‘Somehow, I don’t think the second coming happens here.’ 25 years on, when it’s no longer a false dawn, it’s much easier to appreciate the TV Movie as a prologue to the 2005 revival instead of the epilogue to the 1963 series. It’s much more like one of the New Testament’s festive specials, especially The Runaway Bride (another sassy redhead in a gown who thinks the Doctor’s nuts and turns down the chance to join him), than anything in the Old Testament.
As such, there’s a lot of fun to be had spotting the things that Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat retain. Some of that’s the design, which is excellent: the titles of the TARDIS spinning through a multi-coloured time vortex; the time rotor reaching into the ceiling and the TV on a spring; the TARDIS burping like it’s a bin in Rose; the “timey wimey” resurrection of Grace and Chang Lee with a sprinkle of golden energy, which looks very much like it was cut and pasted into the end of The Time of the Doctor. The snogging. But apart from the details, the way this works, with more focus on character and emotion (or, being mean, the sense of a plot rather than a plot that makes sense), and the relentless motion and action, is more like the revival than anything in the show’s past.
There’s a lot to love about this, most of all, I think, the casting. Paul McGann is excellent (it amuses me that the eighth Doctor is introduced as a disembodied voice, given he’s going to be mostly an audio-only incarnation). He looks like he knows what he’s doing when he’s dismantling the atomic clock or rewiring the TARDIS; when he’s riding a stolen motorbike, and when he’s grabbing Grace’s hand to dash around Vancouver. He’s young without seeming guileless. Too many of the Eighth Doctor Adventure novels pitched him as puppyish, without spotting his sardonic streak: joking about the size of the beryllium chip, chiding Grace for being facetious (‘Very witty, Grace’), amused by humans (‘Always seeing patterns in things that aren’t there’) and tricking the Master into spilling the beans to Chang Lee. I’m not mad they stuck him in that wig and fancy dress costume (I’d never noticed before that Ted’s ‘Wild Bill Hickok’ line plays over him finding the costume), but they’re clearly going for a classic Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen look, so it makes sense.
Which means Daphne Ashbrook is conceived as the new Sarah Jane: someone both half-convinced the Doctor’s insane, and willing to be his best friend. That she has to get to this point in about an hour is credit to Ashbrook, whose performance has a very Sarah Jane-like mix of vulnerability, childishness and bravery. My favourite moments are pure performance: firstly, her little “what a nutter” look at the Doctor as she waits for the ambulance to take him away, and then, at the institute, her eyes lighting up at the chance of champagne, and her little ‘oh’ as the Doctor pulls her away.
And Eric Roberts is superb as the Bruce and the Master, or Bruce becoming the Master (the scene when he’s quizzing Curtis about the seventh Doctor, talking like he hasn’t quite got the hang of the facial muscles, is great). A lot of commentary points out how he gets the “campness” of the character, which is true. He’s very funny (his giveaway correction of Grace’s idioms, ‘As well as me’, is wonderful). But he’s also vicious and desperate: the Master’s never seemed as brutal and feral as in his final attack on the Doctor on the steps of the Eye of Harmony, as he kicks and lunges at McGann.
The direction is also great: Geoffrey Sax focuses on details: clocks, eyes, little kisses to the past (the 900 Year Diary, the jelly babies). This looks like a movie. The problems with it are almost entirely different than in the classic series, where very often performances, design or direction let down perfectly solid scripts. Here, when the series finally has the budget to do something spectacular, the script isn’t up to it. It has a lot of good bits, but it’s over-stuffed, and the central story is convoluted and messy.
In theory, the end of the world happening as a by-product of the Master’s quest for survival is quite good, but there’s too much noise around it. A lot is made of Chang Lee and Grace being able to open the Eye because they have human eyes, whereas the Doctor is only half human – but it’s never clear why. It would have been better to save the half-human reveal for a story where it was relevant to the problem at hand, rather than trumpeting what seems like a major revelation only to do nothing interesting with it (a lesson the show continues to fail to learn). It seems more relevant to the plot to explain what the Eye of Harmony actually is (presumably, a black hole, hence sucking the planet inside out), but this isn’t clarified.
Sylvester McCoy’s cameo is also cute (and I love his costume, a brilliant refinement of the original in the same way The Night of the Doctor reimagines McGann’s), but it goes on too long. I admire the desire to make a continuation rather than a reboot, but I’d much rather have had another 10 minutes of Paul McGann. If they wanted to keep the regeneration the easy edit would have been to begin with Grace having the day from hell when she operates on a man with two hearts. As it stands, unlike An Unearthly Child or Rose, this has no viewpoint character to bring a new audience into the story: by the time we meet Grace we’re already several steps ahead of her.
In any case, it’s unlikely a brilliant script would have made a difference to the poor US ratings that nixed any idea of this being picked up for a series. The BBC broadcast one more McGann story ahead of appointing a ninth Doctor but have largely left the eighth Doctor to tie-in merchandise. But I think it reflects the UK success of the movie and the sheer scale of fan investment in the eighth Doctor that, contrary to Queer as Folk, Paul McGann does count after all. For a happy few of us that were just the right age in 1996, he is the Doctor more than anybody else.
Next episode: Shada
Next entry: Death Comes to Time