Day 365 — December 31st 2021
The TV Movie
The TV Movie
Ah, the TV Movie. It’s always been slightly out of place, hasn’t it? Not quite part of the Old Testament, now quite part of the New. It’s a bit of a loner which kind of fits in with both and works brilliantly as an oddity which acts as a bridge between the two iterations of the show. When I was first getting into the world of Doctor Who there was even some debate about whether or not it actually counted as part of the overall canon. I seem to recall the moment McGann appeared as a face in John Smith’s journal (In Human Nature) was taken as the first real sign of confirmation. He counts! He’s one of them! The Movie happened! Of course we’ve since had McGann back for a regeneration scene which ties him in even more directly, and I don’t think there’s any debate about the validity of this film now.
But I can’t say I was ever part of the debate — it always seemed pretty clear to me that it counts! Of course it does! It opens with Sylvester McCoy regenerating into the next Doctor Who! It seems pretty unambiguous for me. I also think that it should count simply because it’s really good. I’ve not seen the film since I did my last marathon, and I’d started to suspect that I wasn’t really a fan, and that it was going to be bit of a duff ending to a year-long marathon. I was completely wrong, though, because I’ve loved watching this one. The hour and a half I spent watching this tonight was one of the best experiences I’ve had watching Who all year. I’ve given it a 9/10, which puts it right at the top of my average ratings, tied with Mission to the Unknown, The Power of the Daleks and City of Death as my favourite story of them all.
So what’s so good about it? Well, I think it’s fair to say that it’s one of the most visually beautiful Doctor Who stories ever made. We’ve had thirteen seasons of adventures broadcast since this one, with decent budgets and the same kind of production format, and yet I don’t think the show has ever looked better than this. Is this the most expensive episode of Doctor Who ever made? Because it certainly feels like it might be. There’s so many moments in this one — all the chickens on the motorway, the scale of the TARDIS Interior (we’ll come back to that), the brilliant shot where we move from a close up of the eye on a fish out into the street where there’s a gang battle taking place! You can see the money on screen, and it looks incredible. I think this is also another advert for why the show should always have been shot on film. It gives the material a depth and a scope that I just don’t think you get anywhere else. There’s some very compelling reasons for why they weren’t able to remaster this from the original film elements when it came out on Blu-ray, but I hope it happens one day because I’d love to see it in the best possible quality.
The colour palette of the film is something that I thought I wasn’t going to be keen on. Loads of the movie is bathed in harsh blue light, which was all the rage on this type of production in the 1990s. Indeed, there’s a lot of moments in here which remind me of The X Files, which is fitting because the show was shooting in the same city while this film was in production. In fact, that blue lighting becomes a bit of a visual signature through the film and it always looks stunning. It makes for such a striking image, and I think the film looks all the better for having followed the all-video McCoy years, which had some bold colours but always ended up a bit washed out by the format.
On the subject of McCoy, how brilliant is it to have him back here, if only for the opening fifteen minutes? It feels right that he was allowed to be a part of the show when it was actually having some love and money poured in by the people in charge, and it’s great that he gets to ‘pass the baton’ on by recording a regeneration scene. I’ve seen people complain about the fact he gets gunned down so randomly, especially after the last couple of seasons have made such a point of him being one step ahead at all times. I think that’s brilliant, though. Here’s the incarnation who destroyed Skaro and wiped out the Cybermen’s fleet, and he’s killed by a random act of human violence he could never have foreseen.
Okay, so I’ll accept that the film doesn’t make concessions for people who have no familiarity with Doctor Who. I think Russell T Davies was right to cut the ties a little in 2005, and present us with a brand new Doctor Who right off the bat. That said, I don’t think the idea of opening with the regeneration is necessarily a bad thing in itself. If anything, I think it should make it all the more exciting for a viewer who has no idea of the series’ past. It just needs to have the story beats moved around a little. The film opens with so much being thrown at you — Time Lords, Gallifrey, Daleks, the Master, Regeneration Limits… calm down!
I think you open with the gunfight in the alley, with the police box already in place. Right in the middle of the battle, out steps this strange little man — a total eccentric — who gets rushed into hospital. He’s clearly nuts, babbling about the end of the world, the Master, the millennium. He dies on the operating table and that’s that. But then Grace discovers that all the X-rays showed two hearts, and as she realises there’s more to him than meets the eye, we watch as the corpse begins to transform, and a whole new man sits up in the morgue! I think that’s a great way of launching a film like this. You can fill in all the who and why and what about afterwards.
The other reason for keeping the regeneration in here is that it’s brilliant! What an effect! The gurning and metamorphosis! I think it’s my favourite regeneration effect of all the ones so far — it’s just so freaky and interesting. Add to that playing it against the footage from Frankenstein, right down to mirroring the hand and moving fingers… oh it’s fab. I proper love it. There’s only one thing wrong with it as far as I can see, and it’s that the number on the door Doctor Who breaks down should absolutely have been ‘8’. It’s such an obvious detail that I’m surprised they didn’t go for it. Still, that’s a proper minor quibble, in the grand scheme of things.
