicious about the whole thing. He takes what precautions he can by locking up the futuristic urn that contains whatever is left of the Master’s body in a secure casket. Then he sets the co-ordinates for Gallifrey and settles down for a nice evening in. A cup of tea, a good book. A bit of jazz. Candles. Jellybabies. The TARDIS console room has undergone an extreme makeover since we last saw it, becoming an eclectically cluttered cavern from which cosy niches have been carved. Ensconced in his corner, the Doctor does not notice when the casket begins to rattle. Suddenly, it breaks. A silvery something slides into the central console and by the time the Doctor realises what’s wrong the damage has already been done, an emergency landing instigated. Guess where they end up. No, go on, guess.

What is it about Earth that the Doctor just can’t get away from here?

While disaster unfolds in the TARDIS, a different sort of danger is at large on the streets of San Fransisco, where three young thugs are on the run from an ominous black car. They climb over a wire fence into an abandoned yard where it can’t follow and scare off its driver with handguns, and are clapping each other on the back in self-congratulation at how tough they are when a group of armed men in black emerge around the yard. This wasn’t an escape; this was an ambush. One of the boys is cornered by a whole impromptu firing squad, but before any triggers can be pulled a light beams down like an answered prayer and a blue box materialises between victim and gunmen. The Doctor steps out. He barely gets the chance to turn around before the freaked out gangsters gun him down and flee, leaving him to die alone.

But he’s not alone, not quite. The boy, Chang Lee, emerges from behind the TARDIS, looking first for his friends – both of whom are dead – then returning to his bizarre saviour and calling an ambulance. The Doctor is the only one to see the strange silvery gel oozing through the lock on the TARDIS door…

Lee, who for all his hoodlum attitude is not a bad-hearted kid, travels with the unconscious Doctor in the ambulance. When asked for the patient’s name, he unknowingly gives the attending paramedic the Doctor’s favourite pseudonym, ‘John Smith’. Unknown to any of them, the Master has hitched a lift, shifting from gel to a phantasmic snake thing that conceals itself in the paramedic’s jacket.

At the hospital the doctors go to work on the Doctor. The initial X-ray that reveals his two hearts is dismissed as a double exposure, but his heartrate is alarmingly fast and so the hospital’s cardiology expert is called in – a surgeon nicknamed by her colleagues as ‘Amazing Grace’. She’s at the opera with her boyfriend at the time, gorgeously dressed in a blue ballgown, having a nice evening out.

Spoiler: all the nice evenings in this movie, they get wrecked.

But Grace is a professional. When her pager goes off she doesn’t hesitate or even get changed, just races straight to the hospital, scrubs up and heads into surgery. Her boyfriend doesn’t get it; he delays her with a brief, resentful phone call and hangs up on her when she tries to explain. She loves her opera, though. She has Puccini put on while she starts work on the Doctor, who recognises the music and opens his eyes. He realises what’s going on, and desperately tries to make her stop. ‘I’m not human,’ he keeps telling her, but no one pays any attention to that. They dose him heavily with anaesthetic and insert a camera into his body to begin surgery. Only he’s right, he’s not human, and trying negotiate her way through his unusually placed internal organs leaves Grace baffled. He suddenly goes into seizure. Both hearts stop, and he cannot be revived.

Grace is shattered by her failure. She goes back to the X-rays and is the first to realise they aren’t double exposures at all. Determined to get some answers, she calls in Chang Lee, who has waited all this time, and breaks the news of the Doctor’s death. Instead of answering her questions, he snatches up the bag of the Doctor’s possessions and takes off out of the hospital.

Remember that jacket the Master appropriated? It has gone home with Bruce the ill-fated paramedic. While he and his wife sleep, the snake thing emerges from a sleeve, slides across the floor and slides up the bed, diving straight into his mouth. Bruce as he was is gone. On the plus side, he stops snoring!

The Doctor’s body is taken to the morgue, where a couple of irreverent orderlies chat about their New Year’s Eve plans over his corpse. It’s December 30th 1999, and they’re planning a costume party to see in the millenium. One stays on duty in the silent morgue, settling down with a bowl of popcorn and the movie Frankenstein. It looks like he’s having a nice evening. Oh dear.

