A bit of housecleaning
Friday Five-a-day: 15 Vegetables

Doctor Who: The Movie (1996)

doctor who movieI like Paul McGann.

I saw him on stage recently, and he invested a fairly two-dimensional and heavy-handed character with a dignity and gravitas. And I like him on Luther, in his thankless role as sad-sack non-rival to the riveting Idris Elba. He's got massive presence, and I respect that he doesn't vanish under the weight of thankless roles.  Let's see how he does in the infamously terrible Doctor Who movie.

I couldn't be bothered to go search for or make screen-caps, so I've re-enacted key scenes from the Doctor Who movie with action figures and such props (index cards; candy wrappers) as came to hand.

This is the Doctor, as played by Sylvester McCoy. He likes the cozy things in life – records played on an old-timey record-player; a nice cup of tea and an over-stuffed armchair. And he’s readingThe Time Machine, oh ho. And he has the Master in a jewelry box on his mantle.


Two hearts, geddit? 

Chinatown. "San Francisco." (The movie was filmed in Vancouver, which explains why this San Francisco is so broad and cold and flat.) The TARDIS lands in the middle of a gang-fight. The thugs shoot at it, and then at the Doctor as he pops out. Because that’s what Americans do to things they hate and fear, like magical blue boxes and cozy-looking Englishmen: they shoot them.  As the Doctor lies bleeding and twitching on the ground, a clear gooze drips out of the TARDIS’ keyhole. A hood kid tells the dying Doctor, in the first example of this movie’s stellar and naturalistic dialogue, “Chan Lee’ll help ya.”


Chan Lee'll help ya. Note the goo-snake.

The hood rides in the ambulance with the Doctor while a smarmy EMT administers life-support and makes a joke about how expensive American health-care is. We linger on the date as the EMT fills out a form of some sort – December 30th, 1999. THIS IS THE FUTURE, FOLKS. Meanwhile, the goo from the TARDIS has turned into a terribly-rendered CG snake and is also hitching a ride in the ambulance. Later it will kill the EMT and take over his body because the goo is the Master. Just take all that as read, please, because this article is a billion words long and I need to cut something somehwere.

At the hospital, a couple of actresses deliver terrible dialogue, terribly, about how the Doctor has two hearts.  Better call in the cardiologist! Who’s on tonight? “Amazing Grace,” someone smugs. (All dialogue in this movie not spoken by Paul McGann is delivered one of two ways: terribly or smugly.) Cut to: a woman at the opera, crying. Why this must be Amazing Grace, the doctor of the human heart herself! Her pager beeps. Her boyfriend sighs with exasperation as she bustles out to go save someone’s life. Congratulations, Doctor Who movie; you’ve just told your audience, in the cheesiest and most heavy-handed way possible, that your heroine is a romantic with a shitty boyfriend.

The most overused, clichéd shot in a movie composed entirely of overused, clichéd shots: Grace, running in slow-motion down a hospital corridor, her ball-gown flowing around her. Sigh.

Grace scrubs up, still in her opera gown. Her boyfriend calls to yell about what a terrible girlfriend she is while she’s preparing to save someone’s life. She demands a nurse turn on some Puccini, full-volume, while she operates. Some hospital admin type shows a bunch of hospital patrons into a viewing room to watch her. Too bad the Doctor wakes up in the middle of the surgery, huh? The nurses keep gassing him, and he keeps waking up, begging them not to operate. They ignore him, gas him again and again, and cut him open.

There’s a lot of screaming and ER-esque yelly medical nonsense while the opera increases in volume, over the movie’s score, in a blatant effort to heighten the intensity of the scene. It’s incredibly amateurish.

Grace sticks some sort of thing in the fully conscious Doctor; he flatlines; the end.  She acts, badly.  Just accept nothing this actress does will be acted convincingly; no line will be delivered naturally. Nothing she does will look, sound or feel in any way realistic or plausible or even acceptably stagey. She is awful.

Anwyay. She looks at his double-heart x-ray and then goes out to deliver the tragic news and give the hood the Doctor’s belongings - because the hood is, completely implausibly, just hanging around in the waiting room. He takes the stuff and bolts, as she realizes he may not actually have known the dead guy at all.


A moose with a sonic screwdriver. Fear him.

