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27 December 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 726: The TV Movie

Dear diary,

He’s back, and it’s about time! Watching the TV Movie today has been one of the most enjoyable experiences that I’ve had while doing this marathon. It’s a story that I’ve always known I liked, but I don’t think that I’d ever appreciated just how good it is before. it’s only now, watching it after all the episodes of the ‘classic’ series, that I can fully see how good it really is - and I’m baffled by the distaste it used to have, once upon a time.

Now. There’s lots to discuss in relation to this episode, so I guess I’d better pick somewhere to start. Let’s go for the Direction, shall we? It’s stunning. There, that was simple. I’m not being facetious, though, it simply is stunning. It’s quite unlike any of the direction we’ve ever had in the programme u pt this point, and is easily up there wit the best that Douglas Canfield has to offer, though in a different style. People bang on about how good Grahame Harper’s direction was in the 1980s… why doesn’t anyone ever discuss Geoffrey Sax? It’s far more ‘filmic’ than I’m used to for the series - and largely that’s because we’ve finally broken free of the studio set up that defined the programme for its entire original run. Being taken out of that and given more time to film it as though it were all on location has really benefited, and I’m guessing I’ll see this trend continue as the marathon goes on, because the ‘new’ series is filmed in the same way.

The other benefit of breaking free of the traditional production method for Doctor Who is that we can have a new TARDIS set quite unlike anything that the programme has ever been able to manage before now. Watching it in context like this, I’m actually a little bit surprised by the change - it really is a massive departure from the version of the ship we had from 1963 onwards. In the past, I’ve seen it described as the Secondary Console Room turned up to eleven, but that’s rubbish frankly, because this is something completely on another level. I’m actually surprised that they had the balls to go for such a complete redesign of the structure, because it’s such a leap from the expected norm. Now, I’ve always had a soft spot for this console room. I think it’s beautiful, but I’ve never noticed just how lovely it is. We’re really coming back to Sax’s direction again here, because we get lots of shots which really make the most of the setting and show off lots of the intricate little details.

And then you’ve got our new Doctor himself - Paul McGann is the Doctor! It seems strange, now, in a post-Night of the Doctor world, that people ever doubted his position as a Doctor. Sure, he’s only got the one televised adventure in which to flex his muscles, but he’s certainly more the Doctor in the hour-or-so he gets here than McCoy was in Season Twenty-Four, for example! He really does hit the ground running, and I can’t help but love him from the second he strolls down an abandoned hospital corridor and starts to scream into the night (‘Who… Am… Aaaaargh!’) to the moment he dips back inside the police box as fireworks explode overhead. He’s a fantastic Doctor, and I absolutely love him. Of course, I’m slightly biased in this opinion, perhaps, because I’ve already done a marathon of the Eighth Doctor’s audio adventures and written my thoughts down in a book with my friend Nick Mellish. I’ve had travels from the R101, through a Divergent Dimension, and off to the Dalek’s second invasion of Earth to fall in love with this incarnation. But I genuinely do believe that he’s given a great start here, and you can see all the potential for a great Doctor to run and run.

Which brings me quite neatly to the big thing that I’m not so sure about with the TV Movie… does it work as a decent set up for the future? In the Seven Year Itch documentary on this DVD, Philip Segal et al discuss the way that they had this seen as a ‘backdoor pilot’ for a potential continuing series (and, I have to admit, I had no idea that it was as formal as it was). I’ve always thought of it as an awful way to introduce a new audience - and even made a note to that effect when the Doctor’s info-dump narration kicked in a few seconds into the feature - but actually watching it this time around, I’m not sure it’s as bad as I thought it was.

I mean, it sets up neatly the fact that the Doctor is an alien time traveller who can change his face upon death. We’re given an arch enemy for him to fight against. He’s paired with a resourceful companion who can assist in the adventure. All the elements are in place for things to work. I think the problem is how thick and fast they come. It doesn’t phase me, because I know about Doctor Who. He can throw in references to Gallifrey, and the Eye of Harmony, and the Daleks can make a cameo (sight unseen) at the start. We can have Jelly Babies, and Sonic Screwdrivers, and the Seal of Rassilon on every third surface. I don’t bat an eyelid, because I’m a fan. But I can’t help thinking that the new series made a better job of all this - drip feeding new elements of the Mythos as it went along. We’ll see if that opinion holds up over the next few months, but I’ve always thought of it as being more successful. I suppose the key difference is that the 2005 series was just that - a series. There were always going to be thirteen weeks to build the story across. In this instance, you’ve got 90 minutes to make your pitch… and then that could be it.

The other thing which doesn’t sit quite right with me in regards to this being any kind of pilot is that any follow-up would be a bit of a culture shock. There’s not much of an implication of the scope of the series here, because the Doctor and the Master both come crashing down at the same time, bringing their fight to Earth. In Rose, for example, her world is expanded by the introduction of first the Autons, then the Doctor, the police box, a replica boyfriend, and finally the Nestene Consciousness under the London Eye. It’s something new every few minutes, pushing her story forward, whereas once Grace is introduced to the idea that the Doctor is an alien and his arch nemesis is out to end the world… well, she’s all up to speed!

All that said, I think this is probably perfect for a British audience - and it certainly faired rather well here when it was first broadcast. It’s best for an audience with enough cultural knowledge of Doctor Who to simply sit back and enjoy a well-paced and directed film. There’s a lot to really like about the TV Movie - not perfect, but certainly a highlight in the Doctor Who narrative… 

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