As lightning surges through a corpse and a mad scientist dances in black and white triumph on the TV screen, a different electricity plays across the Doctor’s body. The regenerative process has finally begun. His face goes through a series of horrible contortions and he changes, melting from the shape of a short elderly man to that of a tall young one, all long brown curls and wide worried eyes, like a Romantic poet transplanted into the unfriendly modern world.

In front of his movie, the orderly’s peace is interrupted by a loud bang coming from the morgue. He gets up to investigate and discovers the metal door of one cubicle buckling as if someone’s punching it from the inside. That’s because that’s exactly what they’re doing, and hell, the Doctor is strong right now. The door falls right off its hinges. In the bluish light of the morgue the Doctor steps forward, wrapped only in the sheet that covered his dead body. He shivers. The orderly faints. Shellshocked and half-frozen, the Doctor stumbles away from him, wandering through empty corridors until he comes to a part of the hospital that is seemingly under construction or else has been pretty heavily vandalised – it’s all bare concrete, puddles and debris. He sees his face in a row of broken mirrors and realises he has no idea who that face even belongs to.

It’s a confronting morning for everybody. Grace wakes up on the sofa of her office and heads out to solve her mystery, only to be told his body has gone missing, while Bruce’s wife wakes up to a deranged alien possessing her husband’s body, who promptly murders her. Meanwhile, the Doctor – who is not exactly the Doctor just now – is still exploring the hospital. He comes across the staff lockers, fully stocked up for the costume party, and through a process of trial and error that involves stripy scarves and cowboy hats, cobbles together an outfit that suits him. Then he finds his way next to the waiting room to, well, wait for something to happen.

What happens is Grace, trying to call the police about bodysnatching. He recognises her, but before he can reach her she’s dragged aside by her boss. He doesn’t see this whole incident as a challenge to medical science; he sees it as potential bad publicity for the hospital and when Grace shows him the X-rays as proof, he sets fire to them. Furious, she quits on the spot. When she storms into the lift not long afterward, loaded up with her stuff in a box, she is joined by a barefoot stranger in a frock coat just before the door shuts. He stands just a little too close and keeps looking at her intently.

“Puccini!” he exclaims at last. He’s sure they’ve met before. “You’re tired of life,” he tells her, “but afraid of dying.” She gets out of that lift as soon as she can, hurrying towards her car while he bounds along beside her like an anxious puppy. He even follows her into her car, which would be creepy if it wasn’t for the fact he immediately doubles over in pain and starts pulling a length of wire from his chest. It’s Grace’s lost camera.

What is this?” he wails. “Please, I have two hearts. You have to get me out of here before they kill me again. Please, you have to help me. Drive!” Overwhelmed by the weirdness, Grace drives.

‘Bruce’ arrives at work in black leather and shades. He wants to get hold of the Doctor’s body – wow, that came out wrong – and isn’t much pleased to hear it’s gone missing. His next goal is to pick up the contents of the Doctor’s pockets. Unfortunately for Chang Lee, they know exactly who stole those.

Arriving home, Grace finds all her furniture missing. This is apparently her boyfriend’s way of telling her they’ve broken up, because he is a jerk. Pushing this problem aside in favour of the more pressing one standing beside her, she gets the Doctor to open his shirt so she can check out his hearbeat. It might be a romantic moment if he’d stay still long enough to notice and she wasn’t so freaked out that he really does have two hearts. The Doctor’s absent minded name-dropping, from Puccini to Leonardo da Vinci, doesn’t help, nor does his own theory about his physical condition. “I was dead too long this time. The anaesthetic almost destroyed the regenerative process.”

Meanwhile, Lee returns to the abandoned yard where he was almost killed to try out the key from the Doctor’s things. He takes one look inside and backs straight out to do the traditional double-take. When he goes back in, the Master is waiting for him. His explanation for all the crazy that Lee’s seen is that this is really his spaceship and the Doctor is a body-stealing maniac who must be stopped. It’s lucky Grace isn’t there to hear him, because she’s currently studying the Doctor’s blood samples through her own personal microscope and struggling to come up with any answers of her own. The Doctor himself is busy trying on her boyfriend’s boots. (The mystery of Brian; he takes the sofa but leaves a box of his shoes.) When he finds a pair that suits him they go for a walk to brainstorm in the park. Grace’s best theory is that he’s the result of some weird genetic experiment. He doesn’t think that’s right. Memories return of his father, watching a meteor storm in the Gallifreyan sky…mid memory he stops and jumps up and down. “These shoes fit perfectly!” He’s sweet, this Doctor, but a little scatterbrained.

