Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Weeks Too Late: Doctor Who (1996 Movie)

Doctor Who (1996 Movie). Directed by Geoffery Sax & Written by Matthew Jacobs.

: Well, given the wonderful success of the re-launch of Doctor Who, it isn't a surprise that the 1996 made-for-TV movie has been re-released. I saw this way back when and recall being excited for simply
weeks knowing it was coming out. You see, as far back as I can remember, I've been a fan of the series. There was a great PBS style station (only Canadian) that played a line up of shows that deeply flavoured my life: Monty Python's Flying Circus, Red Dwarf, Black Adder and finally a full two hours of Doctor Who. I know, I know, saying I've been influenced by these shows is a painful cliche and one that's better expressed by actual comedians. What can I say? Sometimes there is truth in the banal and I love this show. My fangirl-ish adoration was surely at its peek in 1996; the idea of there being a new movie that might lead to new episodes was breath catching-ly exciting. I clearly remember the sharp anticipation and the even sharper hatred. The movie desecrated everything I loved about Doctor Who, it was sacrilege, blasphemy. What's more, greatest of all sins to an idealistic enthusiast: it was HOLLYWOOD (even though it, like everything else, was filmed in Vancouver).

But now, I'm no longer an idealistic 13 year old. I'm less likely to hysterically shriek at things I don't like and compare them to mass murder. I see purists complaining that the sonic screw driver has been slightly re-designed from the original show (and more bafflingly, the heated arguments about re-designs since the re-boot) and I just can't take them seriously. Surely, my feelings towards the movie were along the same lines, it couldn't possibly be as bad as I passionately remember it being.

General Review: Well, as much as I hate to agree with 13 year old me (that chick has a lot of stupid ideas), this was undoubtedly terrible, though not entirely for the reasons she was up in arms about. While doing a bit of snooping around to prep for this review, I ran into this on Wikipedia: Script editor: None. That seems about right. Rarely have I forced myself to sit through something with such a made-for-TV feel to it. What with HBO, AMC and to a lesser extent Showtime, I've become accustomed to a certain level of quality and seeing this Fox exclusive reminded me just how lucky I am to be able to expect that quality. The Doctor Who movie was made-for-TV dross in the worst possible way. The writing was so bad that I need to get alliterative: scattered, schizophrenic and stale. Alright and repetitive, but that doesn't being with an "s". We jump seemingly at random between lifeless characters (and after his introduction, we spend a lot of time not watching the Doctor) who parrot line after line which say the same thing in (barely) different ways.

Before I go on to tear a strip out of Sax's heartless, tedious directing, let me talk about the (very) few nice things I have to say. In fact, you can assume everything I don't list here is terrible and that I just didn't have
time to mention it (the catering for this movie? TERRIBLE!). Seeing Sylvester McCoy back as the Seventh Doctor was a lot of fun and we got more time with him than I was expecting. The role is quite a bit meatier than just wandering on and dying (oh no, spoilers!). I have a soft spot for McCoy, because he was my second ever Doctor (after Tom Baker, the PBS style station, while great, played the series in no particular order). He fell seamlessly back into the role and the performance held up even though they had him doing some stupid things (and while I love Doctor Who, it's very light sci-fi and it takes some extraordinarily dumb choices to make things seem stupid in the setting). And I'm hardly the first to say this, but Paul McGann got a raw deal. The fact that he shone through the utter utter garbage that surrounded him (writing, acting, directing, catering) shows that he would have been an amazing Doctor, given half a chance. Since that's what the great Doctors were always able to do: seem great and believable despite the fact that they were fighting giant clam props.

But enough praise and n
ostalgia, lets get back to the flesh rending. The rest of the cast were 1980's soap opera grade trash. Particularly Eric Roberts (as the Master) but particularly Daphne Ashbrook (as the Companion). I mean, I can see having difficulty playing the complex uncertainty of the loving-but not in love, relationship between the Doctor and his Companions, and the dead eyed, slack jawed Ashbrook wasn't up to the task (rather reminiscent of Kathy Ireland in Alien from L.A., really). But can it really be that hard to play a hand wringing villain, Roberts? I guess they were going for a Terminator 1 thing (some ten years after it was relevant), but ugh, there was nothing interesting about him or his performance. And the less said about the street tough with the heart of gold Yee Jee Tso (playing Chang Lee) the better. Well alright, just one: "No time for love, Doctor Who!" Well alright, just two: "I'm not sure if he was supposed to be for the Sharks or the Jets."

Much, much, much of the blame for this catastrophe belongs on the head of Sax. Yes, bringing the Doctor to America was a bit dumb, yes the acting was mostly terrible and the script weak and unedited, but poor directing really clinched the dreadful. I could forgive the cheese of the obviously not shot on the Golden Gate Bridge sequence, but, damn the man, he used soft focus and had a doctor perform an operation in a ball gown (cuz that will make us taker her seriously as an intellectual). There were party scenes that looked like they were shot in a broom closet with three people hopping around desperately trying to look like a crowd. And the scary, big city alley scene that looked like....well, what it was, a cheap sound stage. It was just, joking aside, without charm or skill.

I may get weepy and nostalgic for the original Doctor Who, but there is a lot of terrible there too. The sets and costumes were cheesy, they often had weak actors and painfully padded scripts, but there were always bright spots that saved it. For every: "twenty minutes of running around in caves and escaping one prison to wind up almost immediately in an identical one," there were: "heartbreaking scenes of the Doctor saying good bye to a companion." There was no reason a character as big as the Doctor couldn't have survived and thrived, even in American and with no budget, but there just wasn't enough of that old good here. In sum, sometimes you need to listen to 13 year old you, she occasionally knows what she's talking about.


  1. my understanding that even though this was utter shit, the UK wanted it to continue but fox wouldn't let them, so instead why only got the Paul McGann doctor as a comic, radio drama and novel character.
    i think it would be fun for BBC to revisit him one day, have him interact with the current doctor and explore what caused the war with the daleks and what made him less moral in comparison to other doctors.
    i will admit i am not the biggest dr who fan having to sit through the movies at a friends' house as a kid; i was excited for this movie when it came out. And was utterly disappointed.
    When Sci-Fy started showing the new shows i loved the doctor they returned with; hated the next guy to the point that i never watched the episodes (i know i'm the one exception that hated him) but adore the newest doctor and mmmm Amy Pond.

  2. All hail the greatness that is the 8th Doctor, and thanks to this terrible movie, never got to see any more of him. *shakes fist*

    At least we have the most excellent audio dramas.

  3. Sylvestor McCoy I miss you. *sniff*