Ever since “Doctor Who” had its final sign-off in 1989, fans have been clamoring for its resurrection. They got their wish in May of 1996, when a joint BBC/Universal Films production was released on the FOX Television network. While obviously an Americanized version of the classic British series, the film still retained the spirit of the original show and perhaps is the best depiction of the Doctor in many years.
Taking place in San Francisco on the dawning of the new millennium, “Doctor Who” finds the title character (Paul McGann) pursuing his old enemy, The Master (Eric Roberts). But the Master’s plan is far more complicated than simple escape — he plans to possess the Doctor’s body and destroy the planet while he’s at it. With billions of lives in jeopardy, The Doctor has only hours to save Earth and stop The Master once and for all. But he’s developed amnesia thanks to an earlier tangle with The Master, so will he remember how to rescue the planet he’s saved countless times before?
The above may sound confusing and incoherent to the uninitiated, but writer Matthew Jacobs makes it all remarkably easy to understand. He avoids the trap of becoming bogged down in showing the characters’ backstories, wisely preferring to reveal their history as the film progresses. He’s also sharp enough to realize that unless you’re a devotee of PBS, you’ve probably had little exposure to the series and its 30-year history. He solves this problem by weaving the vital points of the show into a creative script, making it an informative 2-hour primer on the series as well as an entertaining stand-alone film.
Director Geoffrey Sax must have realized this was probably the first mass exposure of the character to American viewers, because the movie is far from dull. Perfectly cast is Paul McGann as The 8th Doctor and Eric Roberts as The Master, men from the same planet but polar opposites. McGann injects a youthful enthusiasm into The Doctor hardly seen in previous incarnations. He’s not only energetic, but also brave, compassionate, and highly intelligent, with a touch of romanticism and emotional vulnerability. He presents a character that is completely selfless, and realizes that the path he’s chosen can sometimes be a lonely one.
Eric Roberts overacts as The Master, but his grandiose performance works wonderfully. His exaggerated depiction convinces us of how completely immoral The Master really is, and that he’d have no problems annihilating a planet just to save himself. The Master believes he’s above any law, and Eric Roberts makes us believe that. Sylvester McCoy puts in a nice cameo as The 7th Doctor in the film’s beginning, ensuring that “Doctor Who” stays within the series’ continuity. While his presence isn’t really necessary, it’s a nice touch to see the previous Doctor appear to pass the role onto his successor.
While “Doctor Who” is an excellent production, some flaws do emerge. The announcement of The Doctor being half human seems thrown into the script, and never seems to be the shocking revelation it was probably intended to be. Also curious is why he never mentioned it previously, since he’s had 30 odd years to bring up the subject. Also, the film feels dated, especially because the millennium plays such a prominent role in the storyline. By now everyone’s experienced the event and it wasn’t nearly as apocalyptic as presented in “Doctor Who”. It appears that while the filmmakers crafted an accessible and entertaining film, it wasn’t made to stand the test of time.
While never released on home video in the United States, copies of this film are easily obtainable on eBay and with import video dealers (or a brand new copy from Amazon UK). While the movie may seem a little antiquated in some regards, it’s still a lot of fun to watch. At the very least, it’s the perfect way to painlessly introduce someone to the universe of Doctor Who.
Geoffrey Sax (director) / Matthew Jacobs, Sydney Newman (screenplay)
CAST: Paul McGann …. The Doctor
Eric Roberts ….The Master/Bruce
Daphne Ashbrook …. Dr. Grace Holloway
Sylvester McCoy …. The Old Doctor