With the mini-episode “The Night of the Doctor,” the spotlight was turned on to the Eighth Doctor, portrayed by Paul McGann. I remember watching Eight’s movie back when it was first broadcast in 1996: it was about four months after I met the man who is now my husband, and since he was a huge Doctor Who fan from his days of living in England and the PBS broadcasts in the U.S. (at the time, he was still a member of the local fan club, Time Travelers Anonymous), we had to watch this new movie. And it was terrible. I don’t remember the movie at all, but I remember that he was very disappointed and unhappy about it. It’s very possible that his experience with this movie directly affected his decision not to watch the new series in 2005. He didn’t want to watch it because he was afraid it would ruin his memories of the classic series, possibly because the 1996 movie had the same effect.
We saw “The Night of the Doctor” when it was released five days ago, and though we don’t know much about the Eighth Doctor, we felt it was a fantastic tribute to him, and he was given a very noble and meaningful death. We then decided to get the movie from Netflix and give it a second chance. After all, we heard that the Americans hated the movie but the British liked it, so maybe we wouldn’t find it so bad this time. We watched it last night.
And it was terrible.
Now, it’s very easy to compare the movie to the show (new or classic) and say that it’s terrible because it doesn’t have all of the things we love in the show, but I think objectively, this TV movie was terrible in and of itself. It would have been terrible if they had given it another name and renamed the characters so it didn’t have anything to do with Doctor Who. Why was it so bad?
First, the overall conflict – the Master trying to steal the Doctor’s remaining regenerations – was incomprehensible. The Master starts out dead, but possesses a human so that he can enact his nefarious plan. This involved opening the Eye of Harmony in the TARDIS, which apparently only a human can do; luckily, the Master found a human he could bribe to do it for him and filled him with stories about how the Doctor was evil and stole his body. In order to stop the Master, the Doctor had to close the Eye of Harmony, but the TARDIS’s timing circuit was off, so he had to find and steal a timing circuit from an atomic clock. He gets to the TARDIS with his companion, Dr. Grace Holloway, but the Master hypnotizes her and they truss up the Doctor to steal his regenerations. He tells the other human that no, it’s the Master that’s evil, and he believes him and refuses to act, and the Master kills him. At this point, I can’t really remember what happened, because it was really confusing. I know the Master lets Grace out of the hypnotism, and she fixes the TARDIS (honestly) before the Master can steal the regenerations. The Master kills her, but gets sucked into the Eye of Harmony. They also have to go back in time a little bit to redo something that went wrong earlier. Then the TARDIS resurrects both humans.
I don’t have a problem with complicated plots or plots that take a while to figure out. There are a number of classic and new episodes that have complex plots and are good. “Blink” is a great example of that. The plot of this movie was just stupid. It felt to me that someone wrote a plot summary for the script and then the American executives told them to do the following to make it appeal to Americans.
- Add a car chase scene: Getting to the atomic clock involved the Doctor and Grace on a motorcycle being chased by the Master and his bribed human in an ambulance.
- Have the Doctor kiss the companion romantically: The first kiss was an “I just remembered who I am, thanks, Grace!” kiss, which was just fine, but it was followed by two more obviously romantic kisses.
- Make sure you use time travel to fix something
- Make the Doctor predict future events so that we know he can see the future – none of that wibbly-wobbly, I can see the turn of the universe crap.
- Make him half-human, so that he isn’t so damn alien.
- Add a physical ghost-like snake to represent the dead Master’s spirit, so that people “get” what he’s doing, and that he’s evil.
- Amnesia. Yes, give the Doctor amnesia so that the audience can discover him as he discovers himself.
To be completely honest, the movie had a lot to accomplish. It had to introduce all the things the fans already know about the Doctor – he’s an alien with alien physiology, he can regenerate, he has a time machine, he can see beyond our narrow concept of time, he’s got a deadly enemy – while making it understandable to an audience that had never seen the show before, telling a story within a 1.5-hour time limit, and making it appealing to a different country. I think it bit off more than it could chew. It wasted so much of the time it had adding useless action scenes and filler scenes (in trying to create tension in the “is Grace going to figure it out in the last 30 seconds” scene, it kept cutting to scenes of the people in San Francisco celebrating Y2K). It would have done a lot better if it had gone with a generic monster-of-the-day and spent more of its screen time establishing who the Doctor was and what he was all about.
Basically, the writers of this movie lost sight of what makes Doctor Who so good: the characters and the terror. Go look at the lists of “favorite scenes” from the classic and new shows which are all over the place right now. What do they show? Almost always dialogue: very often scenes between the companions and the Doctor (e.g. Three’s regneration into Four, Four leaving Sarah Jane in what he thinks is Croydon, One’s leaving Susan, Five’s regeneration into Six, Seven’s final scene with Ace, Nine telling Rose he can feel the turn of the earth, Eleven’s fish fingers and custard) or scenes of the Doctor being the Doctor (e.g. Four’s refusal to prevent the genesis of the Daleks, One’s calling Two and Three to task in “The Three Doctors,” Six discovering the identity of the Valeyard, the fury of the time lord against the Family of Blood, the Pandorica speech). Then there are the scenes that demonstrate the terror of the show (e.g. the first time we see a Dalek, the emergence of the Cyber Controller, the first time you understand what the Weeping Angels do). What’s missing from this list? Action. The show isn’t about the action – it isn’t even about time travel and paradoxes – and that’s what the movie writers missed.
The Doctor himself was great. Mr. McGann did a great job with what he was given to work with. The Eighth Doctor retained his enthusiasm for life and exploration, and his optimism, but had a much more placid nature, somewhat like the Fifth Doctor. His dialogue tried to not make him too alien, but Mr. McGann gave him a touch of wildness in his expression, so that he felt alien enough.
There was one weird scene which I have not yet figured out how to interpret. Eight and Grace come up to a cop with the intention of hijacking his motorcycle. Distracting him with an offer of a jelly baby, Eight steals his gun, then points it at himself and says, “Now, would you stand aside before I shoot myself.” I’m not sure if this was meant to make him seem more alien or to demonstrate that he won’t use a gun against another creature. It’s probably the most interesting line in the entire movie, if only because it’s so strange.
I am glad that I re-watched this movie. I feel very bad that the Eighth Doctor didn’t get to tell his own story on television like all of the other Doctors did, but I am very glad they gave him a great legacy in “The Night of the Doctor.”