Doctor Who (1996)

Own it!

review by Scott Hamilton and Chris Holland
See also:

Flash Gordon


Space Monster

Doctor Who

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Our rating: two LAVA® motion lamps.

Doctor Who
Paul McGann, the eigth Doctor.
Or the tenth. Or maybe the thirteenth.
We give up!
In 1996 the Fox Network aired at TV movie called Doctor Who, based on the canceled BBC sci-fi classic of the same name. The British version of the show ran for twenty-seven seasons, so you can understand Fox's hopes of kick-starting a new science fiction series with a built-in audience.

If you could look over the broadcast schedule of your local Fox affiliate for the past four years, you might notice that the series never materialized.

We're big fans of the original British show, and have been ever since our respective local public television stations broadcast the story arcs (usually over two hours long, comprising several half-hour episodes) at odd times of night during our adolescence. The series, about an alien from the planet Gallifrey who travels time and space in a bigger-on-the-inside-than-the-outside machine called the TARDIS (a rather goofy acronym for Time And Relative Dimensions In Space) that just happens to look like a British police call box, has a charm all its own. The scripts were often witty and intelligent, even if most of the Doctor's adversaries were either unbearably arch or ludicrous. The acting was of the kind of silly/serious tone at which the British seem to excel, especially in their sci-fi, and the effects were so bargain-basement that they inspired a sort of loving devotion, the kind you might give to a three-legged cat. Doctor Who has long had the reputation of appealing to the kind of people whose only social outlet in high school was A/V club. That's not true. Some of us were in the chess club too.

Doctor Who
Ewwwwww! Okay, we're
just flat out against this.
The American Doctor Who (also known as Doctor Who: The Enemy Within) starts off promisingly enough: in a groovy prologue we find out that the Master, the Doctor's perennial nemesis, has been put on trial by the Time Lords of Gallifrey for his numerous crimes against all life. The Master is judged guilty and executed by the Daleks of Skaro, but not before he makes a strange final demand. The Master wants the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy, the last actor to play the Doctor on the BBC show before it was cancelled) to personally transport the Master's remains back to Gallifrey.

During the journey back to their shared home planet, the Master's remains re-animate themselves into some sort of gooey life form. Somehow, the Master causes the Doctor's TARDIS to make an emergency landing on Earth -- San Francisco in the far-flung future of December 30th, 1999 to be exact. Okay, Doctor Who was made in 1996, so even then 1999 was the pretty near-flung future.

The second that the Doctor steps out of the TARDIS, he is accidentally shot by Chinatown gangsters. That'll learn him to come to America. The Doctor is taken to the hospital, accompanied by Chang Lee (Yee Jee Tso), another gangster who was the real target of the guys who shot the Doctor. The Doctor doesn't appear to have been hurt that badly, but his alien physiology confounds the attending doctors, most notably cardiologist Grace Holloway. The Doctor dies on the table and is taken to the morgue.

Doctor Who
"The next stage of my evil plan
is to force Julia Roberts to star
in a movie with Pauly Shore!"
As Doctor Who fans know, death is only a transitory state for Time Lords. The Doctor regenerates into a new body when he dies, a useful gimmick when your lead actor wants to leave the series. The Doctor walks out of the morgue looking less like Sylvester McCoy and more like Paul McGann. The Doctor's regeneration is inter-cut with the legally required cheerful morgue attendant, who is watching John Whale's Frankenstein for the express purpose of the appearance of the line "It's alive!" to comment on the Doctor's resurrection. The juxtaposition of the movie scene and the Doctor's regeneration is not very effective, though, because Doctor Who and Frankenstein don't share any of the same themes.

The Master has not been idle during all this. He has taken over the body of an ambulance driver, played by Eric Roberts. The Master then contacts Chang, who happens to have the key to the Doctor's TARDIS. Convincing Chang that the Doctor is a criminal who has stolen his body and his TARDIS, the Master promises to pay Chang handsomely if he can help the Master re-acquire what is his. The Master then uses Chang to open the Eye of Harmony, the TARDIS' power source.

The Doctor, suffering from partial amnesia, finds Grace and spends the requisite time convincing her that he's the same guy who died the night before and that he's an alien. Suddenly the amnesia clears up, and the Doctor realizes that the Eye of Harmony has been opened. The opening of the Eye threatens the entire planet, and now the Doctor and Grace must fix the timing mechanism on the TARDIS, and they need an atomic clock to do it. The rest of the movie concerns their goofy attempts to shanghai an atomic clock and Save the Universe.

Doctor Who
We're against this too.
There are some good things about this incarnation of Doctor Who. The movie does have a nice look to it, and most of the special effects are pretty good. The new TARDIS interior is pretty kickin', with a gothic cathedral kind of feeling and very little in the way of high tech equipment exposed. The movie also has some nice nods to the TV series, like the seal of Rassilon above the TARDIS doors, and the reappearance of the Doctor's tool box from the episode Earthshock.

Then there are the bad things about Doctor Who. The last half of the movie falls apart, featuring nothing more than a couple of bad chase scenes and an interminable confrontation with the Master that involves the Eye of Harmony. What the heck is the Eye anyway? In the movie, it's the power source of the TARDIS, it can help the Master steal the Doctor's body, it can be used for surveillance, it can destroy the world, and it can bring the dead back to life. Is there anything it can't do? The TV series had less techno-hokum, and more sparkling dialogue.

And then there's "half-human". That's what the Doctor claims he is -- several times during the movie. It's tough to figure out what this unprecedented information has to do with anything, other than to explain why the Doctor suddenly shows a sexual interest in Grace. As a matter of fact, the Doctor clamps his lips over hers at every opportunity. As a couple of British wags pointed out, if the Doctor is half-human, it must be the bottom half. You'd think that if the Doctor was half-human all along, he would have shown interest in some of his many female traveling companions, especially considering how few articles of clothing Leela, Peri and Nyssa were in the habit of wearing. "Hey baby, have I mentioned that I'm bigger on the inside? Of my pants?" Ugh, we're getting a real weird Austin Powers vibe just by thinking about this stuff.

Doctor Who
The most complicated game of "Simon" ever.
It's no wonder Doctor Who fans on both sides of the Atlantic rejected this American-made film; the creators took a beloved character and tried to make fundamental changes in the way that character behaves, and even who and what that character is. Part of the Doctor's strength is that although he isn't human, he displays characteristics more humane than his fellow Time Lords and an affinity for the planet Earth and its inhabitants. We don't need for this adopted father to have any more in common with us than that, and we especially don't need for him to develop a libido from thin air. Fox would probably have done better to recreate the series by merely basing it on the original rather than continuing it, as was done in the Peter Cushing movies of the 1960's.

Hopefully, the Doctor Who movie will be remembered as a footnote in the decades-long story of Doctor Who, rather than as the final nail in the Doctor's coffin. Neither Fox nor the BBC has made any attempt to follow up the movie, nor has Paul McGann played the Doctor again. But like the Doctor, we're sure the show will regenerate and be on our TV (or movie) screens in some new incarnation -- hopefully without any mention of this American stepchild. Heck, if Godzilla can erase decades of movie history, can't a Time Lord?

Own it!

Review date: 12/09/1999

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* By way of comparison, there have only been twenty three seasons of all the Star Trek series combined, as of this writing in 1999. Go back!









































The Daleks are the Doctor's greatest enemy, of course. But the British series did suggest that in the far future, the Daleks became a force for good in the universe. Go back!









































In Doctor Who: The Completely Useless Encyclopedia. Go back!






































Incidentally, Cushing's Dr. Who was 100% human. But he still didn't have a libido. Peter Cushing never had a libido. Go Back!