Doctor Who first aired in Britain in 1963. The science fiction series had its ups and downs and was put on hiatus for its longest period after 'Survival' debuted in 1989. In an attempt to revive the series, and to maintain continuity, executive producer Philip Segal brought the seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) to the big screen as part of a British-American co-production. What better way to ensure a future for the show, and the franchise, than to send off a brilliant actor and introduce a new incarnation (Paul McGann).
The 1996 television movie does not assume prior knowledge of Doctor Who and makes for an excellent entry point for newcomers. We learn that the Master—rival Time Lord—has been sentenced to death by the daleks on Skaro for unspecified crimes. Before the Master is dispersed/exterminated, however, he is allowed one final request: the Doctor must return the Master's remains to their homeworld, Gallifrey.
The TARDIS has had another 'desktop theme' change. Unlike the TV series where interior design is intimate and minimal, the seventh Doctor's ship is spacious and gothic in style—with a hint of steam punk. The Doctor reclines in a comfortable chair and reads The Time Machine by HG Wells.
Typically, the Master's remains are far from dead. He oozes out of his tiny casket as a translucent snake and manages to fry the console to force the TARDIS (the Doctor's type 40 time capsule which stands for Time And Relative Dimension In Space) to land in 1999 San Francisco.
The seventh Doctor steps out of his TARDIS, which is disguised as an old blue police box, and is instantly shot by street thugs. Here we meet Asian gangster Chang Lee (Yee Jee Tso) who calls an ambulance to rush our dying Time Lord to the hospital for inadvertently saving his life.
Meanwhile Grace Holloway (Daphne Ashbrook) leaves her theatre date to take an urgent call at the hospital to operate on none other than the Doctor. As she inserts a camera probe into the Doctor's body she gets lost (not knowing she is inspecting an alien) and a simple procedure ends in disaster as the Doctor dies on the operating table and is transferred to the hospital morgue.
Later that evening, a morgue intern watches the classic film Frankenstein (1931) while munching on popcorn. There is an excellent, almost convenient, comparison between the awakening of Frankenstein's monster and the Doctor's regeneration. The Doctor, reborn, finds a Wild Bill Hickok costume and convinces Grace that he is not of Earth by pulling the other half of the camera probe out of his chest.
The Master possesses Bruce the paramedic (Eric Roberts) and manipulates Chang Lee to help steal the Doctor's remaining lives …
On the eve of a new millennium will the Doctor and Grace prevail?
Paul McGann's performance throughout the film is brilliant. He is energetic and quirky, which is expected, however he introduces a new romantic paradigm shift not seen in the classic era of Doctor Who, which was necessary to adapt the program for a modern audience. The Doctor is not just a big softie, he can also be resolute and strong in dire situations.
Eric Roberts portrays a clichéd and camp Master. There is a little inconsistency with how the Master acts in the film, which hints at his mental stability. In one intense scene he idly tears off fingernails as he chats with hospital administration, phishing for information. To contrast that image we see the Master in the final act as he hosts his own little parade and engages in silly banter.
The tone throughout the film, emphasised via musical cues, shifts from dead serious to light-hearted constantly. Pace is surprisingly consistent and tight.
Overall, Doctor Who: The Movie is a bit of fun. Just forget about the bit where the Doctor is supposedly half human …
Until recently, the television movie was the only on-screen adventure for the eighth Doctor.
The Night of the Doctor is a short film written by current Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat, which is an important tie-in for the 50th anniversary special. With a running time of nearly seven minutes we witness the final moments of the eighth Doctor's life as he is forced to accept a change that will see his involvement in the Time War.
To learn more about the 'wilderness years'—or the gap years where there were only repeats to watch and novels to read, check out the documentaries via the special features on the Doctor Who: The Movie DVDs.