Doctor Who: The 17 Year Itch – “In the fight for survival, there are no rules” (Whovember #8)

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A sad but pivotal turn in the classic Whovember viewings as it reaches the alpha, omega and nothing else in-between… Of one of the best loved Time Lords, that difficult Eighth…

#8: Doctor Who: The Movie, a 17 year break then, The Night of the Doctor.

AH, WHAT IS THERE TO SAY ABOUT THE EIGHTH DOCTOR? Sadly, he’s only there because no one really wanted him.  Had a series ensued from his American reboot pilot, we’d no doubt be raging about the canonicity.  Not only would there be strong reservations about the Eighth Doctor’s role, despite his canon regeneration, but it would certainly have changed or destroyed that 2005 revival.

In a way, Paul McGann’s barely seen but popular Doctor was a sacrificial lamb.

As it happened, we won a vibrant new series that’s more popular than ever because his stab at TARDIS control failed.  Now he’s firmly lodged in the BBC DVD range, long forgotten as a potential American property and somehow formed one of the best bits of the 50th anniversary.  Who would have thought that 17 years after first regenerating, the Eighth Doctor would improve…  Well, we should have had more faith.

The Movie (1996)

The Movie, for all its faults is still a very good looking production.  It’s probably my most watched opening, with the TARDIS vortex cut-aways that still look stunning.  The old joke about the classic seasons’ fragile sets may be unfair, but the US budget gave us scenes not come near since the opening few seconds of The Trial of a Time Lord.

The hindsight that comes with the show’s successful revival is the real problem here – incorporating regeneration into the first third.  Regeneration is an extraordinary and bizarre concept.  It’s absolute genius, but it’s also intangible.  I’ve now idea when I became aware of the concept or saw multiple Doctors and realised that they were the same person.  Somehow it just happened – and I certainly had no Ben and Polly style companions to ease the transition in the late 1980s.

But here, it’s the voice over of Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor that welcomes us to the story as we see a strangely un-garrulous Seventh Doctor potter around.  The script and settings are riddled with menace.  About the Doctor’s mission, “It was a request they should never have granted?” we’re told.  Really?  Why, because the Master ended up falling into the Eye of Harmony?  Because Earth temporarily went a little off-molecule and nobody noticed?

Still, director Geoffrey Sax ramps up the atmosphere in the opening scenes.  The scenes of the x-rays, mixed with the strobe-laced pan of the ambulance, backed by the static of radio is effective, as is the rather lovely slow-motion opera escaping Grace.  Slightly clichéd, but done well.

There are strange Who aberrations littered around, including the marvellous new stellar-cartography console room – so TARDIS and yet not quite.  The Seventh Doctor uses a classic sonic screwdriver before he even speaks, for the first time.  Like the console room, he’s a bit of a composite himself.  A huge, sentimental composite.  This jazz loving Doctor is happy knocking back jelly babies, reading Well’s The Time Machine while he nips back, ridiculously or fortuitously to Rassilon-era Gallifrey.  When there’s an emergency, something that strangely disconcerts him he doesn’t even check the scanner before leaving his ship….

That prolonged set-up sets things up, rather clinically.  The TARDIS is a normal-sized police box, it is invincible, the Doctor really can be two different people.

And then, the savage cut to a dead fish eye sums up the rather uncomfortable mash of styles – uncomfortable in Who terms that is.  We’re not in child-focussed historical adventure here – we’re in action adventure.  The shoot-out that the Doctor steps into barely felt realistic at the time but it certainly felt violent.  And with one ba-ding, the Seventh was over.  Well, after a particularly long and sadistic theatre scene. We obviously absolutely have to believe that the Seventh Doctor is dead.

Strange that there’s so many historical nods and yet very little explanation.  It’s baffling to new viewers and mildly offensive to Doctor Who fans.

The emphasis is on “mildly”, but of course, there are many parts of The Movie that can get a Whovian frothing at the mouth.  The Dalek voices, the Dalek concept of trial (well, they do have a legislative arm…), the Doctor’s roots, the peculiar suggestion that the TARDIS is unique, the Eye of Harmony laying at the heart of the Autumnal Cloister room… The Master.

McGann’s mention of the regenerative limit isn’t enough to overcome the peculiar fate of the Master.  His default xenomorph setting can be explained away of course.  I mean, for over a decade he’d just sat in a humanoid body that he’d borrowed, taking a fair battering along the way.

There was initial speculation that the Master’s eyes (and black skin?) were a reference to his fate at the end of Survival.  They are however, clearly intended to be snake-like – suggesting that his slimy form is indeed, yep, a snake.  Yes, he is evil.  Biblical as ever, even when he turns into Captain Black. His plot may be hokey and confusing; especially when he pops out to get changed into fine Gallifreyan finery.  But some lines like “I’ve wasted all my lives because of you, Doctor…” is quite a compelling.

