Just forget the words and sing along

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Fishing in the Discount Bin - Doctor Who: The Movie

Welcome back to Fishing in the Discount Bin, where I just rant about a DVD in my collection.  This started as a feature for my podcast, and I wrote several dozen reviews before I abandoned it, so I've been posting my old notes to this here blog.  Today, we get to something very special.  I've become a Doctor Who fan in my old age, and I was able to acquire my first-ever exposure to Doctor Who; the 1996 American-made TV movie known simply as Doctor Who: The Movie.  This review is originally dated February 14, 2011.

Yay!  One of my special ordered DVDs arrived today!  And since I'm fighting a cold and everything, what better way to spend an afternoon than curled up on the couch, under a warm blankie and with a warm cup of Neo Citran, and watch said DVD?  And what is that DVD?  Doctor Who: The Movie!

Only recently in life (past five years or so) have I become a Doctor Who fan.  The spectacular revival which started in 2005 provided a perfect jumping on point for the n00bs like myself.  But it wasn't my first exposure to Doctor Who.  About 20 years ago, YTV started showing Doctor Who with much pomp and circumstance.  They were showing the early stuff...First Doctor stuff from way back in 1963.  I watched bits of it, but had little patience for it.  I thought it was too weird.  I wanted that crap to get over with so I could watch Ninja Turtles, which came on right after.

But the first time I opened my mind and gave it a chance was the 1996, American-made TV movie, now affectionately referred to by fans as Doctor Who: The Movie.

"An American-made, Doctor Who TV movie?" you're probably asking.  "How did such a thing come to be?"  Well, its history is well-covered in the DVD bonus features, which I haven't watched yet, but based on the bits I've read online over the years, it went a little something like.

Back in 1989, the BBC canceled Doctor Who.  It was still doing mad business in the ratings, but it was just starting to get too expensive.  So, the BBC hatched a unique plan to bring back the Doctor.  Rather than produce  new Doctor Who themselves, they would license out the property to other production companies, and let them make it.  Sadly, though, they found very little interest, until they went across the Atlantic.  Turns out the head of the Fox network in the USA was a huge fan, and through the early 1990s, Fox was always on the lookout for a sci-fi program that would nicely compliment their breakout hit, The X-Files.  So, a deal was struck between the Fox network, Universal Studios, and the BBC for an American-made Doctor Who TV series.  They commissioned what's known in the business as a "back door pilot."  A TV movie would be produced and aired on television.  If the ratings were high enough, it goes to series.  If the TV movie bombs, well, the studio now has a nice little TV movie they can sell into syndication to recoup their losses.

And thus, Doctor Who: The Movie was made!  While it had huge ratings in the UK, it flopped on American television, and so it never went to series.  And Doctor Who fans the world over started having mad debates as to whether the movie counted as canon or not. 

As I said, it was the first time I opened my mind and gave Doctor Who a chance.  It aired in May of 1996.  I was back home after having successfully finished my first year in college, and Fox was promoting the hell out of it.  I actually first heard about it from a massive story they did on Entertainment Tonight.  So, I sat down, I watched it, and I loved it. 

Our film opens on the Dalek homeworld of Skaro.  The Daleks have captured the Doctor's old arch nemesis the Master, and execute him.  However, the Master made one final request:  the Doctor was to take his remains back to Gallifrey.  The Doctor obliged.  I'm sure what really fueled the debates was the fact that, for the first half of the movie, it's the Seventh Doctor we follow, again played by Sylvester McCoy. 

All is not as it seems, though, as the Master's remains re-awaken and burst from their confines, in the form of a CGI animated blob of slime.  The slime slithers into the TARDIS console, and the Doctor is forced to make an emergency landing...in San Fransisco, in the final days of 1999.  (As is the case of low-budget American-made TV movies, the role of "San Fransisco" will be played by "Vancouver," and to date, this is the only bit of Doctor Who that's ever filmed in Canada.)  The TARDIS materializes in the middle of an Asian gang shoot-out, and when the Doctor pokes his head out to get his bearings, he's promptly gunned down.  One of the youths, Chang Lee, shows his good heart, and calls an ambulance.  The Master oozes out of the TARDIS and stows away in the ambulance. 

