The 1996 TV Movie
Grace: He’s British.
The Doctor: I suppose I am.
Production Code: 50/LDX071Y/01X
Doctor Who Season: Between S26 and S27 (TV Movie).
Story Number: 156.
This TV Movie version of Doctor Who is good, bad and bizarre…
The bizarre first, as the story starts with the bizarre. It’s understandable that the people making this (it was a BBC and Universal Television and Fox Network co-production) would be keen to emphasise the idea that it’s a continuation of the original BBC programme. The “current” incumbent of the role of the Doctor (never having regenerated since his last TV story seven years ago), Sylvester McCoy, is there at the start, relaxing in the TARDIS.
That’s not the bizarre start however – it’s the idea that this TARDIS-trip onscreen is the Doctor delivering the Master’s remains to Gallifrey after the extermination by the Daleks on Skaro after some sort of trial. That there’s so much continuity there that the new audience is expected to absorb – the Master, Gallifrey, the Daleks, Skaro – is one thing, but the fact that it’s nonsensical is the main thing: the Doctor being a sort of delivery service cog in the wheels of “Dalek Justice”.
If Doctor Who is, in essence: the Doctor, the TARDIS, and the Daleks – it just seems weird to begin this revamp with the Daleks calmly handing over these remains to the Doctor, who then goes on his merry way. (And weirder to have the Doctor later claim he is “half-human”.)
The waffling voiceover from the Doctor does get to explain about the “13 lives” thing that motivates the Master, and also means the concept of regenerations is there for when Doctor Number Eight appears (after the final few scenes of the Sylvester McCoy Doctor, scenes which McCoy plays understatedly in contrast to his more impish persona of the 1980s, which makes sense for the story.)
The good – Paul McGann brings a new spritely energy to the role of the Doctor, full of wonder and a kind of giddy optimism. His scenes with Grace in the middle of the story provide the heart of soul of the story and mean that there was something substantial to base other tales of the Eighth Doctor in other media upon. Roberts’s Master is… interesting, and in the tradition at least – from Season 14 onwards – of the Master being warped and not quite a regular Time Lord.
The bad – the “time reverses” thing really doesn’t make much sense, what with the “temporal orbit” and the Eye of Harmony re-animating Grace and Chang Lee. We now have an era of Doctor Who in 2010 and 2011 in which time-travel is a regular, intricate, and integral part of the narrative, but this bad ending after the bizarre beginning means that this return for the Doctor wasn’t a great one or even a good one.