Meanwhile, the dead Doctor is wheeled into the morgue. That staple of mid-90s tv, the comedy morgue attendants do comedy morgue attendant things like make inappropriate jokes and eat around the corpses. Comedy morgue attendants, amirite?

We learn again that it’s Dec 30, 1999, and there are New Year’s Eve parties planned for the next night. True story: I spent Dec 31, 1999, in San Francisco. Someone tried to pick my pocket at a club and I nearly got run over by a mounted policeman, but otherwise it was pretty unexciting.

The Doctor regenerates as the morgue attendants watch Frankenstein on tv. Excuse me while I indulge my supply of inner ‘90s overused tv clichés to comment on this overused tv cliché: could this be any more predictable? Doughy Sylvester McCoy twitches a little and transforms into Paul McGann, naked but for a very bad wig. Fat Comedy Morgue attendant finds him and faints. Well, I'd probably faint too if Paul McGann walked out of my cold storage wrapped in a sheet.

The Doctor wanders around humming to himself while a storm rages, Frankenstein-ly, outside. Confusingly, he’s wandered into some abandoned part of the hospital, filled with broken crap and shattered mirrors. He cries. Falls to his knees and screams, I kid you not, “who… am… I?” Then he sort of droops over and it’s all very dramatic and stupid.


I... am... the Kwisatz Haderach!

Now… it’s the next morning. Grace is asleep on a couch in her office, clutching her ballgown. BECAUSE SHE’S A HARD-CORE PROFESSONAL WITH A DEEPLY-BURIED ROMANTIC SOUL, YOU SEE. The Doctor is now wandering around the morgue attendant locker-room in search of clothes. He finds someone’s costume for the upcoming New Year’s Eve party, a sort of cowboy-cum-Lord Byron getup of velvet coat, silk cravat, and fawn breeches. Which works perfectly with his ridiculous Byron-esque wig.  He also finds, and abandons, the famous Tom Baker scarf. Meanwhile, the hood is finally getting around to digging through that bag of the Doctor’s stuff, wherein he discovers a yoyo and the sonic screwdriver.  

Grace trots down to the morgue to ask after the dead Sylvester McCoy. The morgue attendant screeches about how he came back to life as someone younger and hotter. The Doctor, sitting somewhere else, sees her face and hears her name in a flash-back. We’re supposed to understand that he has some sort of amnesia, but mostly he just reads as creepy and stalkerish. Back in her office, Grace is accosted by the hospital admin who watched her botch her surgery the night before. He’s decided to hide the incident and burns the x-ray of the Doctor’s chest, explaining that, without physical evidence, no one will know what happened. Except, you know, all the nurses who were attending Grace, or the hospital patrons who watched her kill the Doctor? In her first, and last, sensible act in the entire movie, she quits.

The Doctor, still wearing his toe-tag, gets into elevator with her and stands way too close. "You're tired of life but afraid of dying," he whispers into her ear. Rather than, I dunno, kicking the barefoot nutcase with personal-space issues in the nuts, Grace starts arguing with him. A sample of their stimulating dialogue: “But you're a doctor!" "Well, my oath just expired."


Don't stand, don't stand, don't stand so close to me.

He follows her to her car, jumps into the back-seat, and pulls the thing she left inside him out as she watches, to prove that he’s the same guy she operated on the night before. So naturally she leaves with him, despite not really believing him. There's just no way this makes any sense.

The Master, kitted out as the EMT he killed, goes to the hospital to ask about Sylvester McCoy. The duty nurse flirts with him and supplies a lot of very helpful information. Even as he PULLS ONE OF HIS FINGERNAILS OFF IN FRONT OF HER. She just flirts away.

Grace has brought the insane barefoot Byron-cowboy to her enormous fucking house, because that is what women do with insane, barefoot, frockcoat-wearing, things-pulling-out-of-chest lunatics who accost them in elevators and hide in their cars. They bring them home. She still doesn’t believe his story about being the dead guy from the night before. Despite the cinematographer’s insistence on showing us that the Doctor is still wearing that fucking toe-tag, she never checks it. We learn her assy boyfriend has moved out. Turns out, he’s taken the sofa but not a pair of his shoes. Now that is a truly dickish move. She gives the Doctor the extra shoes and listens to his heart. His hearts. Oh my goodness, he has two hearts. That’s why… oh, I’m not even going to try to make sense if it for you. She already knew that. But she also didn’t know that. I just don’t know. Whatever. She didn’t believe him; now she sort of does. They talk about opera and da Vinci and she gets all gooey-faced, because he’s the perfect man. Then he tries to tell her some Doctor mythology, about regenerating and time-travelling and stuff. Grace goes from gooey to asshole because she’s a professional adult, not some simpering romantic woman-child. IF ONLY THERE WERE SOME MAGICAL TIME-TRAVELLING ROMANCE-NOVEL HERO TO TEACH HER THAT SHE IS BOTH.