The Doctor is rushed off to a hospital, and while removing the bullets, the surgeons are confused by the Doctor's irregular heartbeat.  They take an X-Ray to see the Doctor's trademark two hearts, but dismiss it as a double exposure.  So, they call in a cardiologist to try to fix this irregular heartbeat...Dr. Grace Holloway.  For the Doctor Who fans keeping score, she'll be the Doctor's companion for this tale.  Grace tries her best, but her unfamiliarity with Time Lord anatomy, and the Doctor's resistance to being put under, results in the Doctor dying on the operating table.  So long and fare thee well, #7. 

Grace breaks the news to Chang, but when Chang is untouched by the Doctor's death, Grace figures out that Chang doesn't know the Doctor, and Chang swipes the Doctor's belongings and disappears into the night.  Meanwhile, the Master manages to possess the paramedic that brought the Doctor into the hospital.  And now, with a new body, the Master rushes to complete his plan. 

Back at the hospital, the Doctor regenerates in the morgue and we're introduced to #8.  All of the surgery that was done on the Doctor prior to his death has left him with amnesia, and he's struggling to remember who he is.  While wandering around the hospital hallways, he stumbles into Grace.  The hospital has decided to cover up the Doctor's death, attributing it to a perfect storm of horrible mistakes.  Grace refuses to take part in this cover-up, and quits in disgust.  The Doctor recognizes Grace from the operating room, and implores Grace to help him uncover his identity.  Grace feels compelled to help him.

We now catch up with Chang, who's snooping through the Doctor's belongings.  He finds the key to the TARDIS, and decides to go explore it.  At the TARDIS, he meets the Master.  The Master fills Chang's head with stories about how the Doctor is the evil one, and the Doctor has stolen the Master's body.  Intrigued by this tale, and promised riches for his assistance, Chang decides to help the Master.  The Master takes Chang deep into the heart of the TARDIS...the the Cloister Room, which houses the Eye of Harmony, the device that powers the TARDIS.  The Master is unable to open the Eye, but Chang can, and now using the Eye, the Master can find the Doctor.

We head back to the Doctor and Grace.  Grace is running all kinds of test on the Doctor to try to figure things out.  They eventually get frustrated, and go for a walk.  While out and about, the Doctor remembers bits and pieces of his past, and he finds constant delight in what humanity has to offer.  Swept up in the moment, the Doctor kisses Grace, and like true love's first kiss in the fairy tales, the Doctor's memories are reawakened and he remembers who he is.  But, as soon as this happens, the Master begins using the Eye of Harmony to see through the Doctor's eyes.  As soon as the Doctor snaps his eyes shut and starts babbling about the Master and the TARDIS and what he needs to fix the TARDIS, Grace dismisses the Doctor as a crazy person and calls for an ambulance to come take the Doctor away.  Of course, because the Master is still in the body of a paramedic, guess which ambulance comes to pick up the Doctor and Grace?

But the Doctor has more pressing concerns.  The Eye of Harmony has too much power to be opened on Earth, and the Eye is now slowly destroying the planet.  To demonstrate how the molecular stability of the planet has been compromised, the Doctor calmly walks through Grace's walls.  On the news on the TV on in Grace's house, the Doctor learns of an atomic clock that'll be started at 12:01 AM on January 1 to ring in the new year.  The Doctor knows that atomic clock has the part he needs to repair the TARDIS.  With that part, he can fix TARDIS, close the Eye, and save the planet.  Grace is still convinced the Doctor is just crazy, and at this point, the Master arrives to take away the Doctor.  On the trip to the hospital, the Doctor finally recognizes the Master's new body, and rips off the Master's sunglasses.  When Grace sees the Master's inhuman eyes, she's finally convinced the Doctor is speaking the truth, but not before the Master is able to spit up some kind of venom on Grace.  The Doctor and Grace escape from the ambulance, which is stuck in a traffic jam, and they swipe a police motorcycle and speed off to the Institute where the atomic clock is.