Post regeneration, McGann’s very good, isn’t he? He only gets about an hour of screen time all things considered, but he makes the most of them, and he’s gone right in somewhere near the top of my list of favourite incarnations. It helps that the script gives him so much to work with. He gets to be silly and serious, funny and aloof. The motorcycle chase makes the character an action hero in a way I don’t think he’s ever been before — not even in the days when Pertwee used to make his way through every vehicle they could hire — but it also feels immediately right. And I love — properly love — the moment he steals a gun and threatens to shoot himself. It’s such a clever twisting of the way you’d expect that scene to play out in a regular action film.
And then there’s the kissing. Hoo boy, the kissing! It’s still controversial now, after years of Doctor Who being a bit of a snogger, so I can imagine the discomfort it caused at the time. You just can’t imagine any of the previous Doctor Whos in a scene like the one we have here. With McGann, though, it feels absolutely right, and I think the scene is so joyous and feel good that it’s hard not to just be swept up in the emotion of it all. He’s been good in the scenes before, but the moment it all clicks into place for the character is also the moment he really nails the role.
Grace: ‘You have no recollection of family?’
Doctor Who: ‘No. No, no, no, no. Wait… wait! I remember I’m with my father, lying back in the grass. It’s a warm Gallifreyan night.’
Doctor Who: ‘Gallifrey! Yes, this must be where I live. Now, where is that?’
Grace: ‘I’ve never heard of it. What do you remember?’
Doctor Who: ‘A meteor storm. The sky above us was dancing with lights! Purple, green and brilliant yellow! Yes!’
Doctor Who: ‘These shoes! They fit perfectly. Yes!’
While we’re on the subject of controversial aspects of the film, I suppose we need to address the other big one; Doctor Who is half human. On his mother’s side. Ooh, that’s hated in fandom, innit? But you know what? I love it! Hah! It makes perfect sense for him to be half human. Why do you think he’s so obsessed with Earth and the Human Race? It’s also unambiguously fact. He has to be half human to work the Eye of Harmony stuff in the plot, so it’s there for all to see. I do, however, think the ‘mother’s side’ bit is clearly a joke he’s ad-libbing in the moment. But yes, all for the half-human thing. I’d make a point of bringing that up if I were put in charge of the show tomorrow.
Is Eric Roberts still considered a bit controversial, too? There was a time when people really took him to task for his performance, but I don’t think I’ve seen a lot of that for ages now. Either way, I love him in this! I wasn’t expecting to, in all honesty. I’d gotten it into my head that he really was a bit naff, and that he camped it up too much and played it too broadly. But I don’t think that’s the case at all. Early on, when the Master first takes over his body, he’s genuinely scary. The moment when he spins round to reveal his possessed eyes to his wife is brilliant. By the time he ‘dresses for the occasion’ and does start to go a bit camp and over the top I was enjoying the film far too much to do anything but be swept along with the performance. It’s so much fun, how on Earth can you hate something like that?
As you can tell, I’ve found plenty to enjoy in this one. And I’m not done yet!
The TARDIS Interior for the TV Movie is a bit of a departure from anything we’ve ever had before. It completely ditches the sterile white roundels, and goes for something fully Jules Verne. It’s like the Season Fourteen Secondary Control Room on steroids. And it’s beautiful. Industrial and vintage, all wood and rusting metal. Those girders around the Console are stunning. It’s another area where the blue lighting really comes into its own — there’s some properly beautiful shots of the room bathed in light scattered throughout the film and I think they look incredible. All that said, I don’t think I can imagine many of the previous Doctor Whos in this room. It really suits McCoy’s latter day version, and McGann feels right at home, but I can’t imagine Peter Davison in here.
The outside of the TARDIS is beautiful, too, although I feel like I shouldn’t like it as much as I do. The font on the sign box is hideous and the whole box is sort of… well, boxy. But somehow it really works, and I love the little details they’ve added to the materialisation, like a little blue glow at the heart of the box. My biggest issue with the film is related to the TARDIS, though. When I say they’ve not made this to be accessible to anyone who’s not familiar with the series, I think the perfect example comes early on when we cut from a spinning police box in the vortex to some vast cavernous room with no attempt to show that one is inside the other. That feels like a proper mis-step, and in my version of the film you’d hold back the reveal for the moment Chang Lee breaks into the box, then steps back out to confirm he’s not going mad.
One last thing I love in this one and it’s the music. Ooh, it’s beautiful. My favourite Doctor Who soundtrack. And the best version of the theme tune, too! I love how bombastic it sounds without going over the top. Those trumpets are great!
So there we have it; the end of the road! It’s taken me from the first day of the year to the last, but I’ve done every episode of Old Testament Doctor Who in 2021. I’ve got one more post to come — a look back at the year and how all the stories stack up against each other in a list. I’m really pleased that the whole marathon has ended on a high, with this one joining the list at the very top as the best of the best.