FRIDAY FLASHBACK: Doctor Who: The Movie

In the '90s, there was only one Doctor... and Eric Roberts was The Master.

Blair Marnellby Blair Marnell

FRIDAY FLASHBACK: Doctor Who: The Movie

Welcome back to Friday Flashback, here at Crave Online!

This is your weekly look back at the some best and worst shows from TV history. And this week, I have a confession to make that may cost me my geek card.

You see, prior to 1996, I had never seen "Doctor Who." EVER.

Sure, I picked up the gist of it by osmosis. The basic premise was pretty well known among sci-fi fans. The Doctor is 900 plus year old time traveler who uses a Police Call Box to go anywhere in space and time. He could regenerate into other actors, he had a sonic screwdriver and he fought robots that looked like salt shakers. That’s basically all I knew.

The original series was canceled in 1989, but Fox and the BBC tried to resurrect "Doctor Who" as a weekly series by making a TV movie to gauge the audience response. And the result was that it did really well in Britain, but not so much over here. Maybe people just weren’t ready for a new "Doctor Who" in the states. Even today, the series has a dedicated following in the U.S., but it doesn’t get blockbuster ratings.

But this was the very first time I saw the Doctor in action. I liked it enough that I watched the current "Doctor Who" series when it debuted in 2005. And because the TV movie wasn’t available here in our country, I hadn’t seen it again until this week, when I picked up the recently released DVD.

The movie starts off with the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) on his way back to Gallifrey to safely deliver the remains of the Master, his greatest adversary. As I understand it, it was a coup of sorts to get McCoy to come back for this project and definitively tie it into the original series. For all of the movie’s faults (and it has several), McCoy’s part in the film gives the entire thing more poignancy than it deserves to have.

Moments after he steps out of the TARDIS, the Seventh Doctor is shot by gangsters in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Only, it’s not the bullets that kill him, it’s the well meaning doctors at the hospital who attempt to correct his irregular heartbeat and can’t figure out why the x-ray machine shows that he has two hearts. The Doctor literally pleads with them to stop before he dies on the operating table. Again, McCoy was really great here, in his limited screen time.

Before we go on, let’s meet the sidekicks! Or the companions, in "Who" speak. First up, Chang Lee (Yee Jee Tso), who actually spends more time hanging around the Master than he does the Doctor. Aside from trying to save the Seventh Doctor near the beginning, he’s kind of a prick throughout until the end.

And then there’s Dr. Grace Holloway (Daphne Ashbrook), who is probably one of the more divisive companions in "Doctor Who" history. The first time we see her, she’s in a ridiculous Opera gown with a fake looking tear running down her cheek as she’s touched by the music. She performs the cardiac probe on the Doctor that ultimately kills him. So, he’s got a hell of a medical malpractice lawsuit on her if he ever decides to visit her again.

Next up, we have the Master, seen here as a snake about to go down Eric Roberts’ throat.

Yeah, that’s not weird at all.

And here’s Eric Roberts as the Master. You know, he was considered the "star" of this ensemble. The only one with a "name" in Hollywood. Though I don’t know why he was cast in this part. He seems really bored in every scene that he’s in.


Eventually the Seventh Doctor regenerates into the Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann), in a slightly bizarre way. I’m sure this morphing technology was cutting edge at the time, but it’s kind of hilarious to see his mouth twist and contort.

Immediately after waking up, he terrorizes a young Will Sasso ("Mad TV"), who seems to be playing a slightly disturbed mortician with a Frankenstein fetish. 

As seems to be a recurring motif for the Doctor, he steals his new clothes from the hospital and fixates on Grace as the last person he remembers.

After lightly stalking Grace for a few minutes, the Doctor slips into her car and convinces her that he’s her patient from the previous night when he removes the cardiac probe from his chest. He also hangs around Grace long enough for bits and pieces of his memory to come back. He also outraged legions of "Doctor Who" fans when he suddenly declares that he’s half human. And while that pissed them off, this is what really made them angry.

In 2011, we don’t think much about the Doctor kissing a woman or one of his companions. He’s been there and done that more than a few times. But I believe this was the first time the Doctor ever kissed a girl onscreen… and the fans freaked out. I mean, seriously freaked out. Of everything in the film, this is what most people objected to. A few out of the blue kisses between the Doctor and Grace.

To make a long story shorter, the Doctor and Grace essentially team up to try to stop the Master from manipulating Lee into using the TARDIS to steal the Doctor’s body and possibly end the universe as we know it. Later on, the Master gets control of Grace and captures the Doctor before putting in some wild head gear that looks like the thing Doc Brown wore in "Back To The Future."

As with all "Doctor Who" stories, it all works out in the end. And I have to say that my memories betrayed me here. This film was nowhere near as good as I remembered. In fact the writing is actually bad, as are most of the performances. The only actors who come out looking good are McCoy and McGann. The production values are actually pretty nice, but the movie feels dated. And I don’t mean like it’s from the ’90s. It feels more like an ’80s film.

Regardless, "Doctor Who: The Movie" is still an important part of the franchise. If this didn’t exist, would the 2005 revival have gone forward? And if everything is still in the original continuity, then this is the only time we’ve ever seen the Eighth Doctor onscreen.

But it may not be the last. Several months ago, I interviewed "Doctor Who" executive producer Piers Wenger and asked if he and the other producers had ever considered bringing McGann back for a multiple Doctors story.

Wenger said that they hadn’t, but afterwards, he did point out that the 50th anniversary of the franchise is coming up soon. It wouldn’t surprise me if we get to see some of the previous Doctors come back for that.

Hopefully, McGann will be among them.

To make suggestions for future Friday Flashbacks, send me a tweet @BlairMarnell

Previous Friday Flashbacks:

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

The Amazing Spider-Man

The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.