Doctor Who: The Movie (1996)
Unrated because it is a made-for-TV movie, which was really just a pilot in disguise for a television show that never took off. The Doctor Who movie was the product of its age. Darker in tone than its predecessor, it had elements of The X-Files in it. The Master becomes a scary-ish slimy snake. There's lots of peril and terrifying imagery. While my kids normally can handle a lot of Doctor Who stuff, this one is a bit more scary than some of the other entries in the series. Still, it's considered Doctor Who, which is mostly harmless.
DIRECTOR: Geoffery Sax
I always thought that I would be jumping the shark with this blog if I ever considered the Paul McGann entry of Doctor Who an actual movie. I know that the title on the box is literally, Doctor Who: The Movie. Really, it's a pilot for an American adaptation of the BBC staple Doctor Who. But because it never really gained traction due to poor advertisement (Wait? Fox advertises things poorly?) and that it was placed across from a very special episode of Roseanne, it was relegated to being a TV movie that a lot of people forgot about. But I often think of the alternate history where the marketing folks handled this property well and the Eighth Doctor inspired season after season of amazing television.
Because the fact is, Paul McGann is an absolutely outstanding Doctor. This blog might lose all sight of the fact that it is supposed to be about film and the glory of cinema. Instead, I'm going to be completely self-indulgent and allow me one post where I'm allowed to talk about one of my other obsessions. As much as people in my life know that I'm a huge film snob, they're probably more aware that I'm an insane Doctor Who fan. It's pretty bad. I may have two life-sized TARDISes. I know how to pluralize "TARDIS." I mean, that should be enough of an indication of my current obsession. But Paul McGann's legacy to the Doctor Who canon shouldn't necessarily be taken from this film, which may or may not be also known as "The Enemy Within".
The movie is a hard pill to swallow. I know that if I discovered this movie in the '90s, I might have been obsessed with it. I was a devotee to Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo's The Flash. Really, '90s dark sci-fi was my way of defining myself. In terms of tone, Doctor Who achieves this really odd balance between the whimsy of a long running low-budget British television show and the staunch cynicism of Fox television. Who's reputation has always been defined as such: It caused kids to hide behind their couches. It was always meant to be a little scary and I think that the showrunners understood this fact. But what American audiences have a problem understanding is that things that look chincy can be absolutely terrifying...for the right audience. We're a broken bunch. We look for zippers in the back of monster costumes. I think we have gotten truly upsetting creature effects in the past, so we think that throwing money at something has the potential to be scarier. While the effects in "The Enemy Within" now seem adorable, it is a budgetary leap forward compared to the show when Sylvester McCoy left the air. Everything seems an attempt to show that Doctor Who didn't have to be cheap. Today's understanding of the show finds this nice balance between scariness and production value, but 1996 was an experimental time.
So what we're kind of left with is this kinda / sorta big budget version of the Doctor. The character is all there. I marvel at how much work it must have taken to get the elements of the classic series into an American production. After all, this film doesn't start with McGann as the Doctor. We have Sylvester McCoy's Doctor alone, continuing this long-running mythos without an American audience to really understand what is going on. (Also, the Dalek version of "Exterminate" sounds hilariously bad.) The final result is something that is historically Doctor Who, but tonally somewhere very different. Each showrunner offers a different voice. Just using Nu-Who as a jumping off point, Russell T. Davies reads very different from Steven Moffat, who reads very differently from Chris Chibnall. But there's a lot of salesmanship going into "The Enemy Within." From a creator's point of view, I get that he absolutely adores Who. But he's also embarrassed of the weirder elements. He feels like he has to sell it constantly. There's a lot going with the slow avoidance of the weirder elements of Who. Instead, we have The Master as the villain.
The same thing kind of happened when Doctor Who went into color with Jon Pertwee. It looks so different from the last episode of Patrick Troughton's monochromatic Second Doctor. But even with Pertwee's Third Doctor, it introduced a new monster. This was a world that's being attacked by aliens and it takes a Doctor to stop it. But with The Enemy Within, it is all about defending himself. The Doctor tells us that if the Eye of Harmony is open at midnight on New Years Eve, the world will end. It's a really weird flex because it doesn't really make a lick of sense. But we really know that the story is really about the Doctor. And for Doctor Who fans, that's fine. Sometimes, the stories are just death traps for the Doctor and that's part of storytelling. But for new audiences, the Doctor is this larger than life character. He travels in time and space and has saved the universe countless times. We don't really get that with "The Enemy Within". Heck, we don't really know much about the Master outside of the voiceover that the movie starts with. (Also, why are the Daleks okay with transferring the Master's body from Skaro, let alone letter the Doctor take it?) There's just such an info dump in this movie and none of it really leads to us caring about the Doctor. I mean, I do. I watched Doctor Who: The Movie last, after fifty years of episodes before that point. I knew every element. I even enjoyed it. But it makes no sense objectively.
Then there's the big "The Doctor is half-human" reveal. It's such an odd thing for a canon-nerd as myself. The John Nathan-Turner years (I'm that nerd) kept teasing that the Doctor was something more than simply a Time Lord. Chris Chibnall answered that with the Timeless Child reveal, but the film got to that answer first. It is odd that the Doctor keeps coming back to Earth. But I never liked that this movie got ignored canonically. The show establishes that Paul McGann was the Eighth Doctor. He's in the sequences. There's the "Night of the Doctor" mini-episode (which caused me to lose my mind harder than I thought possible). So why can the show just choose to ignore this reveal? I've been looking for answer to this question for a while. Honestly, I've fallen down a lot of rabbit holes trying to find peace with this reveal. I've read the comics. I've read books (not all of them...yet). I've done every Eighth Doctor audio. It's such an important moment for the canon and it's rarely spoken of again. (Moffat teased this in "Heaven Sent" and "Hell Bent".) It's just so in my face and I want the end.
But the biggest takeaway is that Paul McGann was robbed of a role of a lifetime. Listen, I'm about to drop a major nerd bomb: McGann got his stories in audio format. It seems like lesser media, but the stories are so good. But in this piece, we see this vibrant Doctor who could have been something marvelous, especially after a long period of less-than-stellar John Nathan-Turner episodes. McGann is absolutely perfect in this role and I will sit through a weak TV movie just to experience a filmed version of this character. He understands the Doctor, despite the fact that he spends a lot of the movie with amnesia. But as goofy as the movie is and how bleak it is, the movie really does it for me. I feel like it is the bridge for Nu-Who, but it really is a sacrificial lamb for a much better version later on. Part of me believes that Nu-Who wouldn't work so well if it wasn't for "The Enemy Within". And it also gave me a day where I was allowed to nerd out about Doctor Who, despite the fact that this is a film blog. Hey, TV movies count as movies.
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Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.