NRH’s Weekly Analysis: Doctor What?


Ah. Hello. Terribly sorry to about ninety-percent of people who click on these things. Unfortunately a lot of this will depend on you having watched the film and being clued in to Doctor Who. Usually with these things y’all can just read along and enjoy the analysis with having seeing the film or looking into its tertiary material. With Doctor Who, however, any piece of it, you’re pretty much boned unless you’re at the very least bit ‘involved’ in the community. It’s less of a fandom and more of a commitment.

Doctor Who, the confusingly-titled 1996 movie, is one of the most overlooked pieces of nineties cinemas and, when you think about it, science-fiction in general. It was a botched attempt at reviving one of the greatest television shows ever made. It was launched under Paul McGann’s luscious locks and a production cost that was beyond the ‘banana and a string’ levels that were usual with Doctor Who. The film changed everything. It injected blockbuster and ‘epic’ flare into a long-running canon and, quite frankly, might be the only thing that saved Doctor Who from the void of the forgotten. Join me as we take a deeper look into this relic of the nineties.

Doctor Who is something of an elusive mystery to me. Past heartbreak, poor plot devising, structural deficits and ham-fisted writing I still have to stick with it. It’s one of those few affinities from Star Wars to Star Trek to Marvel to DC to any-insert-fictional-mythology-here that just sticks to your brain. I have DVDs of the classics still to get through, Saturdays (when the series returns every year) become sacred and I still have the same rituals. Digestives and a cup of tea. It’s one of the most British things I do for someone who considers him the least-British British citizen. When you watch Doctor Who, the TV movie, there’s a more mumbled way of ‘watching’ it. I had to have multiple cups of tea and quickly ran out of digestives anyway. It’s one of the reasons why I think that it really is of a completely different breed to the television series; its very length demands a different kind of ‘viewing’.

There is also a very distinct Americanized flavour to the whole affair. The British core is still preserved, thankfully, but the film was part of a BBC America campaign to resuscitate the classic series in the lands of our Atlantic brethren. In many respects it’s a shame it didn’t succeed and, well, if the film was meant to be a model for a television serial then you can be quite thankful. See, the film understands The Doctor. It gets his mysterious power and it gets the chronology. It zooms through the concepts that underpin the show, from regeneration to TARDIS, and throws characters and references aplenty. Even its bits that upset the canon, such as when the Doctor mentions he’s half-human, they’re all there with a specific targeted purpose. Bring back Doctor Who in all of its labyrinthine g-lore-y. It succeeds, but it doesn’t excel. There’s no promises here. If anything it’s quite vacant of a film. 

It’s still a very enjoyable picture and you have to imagine the impact it might’ve had. To many of young Whovians such an experience is unparalleled. A long-dead beloved show, that you clutch to your hearts, getting a good effort at revival that then just fizzles out completely. The closest we’ll get to it is The Day of the Doctor, the upcoming 50th anniversary feature film celebration. That thing, however, is a film concocted in the Doctor Who of today which is incredibly successful and transnational. 

This is my argument though. Without the TV movie, without a prod at the sleeping mammoth, the TV series doesn’t come back at all. Yes it was a failed effort. McGann was an incredibly competent Doctor, managing to get the true heroic heart out in the centre-stage. The general atmosphere, however Americanized, still brims with the same familiar hums. It’s something of a liminal step between the old Who and new Who. It’s got that cheap nineties feel, even though it’s production values are through the Who-roofs, but it’s also got that optimism and general sense of concrete self-awareness. That’s what new Who is about, to me at least, it’s a constant dipping back into the past. It’s a lot like the experience of life; having to constantly remember the self.

That’s partially the philosophical allure of Doctor Who and the TV movie ‘gets’ it too. There’s some great touches of respect, some mis-steps though, but the TV movie does get that Doctor Who is an ever-constant amalgamation of its past. It’s a bit quantum in some respects. The TV film also manages to inject some spliced DNA of the Hollywood machine. There’s some fighty bits, runny-about bits and the general pushing and shoving into making it more an epic affair. The story is still quite fun, bubbly and doesn’t dive into a boring lore-fest for newcomers.

It’s the quality I most admirer about the film. As said in the beginning you kinda need to be ‘in the know how’ to ‘get’ this analysis, to understand it. It may seem like some vague language but a lot of it is familiar to any fan, be they youngling or older. Doctor Who is a time travelling science-fiction something or other that is still touches and delights past its times. The film manages to feel like an opening for new folk whilst a homecoming for others. It’s a quality that so few films of its kind manages to achieve.

Hypothetically, if this didn’t exist, I can’t see the BBC taking another leap forward. The TV film didn’t rejuvenate the series as a ‘Second Coming’ affair. That would come later. It did however lead to audiobooks, comics, little stories and a very nice shove into a universe that had been long at rest. Its impact was something of an underground affair, a bubbling catalyst under the cultural skin of the television planet. It took a long while for it to finally burst but, when it did, it came with all its tricks and old-agedness. 

Doctor Who, the TV movie, is the definition of overlooked. It quite frankly deserves a re-watch for any Whovian who doubts its impact. The very springs of New Who can be found in its filmic fabric. With the 50th coming up too, it’s pretty easy to say that this is a better time than any to dive into the beginnings of McGann’s Doctor; the Doctor that could’ve been.