Elsewhere in San Francisco, the hood kid breaks into the TARDIS. Bigger on the inside, etc. The Master is already inside, somehow. He bribes and hypnotizes the hood (overkill is the best kind of kill) and takes the Doctor’s bag of stuff. He is, by the way, wearing a full-length, oversized pleather trenchcoat and shades. He looks ridiculous.


The Master spins some bullshit story about how the Doctor stole his body. Then he takes the hood to… a dungeon? In the TARDIS?  Ah, this is "the cloister room." Where lives “the eye of harmony.” That’s all capitalized, I’m sure, but I’m so past giving a fuck.  The Master forces the hood to look into a beam of light, making the Eye-thing blink. The Doctor, currently frolicking around in a park with Grace, feels the Eye open. This inspires him to kiss her.


Pucker up, baby. The Doctor is IN.

When he pulls away she insists he do it again. Somehow, this sequence of events allows the Master to understand that the Doctor is now half-human because he has human eyes, or something. I HAVE NO IDEA. The Doctor, for his part, realizes that the Master is alive and wants his body.  "And this master, is he like the devil?" Grace wonders. The Doctor wibbles a bit about how they must close the Eye of Harmony or it'll destroy the world, or something. The hood, who can also see what’s going on, somehow, recognizes Grace.

Grace has gone back to thinking the Doctor is insane, and yells at him. The misunderstandings, they are hilarious. He chases after her; she locks him out of her house and calls… an ambulance. To take him to a psych ward. I’m pretty sure that’s not how that works. He makes a pane of glass wobble around his hand, and then sort of phases through it, to prove that he’s telling the truth about how the Eye of Harmony is going to destroy the world. But she’s already ordered the ambulance! Even though now she sort of believes him, again! Whatever. It goes from being morning  to 9 pm in the space of 33 seconds. They have three hours to save the world. 

A newscaster exposits about a millennium atomic clock, with a shot of the clock in question. The clock, according to the banners strung around it, will establish "San Francisco Mean Time." WHAT. THE. HELL? 

Now it's half past ten? It was 9 pm five minutes ago. THIS MOVIE SUCKS. Anyway, as they wait for the ambulance, the Doctor watches this news program, sees the clock, and decides they have to go to it. The Master shows up in his ambulance. Remember how Grace called for an ambulance somewhere between five minutes and 10 hours ago? (The hood is in the cab, driving, so they don’t see him.) Grace and the Doctor insist the Master take them to the place where the clock is. Somehow, despite being, oh, an alien from another planet, the Master knows where to go. Grace makes some smarmy comment about playing into the Doctor’s delusion, and the Master hilariously, wonderfully, corrects her grammar. I think I’m in love.

The ambulance gets stuck in a traffic snarl, which somehow leads to a showdown between the Doctor and the Master. The Doctor pulls the Masters’ shades off, to which the Master responds by spitting a mouthful of goo at the Doctor. The Doctor grabs Grace and they jump out of the ambulance. There are, randomly, chickens wandering around in the street – a “hilarious” sight-gag to explain the traffic-jam, or something. It’s very stupid. A cop stops our heroes. The Doctor offers him a Jelly-Baby and, while the cop is distracted, Grace decides finally, again, to throw her weight in with the Doctor. She grabs the cop’s gun and shoots his motorcycle. And then they get on the motorcycle and drive off. The Master and the hood follow the Doctor. 

In yet another example of this movie’s commitment to “style” over substance, we’re treated to a scene where the Doctor and Grace, on the motorcycle, are confronted by two semis driving toward them, one on either side of the dividing line of the street. Meaning: two enormous trucks are barreling, side-by-side, toward an accident so bad it has stopped traffic in either direction. And one is doing so down the wrong side of the street. All in service of some utterly stupid, contrived, completely fucking implausible “threat”. Amazingly, our heroes avoid dying horribly.

The Doctor and Grace arrive at the, uh, convention center where the San Francisco Mean Time Atomic Millenial Sentient Steampunk String of Meaningless Adjectives clock is going to be unveiled. Somehow, by bending space-time or something, the Master beat them there. Isn’t it fortunate that Grace is on the board of trustees for the Clock of Magical Contrivance, and they can get into the party? Yes! Yes it is. They cannot, however, get to the clock.

Fortunately for them, the only person who can wanders by. And knows Grace. She tells him (Is his name really Professor Wag?) that "Dr. Bowman from London" has "a big secret." Yes, she tries to get him to take them to the clock by promising him “a big secret.” Words cannot express how dumb this is. And it doesn't even work. Fortunately, the Doctor still has his head screwed on straight, and just steals the guy’s badge. This is, for whatever reason, all that’s needed to get them access to the clock. They go look at the clock. The Doctor steals the tiny thing that makes it special. The two make what I think is some sort of penis joke. Then they talk about Jelly-Babies again.

The Master en-goos the security detail at the party. The Doctor and Grace run.

Okay. So to escape the Master they pull a fire-alarm and then climb up a ladder to a balcony, then shimmy down a fire-hose to get out of the building. Stupid, but fine. Meanwhile, all the guests are screaming and running, because that's exactly how people always react to fire alarms when there’s no evidence of a fire whatsoever - not resignation or sighing, but screaming and running. Everyone, that is, except the guy VACUUMING THE CARPET IN THE MIDDLE OF THE POSH MILLENNIUM CLOCK PARTY ON NEW YEAR'S EVE. He's just... vacuuming away.


I think this film has broken me.

Now that Grace believes the Doctor, for really real this time, she’s asking stupid questions about her future. Has she never seen a time-travel movie before? You don’t ask about your fucking future. Who doesn’t know that?  There is some point around now where she makes the very predictable crack about meeting the perfect man, and the perfect man is an barefoot time-travelling lunatic. I don't know when and I don't care.

They get to the TARDIS.  Bigger on the inside, yuk yuk yuk. Grace takes everything in and then opines that it “looks pretty low-tech." And it’s this, this final bit of idiocy, that finally irks the Doctor. FINALLY.  Whatever. You thought things didn’t make sense before? They’re about to make a whole lot less sense.

In addition to the world ending, the TARDIS is dying. Grace and the Doctor begin the process that closes the Eye. They have 11 minutes before midnight, which means they have 11 minutes… to go back in time, to before the Eye was opened, to fix things? Because the universe is already tearing apart, or whatever, remember? They jump-start the TARDIS... just as the Master appears! He does his hypno-juju on Grace, her eyes go black, and she clocks the Doctor. The Master kills the hood and puts his Master-suit on (where was he keeping it? Does the TARDIS have a spare, just in case?) Grace puts the Doctor in some sort of Clockwork Orange getup, to force him to look into the Eye. Meanwhile, all the posh guests are back at the clock-party, none the worse for wear for running around like idiots during a fire alarm.

The Master monologues. It doesn’t matter at all what he says; he might as well just be reciting the lorem ipsum. The Doctor tries to talk sense into the hood. So the Master kills him, then kisses Grace… which unhypnotizes her? He forces her to look into the Eye. She screams, and, uh, stands around for a bit, then runs off to reboot the TARDIS. HEY, GRACE, HOW ABOUT UNCHAINING THE GUY WHO KNOWS HOW TO MAKE THE TARDIS WORK?


Dental-floss is surprisingly strong.

But, no. See, the “plot” requires that the Doctor remain chained up so that the Master can drain his life-force, or something. The Master, like, takes a shot of the Doctor’s memories and tries to use them to regenerate as Grace attempts to jury-rig the TARDIS. She makes a joke about how surgery isn't as hard as rerouting power in an alien time-machine. Shut up, Grace.

Oh, fuck. The Master screams "I'm alive. I"M ALIVE!". Omsbudkitty demands that I pause here for a shot of whiskey.

We get shots of various New Year's Eve parties. Everyone counts down. When he hits "one," Professor Wag sticks his finger in his cheek and then pulls it out to make a popping noise. What in the fucking fuck?