The Master is the opposite – really horrible, but good at getting things done. He’s been mouthing off against the Doctor and bribing Lee with gold dust from the TARDIS stores, building an advantageous alliance. The TARDIS seems to like Lee, so the Master takes a gamble and brings him into the Cloister Room, which is basically a massive Gothic chapel complete with flaming torches and bats. Bats. The TARDIS has an ecosystem! Not that the Master cares about that, all he cares about is the Eye of Harmony, the sunken wellspring of power lidded in stone. He tells Lee to remove one of its four mooring staffs and the Eye begins to open…

In the park, the Doctor staggers, memory hitting him all at once. Blazing with excitement, he seizes Grace and kisses her exuberantly. “I am the Doctor!” he shouts. She’s like, okay, whatever, let’s get back to the kissing! He’s happy to oblige, unaware of the plotting taking place in his TARDIS. Above the open Eye an image of his previous incarnation melts into his new self. The Master tells Lee that the Doctor’s retinal structure proves he’s half human. We don’t believe him, because, the Master.

But the opening of the Eye has finally affected the Doctor – he pulls away from Grace and starts shouting incoherently about the Master, the Eye of Harmony, danger, death and time travel, and something about the urgent need for an atomic clock. It’s no wonder when she freaks out completely and runs back across the park to lock herself in her house, where she calls an ambulance to get this lunatic the hell out of her life.

It’s not that easy to get rid of him, though. He tells her that the opening of the Eye has already compromised the molecular integrity of the Earth by stepping through the glass of her window. Which makes absolutely no sense, but who cares, it looks cool! They end up sitting awkwardly side by side on her window seat, the Doctor watching TV broadcasts of the freak weather conditions already troubling the planet and Grace checking compulsively for the arrival of the ambulance. Then one piece of news really grabs his attention. An atomic clock is being opened in the city in honour of the new millenium.

The doorbell rings. It’s the ambulance, and guess which possessed paramedic is standing on the doorstep? Grace sees salvation; the Doctor sees transport. They both climb inside unquestioningly. En route, however, they get stuck in traffic and the Master’s shades fall off, revealing his snake eyes. He spits venom at Grace, catching her wrist, and the Doctor reacts by spraying him with a fire extinguisher then grabbing Grace and making a break for it. They race through the lines of the traffic jam until they come to a policeman on a motorbike. The Doctor offers him a jellybaby, using the distraction to steal his gun, with which he threatens to shoot himself if he doesn’t get the bike. Before they go anywhere, though, he wants to be sure Grace is on his side. The thing is, she’s not all that sure herself.

“Grace,” he tells her, “I came back to life before your eyes, I held back death. Look, I can’t make your dream come true forever, but I can make it come true today.” And he gets through. She takes the gun and shoots the policeman’s radio, threatening the poor man until he hands over the keys. By the time the Master and Lee start their pursuit, the Doctor and Grace are gone. The Doctor, it turns out, is not a great driver.

GRACE: Doctor, I only have one life! Can you remember that?

DOCTOR: I’ll try!

But Lee knows shortcuts. When the bike draws up outside their destination, the ambulance is already there, and it’s empty. Inside, Grace introduces the Doctor as Doctor Bowman from London, a crazy British guy who might do anything, like lean very close and whisper in your ear, “I’m half human, on my mother’s side,” whilst stealing your name-tag. We still don’t believe it, because really?!

Using the pilfered tag, they climb up to the very impressive clock, so that the Doctor can open it up and take the one tiny component he needs. On the way down, they are stopped by a highly suspicious aide. The Doctor bamboozles him with vital details about his future and another jellybaby. Unfortunately the smooth ride stops there, because the Master’s in the crowd below with Lee and spots them. The Doctor sets off a fire alarm, grabs Grace and lowers them both off the roof onto a handy police car. They return to their bike and set off for the TARDIS. It occurs to Grace on the way to ask for pointers on her future, but the Doctor’s all, ‘Spoilers!’

