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Mar 25, 2005

'Somehow, I don't think the secong coming happens here'

And so, here it is - the last piece of televised ‘Doctor Who’ until tomorrow night. Given the almost relentless hype for the new series these past couple of weeks, it’s easy to forget that nine years ago the anticipation for this American-funded, American-made and - ultimately - American-ignored TV Movie was as great as what we are experiencing now. Because, after seven years of rumour, counter-rumour and no end of false starts, he was back. And it was, as we all know, about time. The years in-between, indeed the very decade, may have changed. But otherwise March 2005 is May 1996 all over again - the hype, the hope…but hopefully not the disappointment.

Okay, let’s get this out of the way - I have a serious problem with the TV Movie. And it has nothing to do with what ends up on the screen. Rather my beef lies with the reasons it was made in the first place. Say what you like about the new series - as I’m sure thousands, if not millions, will be doing just that, starting 7.45 tomorrow night. But at least it’s being made with nothing less than the full support of the BBC this time round. It’s got some of the most renowned writers, directors and designers in the industry today working on it. And, as has been clear to anyone within a million miles of a TV set since March 8th, the BBC desperately want it to succeed. They need it to succeed. God help us, they’re trusting that it will trounce Ant ‘n’ Dec, so badly do they want it - this time - to be right, be good. To be, fundamentally, special.

Backtrack to those desperate years between 1989 and 1996. Does anyone really think the BBC even cared about ‘Doctor Who’ then? That they didn’t think it was anything more than an embarrassment, which its seemingly deranged devotees just simply wouldn’t let fade away and die. It was only when Spielberg came calling that the BBC suddenly saw a way to keep everyone happy - let someone else (preferably with plenty of money) make the thing, market the thing and still be there to reap the dividends if - heaven forbid - it actually paid off. The whole thing would cost the BBC nothing, and potentially make it a pot of gold. And at least those tiresome fans would be off their backs, because - judging by what they accepted for 26 years before - anything will do to satisfy them…

So, yeah, I have a problem with the TV movie, but not with the finished article per se. My regret is that it was a wasted opportunity; a chance to reinvent the Time Lord for a new generation - just like now - that was given up just for the sake of making a fast buck out of one lousy night. There was plenty of talent involved to have made this so much more; a charismatic new Doctor, a decent budget, some then state of the art effects, and a sense of fun and adventure which had been largely lacking from the original’s dying days.

So, what went wrong? Well, the BBC - in its short-sighted, money-grabbing motivation for even green-lighting the thing - allowed its American partners to basically take what was a successful format and turn it into just another Transatlantic TV show. The problem with the TV movie is not a case of execution, but conception. British icons are said to appeal to our American cousins on account of their quirky, iconoclastic liberalism. And what’s the first thing they do when they get their hands on them? They change them into something more wholesome, basic and downright sanitised. I’m sorry, but I’m writing this on the same morning as having seen clips from the American version of ‘The Office’, which debuted over there last night. They’ve got the basics right there too - even down to a scarily-accurate recreation of Brent and co’s paper-merchant environment - but everything else is so wrong. It just beggars the question of why bother even trying at all…

Given the break ‘Doctor Who’ had had away from audience indifference, BBC negligence and its own burnt-out production team, the prospects for a new mid-nineties Who succeeding were very strong. But they died at birth when no-one had the guts to do this properly. Trying to please one audience was never going to be easy; the fact the TV movie tries to target two very different ones almost dooms it to failure from the outset. It’s a mistake that the new series production team seem to have learnt from the outset - no matter how entrenched in our memories a TV show is, you’ve got to make it for a modern audience. If that means dumping decades of continuity, eccentric clothes and long hair, then so be it. Because if you don’t, then you’re left with the same small audience that couldn’t sustain the original show in the first place.

