The TV Movie
Where to Find It
The DVD can be purchased through Amazon.com.
A detailed synopsis can be found on the Doctor Who Reference Guide.
The Doctor is taking the remains of his arch-nemesis, the Master, back home to Gallifrey.
Forced off-course, the TARDIS arrives in San Francisco on New Year’s Eve 1999, where the Doctor is critically wounded in a gangland gun battle. At the local hospital Dr. Grace Holloway fights – and fails – to save his life.
Later, in the morgue, the Doctor wakes up a new man. But he is not the only one—the Master has found a new body too. As the clock counts down to midnight and the new millennium, can the Doctor stop his old enemy destroying all life on earth?
I can’t make your dream come true forever, but I can make it come true today.
I think it is safe to say that I came to a type of media awakening in the 1990s. Prior to the 90s, television was something I watched because it existed. During the 90s it became something I watched because of shows. And while I missed the TV movie when it first aired, I watched many of the shows it would be invariably compared to because they were all part of the science fiction mosaic of 90s television: Sliders, The X-Files, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek Voyager, Babylon 5, The Outer Limits, and The Adventures of Lois & Clark. Science fiction on 90s American television was a period of evolution away from the Star Trek mold. Arguably the two most successful shows in breaking the dominance of Star Trek were Babylon 5 (which took a while for its influence to sink in) and The X-Files. The X-Files and Sliders would have been Doctor Who’s companion shows if Who had gone to series. The X-Files is distinctly American in tone and approach; Sliders is a similar premise to Doctor Who (all of the multiverse rather than all of time and space, which ends up being essentially the same thing). And so Doctor Who needed to stand out. It needed to define itself as something different, something unique.
Intentional or not, identity is a theme which runs haphazardly through the TV movie. It has the trappings of 90s cult television, but it has an established mythology which sets it apart from other premieres. It has a continuity-heavy info-dump before the main title, but it wants to appeal to new viewers. It is a British property reimagined by American network television. The Doctor has amnesia, possibly as a hackneyed plot device, possibly to have his rediscovery of identity a way to provide character information to the audience. The Doctor is cast as a Christ figure via resurrection and tomb imagery and a crown of thorns; the Master is cast as the devil, being a serpent in the opening minutes of the movie as well as a liar and tempter where Lee is concerned. Oddly, the crucifixion comes after the resurrection in this telling. The writers seem to recognize this, and so Grace and Lee are inexplicably resurrected, more to leave us with a happy ending than due to any demands of the plot. (Although, I suppose her name is Grace.)
And that seems to be a common problem: symbolism trumps plot. Eye imagery is heavy handed throughout. The religious imagery is used to bring a type of thematic characterization to the Doctor and the Master, but not provide them with any identity other than hero and villain. It seems almost telling that, when the Doctor’s authority is questioned (as it often is in this story), the justification is that he’s British. Why should this derivative story go to series when Sliders does pretty much the same thing? Well, he’s British.
Despite the callback to the classic series—the scarf, the Eye of Harmony (in name more than function), the Daleks, Jelly Babies—the general approach is forecast in how the regeneration is handled. The Seventh Doctor, a Time Lord who played chess and gambled with gods, is shot by gang members and dies on an operating table. He is summarily swept away without any particular insight into his character, gunned down by American culture and buried in a medical drama.
This can’t be how it ends.
The TV Movie isn’t terrible. In fact, I would say it is pretty much on par with anything put out by Sliders at the time. For cult sci-fi, its biggest crime is being made in the 90s and that it is far too formulaic. Whether this is the result of writing, multiple drafts, directing, network interference, or some combination of these, I don’t know. But for as for making a case for the return of Doctor Who, it did a poor job. If not for Paul McGann’s charisma in the part and the fact that this was pretty much it for his Doctor’s outing (along with the inclusion of the Seventh Doctor for regeneration purposes), I could easily see this one going ignored and fading into apocryphal status. Instead, it has been endlessly retconned.
But imagine if it had gained an audience. Imagine if audiences had embraced it. What would have spun out of this story? It would have constituted a different approach to Doctor Who. The TV Movie wasn’t the resurrection we hoped for. But for one day, we had Doctor Who back.
Thankfully, it wasn’t the last time.