Many parts of this characterisation are a bit off, but that’s about as irrelevant as research was to Eric Roberts.  Overall, this Master is quite valid.  Robert’s master chews scenery while channelling Khan.  Anthony Ainley had a similar approach.  During the ‘Bruce you’re sick’ – ‘Thank you’ exchange, this Master looks far less ridiculous after seeing what John Simm did with the character.  This Master’s refusal to accept the Doctor’s help was something else later picked up in the New Series.

There are some nice touches in there, such as his adopting the Doctor’s ‘English’ accent.  Also, his pathetic response to a fire extinguisher, odd literalism and Time Lord correction of Grace’s grammar and Freud knowledge is fantastic.  But then… He spits poison gunk.  Well, presumably so.  It burns Grace, but then later both stupefies (kills) and allows the Master a route to possession.

Perhaps most significant is the master’s ability to just appear in the TARDIS.  Twice.  Surely an editing issue, that could have been or perhaps was overcome in the original script.

The Master’s hypnotic control is as great as the Delgado version.  And then with the unnecessary “I’ve always hated this planet” he proves he really is a right bastard by sacrificing both Grace and Change Lee dead.  He may have stepped up his homicidal tendencies, but it’s easy to see why.

In the end, the Master doesn’t help himself, but it looks a lot like the TARDIS rejects him.  And not just because he lacks, ahem, some human DNA.  After that, rather strangely, it eats him.  The Eye of the Harmony is now not just a route to the original black hole, it’s an engine and the TARDIS’ mouth!

In the slightly Superman: The Movie type way, the healing of Grace and Lee again looks far better in the regenerative-energy soaked years of Davies and Moffat.  “What a sentimental old thing this TARDIS is” the Doctor says.  He should wait until he meets her…

On the flipside of that eternal struggle of good and evil, the producers clearly needed to match the class of their production with a Doctor of class.  With Paul McGann they lucked out.

Unlike the generic, pointless garble that McCoy has to contend with McGann really gets to wrap his new tongue around a lot.  It’s not a promising start. Despite the Frankenstein juxtaposition, he undergoes a rather unspectacular regeneration (so much more quickening than New Series impressive after 17 years) and wakes with amnesia.

It’s funny how strange it is that this Doctor regenerated in America as opposed to, well, Androzani or even Hertfordshire. And those first words are not classics…  But still, it may be an obvious analogy, but that juxtaposition with the 1931 Frankenstein makes the regeneration make sense.  What else is Frankenstein but a regeneration story, but still it doesn’t quite capture the idea of a hero… Like much of the film, the idea of the hero and villain is strangely garbled.

But when de-shackled of amnesia, McGann’s is an immediately attractive Doctor.  Bewildered, hopeful, high pitched, squeaky, insightful – he’s a bundle of vitality and energy.  He relishes life, but isn’t a Doctor who’s afraid of making noise to get his point across.  Before reminiscing about Puccini in a heartfelt way – “It was so sad…” – the Doctor finds his costume in the hospital just like Spearhead from Space and The Eleventh Hour, but this time aided by New Year’s Eve… And in doing so, he’s hoisted straight back to the Edwardian era.  Amid some Gallifreyan reminiscences, moments like the shoe scene are brilliant.  He has the same the mercurial and transient interest, ignoring the big things but over-interested in the seemingly banal.  It’s the same as it’s ever been – stretching right back to the First Doctor.

And all the time he says, putting himself at the polar extreme of the Master “I love humans. Always seeing patterns in things that aren’t there.”  Perhaps the biggest change is his belief in coincidence – far removed from his fourth incarnation – although he shows the same predilection to being knocked unconscious.

This Doctor also seems supernaturally aware of space and time.  Not exactly the Time Lord walking in eternity, but it pre-figures aspects of the New Series.  Perhaps however, judging by the Master’s abilities, he’s using his telepathy.  Many of these strands would have no doubt become clear if a series had been commissioned.

Perhaps of most interest is the balance brought by the Movie’s companions.  Both Time Lords gain an assistant by half way through, but these are not typical human accessories.  The Master’s need for Chang Lee is highly debatable – unfortunately both he and Grace hinge around that daft human eye plot necessity…

Of the two, it is unsurprisngly Grace Holloway that’s of most interest. It is Amazing Grace, the surgeon, who effectively killed the Doctor on their first meeting during the extended ‘he’s an alien’ section.  It could have been fatal – as he says, it’s the anaesthetic that almost destroyed the regeneration.  The process is taken to the height of life and death, so it’s fitting, as well as comedic, that his companion is a Doctor in her own right.  Of course, that would be returned to in Series 3 of the New Series, though in an arguably less compelling way.

And then… Then she turns him down.  A rare, and thanks to the lack of commission, brilliant way to leave it.

Let’s just gloss over the kiss that looks so innocuous these days.  He remembers and in doing so he remembers that he loves life.

The big problem of the TV Movie is of course not a problem at all.  The Doctor isn’t half human, no matter how many times it’s said here.  The Doctor lies and that is it.  In no way canon.