Using Grace's connections, and a little bit of subterfuge, the Doctor and Grace are able to swipe the part they need from the atomic clock, and avoid the Master and speed back to the TARDIS.  They're able to repair the TARDIS and close the Eye, but the Eye has been open too long.  The TARDIS won't start and Earth is still in danger.  They need to jumpstart the TARDIS and take it back in time a few hours in order to correct everything.  But, thanks to that venom he sprayed on Grace earlier, the Master is able to telepathically take control of Grace and use her to subdue the Doctor.  With the Doctor captured, the Master can now unleash his plan.

The Master's plan had been known in the plot for some time, but I haven't had a chance to share it yet.  For those only familiar with the Master through the revival, the Master's original MO was that he'd used up all his regenerations, and was looking for...unnatural ways to extend his life.  And in the movie, using the power of the Eye of Harmony, the Master intends to steal the Doctor's remaining regenerations.  So, with the Doctor restrained, and Grace under the Master's control, the Doctor appeals to Chang to help him.  Chang, finally realizing that the Doctor is the true good guy, turns on the Master, and the Master promptly kills Chang.  The Eye of Harmony is still sealed shut, and the Doctor reminds the Master that only a human can open the Eye of Harmony, and now Chang is dead, and Grace's eyes have been made inhuman by his control.  So, the Master releases Grace from his control, and uses Grace to open the Eye.  Now that the Master is distracted by his plan coming to fruition, Grace manages to slip away, jump start the TARDIS, take them back in time a few hours to save the Earth, and then runs back to save the Doctor.

She interrupts the process, saves the Doctor, and the Master is so pissed off he kills Grace.  The Doctor and the Master throw down a little bit, which results in the Master tumbling into the Eye of Harmony.  The Doctor tries to save the Master, but the Master chooses death over being saving by his enemy.  The power of the Eye of Harmony resurrects Chang and Grace, and finally snaps shut.  The world is safe, and the Doctor takes them to January 1, 2000, just in time for the fireworks. 

With their adventure done, Chang apologizes to the Doctor and returns the Doctor's belongings...including the TARDIS key and the legendary sonic screwdriver.  The Doctor, however, does allow Chang to keep the bags of gold dust that the Master paid him with.  The Doctor implores Grace to come with him on further adventures, but Grace declines.  So, they share one last kiss, the Doctor climbs into the TARDIS, and cranks up his music.  The Doctor, apparently, prefers vinyl.  And when his record starts to skip, the Doctor exclaims, "Oh, no!  Not again!" and has another fantastic adventure!  ...or, he would have, had it gone to series.

And that's Doctor Who: The Movie! 

Part of the debate that this caused among Doctor Who fans was the changes it made to the Doctor.  This was the first time ever that he took a romantic interest in his companion, and some fans weren't hip to it.  This also made the revelation that the Doctor is half-human, something that hasn't been acknowledged at all in the revivals.  There's been lots of fan speculation as to why the Doctor was half-human in this adventure.  Some say he used that device that turns him into a human on himself so as to throw the Master off his trail.  Others say that, since it's been alluded that the Doctor can change species when he regenerates, that it's on the Eighth Doctor who has half-human.  Whatever.  It's a trait that's been quickly forgotten.  One quirk that I liked about t he Eight Doctor was he liked to give people "spoilers," and little bits of advice that would help them out a few years down the road, just subtly manipulating the time line so good will always triumph.  I still maintain that Paul McGann, who played the Eighth Doctor, would have done magnificent things with the role.  I watched the film with the subtitle trivia track on, and the trivia said that McGann was very aware of the nature of a back door pilot, and would joke that he might wind up being "the George Lazenby of Doctors."  It's tradition that the Doctor team up with his previous incarnations to celebrate the franchise's anniversary...since 2013 with be Doctor Who's 50th Anniversary, here's hoping McGann can come back for The Eleven Doctors.

The filming style is very unique.  Because it was filmed for American audiences, but still had a largely British crew, it has this unique blend of American and British film styles.  It looks and feels like the current series, but it's a lot more action packed, like you'd find in a typical 1990s sci-fi show.  Fun trivia fact:  the composer of this TV movie was John Debney, who is now a big time film composer, having done the music for Elf, Yogi Bear, and Iron Man 2!.

After all these years, it's still a somewhat satisfying adventure.  And I'm glad to have it in my collection. 

No comments: