Doctor Who Sunday: Doctor Who the Movie

7 years ago
Sharona Lin

Due to the fact we can’t physically watch and review every classic Doctor Who story before the 50th Anniversary, we have decided to check out two episodes in each Doctor’s era every week until the 50th. This week is the Eighth Doctor’s week, featuring the Doctor Who movie.

Previously: The Curse of Fenric and Remembrance of the Daleks.


The Doctor Who television film is known simply as Doctor Who, and was released in 1996 after being co-produced by British and American organisations. Paul McGann plays the Eight Doctor and was intended to be a backdoor pilot for a new Doctor Who series. Unfortunately, Fox didn’t pick it up, and Doctor Who wouldn’t return until 2005. As an interesting aside, for those who are really into Doctor Who, and like the 8th Doctor especially, there is a wealth of non-televised stories such as the Big Finish audio productions, as well as comics and books, which basically translates into the fact that the 8th Doctor is both the longest serving Doctor, and the Doctor with the most stories, whilst ironically having only two on-screen performances.

It is currently available to stream on ABC iView here.



I was looking forward to the Doctor Who movie – while it didn’t do particularly well in America, which was its target audience, it was a hit in England.

The story positions the Master as the main antagonist in the film, and opens with the Doctor (number seven) narrating. This is already quite different from anything we’ve seen on Doctor Who, the television series. From then on, it only gets more different from the show – which is not all bad, and not all good. Clearly, the film is set in America due to Fox co-producing the series. However, the American-ness that is featured seems…stereotypical, if you will. Shoot-outs in San Francisco’s Chinatown, gangsters, fat, loud, boorish men and sneaky businessmen are some of the elements that seem like an Englishman’s perception of America, rather than an actual American film.


While for us, the plot was quite easy to follow, I imagine for those who were just watching this it was perhaps less coherent. Basically, a lot of narration from the Doctor is information we know: that he has thirteen regenerations, that he’s the Master’s nemesis, so on and so forth. Still, the plot felt overly simple and a little contrived. The Eye of Harmony is a Time Lord device that needs a human’s eye to open it. Humans are far beneath Time Lords, at least from the Time Lords’ point of view, so why would a human eye open it and not a Time Lord’s eye? I’m sure these things are explained in the expanded universe, but the inclusion of this without good explanation tests my belief. On top of that, how does the Master magically survive his thirteen regeneration? Maybe I’m just asking too many questions?

The companions in this were fun: Grace Holloway is a spunky cardiologist and opera-lover who accidentally kills the Doctor in the operating table, while the wily Chang Lee is under the impression that the Doctor is evil and the Master is the good guy. It takes a bit of convincing for each of them to come round, but each of them have a part to play in this film. Still, they are each sketches of a character rather than a fully fleshed out character. We know Grace is a doctor and likes opera, and little else, while Chang Lee spends most of the film under the Master’s influence, but not much more. (However, he does have one of my favourite companion/TARDIS introductions: upon walking into the TARDIS and seeing the inside, he turns straight around and walks back out.) Still, we really don’t learn much about either of them, or for that matter, the Doctor.

Unfortunately, Grace falls into that old American staple: she’s an attractive, eligible lady, and gets paired accordingly. With the Doctor. While in their defence, the Doctor is suffering from post-regeneration amnesia, the “obligatory” romance feels extremely rushed from my perspective. The Doctor himself is great. While he’s a bit hammy at the beginning (one scene has him yelling “WHO. AM. I???” in the middle of a storm), he’s a lot of fun, especially when he gets his memory back and things are going his way. He’s not quite as humorous as some other Doctors – although he does offer people jelly babies – instead opting for lots of drama.

All in all, an extremely 90s film (there are scenes that look like they’re straight out of the early seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer), and a worthy attempt at a backdoor pilot. While I thoroughly enjoy Paul McGann’s run as the Doctor, I can see how this didn’t spark off a new season.



This movie was alright. The plot wasn’t the greatest of stories, although it was coherent and fast paced. In essence, the Master, who through some Master-magic, keeps himself alive after his execution, and somehow manages to crash land the Doctor’s TARDIS into Earth at the turn of the millennium. In an effort to stay alive, the Master hijacks a body, which can’t properly contain him, and then proceeds to try and use the Eye of Harmony to transfer the Doctor’s remaining lives into him. In the interim, the Doctor gets shot non-fatally by gangsters, but ends up dying on the hospital table due to his alien physiology. The aesthetic delays the regenerative ability of the Doctor’s Time Lord physiology, and as a result he is confused as to who he is and what he is doing. Things reach a climax, right on the New Year mark. So, it is easy to see why the plot wasn’t the most engaging aspect of the movie. Although not fantastic, it isn’t the worst story out there though, and it often makes its way into the Top 50 Doctor Who stories ever, although the fans are split over the issue. Also, there are two completely new things that occur during the movie which also leaves the fans split: although I won’t spoil one of the revelations, the other is that he has his first on-screen romantic kiss. For those who dislike the Doctor romantically interested in humans, you can blame this story for starting it.


One thing that makes the movie different from the rest of the series, both classical and new, is that it feels very American. True, the 11th Doctor has numerous American influences, but the overall feel was still very British. Doctor Who: The Movie was most definitely an American show. But at the same time, it was American in the way Americans are perceived by the British (during the ’90’s at any rate) – Asian gangsters, motorbikes, guns, and romantic-comedic elements. Because of the American elements, in many ways it didn’t feel quite the same as anything else in the history of the show. For example, where in the new series the romance was either tragic or filled with a build up of tension, the movie has it appear randomly out of the blue, an eccentric young man kissing his new companion with wild abandon (though in defence of the scriptwriting and the Eighth Doctor, the Doctor had only recently regenerated, was excited at getting his memory back, and was bonding with the only person whom he could remember). The ending also felt like it could have come straight from a rom-com, with the lights in the background and all.


However, it wasn’t all bad. By far and away, the Doctor and the Master were brilliant, kissing aside. Eric Roberts (The Master) and Paul McGann (The Doctor) bring their roles to life, and really impact on their personalities. One of my favourite scenes was the Master yelling at Chang Lee to chase after the Doctor. Chang, understandably, points out that there is a traffic jam and he can’t move like a motorbike, to which the Master simply yells “THIS IS AN AMBULANCE!” Other scenes that were well done were the finale and the opening, especially with the cool opening titles.

Overall, despite the American feel, and not brilliant plot, Doctor Who: The Movie is definitely something Whovians should watch at least once. It is interesting to see what the show could have changed into, where it could have gone with McGann as an Eighth Doctor, with Grace and/or Chang Lee as companions, and the Daleks (who have weird voices in the opening) and Time Lords. Regardless, despite its highly American nature, the not the best of plots and the romance, it is still a fairly enjoyable piece of Doctor Who history.


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