The film brings Americanisms to the Doctor Who universerse, many of them unavoidable in an advanced-science-fiction conscious network – tellingly the description of the Chameleon circuit as a cloaking device – while the higher budget brings other inevitabilities like the motorbike chase and the Batman Forever style atomic clock.  But some things shine through, like the glass-bending (though, think of what was happening to other parts of the world, to champagne glasses – it’s early morning in the UK by then after all) – the “Yeah, they say that on my planet too” lines and the way that the Doctor threatens himself with a policeman’s gun.

And so The Movie ends with a vibrant new Doctor but no new companion.  Grace would have no doubt returned, but there seems to be one slip in the strange, slightly corny ending.  The new, vibrant, refreshed Doctor keeps the Console Room desktop, listens to the same song and resumes the same reading as his predecessor.  “Oh no, not again..” – that’s something that we’re not used to a new Doctor doing…

But certainly, there were many things right with The Movie.  It may have been judged a failure in the United States, but the ratings in the UK – equivalent to the best of the New Series – meant that the BBC couldn’t ignore it…  it’s really  where modern Who started,…

But when it came to the new series, the Eighth Doctor was nowhere to be seen…

The Night of the Doctor (50th Anniversary Special, 2013)

When that title was passed along to the BBFC, I thought it could only be one thing.  that didn’t stop me being delightfully surprised when ‘that’ reveal happened.  Eight years into that new series, when show runner Steven Moffat was faced with the daunting task of managing the 50th anniversary, he wanted to make the show’s absence mean something.  How twisted that he used the one rogue, budgeted moment of hope in those 17 years to push it home.

For a list of surprises (delights), basically a mini-review whoop –  to be found in the mini-episode I rustled up when it was surreptitiously released read here.

What a great surprise, and so much more than a fan-pandering one.  They may have clamoured for the Eighth Doctor’s regeneration for years, but when it came, it still left the same number of regenerations unresolved…  There was an extra Doctor who would take the story on, but this was a fitting send off for the most missed Doctor.

It was clear that time had moved on, with the Eighth Doctor wandering the universe for some years.

McGann works perfectly with Moffat’s dialogue.  The enthusiasm is modified, the wit sharper, the confidence a little more suave than bouncing spaniel.  Still able to shout with exactly the same tone as when he came in, but this Doctor is more universe-weary.  Quite some time of his life spent resisting against the Time War and helping where he can…

His costume isn’t as dramatically different as it first appears.  The waistcoat and cravat are there.  It’s more faithful than the revised Big Finish (and BBC sanctioned) costume – though it’s difficult to tell if his sonic screwdriver is the new Weta-designed one…

But of course what’s most important is the crucial context that he adds to his incarnation in a few short minutes.  Astonishingly he enhances the character while making canon much of his off-screen life.  By name-checking companions, he pushes his Big Finish adventures into the Whoniverse, all the way up to the rather good Dark Eye.  The long years of Radio times and Doctor Who magazine comic strips remain ambiguous, as do the far more canon-opposing range of BBC (and a couple of Virgin) books.  It’s not surprising that there have been calls for more live action adventures of this Time Lord.  But with the insertion of the Big Finish audios into the canon, it means that there will be new Eighth Doctor stories for years to come and no need to disrupt the incoming Twelfth…

It started with a companion killing and then rejecting him, it ended pretty much the same way. “Physician heal thyself” are fine last words for this Doctor, far better than his opening… But it does sum up that this is all far less than this rather brilliant Doctor deserved.  Barely over an hour of screen time.

He’s not the only Doctor who could have done with more time.  Most, if not all of them actually.  There are those who should have stayed longer – Troughton, Davison and now Smith.  Then there are those who didn’t have the chance.  It’s a shame for McCoy and Colin Baker but with McGann, it’s a tragedy.

Still, all the 50th Anniversary needed – as New Series focussed as it had to be – was a bridge to the classic series.  The Eighth Doctor – far from the Lazenby of the Time Lords – was that bridge.  And it worked wonderfully.  Physician, consider thyself healed.

TIMEY-WIMEY:  Go back to read about the First Doctor’s legacy in Whovember #1!

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12 thoughts on “Doctor Who: The 17 Year Itch – “In the fight for survival, there are no rules” (Whovember #8)”

  1. This brings back memories of when I was a kid growing up on Dr Who, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica …

    Nowadays I’ve moved on to Star Wars, Marvel comics movies, The Hobbit, Game of Thrones.

    What’s that you say? Yes, I agree, you would have thought 30 years on that my tastes would have changed. Well, they haven’t, and I don’t think they ever will.

    I admit it, LOVE for fantasy, SF, and all things supernatural.

    Love the site, Matt.

    Visit me on mine for a chat, if you can spare the time,

    Alex George
    Author of Under the Dragon’s Claw
    http://www.authoralexgeorge.com

    Like

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