Paul McGann’s only full appearance as The Eighth Doctor, examined.
What with all the hoo-ha surrounding the 50th anniversary of the British sci-fi TV series, Doctor Who, you can always depend on the cable channels to tie in their own schedules however possible in light of such big events. So when the channel Watch screened the 1996 Doctor Who TV movie – intended as a backdoor pilot for a new series starring Paul McGann – a couple of weeks ago, I was keen to see what I’d missed out on during the gap between Sylvester McCoy scaring the crap out of me as a child, and Christopher Eccleston being all intense and whatnot when the programme relaunched in 2005. The result in between is definitely worth a watch. Sort of.
After the BBC placed the original series “on hiatus” in 1989 – having neither the TV fanbase to watch it nor a producer with the inclination to make it – plans were afoot to seek a production partner to save money; various incarnations of a new Who were shopped around before settling on the FOX network in America, which screened a 90-minute TV movie in 1996. Despite his initial disinterest, Paul McGann was cast as The Doctor, while Eric Roberts played the part of arch-nemesis The Master, as the two found themselves on the eve of the new millennium in San Francisco battling it out for the fate of the entire planet. It being a fresh start on an American network, there are all kinds of elements to the programme which one could find puzzling whether a newbie or not.
Now I’ve written (read: complained) about this before: a re-imagining of a British programme for an American audience, but while The IT Crowd just lost all sense of self and Red Dwarf went completely over peoples’ heads, there’s definitely something which just narrowly got lost in translation during this version for me, which makes it an unimpressive effort overall.
Mainly, it’s The Camp Factor; it never being a programme which took itself terribly seriously, Doctor Who has always been – in some ways – an introspective but yet fantastically over-the-top sci-fi programme. For me this comes down to that quirky and eccentric British sense of identity; it isn’t something you can bottle up and sell elsewhere, certainly not where subtlety is concerned. But in many ways, that British sense of subtlety, of “show, don’t tell” which made Doctor Who such a fantastic programme over the years was something they should’ve really tried harder to put across in the American TV movie.
That accusation I aim squarely at Eric Roberts as The Master. He is FUCKING AWFUL. There’s nothing at all subtle about a man whose eyes look reptilian, who has to wear sunglasses to disguise the fact that HE IS EVIL; even less when you’ve had a costume change before the masterplan kicks in to declare that “I ALWAYS dress for the occasion”. Dude, too camp. Far too camp.
It’s a real shame, how crap he is, because it drags down the quality of the programme. It’s supposed to be a cutting-edge mid-90s update; Roberts brings it firmly back to 1981. The rest of the programme tries to up the campness as if in response and the whole thing comes across too cheesy in a bad American 80s film kind of way; too much exposition in the script rather than in the direction, of the “look, he has a gun and he’s going to shoot it” kind of way.
All of which is, again, a real shame because Paul McGann as The Doctor is FUCKING BRILLIANT. He’s nailed every single element of the part to an absolute tee; the costume, the accent, that “only this character in only this programme” mix of childlike wonder and otherworldly cynicism that for me only Matt Smith has since pulled off successfully. (As much as everyone loves the guy, Tennant was too far the other way into “oh yes, nothing new here, I’m basically bored”.) I am genuinely upset that McGann never got much more TV time than he did here, having watched him in this and the also-ace Doctor Who mini-episode, Night of The Doctor. There’s a petition to have him in his own spinoff series, which would definitely have some potential for me; trying to stave off the Time War as long as he can while pursued by Timelords and Daleks alike. But maybe I’m just a mark for The Eighth Doctor by this point.
The biggest shame of it all is that I don’t think I could bear to watch this one again for a while; even if you find some of the more prolific Doctors’ stories a bit much you can always sample them in other ones, but this is basically it for McGann. It’s a damn shame how brightly he shone above and beyond this rather cheesy and lame TV movie, brought down even harder by some pretty bad acting and a Master who I find less threatening than a Monday morning. I’m not surprised this backdoor pilot wasn’t picked up, but that’s only really down to the limited appeal it got Stateside.
I blame you, America. I blame you for depriving me of McGann, nine years before I actually gave a shit.