Grace gets TARDIS working just in the nick of time.  Who would ever have guessed? Something happens, but I don't know what, exactly: we see shots of places around the world, and then they get FX'd into white light. Maybe this is the universe being ripped apart? Then we cut to a “TARDIS flying through space" shot like from the opening credits.



But the Doctor whispers "she did it," so apparently the universe isn’t being ripped apart?  Who knows. Grace runs back to the Doctor and FINALLY STARTS TO UNCHAIN HIM. But the Master, who is still there, freaks out and runs toward them, roaring. Roaring! Then he throws her over a balcony. Everyone cheers, the end.



Oh, it is not. He throws her over the balcony. She dies. The Doctor yells her name and then, still partly chained, fights the Master while freeing himself. He runs to Grace but, while bending over her, the Master smashes him over the head with a big ol' clubby stick thinger.

Well, in theory. It is the fakest blow to the head I’ve seen outside a high school melodrama; the club-thing wiffs feet above Paul McGann’s head. The Doctor goes down. The Master roars again and, while talking, continues to beat the shit out of the Doctor. They yell clichés back and forth for a while.

DOCTOR: You want dominion over the living. YET ALL YOU DO IS KILL!

MASTER: Life is wasted on the living!

They fight and fight and fight some more and then, in some very cheap slo-mo, the Doctor does something to get the Master sucked toward the eye. Paul McGann's wig is so bad that I can see where it's spirit-gummed onto his face. The candy-wrapper blue-tacked to Kyle McLaughlin's head in my re-enactments? More realistic than Paul McGann's wig.

Wind blows! The Master screams and gets sucked into the Eye. The Doctor picks up Grace and carries her up some cheesy-ass stone steps, to lay her down next to the dead hood. The Doctor is very sad because these are such amazing, worthwhile characters to mourn. And then the Eye brings them back to life, somehow. There are dead leaves all over the floor of the TARDIS, and they blow around in an effort to make the inside of a space-ship look like a ruined church. Does the Doctor not sweep? The hood is kind of baffled by everything. Everyone hugs, because they’re all friends now.

HOOD: So, uh, where's the Master?

TARDIS: Gurgle.

DOCTOR: Indigestion.




I just don’t know. I don’t, so stop asking. We go back in time back to the New Year’s Eve countdowns, the cheek-popping, etc. The Doctor lands the TARDIS somewhere pretty. The hood gives the Doctor his stuff back, but the Doctor allows him to keep some gold-dust the Master bribed him with. Because he totally earned it. Then the Doctor and Grace kiss while fireworks explode around them. It is about as passionless a kiss as I’ve ever seen. He asks her to come with him. She refuses, and then asks him to stay with her. He refuses. Grace watches him leave. A better actress would convey some sense of her feelings about watching the opera-loving hottie in a time-machine disappear forever. But this actress just… stares.


Everyone wins!

The Doctor’s apparently not too broken up about losing her. He fires his turntable up, gets comfy in his chair with a nice cup of tea, and starts reading The Time Machine again.


Photo 2

In response to the eternal question “could the notoriously awful Doctor Who movie really be that bad?” we have answered, and we have answered resoundingly. OH HELL YES.  No cliché goes unused; no point is made with anything less than the heaviest of hands. The plot makes little sense. I cannot begin to express how ludicrously low the stakes are. The acting, with the single exception of Paul McGann, is atrocious. And even he clearly doesn’t have a handle on the character – possibly because there isn’t a single moment of character-development in the film. For an old-time viewer of Doctor Who, the character comes fully-equipped with a rich and meaningful backstory. For an untrained and uncaring audience, however, he’s just a dude in dumb clothes. Without any character beats, without any quiet moments for the Doctor to rediscover himself, the audience has no access to any of that history or that mythology.

In theory, this show was to introduce the Doctor and some of his story to an American audience; in fact, it confuses, upsets, and off-puts, for all the reasons listed above. But what I resent most about the Doctor Who movie is this: it took an interesting actor playing an interesting character and made them both boring. Whatever your opinion of Russell T. Davies and his take on the character, it is undeniable that he does more to introduce the Doctor and his character in fifty-odd minutes than this film does in nearly twice that time.



By Anne (@thefingersofgod), who needs more vintage action figures.