I’m trying not to sound like I hate the TV movie, because I really don’t. I can name a dozen stories from the original series that were worse made, more boring and just as undeserving the mantle ‘Doctor Who’. I mean, whatever way you look at the final product, Paul McGann himself is wonderful - he simply gets the role from his fist line. Never has a Doctor been so note-perfect throughout his introductory story. And it’s only a shame that this is all we have - Big Finish/BBC Books/DWM comic strip subscribers aside - to show just how magnificent a Doctor he was.

And the direction isn’t bad either. Geoffrey Sax would have blessed the original show, showing a good understanding of the mix of light humour and serious drama that made the show, at its best, such a huge success. Likewise the budget allows for some top-notch updating of the show’s iconography. The restyled TARDIS interior may overdo the Batman-influenced elements like candles and gothic cloister rooms. But for once we have a real sense of the TARDIS’ magical appeal; an ordinary telephone box masking a world of infinite possibilities. And it’s no surprise that, of all the elements to be taken on board by the new series, it is the TARDIS console that bears most similarity to its new, organic look. Even the time rotor and the columns supporting the ceiling bear more than a passing resemblance

Despite Geoffrey Sax’s own denial on the matter, the story has some neat resurrection subtext: all that Christ-like symbolism must be more than pure accident, while the scene where the Doctor drops to his knees to cry ‘Who Am I?’ deserves a place in the show’s all-time showcase of ‘shiver-down-the-spine’ moments. The Puccini stuff is also an unusually clever use of an incidental element for more resonant effect; I for one haven’t been able to hear that piece since without thinking of this story.

But it all pretty much ends there. Because, whichever way you look at it, there simply is no story to hang all these nice touches together. Both for the fans and the new - mostly American - audience, too much cohesion is sacrificed in the name of blind exposition. Exposition which is almost laughable at times (the Doctor even breaks some sort of record for listing the show’s iconography at one point). And the whole Eye of Harmony thing just does not make any sense at all. (Why Midnight? Why a human retina? Why even bother asking?)

Then there’s the necessary - though still grating - pandering to the crucial American audience. The streetwise, Asian side-kick, the car chase, the need for a romantic subplot (especially that kiss), the bloody cloaking device instead of a chameleon circuit (when they’re not even the same thing). And of course, the piece-de-resistance…

The Doctor is half-human.

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrgggggggggggggggghhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!!

Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?

For the fans, it’s a travesty. For the American public, all these are elements they’ve seen a million times before. So why bother making these changes in the first place? Why?

I feel most sorry for Matthew Jacobs - there’s a real sense of understanding and respect for the programme in his writing, but it all gets lost under his mandate to please so many people all at the same time. That he fails is hardly his fault, because if there’s one (only one?) fundamental flaw to the TV Movie, it is the same flaw of most American TV: it’s written by committee, not by an individual. And the biggest disappointment comes from knowing that this could have all - in another time, another world - been so much more.

McGann deserved more. Geoffrey Sax deserved more. Even Philip Segal, for his tireless campaigning to get some kind of Who off the ground in the nineties, deserved more. But most of all, the British Public deserved more. Nine million did tune in, hoping to have their fond memories of the show rekindled, if for one night only.

I wouldn’t say that the fans deserved more. We’ve always pretty much got the show we deserved, good or bad. And back in 1996, we were all - every man, woman and child of us - absolutely desperate just for something new. It didn’t really enter our minds whether it should be good or bad, just that it was. And the TV movie was the result…

Tomorrow night, Russell T. Davies and his team - backed by an enthusiastic BBC, with the talent and the budget to match their optimism - begin the long task of reclaiming ‘Doctor Who’ for its one, true audience: the general public who thrilled to its charms for most of its original twenty-six year life. I, you - we - hope and pray that they succeed. Because, despite his capacity for thirteen incarnations, this Doctor is already on his ninth life; and even the most durable of cats run out of luck at some time.

The BBC owes ‘Doctor Who’ another chance. ‘Doctor Who’ owes the licence-payers a chance to thrill again at its timeless delights. Payback begins at seven o’clock tomorrow…

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