Timestamp #160: Doctor Who (The Movie)

Doctor Who: The Movie
(1996)

 

It’s a major turning point: The gateway between the classic era and the modern. But first, the Doctor must face Y2K.

The Master finally came to trial for his litany of crimes on the planet Skaro as part of a treaty between the Daleks and the Time Lords. Over cat eyes, we learn that the Master’s final request was for the Doctor to carry his remains back to Gallifrey for final disposition. The Doctor places the Master’s urn in a lockbox and secures it with a new sonic screwdriver before settling in with “In a Dream” on the gramaphone, The Time Machine in his hands, and a bowl of jelly babies. The control room is massive and gorgeous, and reflects the Seventh Doctor’s twilight years to a tee.

The Master breaks out of the urn and the lockbox, moving as a shadowy snake form to the TARDIS console and shorting it out, forcing the Doctor to make an emergency landing on Earth, San Francisco, New Years Eve, 1999. The TARDIS materializes in the middle of a gang fight, saving a young survivor in the process. Unfortunately, the Doctor (who didn’t use the scanners, I guess) steps into the fight and is shot. As Chang Lee calls for an ambulance, the Master escapes through the TARDIS lock.

The Doctor (on the record as John Smith) is rushed to the hospital, but modern medicine fails him. The x-ray accurately reflects his two hearts, and the bullet wounds are not particularly life-threatening (one in the shoulder, two in the leg), but the heart readings require a cardiac specialist. Enter: Grace Holloway.

The Doctor wakes up on the operating table to the sound of Madame Butterfly, pleading with Grace to stop the surgery and get him a beryllium atomic clock. The surgical team ups the anesthetic and proceeds, but human surgery on Time Lord physiology proves fatal. The Seventh Doctor dies on the operating table. Grace reviews the x-rays before informing Lee of the bad news, and Lee runs off with the Doctor’s personal effects.

We are treated to a double Time Lord resurrection: On the other side of the city, the Master has hitched a ride home with an ambulance driver named Bruce. As he snores away, preventing his wife from sleeping, Bruce is taken over and killed by the Master. Bruce’s wife is happy for the silence. At the hospital, the Doctor’s body is loaded into the morgue and regenerates in parallel with the 1931 version of Frankenstein. The Doctor bangs at the door and breaks out of the freezer, scaring the on-duty attendant. The Eighth Doctor finds a mirror (or thirteen… see what they did there?) in a broken room (seriously, what?) while humming Madame Butterfly. In shock, he screams and questions who he is.

As morning dawns, we find Grace Holloway in her office, the Doctor rifling through lockers for clothing (and discarding a replica of the Fourth Doctor’s scarf), and Lee trying to figure out what a sonic screwdriver does (as well as examining a yo-yo, the Doctor’s pocketwatch, and the TARDIS key). The Doctor finds a Wild Bill Hickok costume (intended for the New Years Eve costume party), discarding the gun belt and hat in the process. Meanwhile, the Master awakens (with glowing green eyes) and kills Bruce’s wife.

Pete, the morgue attendant, shows Grace what happened the night before. She walks right by the Doctor, who is still suffering from the effects of his regeneration, before meeting with the hospital administrator. The administrator tries to cover up the events of the botched surgery, and she quits her job as a result. As she’s leaving, the Doctor joins her in the elevator and follows her to her car. He begs her for help, pulling the abandoned cardiac probe from his chest as Grace drives him away.

The Master arrives at the hospital and demands to see the Doctor’s body, but finds out that the corpse is missing and that Lee has the Doctor’s possessions. Meanwhile, Grace and the Doctor arrive at her home to find that her boyfriend has left her (and taken her furniture). She examines the Doctor and his heartbeats as his memory fades back in. Grace is upset and confused by the whole affair, but the Doctor comforts her in his awkward way.

Lee finds his way to the TARDIS and steps inside, having one of the most amazing “bigger on the inside” moments. Unfortunately, he also finds the Master, who somehow entered before without the TARDIS key. The Master enthralls Lee and takes the Doctor’s things before demanding that Lee help him find the Time Lord. The Master tells Lee a false tale of how the Doctor stole his regenerations, offering the human gold dust and a tour of the TARDIS, including the Cloister Room. In the depths of the Cloister Room is the Eye of Harmony, the heart of the TARDIS, and Lee is able to open it with a little coercion. The Eye shows the Master and Lee the Doctor’s Seventh and Eighth incarnations, and the image of a human retina leads the Master to believe that the new Doctor is half-human.

That’s an important note to make: The Master makes the assumption that the Doctor is somehow half-human. While the Master – who has known the Doctor for a really, really long time – should presumably know better, the Doctor’s lineage is not a statement of fact. It is a wild assumption.

The Doctor finishes getting dressed (and finally removing his toe tag) as Grace examines his blood. They take a walk to clear their minds, jogging the Doctor’s memories of his own childhood. The joy of this incarnation is amazing. As the Eye of Harmony is opened, he remembers that he is the Doctor and kisses Grace, making this the first romantic moment for the Doctor in the franchise.

I’m okay with that. New face, new body, new Doctor.

With the Eye of Harmony open, the Doctor and the Master can share vision through the Eye. The Doctor closes his eyes and gives Grace the download on who he is. Lee also hears this, chipping away at the Master’s thrall. Grace runs away in shock and locks the Doctor out of her house. Despite the Doctor’s protests, Grace calls for an ambulance, but the Doctor shows her that the Eye of Harmony is tearing the planet apart by walking through a window without breaking it. The Master and Lee oblige her request by hijacking an ambulance and taking it to meet the doctor (and the Doctor).

