I will confess right now – I have never seen any of the old Doctor Who episodes. I have seen (and greatly enjoy) the new series. But I am not as knowledgeable of the entire arc. Some of the things I point out below are likely to be explained away by fans. That’s fine, but I am not completely in the dark regarding the mythos.
First, a bit of history. Doctor Who had been on the BBC since 1963, and was popular amongst British audiences for decades. However, it was canceled 1989. It was not revived until 2005 into the current incantation that is about to enter it’s six season (or “series.”). Yet in 1996, there was a co production between the BBC and some American channels to revive the series. The result was this TV movie, meant to feel out any market for a series. It was somewhat successful in Great Britain, but not as successful in the U.S. No new series was produced, the franchise went back into obscurity, and the TV movie is now looked upon as more of a curiosity than anything else.
But, is it actually good? Well, yes and no. It is better than its reputation makes of it (most fans dismiss it entirely), but then, it is not as good as the new series. In fact, it feels hopelessly quaint. The film is certainly interesting as a stepping stone (one could see the new showrunners watching it and trying to emulate it) and does contain some entertaining moments. But it is easy to see why the film was not successful.
The film is basically a continuation of the old. The Doctor (Paul McGann) is trying to transport the remains of The Master (Eric Roberts) to their home planet of Gallifey (wasn’t that destroyed…oh well). His TARDIS breaks down and forces him to land in San Francisco on the eve of the new millennium. THe Master escapes, the Doctor is shot and regenerates, and meets his new companion named Grace (Daphne Ashbrook) try to repair the TARDIS and prevent The Master from stealing The Doctor’s body and destroying the world.
I guess I’ll start with Paul McGann. I like him. He’s light and playful (more like the revival doctors) and does not seem patronizing to his human hosts. He actually acts like an alien – fascinated by certain objects on planet Earth, while knowledgeable of things that humans would be frightened of. It was a good, more accessible version of The Doctor. Frankly, I do wish I could have seen more of him.
But the rest…well, it isn’t bad, I would like to make that clear. But it is lacking any sort of real excitement that is present in the new series. They were trying to get to that point. I will start with The Master; he stinks. He is meant to be a sort of alter ego of the doctor – acting in much the same way the Doctor does, but with completely different motives. See John Simm in the new version and you will see what I am talking about. Eric Roberts plays him as a villain in a 1940s movie serial. He inflects all of his lines, as though everything he says is the most evil thing anyone has ever said. When he ends the film by dressing as Ming the Merciless, it becomes a joke.
The rest actually plays much the same way – unsure whether or not it wants to be serious. The tone the new series strikes is perfect – it goes for a sort of post modern irony while also being serious. It is possible to sense danger in the new series, and wonder. Neither of those things are here. The film’s attempts at wonder just causes confusion. Without spoiling anything, why does The Doctor keep claiming to be half human? How does the TARDIS suddenly get the power to resurrect the dead? And why is an atomic clock now considered the pinnacle of human technology?
For all of it’s strengths, there are just too many weaknesses to consider it good. I find myself comparing to the James Bond franchise. If the new series represents Casino Royale, a fresh take on an iconic character, then this film is more of a Roger Moore outing. Yes, there is some level of quality here. I do recommend it to hardcore fans. But casual fans are not missing much.