Amidst the various specials surrounding the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who was a short mini-episode called The Night of the Doctor. It served as a prequel to the main event, whetting the appetite of fans by showing the regeneration of the Eighth Doctor into John Hurt's "War Doctor". Previously, this incarnation appeared only in an American produced TV movie broadcast in 1996, bridging the gap between the original series and the 2005 revival.
In this film, the Eighth Doctor is played by Paul McGann, best known for starring as the eponymous "I" (or Marwood) in Withnail & I (1987) alongside Richard E. Grant. Grant himself would later go on to play a version of the Tenth Doctor in Comic Relief's Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death (1999) and the villainous Dr. Simeon (a facet of the Great Intelligence) opposite Matt Smith's Doctor in 2012.
McGann makes a very good Doctor, combining the typical eccentricity of the role with budding elements of the childlike joie de vivre that would come to typify later incarnations. The Fourth Doctor's jelly babies even make an appearance. He saves this picture from being an otherwise failed attempt to reinvent Doctor Who for an American audience. Entertainingly, this Doctor enjoys dropping hints about the futures of people he meets, although whether this knowledge comes from his travels or merely his abilities as a Time Lord is unclear.
The USA has a long history of remaking and adapting British films and TV shows, whilst tragically underestimating their own audiences. Although a direct continuation of the original series, this film was such an attempt to give The Doctor his big American outing.
This is not to say that Doctor Who has no appeal for America. Stateside support has thrived since the 2005 revival, and now makes up an integral part of the series' fan base. Moreover, this highlights how unwise and unnecessary such transatlantic pandering is when it merely diminishes the quintessentially British characteristics that make Doctor Who unique.
Though the film was American produced, director Geoffrey Sax is British. With a background in BBC drama, he appears an appropriate choice to helm the picture. However, the direction is largely pedestrian, with an over reliance on Dutch angles, and action sequences which could be part of any other low key '90s movie.
Perhaps this film is a product of the decade more than it is a product of Americanisation. To his credit Sax utilises the opulent TARDIS set to its full advantage during sequences of dialogue. Sax would go on to direct the mainstream, though tepidly received White Noise (2005) and Stormbreaker (2006).
On the other side of the fence, it is refreshing to see a man with access to the whole of time and space make a stop in somewhere that isn't contemporary London. Here, the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) lands in San Francisco on 31st December 1999, prophetically amid the dying embers of an old millennium. A failure to successfully navigate the gangs and guns of Chinatown swiftly lands The Doctor in hospital, and sparks his next regeneration.
The film rejects Daleks or rubber aliens in favour of a more human faced story, pitting The Doctor against long term foe and rival The Master (Eric Roberts, who would later appear as the mysterious Thompson in Heroes). The two spend much of the film stalking the city in search of each other, and predictably, the New Year provides an ultimatum: The Master opens the TARDIS' energy source, which will destroy the Earth by midnight unless the Doctor can reset it with an atomic clock.
The saga of a time travelling Englishman on the trail of his slippery nemesis recalls the plot of Time After Time (1979) in which H. G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell) arrives in modern day San Francisco in pursuit of Jack the Ripper. Indeed, the Doctor is shown reading Wells' The Time Machine at the start of the film and the aesthetic of the TARDIS design and Eighth Doctor's wardrobe is reminiscent of similar late 19th Century science fiction. The Master meanwhile goes Terminator, issuing stoic demands whilst clad in leather jacket and shades,
The Doctor finds a companion in fellow physician Grace Holloway (Daphne Ashbrook), whose childhood dreams of keeping death at bay inspired her to become a doctor. When she learns about regeneration, her world view is challenged, as she was the surgeon whose failure caused the Seventh Doctor's demise.
Symbolically, the film dwells on the obvious themes of time and rebirth and the ability of time travel to hold back death. This is something which the Doctor is more reluctant to do in other media, and the film takes the opportunity to stray away from established mythology in other ways, including the revelation that the alien Doctor is half-human. The plot is driven by the temporary amnesia The Doctor suffers after regenerating, and he swiftly develops a romantic relationship with Grace.
While it is far from the greatest Doctor Who story in existence, it's a shame that Doctor Who: The Movie did not spark a new series starring Paul McGann. Watching thirty odd years of any TV series is a mammoth task so for those who have seen but a handful of 'classic' episodes, the movie provides nothing if not a way to complete an entire Doctor's tenure in one fell swoop.