The Doctor watches the news while they wait for the ambulance, learning that a local institute is unveiling a beryllium atomic clock, which is exactly what he needs to close the Eye. The doorbell rings, and it’s the Master calling. Grace has no idea, but the Doctor obviously recognizes the Master, and nevertheless, they all pile into the ambulance and hit the road. Eventually, the Doctor unmasks the Master and runs with Grace. They hijack a police motorcycle with jelly babies and race for the institute with the Master in pursuit.

Notably, the Doctor does use a gun once again, but it’s a distraction instead of a threat.

Lee knows a shortcut – of course he does – so they beat the Doctor and the doctor to the clock. They proceed inside and look for a way to the clock, passing the Doctor off as “Dr. Bowman” and meeting Professor Wagg, the inventor of the device. In the meantime, the Doctor explains more about himself, and distracts the professor with a joke about being half-human while swiping his badge. They take a piece of the clock, distract a guard with a jelly baby, and spot the Master before running. They race to the roof (understandably, the Doctor is afraid of heights) and use a fire hose to drop to the street before heading to the TARDIS.

They use a spare key to open the TARDIS, have a humorous moment with a police officer driving in and out of the time capsule, and go inside to install the clock component in the console. Unfortunately, the Eye has been open too long and the cosmos are in danger. The TARDIS also has no power. They attempt to jump-start the TARDIS, but Grace is enthralled by the Master as he arrives. She knocks the Doctor out and together, she and Lee take him to the Eye. The Master supervises as Grace places a device on the Doctor’s head to prop his eyes open. The Doctor pleads with Lee, and Lee refuses to open the Eye when the Doctor points out the Master’s lies. The Master kills Lee by snapping his neck, then enthralls Grace into opening the Eye.

Apparently, only a human’s eyes can open the Eye. Which is weird, but kind of plays into a theory of mine… more on that later.

The Eye’s light is focused on two points, designed in this case to channel the Doctor’s regenerative energy into the Master and extend the villain’s lifespan. The light of the Eye breaks Grace’s trance, and she runs to the console to reroute the power. At the very last second, Grace jump-starts the TARDIS and they travel into a temporal orbit. She releases the Doctor, but the Master throws her off the balcony and kills her. The two Time Lords fight over the eye, but the Doctor is triumphant and the Master falls into the Eye. The Doctor tries to rescue him, but the Master refuses and is (apparently) killed.

The Doctor places Lee and Grace on a balcony in the Cloister Room, and the energy of the Eye infuses with them, bringing them back to life courtesy of the TARDIS and its sentimentality. The Doctor shows them Gallifrey from a distance before returning midnight on January 1, 2000. Lee departs with the gold dust and a little advice after returning the Doctor’s stuff, and the Doctor offers Grace the opportunity to travel with him. Grace declines, and the Doctor departs for a new adventure.

 

This presentation is deeply flawed, but it does have a lot of things working for it. I love the theme music (even if they don’t credit Ron Grainer or Delia Derbyshire) and I do love the humor and Doctor/Grace banter. On the other hand, it is swimming in the cheesiness that defined televised American science fiction in the 1990s, and a lot of those elements fall flat in the spirit of Doctor Who. I mean, can we get that hospital a little more funding for the entire floor full of broken junk?

The story also has a fixation on people stealing people’s stuff. Was there a major trend of kleptomania in the mid-90s?

Paul McGann is simply a joy to watch, and his energy and joy shines in this story. It’s also interesting to watch the “half-human” controversy play out: The Master takes it seriously based on scant evidence, but the Doctor plays it as a joke. I have often wondered if Gallifreyans are some sort of evolved human being – it’s definitely possible given that the default appearance is always human, most medical exams show only the two hearts as a physical difference, and that whole Eye of Harmony key thing – but I don’t think that the Doctor is any more human than that. The evidence just doesn’t support it.

All in all, this story would fall into the average range, which is a shame since Paul McGann deserved so much better. Of course, this was also a regeneration story, so it gets a little boost per the rules of the Timestamps Project.

 

 

Rating: 4/5 – “Would you care for a jelly baby?”

 

 

UP NEXT – Seventh Doctor Summary

 

The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.

 

 

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9 thoughts on “Timestamp #160: Doctor Who (The Movie)

  1. The thing that I loved about this story is that the Doctor asks Grace to come with him and she asks him to come with her. I loved seeing someone comfortable enough that they didn’t feel the need to abandon their life and dash off with the Doctor. He should change to suit them if he wanted to be with them.
    There’s an implication in the dialog that Time Lords can “change species” during a regeneration. He says as much to Grace during the party and that may be what they were going for. I have a different theory, which comes from the books, but it’s not worth putting in here.
    I’ll always have a special place in my hearts for this movie, because it rekindled my love of Doctor Who. After being bereft of the show for 7 years, I’d kind of stopped watching my VHS tapes and the books were piling up, unread. This movie gave me the shot in the arm that I needed that’s really lasted me through getting into Big Finish. It is cheezy and it’s very much like a Fox TV series of the time. Pete the mortician used to appear a lot on Sliders (as a hotel owner) and the whole show has the same aesthetic as the early Sliders seasons. I am glad that this didn’t make it to series though, as I’ve read what the plans were for a continuing series and it wasn’t that great. The Doctor’s father was apparently Odysseus (contradicting The Myth Makers) and it was going to become a quest to find his dad.

  2. […] I could tell that things were going to be different from the jump when I was grinning ear-to-ear during Time and the Rani. Even though the stories varied wildly in quality and entertainment value, I feel like this incarnation’s run really struck gold with the combination of McCoy and Sophie Aldred’s Ace. Those two together was perfect chemistry, and I would love to see more of their adventures before the TV movie. […]

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