‘Doctor Who: The Movie’ Gives Viewers the All-American TARDIS

After years of waiting, it has finally arrived — the proverbial Holy Grail of Doctor Who releases. That’s right: the one and only appearance of Paul McGann as the eighth regeneration of the Doctor, and boy what a detour it is.

Although, yes, this is part of the “official” Doctor Who canon, this made-for-TV movie feels completely different from what has come both before and after it, and the more you learn about the behind-the-scenes drama that goes into it, the more it all makes sense.

You see, although the historically long run of Doctor Who was put to an end in 1989, its fates had been sealed a long time prior. After a series of management changes at the BBC, there were few true Whovians left at the Beep, and most people looked at Sylvester McCoy’s seventh incarnation with contempt, sometimes even badmouthing the lousy production values of his run (which was funny given that it was those same people that were in charge of the budgets for the show). What’s more, the audience was dropping off sharply, which — really — wasn’t surprising, given how shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation were starting to take off, making the poor ol’ Doctor look more and more like a relic with each passing day. In short, despite its historic lineage, there just wasn’t enough interest for the Doctor in the late-’80s to keep him on the air.

Yet some people kept the faith, and as the Doctor Who: The Movie DVD documentary “The Seven Year Hitch” illustrates, one rising industry star named Philip Segal was the light that kept the TARDIS a-blinkin’. He loved the Doctor, and wanted desperately to bring him back following his cancellation. Unfortunately, any time he tried to convince others to jump on board, he got a cool reception from the BBC. As such, it wasn’t until he began working with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment that his idea finally got some traction, and this 54-minute documentary illustrates the trials and travails that Segal and crew had to go through in order to bring the Doctor back to the small-screen.

Spielberg’s (largely indirect) involvement was a huge boon to all involved, and the whole thing was being prepped to be a huge crossover to America, complete with a 13-episode season order for the Fox Network. However, as casting sessions began and scripts were being finalized, Spielberg began to lose interest, and even Segal admits that some of the scripts he was reading — from veteran screenwriters no less — were pretty worthless, as the Doctor goes on a rather unusual quest to find his father. Looking for a new perspective, the producers took a chance on a young up-and-coming screenwriter named Matthew Jacobs to tackle this comeback, and although his initial script was liked by all, it was by this point that Amblin had pulled out completely, even with the American networks still interested in the project. So, instead of starting to launch a series, this pivotal first episode of a brand-new show soon turned into a “backdoor pilot”, where, if it proved successful, would cause the network to order a series (the practice is still being used today, Sci-Fi’s Battlestar Galactica being a huge beneficiary of such a technique).

Although spirits were high, getting a Doctor Who episode to air on an American network required some tinkering, and, as such, the resulting TV movie feels very Americanized: there’s quirky relationship drama (spoiler for no one: the Doctor kisses the girl at the end!), a foe whose villainy is damn-near cartoonish in nature (yes, that’s Eric Roberts as the Master), and huge, climatic set pieces as well (the final confrontation inside the TARDIS itself is styled like a Hollywood action-movie epic, largely due to the fact that no Doctor before or since has ever had a TARDIS the size of this thing, which is practically a mansion). Yet even as Doctor Who: The Movie keeps checking off clichés one after another, it’s Paul McGann — who caught the casting director’s eye after they were shown Withnail & I — who remains the beating heart of this one-off. His interpretation isn’t ever too showy. It’s quite dignified, actually, still allowing quirkiness to work its way in but never overwhelming the audience with it, hewing closely in spirit to Peter Davidson’s interpretation of the character. It’s a real shame that McGann didn’t get better material to work with here, much less be allowed to explore the character through a whole series of adventures.

Although this TV-movie event got respectable (but not spectacular) ratings in England, the American broadcast on Fox had the misfortune of being timed against the series finale of Roseanne, and when Fox saw the Nielsen totals, they passed on the option of developing the series. Fortunately, the Eighth Doctor still managed to live on in many other forms, as the numerous other featurettes on this DVD illustrate, the best of which are the one-two punch of “The Wilderness Years” and the recurring “Stripped for Action” segment. The former does a great job of illustrating how fans kept the Doctor’s spirit alive during his downtime, with novelizations and “unofficial” direct-to-video movies stoking the interest of Whovians worldwide, some with quite a bit of success (and cameos from Doctors past to boot!). With the “Stripped for Action” bit, the editors of Doctor Who Magazine note how with only one televised adventure to go off of, the writers to their long-running series managed to really unleash their creative demons and create some of the most dramatic and daring illustrated Time Lord adventures to date (including featuring the first-ever lesbian relationship to appear in the Whoniverse).

Given that this was the only outing for McGann, the BBC have done an extraordinary job rounding up as many special features as they could lay their hands on, ranging from era-specific EPKs (oh mid-90s Fox TV graphics how we miss you) to two different commentary tracks: one with director Geoffrey Sax (in which he discusses lots of technical items) and the other with both Paul McGann and Sylvester McCoy (who engage in a lighthearted bit of joshing about the film). There’s also visual effects tests, short alternate takes, a fascinating documentary about the show’s relationship with the children’s program Blue Peter over the years, and more. The only truly disappointing feature is “The Doctor’s Strange Love”, in which fans and a supposed “comedienne” sit around what looks like a hotel room to discuss their favorite moments in the film, which proves to be bland, uninteresting, and far more tedious than it sounds (and at 17-minutes, far too long).

Although Doctor Who: The Movie was released on DVD in the UK in 2001, it didn’t have nearly as many special features included here on this Region 1 set, which makes it all the more worthwhile. The fact that it’s now actually available is a landmark in and of itself — as such, we can forgive the film for not being nearly as fascinating as the behind-the-scenes drama that surrounds it.

RATING 5 / 10
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.