When they reach the TARDIS the Doctor retrieves his spare key from a secret compartment and opens the door to the sound of the cloister bell ringing. That’s never a good sign. What’s worse, the TARDIS is out of power. Grace refuses to let the Doctor give up, though – this is, after all, her planet that will be pulled into the Eye of Harmony if something isn’t done fast – and the two of them cobble together a plan to jumpstart the TARDIS. Aaand then Grace knocks the Doctor unconscious. Remember when the Master spit that venom at her? Turns out it’s multi-purpose.

The Doctor wakes up in the cloister room, in chains, with a suddenly black-eyed Grace strapping him into a very ominous looking device and the Master sashaying down the stairs in full Gallifreyan regalia. Grace being beyond reach at the moment, the Doctor focuses on Lee, trying to convince him that a guy who goes around possessing people is a dreadful father figure. As the Master retorts, he slips up, revealing his story about stolen lives is all a lie. Lee refuses to reopen the Eye. The Master, proving why he should never ever be allowed companions, casually snaps Lee’s neck and goes with the back up plan, this being to de-possess Grace and force her to open the Eye instead. The point of all this is to have the power he needs to absorb all the Doctor’s life force, restoring himself. It’s a good plan. Only thing is, he’s frozen while the transfer is in place.

As the clocks of Earth tick down to midnight and a new millenium, storms radiate out from the TARDIS, a precursor to the end of the world. Grace takes her only advantage and runs back to the console room to finish the Doctor’s work, re-routing the power. The central console starts to move. Time warps backward, reversing the Eye’s damage, returning the Doctor’s lives. There’s no time to celebrate; Grace dashes back to the cloister room to free the Doctor, but while she’s undoing the manacles the livid Master grabs her and throws her over the side of the stairs. She’s killed instantly.

He then lays into the Doctor. I’m sure it comes as a shock to no one that when it comes to kicking the crap out of people, he’s your man. The Eye is still open, though, and the Master gets too close. He falls. The Doctor, being the Doctor, offers a hand to help him out, but the Master won’t take it and is dissolved by the Eye’s light.

Time continues reversing a few crucial minutes. Lee and Grace wake up on the floor, imbued with golden regenerative energy, and the Eye shuts itself. Frankly I have no idea what’s going on any more, but let’s assume it’s good news.

The TARDIS drops all three of them off in a quiet San Fransisco park festooned with fairy lights. Lee, told he can keep the gold dust, takes off before the Doctor can change his mind, waylaid only by another of those cryptic ‘I know everything about all time’ remarks that will presumably save his life at some point. The Doctor then turns to Grace to finally give her that pointer she wanted, but she stops him – she’d rather shape her own future. He asks her to come with him. She asks him to come with her. They look at each other and they know that the adventure is over, it’s time to say goodbye. They kiss one last time and walk in opposite directions – him towards the TARDIS, her towards the city. “Thank you, Doctor,” she calls, just before he disappears. “Thank you, doctor,” he smiles, and he’s gone.

Inside the TARDIS, he makes a few last repairs, then settles back in his armchair with his abandoned book, tea and jazz for a nice evening in. You just know that’s not going to last…

The Verdict: If you thought Colin Baker had it hard, spare a thought for poor Paul McGann. He’s the official Eighth Doctor, yet he only gets one televised story, most of which he spends in a state of shellshocked amnesia. Fortunately his legacy is greater than that, thanks to a long-running series of Big Finish audio adventures that firmly establish his place in the show’s history. He’s the vulnerable Doctor, sweet and impulsive and sincere.

He’s probably best known, though, for THAT KISS.

For seven regenerations the Doctor was pretty much sexless, an avuncular loner no more interested in his companions that way than they were interested in him. Then suddenly he’s all handsome and people are noticing that, and it’s just a bit awkward really. Even McGann was uncomfortable with it at the time. How things have changed! I used to be firmly against the Doctor having any kind of romantic relationship, but River Song wore me down, so I look at this story on the rewatch rather differently than I used to. Grace was good for the Doctor. Actually, Grace is good full stop. She’s highly intelligent, extremely sensible, and you know that though the Doctor’s gone from her life, she’ll be just fine. Which is as it should be.

Join me in September for the first episode of New Who, when a hard-headed, battle-scarred new Doctor in black leather crash lands in the life of Rose Tyler, blows up her workplace, and shows her what it means to really run. Doctor Who will never be the same again.

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