Almost a decade after the original, landmark run of the Science Fiction series Doctor Who sputtered to an end in 1989, there was a movement afoot to regenerate the quintessentially British figure for an international audience. Negotiations between the BBC and America's Fox Network resulted in a television movie that would have served as a series pilot had it not proven catastrophic.
There is probably enough blame to go around in why it didn't take off like it should have, or in retrospect like how the Russell T. Davies series did. Ratings weren't as generous as many reviews were, which, in the opinion of this particular one, were grasping at straws simply for the sake of really wanting to like Doctor Who. British viewers seemed to enjoy it, but the BBC was in no position to follow through without the deep pockets of Rupert Murdoch. American audiences, however, were respectable but unimpressed, resulting in a final death for the project despite gratuitous Saturn Awards for Best Television Presentation of 1996.
That is quite ironic, as the greatest weaknesses of the TV movie are the result of pandering to American audiences. Producer Philip David Segal tried to walk a fine line of being, he thought, true to the source material while at the same time trying to make it sensible to the television public. This resulted in an abusive mass of superficial Doctor Who tributes and worn out cliches being used in place of solid characterization and storytelling. For example, the critical regeneration scene between Seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy and his heir Paul McGann was wretchedly intercut with clips of a nearby orderly watching the creation of life scene in Frankenstein, topped off liberally with overt visual references to Jesus Christ. Okay, we get it.
In this film, the Seventh Doctor is called to Skaro where, in the course of an apparent and utterly failed peace treaty between the Daleks and the Time Lords, the Doctor's longtime nemesis the Master was executed. His dying wish was to have his remains transported back to Gallifrey to be buried under her golden orange skies. However, in keeping with his custom, he finds a way to cheat death and literally slither out of his urn, forcing the TARDIS to land in San Francisco on the eve of the new millennium. The Master's ashes escape to occupy the body of actor Eric Roberts, playing the paramedic who rushes the Doctor to the hospital after he is ruthlessly gunned down by a street gang. Not being able to make sense of his two hearts, the cardiologist accidentally kills the Doctor and precipitates his regeneration into his eighth form. Meanwhile, the Master, played to the highest of camp, concocts a plot to steal the Doctor's remaining regenerations from him. High speed car chases, romance, two-fisted action and ham-fisted metaphors ensue.
Without any overstatement, the only thing holding this picture together is the Doctor. Therein lies the kicker: Paul McGann is exceptional in his role, seeming all the moreso because of the quality of the movie around him. He practically leaps off the screen as one of the few Doctors to move beyond playing the Doctor on TV to actually being the Doctor. By our reckoning, it's only William Hartnell, Tom Baker and David Tennant who have pulled off that stunt to any notable degree.
McGann's greatest gift is that he is perfect for the cliche thrust upon him. In order to translate Doctor Who's Britishness, the Doctor is made to look like the stereotypical Briton. The Seventh Doctor, who starts the film off reading H.G. Wells, traded in the sweater of his series incarnation for the look of an English professor in tweed. His successor goes further back in stereotypical images to dress in outright Victorian garb, down to the frock, waistcoat, pocketwatch and cravat. The TARDIS itself is given an extreme makeover as a cross between the Nautilus and a Gothic cathedral.
The bizarre thing is that McGann makes it work! He pulls around what was meant as American shorthand for "British" into one of the most aesthetically engaging versions of the Doctor. Whether or not this is a symptom of our own Americanization, he looks just like the Doctor ought to look. It may help that this isn't that far removed from the First Doctor's Edwardian suit, or the Third's velvet goldmine. Nevertheless, when coupled with McGann's skill as an actor in breathing life and vitality into a role that demanded only cliches, we end up with one of our favorite Doctors and a version outliving the popularity of his singular televised appearance.
The failure of the TV movie to grab enough marketshare was death to McGann on TV. However, the hunger for any new Doctor media and for his rendition in particular resulted in an industry of audio dramas carrying on the adventures of the Eighth Doctor. Big Finish - purveyors of officially licensed compact disks featuring the talents of Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Nicholas Courtney, Carole Ann Ford, Sarah Sutton, Frazer Hines, Peter Purves, Lalla Ward, Nicola Bryant and more original actors in their original roles - took up the task, contracted Paul McGann and released a bevy of audio dramas, both individual stories and two whole "seasons". He is also on the list for Character Options' second wave of Doctor Who Classics action figures. Seen briefly in a third season episode and the 2008 Christmas special of the current Doctor Who series, the biggest rumour of the 2009 season was that the Eighth Doctor would return in a flashback episode about the Time War.
It is the pleasure of seeing the Eighth Doctor at work that makes the Doctor Who movie watchable. Do so, give yourself the visual palette to imagine him at work, and then invest in the truer to Who audio dramas.